Ancient Stones

I recently spent time in Joshua Tree National Park in California, it was the first time I had visited there since 1987 when my wife I went camping.  Coincidently our trip occurred right after U2 had introduced their new album “Joshua Tree” and I remember listening to it non-stop as we sunned ourselves on the large round boulders at the park.  The music and that location were positively and indelibly embedded in my memory and each time I hear those songs I am transported back in time.  So it was with great nostalgia and anticipation that I returned, hoping to find inspiration at this wonderful place.

As I headed to Joshua Tree I had no idea of how others had portrayed it, nor did I care, I only hoped that I could portray it through my vision.  As many of you know, I practice something that I call “Photographic Celibacy.”  What this means is that I do not study the work of other photographers in an effort to see as originally and freshly as possible.    

I arrived and spent some time wandering and taking it all in.  One of the first things you notice about Joshua Tree are the Joshua Trees themselves; a very large and treelike species of yucca.  But what eventually caught my attention were those large round boulders, the same ones that I had sunned myself on 25 years earlier.  They struck me in the same way the monoliths of the Oregon coast stuck me;  ancient, unmovable and eternal.  I imagined them sitting there, quietly observing the puny undertakings of man as he scurried about, full of self-importance.  Perhaps these ancient stones were amused or perhaps they didn’t care at all.

I decided to create these images with long exposures; using from 30 seconds and up to 6 minute exposures.  I wanted to give a sense of motion that would contrast with the stones and emphasize their permanence.

To achieve these long exposures, I used my Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter and my Singh-Ray Mor-Slo 5-stop ND filter, giving me 13 stops of ND but only allowing a 30 second exposure.  Because the clouds were moving slowly that day, I needed longer exposure times to create the streaking effect that I wanted.  To get longer exposure times I stacked a third 10 stop ND filter which gave me a total of 23 stops of Neutral Density. 

To put this into perspective, if your correct exposure was 1/2000 of a second then 23 stops of ND would allow an exposure time of 32 minutes.  For these images I was using a maximum of about 21 stops of ND to achieve 6 minute exposure times.

So why did I use a variable ND filter in this situation?  First let me explain what a variable ND filter is, it operates much like a polarizer allowing you to adjust how much light enters the camera; turn it one way and you get more light and turn it the other way for less light.

The advantages of the Vari-ND in this situation are twofold: first I can “open up” the filter making it brighter and easier to compose through the viewfinder (at 23 stops it’s almost impossible to see anything).  Secondly, it makes setting the correct exposure easier because I can simply turn the Vari-ND filter to get the right exposure. 

While stacking three filters together allows long exposure times, it also presents some interesting challenges.  Three filters give you a tremendous amount of vignetting at the corners, especially with shorter focal lengths. You can overcome this either by using a longer focal length or by going with a square format and simply discarding the corners.  Because I was in close quarters when photographing many of these rocks, I could not go with a longer focal length, but the square format was perfect for this series.  I think the square format is very elegant and find myself using it more and more. 

When I photographed these stones I had a vision of what the final image would look like, but as is often the case, inspiration can also strike later in the creative process.  While processing these images I chose to darken the images down, giving them an almost night time feel, and I also blurred most of the image except where I wanted the eye to focus on.  It gives the images an almost tilt-shift look.  

I enjoyed finding and creating these images.  My trip to Joshua Tree was both a nostalgic and creative success.

View all of the “Ancient Stones” images.

12 Responses to “Ancient Stones”

  • Harold Ross Says:

    Cole, these images are powerful. You have managed to show us some sort of life within these formations. One gets a sense of the centuries that have passed under their watch. Well done and beautiful!

  • Sam Blair Says:

    I always learn something from your comments, Cole.
    I’m just ending a two week photo trip down the PCH, and have used up to 13 stops for this effect. It never even occurred to me that, if conditions required, you can triple stack up to 23 for B&W. I can’t wait to try it. Thanks for sharing that. Very Cool.

    Also, I relate to the feeling you describe of the steady timelessness of this subject. The long exposures convey that like no other technique. Great work, as usual. So glad I follow your blog.

  • LauraM Says:

    Cole, you have created another exquisitely beautiful and expressive series of images. As always, you generously share so much about the hows and whys in creating your new work. I love the feel of stepping into time itself–moving somehow with the clouds and the cycles of the seasons.

  • Gary Larsen Says:

    I suspect No. 9 is one of your favorites… and it would be mine. Nice technique for getting the most from your vision!

  • MariAnne Says:

    beautiful series Cole, love the light and tonality.

  • rob Says:

    Cole, as always your images are very inspirational. You do this so well. I noticed that the quality of most of your images appears to resemble that of medium format film. Is this due to the long exposure, or post processing? Beautiful work, my friend. Thanks for sharing.

  • Cole Thompso Says:

    Thank you everyone for all for the great comments!

    Rob, I really just think that square images make people think 2-1/4 X 2-1/4!


  • Frida Says:

    A wonderful strong series I love them all.

  • Karla Pitts Says:


    I almost expect the formations to come to life, to stretch and move. Thank you sharing your vision and technique.

  • Jeff Ovitt Says:

    Very inspirational as all your images are. Well done cole thank you

  • Mickey Says:

    Can you comment on the photographic celibacy? It seems like, for me anyway, part of the joy of photography is occasionally getting my mind blown by the work of others. Have you always practiced this; if not, have you found that it has made a difference in your work? Do you look at other art forms for inspiration?

  • Cole Says:

    I stopped looking at other photographer’s work about four years ago, it was my attempt to stop copying other’s work, either consciously or unconsciously. And yes, it has helped a great deal and I’ve never regretted doing it.

    Will I do it forever? No.

    You can read more about Photographic Celibacy from one of my other blog posts:

    Thanks for asking about this Mickey!


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