How I Found My Vision

2006-5-20 The Angel Gabriel - Final 10-15-2007 750The Angel Gabriel


Why do I focus on Vision so much? It’s because I believe that Vision is what makes an image great. It’s what makes the difference between a technically perfect image and one with feeling. It’s what makes your images unique.

Great images do not come about because of equipment and processes, but rather from Vision that drives these tools to do wonderful things. What good are great technical skills if you don’t have an idea worthy of them?  

If I had to choose between the best equipment in the world and no Vision or having a Kodak Brownie and my Vision…


I’d take the Brownie.

A lot of people ask: “How do I go about finding my Vision?” I’m not sure I can answer that for everyone, but here is how I discovered mine:


The Wake-Up Call

Several years ago I was attending Review Santa Fe where over the course of a day my work was evaluated by a number of gallery owners, curators, publishers and “experts” in the field. 

Review Santa Fe

During the last review of a very long day, the reviewer quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back to me and said “It looks like you’re trying to copy Ansel Adams.”  I replied that I was, because I loved his work! He then said something that would change my life:

“Ansel’s already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him any better.  What can you create that shows your unique vision?”

Those words really stung, but over the next two years the message did sink in: Was it my life’s ambition to be known as the world’s best Ansel Adams imitator? Had I no higher aspirations than that?

I desperately wanted to know if I had a Vision, but there was a huge problem: what exactly was Vision and how did I develop it?  

What is Vision

I researched Vision but I couldn’t relate to the definitions and explanations that I found. Was it a look, a style or a technique? Was it something you were born with or something you developed?

And then there was the nagging doubt: what if I didn’t have a Vision? I feared that it was something you either “had” or you “didn’t have”  and perhaps I did not?

And how was I to go about finding my Vision?

With so many unanswered questions and with no idea on how to proceed, I simply forged ahead with what made sense to me.  Here is what I did:

1. Sort Your Portfolio

I took 100 of my best images, printed them out and then divided them into two groups: the ones I REALLY loved…and all the rest. I decided that the ones that went in the “loved” pile had to be images that “I” loved, and not just ones that I was attached to because they had received a lot praise, won awards or sold the best. And if I loved an image and nobody else did, I still picked it. 

2. Make the Commitment

I committed that from that point on, I would only pursue those kinds of images, the ones that I really loved. Too often I had been sidetracked when I chose to pursue images simply because others liked them.

3. Practice Photographic Celibacy

I started practicing Photographic Celibacy and stopped looking at other photographer’s work. I reasoned that to find my Vision, I had to stop immersing myself in the Vision and images of others.

I used to spend hours and hours looking at other photographer’s work and would find myself copying their style or even their specific images. I knew that I couldn’t wipe the blackboard of my mind clean of those images, but I could certainly stop focusing on their Vision and instead focus on mine.

When I looked at a scene I didn’t want to see it through another photographer’s eyes, I wanted to see it through mine!

4. Simplify Your Processes

I embarked on a mission to simplify my photography.  In the past I had focused on the technical and now I was going to focus on the creative. I disposed of everything that was not necessary: extra equipment, gadgets, plug-ins, programs, processes and all of those toys we technophiles love. I went back to the basics which simplified my photography, gave me more time and it reminded me that I wanted to put more focus on my creative abilities.

5. Ignore Other’s Advice

I ignored the advice that well intentioned friends and experts gave me. So much of this advice had never felt right for me and I was torn between following their recommendations or my own intuition. In the end I decided that only by pleasing myself could I create my best work, and that no matter how expert someone was, they were not an expert about my Vision or what I wanted.

6. Change Your Mindset

I worked to change my mindset from photographer to artist. I had always thought of myself as a photographer who documented, but I could see that this role was limiting and the truth was that I wanted to be an artist that created.  

To help me make this mental shift I started calling myself an artist (I felt like such a fraud at first)  figuring that I must play the part to become the part. I also stopped using certain words and phrases, for example instead of saying “take a picture” I would say “create an image.”  

That may seem like small and inconsequential thing, but it helped to continually remind me that I wanted to be an artist who created, and not a photographer who documented.

7. Question Your Motives

I questioned my motives and honestly answered some hard question such as: why am I creating? Who am I trying to please? What do I want from my photography? How do I define success?

It seemed to me that Vision was something honest and that if I were going to find my Vision, I had to be honest about the reasons I was pursuing it.

8. Stop Comparing

I stopped comparing my work to other photographers. I noticed that when I compared, it led to doubts about my abilities and it left me deflated. All I could see were their strengths and my weaknesses, which was an unfair comparison.  

I decided that if my goal was to produce the best work that I could, then it did not matter what others were doing. I had to remind myself that this was not a race or a contest, I was not competing against others…I was competing with myself.

9. Stop Caring What Others Think

I made a conscious decision to stop caring what others thought of my work. I recognized that in trying to please others, I was left feeling insecure and empty.

At the end of the day, it was just me, my work and what I thought of it. As long as I cared what others thought, I was a slave and could never be free.

10. Get Inspired

I re-read Ayn Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead” which I had first read at age 17. It has been one of the most influential books of my life because it gave me hope that I could become truly independent, that I could think for myself and define my own future. I know this book can cause strong reactions in people, both for good and ill, but it was a tremendous help in finding my Vision. 


I really was proceeding blindly, but I believed that if I listened to my own desires, pursued what I loved and eliminated all other voices, I would learn something about my Vision.

I did this for two years and there were many times that I became discouraged and didn’t feel like I was making any progress. I didn’t really know what I expected to happen, perhaps I thought I’d have a revelatory experience where my Vision would suddenly appear in a moment of inspiration!

But that didn’t happen.

And then one day it just occurred to me: I understood…I understood what my Vision was. 

It came in an anticlimatical and quiet moment of understanding, and after all of that worrying and angst…it now seemed so incredibly simple. Vision was not something I needed to acquire or develop, it had been there all along and all that I needed to do was to “discover” it.

Vision was simply the sum total of my life experiences that caused me to see the world in a unique way. When I looked at a scene and imagined it a certain way…that was my vision.

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 14 - Final 2-1-2009 750

My Vision had always been there but over the years it had been buried by layers of “junk.” Each layer obscured my vision until it was lost and I doubted my creative abilities.  Some of those layers were valuing other’s opinions over my own, fear of failing, imitating others and creating for recognition.

Each time I created for external rewards, each time I put accolades before personal satisfaction, each time I cared what others would think…I buried my natural creativity under another layer until it was buried and forgotten.

Interestingly I came to conclude that Vision had little to do with photography or art and had more to do with being a well-adjusted, confident and independent human being. Once I had the confidence to pursue my art on my terms, and define success for myself, I was free to pursue my Vision without fear of rejection or need for acceptance.

Something else I learned about Vision: it is not a look or a style. It is not focusing on one subject or genre and following your Vision will not make your work look all the same. Vision gives you the freedom to pursue any subject, create in any style and do anything that you want.

2007-7-24 Swimming Towards the Light - Final 6-30-2009 750

But finding my Vision was not the end of the journey, because now I had to follow it which was equally as hard. I am still tempted to create for recognition, to care what others think and to want to be acknowledged. It takes constant discipline to stay centered, to remember why I’m creating and to follow my definition of success.

If you could have known me before I found my Vision, you would have found a technician that doubted his creative abilities, a photographer who felt that it was wrong to “manipulate” the image, a person who sought the generally accepted definition of success: money, fame and accolades, and you would have found an insecure person who needed others to like his images in order to feel good about his work.

Thankfully, that person is gone.

While my initial search was for my Vision, what I really found was myself which allowed my natural Vision to flourish once again.  




73 Responses to “How I Found My Vision”

  • cristina Catarroja Says:

    Eye opener and truly inspiring. Thank you for sharing

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Cristina Catarroja, I tried to contact you but your email bounced. Please email me at

  • Jim Goldstein Says:

    Hands down the best blog post I’ve seen on the topic of vision. This encapsulates a lot personal philosophies of my own. Great to see a photographer finding themselves with confidence. More power to you!

  • QT Luong Says:

    I understand that worked for you, but I’m not sure about #3 (Photographic Celibacy) is useful. For example, one may want their work to engage with the traditions and history of the medium. It’s also more difficult to do something new if you don’t know what has been done before.

  • Michelle Says:

    Thank you! Thank you! I needed to read this today!

  • How I Found My Vision - DIY Photography Says:

    […] Cole Thompson is a fine art photographer, based in Laporte, Colorado, with a strong focus on Black and White Photography. Perhaps this quote from his about page describes him best: I am often asked, “Why black and white?” I think it’s because I grew up in a black-and-white world. Television, movies and the news were all in black and white. My heroes were in black and white and even the nation was segregated into black and white.  My images are an extension of the world in which I grew up. You can see more of Cole’s work on his main website and Black and White photography website. This article was originally published here. […]

  • Richard Eskin Says:

    I am working on this same issue for myself. I will probably take a somewhat different approach in working to capture the same emotions, delight, or concepts of poetry that speaks to me from Robinson Jeffers. We will see how it goes. Seth Godin is also often helpful as well.

    Wise and relevant words from Seth Godin on 6/10/14:

    “Shun the non-believers.

    Do your work, your best work, the work that matters to you. For some people, you can say, “hey, it’s not for you.” That’s okay. If you try to delight the undelightable, you’ve made yourself miserable for no reason.

    It’s sort of silly to make yourself miserable, but at least you ought to reserve it for times when you have a good reason.”

  • Karl Says:

    Wow! Even the comments are great.

  • Swapan Mukherjee Says:

    Wonderful insight and introspection Cole. Close to my heart as I have traveled a similar path myself.

    Your closing words, “what I really found was myself ” absolutely hit on the nail! This is exactly what I try to instill in the students in their first year at the photographic academy, where I teach. Even before technicalities I ask them to first discover, who they are, to learn to love what they find and then have the courage to be themselves. When they have achieved that, the rest would follow.

    Many thanks again for reassurance.

  • Daniel Schwabe Says:

    Wonderful insight, thanks for laying it out so clearly. Most of the points you make resonate with me. I’d like to elaborate a bit on two,
    “hotographic celibacy” and “Stop caring about what others think”.

    I don’t see Photographic Celibacy as precluding appreciating other artists works completely.
    From what you say, I understand Photographic Celibacy to mean not spending “literally” hundreds of hours looking at other artists images (by the way, the same reasoning can also apply to non-photographic images!) – so as not to lead you to a “pre-conceived” vision of whatever subject you are looking at. This is similar to the notion of priming in psychological experiments, to a great extent, and trying to avoid it.

    In other words, you want to approach a scene/subject with a clean slate, so that your Vision can manifest itself unhindered from the influence of other artist’s Vision for that subject (if there has been one).
    (as an aside, I point out that this same reasoning can be applied for any artist in the broadest sense, not only photographers…)

    On the other hand, you state your Vision as being “the sum total of my life experiences that caused me to see the world in a unique way”. Personally, this doesn’t preclude seeing other artists images, since I should be able to absorb their Visions just as I do everything else to which I’m exposed in my life – the key difference is “being exposed” x “immersing”. So I don’t look at other artists images to imitate or copy them, but rather, as simply another (their) way to perceive and express that particular subject; some I appreciate, they resonate with me, others don’t.

    But when I set myself to express my Vision, I’m always looking at different ways, some that are perhaps not so obvious, or that I haven’t previously seen. I want to be original with respect to myself! This applies both when in the field and in the (digital) darkroom. Invevitably, some end up looking similar to things I’ve encountered before, but many do not – and hence, add new facets to my Vision – which, as you say, is also constantly evolving.

    So, in my view, it is actually compatible with what others have expressed about acquiring some background “culture” with previous masters.

    However, here is where I find the hardest line to thread. You say that we should “stop caring what others think”. Ok, if by that you mean caring about their “judgement” or “valuation” of my work – I should not value my work by what other people think of it.

    On the other hand, I can’t think of the idea of Vision and expressing myself outside a framework of *communication*. True, there are photographers such as Vivian Mayer, who never showed her images to anyone – so clearly she was doing it for herself only. But I think most artists, myself included, want to *communicate* their Vision to others – otherwise, they would not post them, or exhibit them in shows, or make books.

    I am thrilled when I see that an image I made resonates with someone else, creates some emotion – even if often not the one I felt myself!. . And it is even more rewarding when that person is from a completely different background/culture than mine.
    I’m not saying that I need this to value what I create – it’s not about approval (or disapproval). But, in the sense above, I do care about what others think – or perhaps, I should say “feel”, when exposed to my images.

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Daniel, thanks for sharing your thoughts on Celibacy and Vision.

    Celibacy: I made this up, so I only know how I did it and I figure everyone will apply it (or not) based on their situation.

    But you’re right, my objective was to create from my own Vision and not to be influenced others. And again you are right that I had been influenced by other photographers in my past and that’s became a part of my life experience, and hence my Vision!

    Regarding not caring what others think: this is highly personal and subject to each person’s personality, goals and where they are at in life.

    For me, I do not care if someone doesn’t like my work. I appreciate everyone has preferences and only a small sliver of the world’s population likes my style of photography. I’m okay with that.

    But more importantly I’m okay with that because I did not create the images for them, but for myself.

    Once created in this manner, do I enjoy showing my work and meeting people who have similar tastes and appreciate my work? Certainly!

    But their approval was not what I was seeking and if I exhibit the work and few like it, that does not affect how I feel about my work or myself.

    In other words, my self worth is not tied to my images being liked or disliked.

    I really appreciate your thoughts on this Daniel, they are well thought out and expressed.


  • Lance Oller Says:

    Beautifully written Mr. Thompson. I’m returning to photography (i.e. shooting my own pictures) at the age of 63, after 24 years of working as a Photoshop artist. Your article has inspired me to find my own path and begin creating pictures.

  • Gerry Toler Says:

    Reading the input to this post I was reminded, with no intended prejudice, of:

    “The story of the blind men and an elephant originated in the Indian subcontinent from where it has widely diffused. It has been used to illustrate a range of truths and fallacies; broadly, the parable implies that one’s subjective experience can be true, but that such experience is inherently limited by its failure to account for other truths or a totality of truth. At various times the parable has provided insight into the relativism, opaqueness or inexpressible nature of truth, the behavior of experts in fields where there is a deficit or inaccessibility of information, the need for communication, and respect for different perspectives.”

  • Sucha Ollek Says:

    I am late to this discussion but wanted to express how fresh and insightful your post is. I am now looking for my own vision, and in the process found many articles,blogs etc on finding ones own vision. Heck, there courses that promise to help you find your own vision. Most say that vision in the final step to becoming an artist and then approach vision as purely a technical skill you must study and find. You have come to the very essence. To be an artist, you must believe in yourself, you must explore your insecurities and you must express you thoughts I your art. Vision is showing your deepest thoughts, fears, hope, and passion of and about your world. It is only then your art becomes something unique. Thanks for sharing your thoughts,fears and hopes. It makes it so much easier four those who are still trying to find that courage

  • It's About Being Human - Marilyn Lamoreux Photography Says:

    […] own unique vision in my work. I then went on to read a couple of other blog posts he wrote called, How I Found My Vision and A Suggestion for Camera […]

  • Vision Part ll | Richard Terpolilli Says:

    […] not just copy what someone else has inspired me to do! I recall from a previous blog I did where Cole Thompson made a profound statement regarding his style when asked by a reviewer if he was trying to do Ansel […]

  • Jaime Dormer Says:

    Great read Cole, thanks for sharing

  • mark Says:

    Thanks for sharing. some of things I am already doing, some I could do better and some I need to put into place. My problem is an overactive creative mind, my vision never gets a time to evolve as another vision is created. Maybe I just like creating visions as I am sure my next vision will be my best – perseverance is a far bigger problem than creativity for me. Uniqueness is not a problem persistence and perseverance is my issue.

  • Linda Says:

    I think our vision is always changing. It changes as we change and develop our own style. The most important thing is that what we do, we do for ourselves and not our ego. We only need to satisfy ourselves and if people enjoy what we show them then that is a bonus. You have to feel the image that you make, and it has to mean something to one self.

  • Roland Moser Says:

    Great post, Cole. Enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing!

  • Anton Says:

    A great post. I don’t have a half of the problems you did and yet I’m struggling to find my vision. It’s so evasive. Sometimes I feel it in my hands, the next day my palms are empty again.

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