Apr 12 2014

Vision First, Skills Second

Last weekend my wife and I stopped at a garage sale that was hosted by three very old ladies who were selling some very old things (both the ladies and their items were “vintage”).

Amongst their knick knacks I spotted a leather camera bag with a post-it note that said “make offer.” I didn’t need a bag but decided to look inside.

What I saw inside made my heart flutter! It was an old 1950′s Kodak Pony camera, identical to one that I had owned as a boy.

 Vision First, Skills Second 

I went over to the three women and asked “who should I make an offer to?” and the two pointed to the one in the middle. I had no idea how much the camera was worth, but I wanted it and so I said “will you take $20?” 

Call 911! I thought the woman was going to have a heart attack right then and there, it was clear that she would’ve taken much less for it. But the truth is I would’ve paid a lot more because it brought back a particular childhood memory:

I was 14 years old and I had purchased a used camera just like this from Casey’s camera in Rochester, New York. I quickly put it to use on a still life that I had assembled on my mothers prized dining room table, using two eggs and a goblet.

1968 Egg in Glass Vision First, Skills Second 

I knew what I wanted the image to look like, but there was a problem because the camera wouldn’t focus close enough. So I disassembled the lens and removed the focusing stop so that the camera would now focus very close, but how would I focus it?  It was never intended to focus like this and so I took a piece of ground glass, put it on the film plane and manually focused it like a view camera. I then loaded the film back into the camera and created this image. 

I jokingly tell people that “Egg in Glass” was my first fine art image, and as I have reflected on this experience from some 45 years ago, I’ve come to appreciate what this image represents to me.

It is important because I had exhibited a simple Vision and then sought the technical skills I needed to pull it off. As I look back on my photographic life, that’s how a great many of my images have come about: I had the Vision first and then developed the second.

Let me give another example:

2004 11 1 Skeleton Final 4 24 2009 750 Vision First, Skills Second 

This is “Skeleton” and this is exactly how I found these bones.

Well, not exactly, here’s how the camera saw the scene:

2004 11 1 Skeleton BEFORE WEB 750 Vision First, Skills Second 

When I stood over those bones that autumn day, I didn’t see the image the way my camera saw it, but rather the way that my Vision saw it.  I knew exactly how I wanted this image to look: I wanted those bones to really stand out against dark leaves.

But the problem was that I didn’t know how I was going to do this, I had just converted to digital and I didn’t know how to use PhotoShop. So I just jumped in and starting trying things, and in the process I learned how to dodge and burn with a tablet. The Vision came first and the skills were developed as needed.

Here’s another image where I had to develop the skills on the run:

2004 12 20 Old Car Interior Final 2 27 2006 750 Vision First, Skills Second 

This is “Old Car Interior.”  When I stuck my head in the back window of that car and looked at that wonderful old dash, I knew how I wanted it to look.  But again I was faced with a technical challenge that I had no experience with: the interior was very dark and flat while the exterior was very bright and contrasty.

The dynamic range in this image would have been a challenge with film, but it was impossible with digital. I didn’t know how to go about fixing this and so I just tried something.

Here’s the original shot:

2004 12 20 Old Car Interior BEFORE small Vision First, Skills Second

I exposed one image for the interior and one for the exterior.  I then processed each one separately, cut out the window from the exterior shot and pasted it into the interior image.

Might there be better ways to have created this image?  Probably, but all I care about is that it worked and I was able to create the image that I had imagined.

A final example:

Windmill in Moonlight AFTER Vision First, Skills Second

This is “Windmill in Moonlight” and this is how everyone knows this image.

But this is how the camera recorded this night scene:

Windmill in Moonlight BEFORE Vision First, Skills Second

When I saw this scene on that cold winter night in Nebraska, I was inspired and excited with its potential! But when I saw the RAW image, I had doubts that I could manipulate it to match my Vision. I made several attempts and failed,  but I didn’t give up because I so believed that this could be a great image.

I know that my philosophy of “Vision first, skills second” runs contrary to common wisdom. There are many who believe that skills must come before the vision can be executed.

I respectfully disagree.  Everything in my photographic life (both the good and the bad) has reinforced my belief in Vision first.

When skills comes first, then images are limited by what you can do. But when Vision  comes first, then you are only limited by your imagination and determination.


P.S. I researched the price on that Pony 828 camera and you can buy them all day long on eBay for $10. That old lady got a great deal…but so did I!

Dec 27 2013

Wow, How Did You Do That? (or why technique is not the key to a great image)

Lone Man No. 20 Before and After Wow, How Did You Do That? (or why technique is not the key to a great image)


When I show people my “before and after” images, their reaction tends to be: Wow, how did you do that?

This also tends to be my first reaction when I see an image that I love. Recently a friend showed me his latest creation that was both beautiful and unique, and I wanted to ask him: Benoit, how did you do that?

But I didn’t ask him.

Why not?

Because the miracle of the image was not the technique he used, but the imagination that created the image. Anyone can learn a technique, but not everyone will learn to find and follow their vision.  

If I had asked and he had told me his technique…then what? Copy what he had already imagined and created?  There is no joy in copying and yet I see technique after technique become the fad of the season and be copied to death.

I also see many who operate under the false belief that technique must be mastered before Vision can be executed. I emphatically reject that theory!

I believe that a great image starts with Vision and then you work hard to develop the required technique. Remember the old saying “necessity is the mother of invention?” It’s true! Once you have a vision of what you want, then you’ll be energized and driven, and you’ll learn whatever is needed to create the image.

However when I see people focusing on technique first, I find they usually never get around to putting that same energy into finding their Vision, and as a result their work is technically perfect and masterfully imitative. Technique alone misses the mark.

So instead of focusing on Photoshop and its hundreds of features or following the latest fad technique, put most of your time and energy into your Vision.  I promise you that this approach will yield better images and much more satisfying results.

Technique is not the key to a great image.  Vision is.


Dec 14 2013

Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau

VISION Issue 006 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau


Are you familiar with the new publication Vision? It’s produced by friends of mine: Joel Tjintjelaar, Sharon Tenenbaum, Armand Djicks and Daniel Portal.

What I love about this beautifully simple magazine is that it focuses on Vision rather than equipment, processes and techniques. Here’s a great quote from their website:

“You are an artist before you are a photographer”

Because we share such similar views on vision, they asked to speak with me about the vision that created “The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau.” The interview is in the December 2013 issue.

Vision is a relevant and important publication for those who seek to improve their creative abilities.  Vision is free and you can subscribe here: http://visionexplorers.com/magazine/


You can view and enlarge the individual pages of the article below, or you can View the Entire Article Here


VISION Issue 006 1 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau

VISION Issue 006 2 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 3 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 4 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 5 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 6 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 7 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 8 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 9 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 10 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 11 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 12 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 13 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 14 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau VISION Issue 006 15 Vision Magazine Interview on The Ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau


Mar 24 2013

Never Ask Others About Your Work

2013 1 19 Ancient Stones 12 750 Never Ask Others About Your Work

Ancient Stones No. 12


“Ancient Stones” is a portfolio that I started last year when I visited Joshua Tree for the first time in 20 years. This trip  brought back many great memories because it was the site of one of my earliest dates with my wife Dyan. We camped amongst the boulders, sunned ourselves on the rocks and listened non-stop to U2′s “Joshua Tree” album. What wonderful times those were!

Ancient Stones No. 12 above is the latest image in the series and I love it! But why do I love it? Is it because it evokes wonderful memories or do I love it because it’s a good image? Evaluating your own work is very difficult, especially when it’s tied to to things like memories, praise and the opinions of others.

Recently I’ve been corresponding with several photographers on the topic of finding your own vision. I explain that one of the first steps I took was to divide my work into two piles; work that I REALLY loved and everything else. By isolating the work that I really loved, I would then try to understand what those images had in common and pursue that “vision.”

It sounds like a simple exercise, but it wasn’t for me. I actually had difficulty in separating what I thought about my work from what others thought. I noticed that if a lot of people liked one of my images, it started to affect how I felt about that image also. If one of my images won a competition, I took that as evidence that it must be a good image and that affected my opinion of it. I became so addicted to “positive feedback” that I began seeking it by producing work that I thought others would like, and in time I lost sight of what I loved.  

Upon realizing this, I committed that I would never again produce images simply because others liked them and I adopted a new policy: Never Ask Others About Your Work.

To isolate myself from other’s opinions I stopped asking my friends if they liked my work. I stopped asking my mentor what what she thought of my images. I no longer approached the experts to ask their opinions and I no longer attended portfolio reviews for input. I purposely removed the clutter of other voices and focused only on what I thought.

So what happened? I once again began to understand what I loved and focused only on that, which turned out to be a key ingredient to finding my vision. I became more confident in my work and I was certainly more satisfied. Now the measure of my work and success was internal rather than external.  

There was another important reason why I stopped asking others about my work; no one knows more about my vision than I do. Their advice, though generally good and well intentioned, was not coming from my point of view or vision. Increasingly I found that my vision and their advice was in conflict, and I realized that I had grown to the point where I was ready to decide for myself what my work needed.

Those of you who are familiar with my practice of “Photographic Celibacy” might recognize a reoccurring theme in my decision to “Never Ask Others About Your Work.” In both cases I am attempting to understand myself and my vision, and to pursue it without being influenced by others. In both cases I am isolating myself from the thoughts, opinions and images of others.  

This idea of never asking others about your work, was echoed and reinforced by one of my favorite books, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. The main character is Howard Roark, an architect who is an uncompromising individualist, who defines success by being true to self and creating work that he loves. His designs are unique and he rejects the traditional designs and opinions of the experts.

However his friend and fellow architect, Peter Keating, has an opposite view of  success: he seeks the approval and admiration of others.  In one of my favorite scenes, Peter asks Roark what he thinks of his latest design and this is Roark’s response:

“If you want my advice, Peter,” he said at last, “you’ve made a mistake already. By asking me, by asking anyone. Never ask people, not about your work. Don’t you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?”

There is strength and power in knowing what you want. Finding your vision and pursuing it is a wonderful feeling that gives conviction to your work. Like Photographic Celibacy, “Never Ask Others About Your Work” may seem to run contrary to common wisdom, but I have found it to be instrumental in helping me to know what I really love and keeping me focused on my vision.




Mar 15 2013

Five Great Locations for Great Images

If I were to ask you to list five great locations for creating great images, what would you list? Here’s my list that might be typical:

  1. Yosemite
  2. Iceland
  3. Big Sur
  4. Japan
  5. The African Plains

These beautiful locations would almost guarantee a great image! Think of the great work done here: Yosemite and the iconic images of Ansel Adams. When I think of Iceland will I forever see the incredible iceberg images of Camile Seaman in my head. Or how about the work of Edward Weston in the Big Sur area or Michael Kenna’s incredible minimalistic work from Japan. And Africa…could anything be more definitive than the work of Nick Brandt?

But do you know what would happen if I were to visit these locations, say Yosemite for example?  I’d be looking for the spots where Ansel created those famous images so that I could recreate them for myself. And while I might be able to create a pretty nice image, it would neither be original or be as good as Ansel’s.  Remember, Ansel has already done Ansel and I’m not going to do him better!

And so it begs the question; do I need to photograph at places such as Yosemite, Big Sur or Africa in order to create great images?  Can’t great images also be found in ordinary places?  

Yes they can.  I believe that ordinary places have just as many image opportunities as the exotic places we all dream of visiting.  So let me suggest another list of locations where you can  create great images:

  1. Your neighbor’s yard
  2. Your bedroom
  3. A greenhouse
  4. A hotel
  5. In your car

They don’t sound very exciting when compared to that first list, so let’s take a look at why I’ve chosen these ordinary and even mundane locations. First, they are very accessible: no passport needed, no time off from work and no travel expenses.

But there’s another more important advantage: Ansel and Seaman and Weston and Kenna and Brandt have not photographed there and so you don’t have their images floating around in your head. You are free to see these locations in a fresh and unique way, and you are free to be the first to create great images there!

Here are some examples of my images from those very “ordinary” locations:


2004 12 20 Old Car Interior Final 2 27 2006 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

My neighbor’s yard.

2008 6 15 Ceiling Lamp Mourning Dove Ranch Colorado Final 7 29 2009 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

My bedroom.

2005 2 25 Flaming Dahlia Final 8 8 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

A greenhouse.

2007 7 24 Swimming Towards the Light Final 6 30 2009 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

A hotel.

2005 7 17 Windsurfing Final 3 23 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

In my car.


Great images do not need great locations…or perhaps better said; great images can come from everyday and ordinary great locations!

Yes, I have traveled to many exciting locations around the world and and I’ve created images there that I’m proud of, but I’m just as proud of my images from these “ordinary” locations. 

Here are a few more examples of images from ordinary locations:


2010 9 17 Dew on Feather Final 9 27 2010 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

At my feet.

2008 7 24 Linnie No 2 Final 8 12 2008 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

A friend.

2007 7 24 Peas in a Pod Final 8 11 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

Something my daughter made.

2007 5 25 Skull on Stove Final 7 16 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

At a flea market.

2012 4 13 Smile No 15 Final 4 14 2012 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

Before my son’s senior prom.

2007 5 10 Poudre River Spillway Final 5 25 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

The river in my town.

2007 2 8 Two Trees in Lifting Fog Final 12 25 2008 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

On the way to work.

2006 12 21 Two Trees in Snow Final 12 29 2006 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

My backyard.

2006 11 13 Last Leaves Final 12 15 2006 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

At a local tree nursery.

2006 10 28 Sunflower No 4 Final 2 5 2008 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

On the side of the road.

2004 12 27 Socks Final 6 18 2008 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

At a family get together.

2006 3 1 Urban Starfish Final 9 4 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

Along the railroad tracks.

2005 10 2 Plate of Leaves Final 4 20 2007 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

At my kitchen table.

2004 12 11 Wiggles Roaring Final 10 4 2005 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

In my office.

2004 11 1 Skeleton Final 4 24 2009 750 Five Great Locations for Great Images

Along the river.


The “key” to a great image is not location, but your vision and your ability to see differently than those who have gone before you.

It’s a hard thing to do, but it is the key.

Dec 3 2012

The THREE Stories Behind the Image

Story Number One:

I was 16 years old and living in Anaheim California. I had this idea for an image, a gull flying against a clouded moon, but I couldn’t find a way to create the image with a single shot. So I decided to combine two images, not as a double exposure captured in-camera, but by combining two images in the darkroom. Composites are easily done in today’s digital world, but they were not easily done back in 1970. Back in the “old days” I would sandwich the two negatives together in the enlarger and project them as a single image.

The first image was taken at night in the local K-Mart parking lot. I took a series of shots with clouds floating past the moon. I had this idea (vision) in my head of what the final image would look like and so I placed the moon and clouds on the right and left room for the sea gull on the left. The shot of the sea gull was taken later during the daytime in my high school parking lot, I shot a series of gulls looking straight up. Working from memory of where I had placed the moon and cloud in the frame, I positioned the gull on the left.

After I processed the negatives, I had to find two images that would work together, not just in terms of composition but also exposure. Getting a good print with this method is a challenge since you have two negatives that may have different printing needs, but you must print them together as one.

I named the image “Gull and Moon” and while I loved the composition, I was never able to get the blacks that I envisioned, the print was very muddy.

Story Number Two: 

I was new to Loara High School and had joined the Yearbook staff as a photographer. The new yearbook advisor was John Holland the photography teacher, he became and remained a friend and mentor until last year when he passed away. What was so very different about John was that he encouraged us to create fine art images for the yearbook, not just pictures of the football players, cheerleaders and cheesecake shots. This was fun (!) and we had a wonderful time creating artistic images for the yearbook including my “Gull and Moon” which was prominently featured.

Unfortunately neither John nor any of us really stopped to consider why people purchased yearbooks. It was not for fine art images but for the pictures of the football players, cheerleaders and cheesecake shots! When the yearbooks arrived and were being handed out there was a near riot as the football players angrily confronted the yearbook staff. I was a junior (and small for my age) and I remember slowly slinking out through the back of the crowd and hiding in the photography room. I made myself scarce for several days.

Story Number Three:

After high school and for 30 years after, I focused on family and career and neglected my photography. During those years we moved several times and with each move I threw out more and more old things, including much of my photography. When I returned to photography around 2004 I wanted to feature some of my earlier work on my website and I began searching for anything that might have survived.

Most of my negatives were gone and only a few prints survived, in fact only 13 remained from all those years of work. Most of these images survived only because a single print was still around, and this was the case with “Gull and Moon.” I found a single 8 x 10, poorly printed and curled up print. This has always been a special image to me and I so set about the task of restoring it.

I scanned the image and worked on it in Photoshop. I was pleasantly surprised because not only was I able to restore the image, but I was able to bring it into compliance with my original vision, something I was never able to do in the darkroom!  Just tonight I was comparing the original to the restored version and it reminded me of why I love digital.

If you are interested, you can see those 13 restored images from my early years here:  http://colethompsonphotography.com/1970s.htm

Recounting the story behind this image reminded me of the many lessons that I learned from this experience. 

  1. Vision is the most important ingredient of a great image.
  2. Yearbooks are for documentary work, not fine art photography. 
  3. Focus on the creative early on, it’s more important than the technical which can be learned quite easily.
  4. Don’t throw things away when you are young, you’ll regret it later. 
  5. If you have an image that you cannot get just right, keep working on it.



Oct 20 2012

I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

Many people assume that I’m working in film and others are surprised to learn that I photograph in color. Let me explain.

All of the work you see on my website (with the exception of the 1970′s portfolio) was created digitally. I switched to digital in 2004 after working 35 years in the darkroom. And I’ll be honest, while I have fond memories of those darkroom days, I do not miss them and I would not go back.

Why? Because my work is better since I began using digital.

I’ve often heard the assumption that digital is suitable for color but not for black and white.  That has not been my experience.  I’ll use whatever tools give me the results I’m looking for and I have absolutely no allegiance to the process; film is not sacred, digital is not sacred, old processes are not sacred…the only thing that is sacred to me is the image.

Perhaps more surprising to some is that I shoot all of my images in color. I’ve written that I shoot in B&W mode and so you might wonder how can that be? Shooting in B&W mode allows me to see the camera’s preview image in black and white, but I save my files in RAW which means they are really in color.

Confusing? When you shoot in RAW all of those settings such as B&W mode, sharpness, saturation, toning, color balance…are not recorded in the image. RAW means just that, it’s a raw capture without any of those tweaks and the image is recorded in color.

This is a wonderful thing!  This combination of B&W mode and RAW allows me to preview the image in black and white but process from the color image. Why do that? Because I don’t want my camera or software to decide how my images should look in black and white, the black and white processing is what makes my images “mine!”

Sometimes I’ll show people the “before” color photograph to illustrate how my vision and processing has changed the image.

Skeleton Before and After 1024x355 I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

Dunes of Nude 43 Before and After 1024x357 I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

Lone Man No. 20 Before and After 1024x358 I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

Harbinger No 1 Before and After 1024x355 I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

My vision drives my processing and I’ll happily use whatever tools and processes best helps me do that.


Oct 4 2012

What is Vision?

Recently a friend told me of her frustrations as she sought to find her Vision and this brought back memories of my own journey. For years I was confused as to what Vision was and frustrated because I didn’t know how to find mine. 

I use the word Vision so much that I forget how hard of a concept it was for me to initially understand. For most of my life I struggled to find myself photographically and people would frequently tell me that I just needed to “find my own Vision.” But what was “Vision” and what was “My Vision?” Did that mean I needed to develop a specific technique, a particular look or a unique style?

I had absolutely no idea how to find my Vision. I was told that I had to keep working at it, but how? It was frustrating because it was such a nebulous concept and I had no idea how to proceed.

And the truth was that I wasn’t sure that I was capable of having Vision. I was raised in a home where the arts were not emphasized and I never developed creative skills; instead I was logical, methodical and gravitated towards mechanical things. I wondered if  some people were just naturally creative and others were not, and feared that I was in the “not” category.

The good news is that not only did I find my Vision but I am absolutely convinced that everyone has one. It may be buried deep under a lot of “stuff” and it may be atrophied from lack of use, but it is there and you can find it.

What is Vision? It is the sum total of my life experiences that makes me see the world in a particular way. Because my experiences are different than yours, my Vision will be different than yours. And since my Vision is based on my experiences, it will change with time.

Vision is what makes me see an image that others may not see, or see it differently. Have you viewed a great image that was created where you had photographed before? I used to wonder why someone else could see that image and I could not, I believe it’s because we have different Visions. The good news is that  it works both ways and sometimes you’ll see an image where others do not. The important point is that you should pursue your Vision and not try to see what others see.  

Because Vision is simply your experiences and how you see life, I am convinced that everyone has one. It just needs to be discovered. Sometimes that is hard because it can be buried beneath a lot of “stuff” such as self doubt and a lack of creative experience, as was in my case. But I found mine and am absolutely convinced that each person is capable of finding theirs too.

So how did I go about finding my own vision? I had this idea that to follow my Vision was synonymous with following my heart and so I took all of my images and divided them into two piles; ones that I REALLY loved and everything else. I purposely ignored “good” images or ones that others liked and ones that sold the best because I didn’t want to consider what others thought, I only wanted to consider what I thought.

Then I started studying those images to understand what they had in common. I noticed that when I was doing what I loved and pleasing myself, my images had a particular look and mood. I also noticed that what I was photographing and how I was photographing was changing; I was moving away from my landscape roots and creating a different kind of work.  

Once I found my Vision, there was still a challenge, and that was to religiously follow it. I was so used to copying others, pleasing others and following trends that I had to train myself to only pursue images that followed my Vision. When you copy others, the best you can ever hope to achieve is being a great imitator. When you seek to please others, you end up not pleasing yourself. When you follow trends, you are like the blowing grasses which are buffeted by every wind.   Following your Vision is the only way to achieve satisfaction.

Over the course of two years (it was a slow and painful process) I found my Vision. It was not a “Eureka!” moment, but rather it crept up on me slowly until one day I just realized that I had one. I cannot put my Vision into words, but now I understand it and what was once so mysterious now seems so simple. 

Finding my Vision gave me a tremendous feeling of freedom and confidence. I no longer felt constrained or bound by the opinions of others, I was free to create what I wanted and how I wanted, regardless of who liked it. The most important thing was that I was happy with my work. Finding your vision does not guarantee critical or financial success, but it will bring about personal satisfaction. Ironically, as I stopped caring what others thought and created for myself, my work became more popular with others.

Vision is more important than your equipment, your location or your processing techniques. Vision is the most important ingredient in a great image and I am absolutely convinced that everyone can find theirs.

Jul 28 2012

If You Follow My Advice, You Wouldn’t Follow My Advice!

I often tell people not to follow other people’s advice. However, if you follow this advice then you wouldn’t follow my advice…which would mean that you actually should follow my advice. What a conundrum!

Everyone loves to give advice; we all know how others should live their lives even better than we know how to live our own, and it’s no different with our art. Everyone wants to tell us how we should process our images and how we should best achieve success. The advice givers are good people, who are well intentioned and who have had some wonderful life experiences, so why shouldn’t you follow their advice?

Because their vision is different from your vision and their definition of success may be different than yours. Can you imagine what might happen if I was inclined to give you lots of advice and you were inclined to follow it? One day you might wake up to the realization that your images bore a striking resemblance to mine and that you had met every one of the goals that I had set for myself! It’s not that my advice is bad, it simply may not be right for you.

Over the years I’ve come to learn that the only opinion that really matters is your own. Let me illustrate with two examples of some well-intentioned advice that I’ve received:

Never Center the Image!

A few years back my friend and mentor saw my latest image entitled The Angel Gabriel and almost yelled “Never center the image!” I was frequently presenting her with centered images (see above) and she constantly told me that I was breaking one of the rules of photography. I respected her position and experience but the advice just didn’t  feel right to me. However since she was the teacher and I the student, I reluctantly re-cropped the image as she had advised… and I just hated it! It literally made me ill to look at it and at that moment I realized that this was my image and my vision and no one could tell me how it should look. It wasn’t that her experience wasn’t good, but it came from her vision and it wasn’t right for me.

It is critically important that you find your own vision and once you do, you’ll find less and less of a need to ask others for advice about your work.

Large Prints, Small Editions:

I have a friend who is attempting to earn his living from his photography. He has chosen to offer large prints and very small editions (as low as 12). He believes this will maximize his profits and thinks my open editions and lower prices is a bad idea. He has frequently tried to convince me that I am making a mistake and that I should follow his example.  

The problem with his advice is that he and I have different definitions of success and therefore different goals. I am not trying to earn a living from my art, I wouldn’t be happy in the Gallery environment and I couldn’t stand the thought of printing only 12 images and then never any more! This formula would not work for me, even though it may work for him.

It is so important that you define success for yourself. What do you want from your art? What will bring lasting satisfaction? In five years, what would you like to accomplish with your art? Only once you know the answer to these questions, can you set your own course with confidence.


So listen to others and consider their ideas, but do not follow someone’s advice simply because they have more experience than you, create beautiful images or are  successful.  When it comes to your vision and what you want from your art, nobody is better qualified than you to make those decisions.  

There is tremendous confidence and strength that comes from finding your own vision and knowing what you want from your art. Life becomes so much easier, so much simplier and so much quieter. 

Apr 27 2012

I’d Rather My Art Be In Thousands of Homes, Than To Sell It For Thousands of Dollars

A friend and I were recently talking about how to set the price for our images and this brought up some thoughts I’ve had over the years. Typically people price their work in one of three ways:

1.  Cost method, total up your costs and then add a percentage for profit.

2.  What others are charging for “similar” work. If others are getting $150 for an 8 X  10 then I should be able to get that too. 

3.  What the market will bear.” Price your work as high as it will sell for and get as much as you can.

First let me say that if you’re trying to earn your living from your photography, then ignore everything I’m about to say. I made a purposeful decision not to earn a living from my art because I didn’t want to lose my passion for it if I “had” to do it every day. Looking back these many years, I do not regret that decision and in fact it’s been reinforced by another lesson that I’ve learned; art and money do not mix well because it requires too many compromises. Worrying about producing art that others like and will buy is not conducive to risk taking and being creative. When I create I want to think about only two things; the art and how I feel about it.

So what method should you use to price your work? I’m suggesting that there might be another way to determine pricing based on your goals rather than your costs or market forces. Several years ago I asked a similar pricing question to someone I respect and he in turn asked me a question: in the end would you rather have your images in thousands of homes or to have sold them for thousands of dollars? He emphasized that there was no right or wrong answer, only what I preferred. I immediately answered that I would like my art to be in thousands of homes.

Therefore I have chosen to price my work reasonably and affordably compared to my peers, because my goal is to produce art that I love and allow as many people to purchase it as possible. This approach fits my goals; I do what I love, have remained independent and I am able to pay for my equipment, supplies and photo trips. I am the luckiest person in the world!

However this approach has come under criticism from my peers for two reasons. First, I only offer open editions and many feel that this cheapens my work and makes it less “serious.” But the truth is that offering limited editions is simply a pricing strategy, it creates a shortage to increase the price. This approach goes against everything I believe, and the thought of someday not being able to make any more prints is completely unacceptable. My intent is that my art be enjoyed by many; not 12, 25 or 50 people!  

The second complaint other photographers have with my pricing is that my lower prices hurts them. If my friend is asking $1500 for his image and I’m asking $400, then he believes that my lower pricing makes it harder for him to sell his higher priced work. However I do not believe this to be true, because we are not buying a commodity such as apples. If I’m selling apples for $400 a ton then it does make it harder for someone else to sell the same apples for $1500 a ton. But in the art world we are not talking about apples and apples, but rather apples and oranges. If someone really loves my friends oranges, they are not going to buy my apples just because they’re cheaper.

Likewise someone will not buy my art  just because it’s cheaper. People buy art because they love it!

My beliefs about editions and pricing go against everything that the traditional art world and gallery system believe. I don’t care. I create for myself and count myself lucky to find others who appreciate and want to purchase my art. My goal is to put that art into as many homes a possible. This is what makes me happy.


P.S.  Joel Tjintjelaar just published the first interview in a new “Artist’s Vision Series” in which he focuses on the vision behind an image.  My image “The Angel Gabriel” is featured in this first interview.

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See the Article in Google Docs