Peterhof – The Story Behind the Image

2013-5-10 Peterhof Trees 1 - Final 5-24-2013

I was recently in Saint Petersburg, Russia visiting Peterhof Palace, which is Peter the Great’s summer home.

While walking around the grounds I saw this line of trees that caught my attention. They were still bare from winter and had been neatly trimmed to look like giant lollipops. They caught my fancy and I took about an hour to photograph them from every conceivable angle and composition…except one.

As I was leaving I took one shot on my iPhone to email family and to put in our scrapbook. This iPhone shot was different from the other images I took with my Canon, it was a wide angle shot of all the trees.

When I got home and reviewed the images, I was disappointed because there wasn’t a single one that I liked.  But then I remembered the iPhone image…

Peterhof Color

This is the original iPhone color shot and as you can see, the trees are just a small part of the image. I never imagined that an iPhone image, and one with the subject this small, could ever be made into a decent image.   But just for the fun of it, I opened it in Photoshop and processed it.  

Peterhof BW

First I converted to a 16 bit image and into black and white.

Peterhof BW Adjusted

Then using curves, I adjusted the image to appear as a silhouette.

Peterhof BW Adjusted Cropped

I cropped it into a pano.

Peterhof BW Adjusted Cropped People

And removed the people from the scene (it just felt better without them).

2013-5-10 Peterhof Trees 1 - Final 5-24-2013

Finally I burned down the sky for this resulting simple image.


Because the image was created with a relatively low resolution iPhone, I was worried how it would look when printed.  But because it looked good on the screen, I made a 15 inch wide test print and it looked great! I was very impressed with how good an iPhone image could look at this size.  

Here are a few thoughts I had about this experience:

It reinforced my belief that you don’t need the best equipment to create great images.  Sure, we’d all prefer to have the best equipment, but there are other ingredients that are much more important.

When you find a great shot, shoot every conceivable angle, composition and exposure. I know some people that believe you should take your time, carefully consider the composition and then take only one shot…but I personally don’t want to travel halfway around the world only to discover that my one shot missed the mark! My approach is to take many shots and reduce the chance of coming home empty handed.

Vision works best when it directs the shot and the processing.  However in this case my vision missed the shot but was able to make up for it later during processing.  Vision, no matter when it occurs, is a good thing.

While I’m not planning on pursuing iPhoneography, I sure am grateful that I had this one iPhone shot!

23 Responses to “Peterhof – The Story Behind the Image”

  • Ivan Makarov Says:

    Cole – great minds think alike. I took one of my favorite images I’ve ever taken at the exact same spot, two years before you, with a small compact Fuji X100 because SLR is too much to carry around Peterhoff. Here’s my version –

  • Ivan Makarov Says:

    PS – in my case, it was pouring rain!

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Ivan, remarkable! I wish I would have had your clouds on the day I was there.

  • Larry Neil Says:

    Cole thank you for sharing this story. I have admired your photography for a while now. I also purchased the Canon you suggested and have had a blast experimenting with it and learning all the fun features it has. I also have used my Samsung Note Phone to capture some photos that have been fun to edit in PS as well. Now if I could only begin to mimic 1/10th of your processing skills! Thank you for sharing your talent and wisdom.

  • Jon Boring Says:

    Where in the process do you find your vision … where I am at is, I run across a scene that excites me and my vision ‘tells me’ there there is a compelling image there for me (I feel it). But I cannot always visualize it exactly while I am there. But during the processing, I ‘find’ it (not always though, many times I come up empty). So the advice to shoot many different ways is a good one! And I am working on visualizing while at the scene.

    Keep up the blog Cole, it is comforting to hear we are all experiences some of the same things … so we do not think it is just us 🙂

  • Alistair McNaughton Says:

    Superb vision to see the image in the first place and processing to get that final look. Very inspiring.

  • Jan Armor Says:


    This is a great post, and so true. I, too, do not like to go for that “one great shot.” Like you, I want to cover explore the possibilities. And I do agree that one does not need great equipment to make great images… (All you have to do is spend a couple of hours on Flickr to confirm that theory.) There’s a lot of fine photography on there taken with simple cameras and phones. Yours is great. I liked it when it first appeared on your site, and now that you have shared the story, I like it even more. It’s about vision, about seeing not only with you eyes but with your heart. And you certainly do.

    Jan Armor

  • gerry toler Says:

    Bravo! Proves , again, that it is the operator, not the equipment.

  • John Doddato Says:

    This is a great image you have created. As with most good photographers, a lot of the creative process starts after the exposure. You certainly have shown your ability see beyond the basic image. I worked with a large format camera for nearly forty years and in doing so I was forced to limit my number of exposures I made because of cost and physical limitations of carry film holders. I developed some good habits from those years and try apply them today to my digital work. I enjoy the freedom with digital to make a number of images without the thought of wasting film, but there is still a certain amount of discipline that needs to be applied when in the field. I have seen many young photographers making numerous exposures while standing in the same location. I enjoy seeing your work. John Doddato

  • Cole Says:

    Jon, vision is a “slippery rascal” and it’s frustrating to not always know how to find it or to develop it. But by the fact that you “feel it” is a great thing! While I think it’s always good to have vision at the shot as well during the processing, I am always grateful when I find it anywhere along the process.

    I think that the best advice I could give is to just relax, enjoy and listen quietly. It will come, not as an “ah ha!” moment, but one day you’ll just realize that you now understand. At least that’s how it happened to me.

  • Cole Says:

    John, you raise a great point about our film days and the discipline it forced us to acquire. Film was limited and expensive and you just didn’t waste it. To waste it meant it may not be available later when you ran into another ever better scene!

    And having digital is a blessing because electrons are cheap, and we can now afford many shots.

    We have the opportunity to learn from both situations and shoot with a critical eye, and get many shots. The best of both worlds!

  • John Barclay Says:

    Well, MY Vision would have been to kept it high key with a total white sky and black silhouettes… But that would be MY vision…. I kid, I kid…. Can totally relate. I was in Italy doing some scouting for the upcoming workshop there. I was out without my “real” camera and only had my iPhone… A shot appeared of an elderly couple lovingly holding each other up, shuffling ever so slowly along. I was initially frustrated that I had not brought a camera and then realized I had the phone. I quickly snapped two shots. That image become one of my favorites from the trip. I have sold it as a print and someone else asked to paint it. So I totally agree, vision is NOT about gear. Not at all. For those that might want to see the image, its number 16 in this gallery..

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    John Barclay makes a great point: the inexpensive camera you have in hand is more valuable than the expensive camera that’s not with you!

    A lovely image John, as are all of your iPhone images!

  • Bill Jackson Says:

    Cole…I love the image…and the story! Bill

  • Lesliediana Says:

    Cole, As usual your shots are helping me get inspired. I am in the midst of a break from processing some shots from recent Italy trip. Under the gun because the workshop leader wanted them weeks ago to put in a book for all of us. I am trying to find images that won’t duplicate what others have done since we were in the same place. You have inspired me to relook at some of my photos and maybe do a re-vision.
    By the way, you should visit Cuba, it was great.

  • Benoit Jansen-Reynaud Says:

    Very impressive Cole, wonderful image…

  • Misha Gregory Macaw Says:

    Great story! So much iPhone photography to me comes across as gimicky – relying on filters, effects, and the like – that I think iPhones are pretty underrated as legitimate tools for “straight” photography. I liked this image the first time I saw it, and it’s great to see more evidence of iPhones being put to good use!

  • Sheldon Morton Says:

    Another wonderful image and story Cole………thanks for sharing…..:)

  • sugoto Says:

    Neat little story. Given that I have never printed much, I am surprised that this printed well at 15 inches. But what do I know!

    I have to show this to my best buddy. It should reduce his hankering for D800 and its huge files ( as he says he can crop and still print big!).

    Beautiful work as always!

  • Carlos Says:

    Cole, thanks for sharing this amazing experience.

    What most impresses me is your hability to create art from a rather common landscape like this. I think this is the most valuable quality in a photographer and it is what differentiate a hobbyist from a professional.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  • sugoto Says:

    Carlos – I beg to differ. I don’t think Cole’s ability has anything to do with being an amateur/ hobbyist or professional. If anything, being a hobbyist frees you to create and go in directions without any outside influence or demands. I would rather make pictures for myself than anyone else. For me, photography would lose a lot of its charm if I had to do it as a profession. This may not be true for everyone. Also, this is just my opinion, and not an absolute truth by any stretch.

  • Frank Says:

    Seeing pictures is what its about not the equipment you use. This a great case in point.Cole I can tell you are always looking for pictures for and they are there, sometimes you see them,other times we seem to search for them.

  • Steve L Says:

    What a great demonstration of a basic principle: It ain’t the gear!
    But it also demonstrates that the image is the result of a total process and an understanding of how to use the available tools.
    And, most of all….creative vision.

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