July 31, 2015


The solution? I returned the camera.

The 5DSr is not the right camera for my long exposure work.


July 10, 2015



(Monolith No. 50 – NOT created with the Canon 5DSr!)

I’m on the road in Utah and Nevada with my 5DSr and I wanted to report in with some first impressions. Unfortunately I cannot post any images until I return home.

The new camera looks, feels and handles like the 5D Mk III and so I was able to get up to speed relatively quickly. That was nice. However to take full advantage of the many new features, I will have to spend some time going through the menus. As always, the number of features is overwhelming.



There are two new features that immediately caught my eye and got me excited for long exposure work, they are:

Delay After Mirror Lockup: You can set the shutter to trigger after the mirror has flipped up and settled down, making sure the vibrations are gone before the shutter opens. I have mine set to 1/2 second.

This means that mirror lockup can now be a one button press just like a regular shutter! I cannot tell you the number of times I had forgotten to turn off the old two-button mirror lockup and then pressed the shutter once thinking I was taking a picture, when I was not. This new feature will help avoid that mistake.

Bulb Timer: You can now set the length of your bulb exposure in the camera! No more using your watch (and forgetting where you started) and I can now ditch the digital kitchen timer that was always going off in my camera bag just as I was going through security.

Now let me combine these two features and show you why I think this is so great for long exposures. I can now press the shutter button once and the following occurs:

  1. The mirror flips up and settles down
  2. A half second later the shutter opens
  3. The shutter stays open for as long as I’ve programmed it for
  4. The shutter closes by itself

I can still choose to shoot with a cable release, but now if I forget to bring one, lose or break it, I can still shoot long exposures. I had this problem on Easter Island when both of my cable releases went bad and I was really in a pickle.

These new features means that I no longer “need” a remote shutter release (although I still choose to use one for convenience) but the important thing is that I’ll never be stranded like that again.

One issue Canon did not address is the light entering into the camera through the eyepiece which caused internal reflections on the left and right sides of the 5D Mk III images. I had suggested to Canon that they put a small shutter on the viewfinder that automatically triggered during long exposures…but they didn’t.

To address this I had been using a hat to cover the camera during exposure, but in wind this didn’t work too well. So I build a “flap” that mounted to the hot shoe:


Unfortunately the flap doesn’t seal well enough around my Hoodman HoodEYE eyecup and so I ended up using the hat trick again. I’ll need to work on this contraption some more.

Note: Many people point out to me that Canon provides a small viewfinder block that you can slip into the eyepiece. Unfortunately this block does not work with the Hoodman HoodEYE installed and the eyecup is required to get an accurate long exposure meter reading.


Summary: I purchased the 5DSr so that I could print my images larger and so it was an unexpected treat to find some new features that makes long exposure work easier. I like these new features very much!

I’ll not know what the images look like until I get home. I’m curious how the new 50mp sensor does with noise during long exposures since I found the Mk III to be noisier than the Mk II.



September 18, 2014

Utah Hills, Created with the Singh-Ray 15 Stop Fixed ND Filter


After years of experimentation and trying various ND filter combinations, I have assembled what I believe to be the worlds perfect ND kit.  It consists of the following:

  • 5 stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
  • 10 stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
  • 15 stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
  • 20 stop fixed ND filter in 82mm
  • Singh-Ray Vari-ND in 82mm
  • Step up rings on each of my lenses so they all can use 82mm filters


Those of you who are shooting long daytime exposures will appreciate what this means. I can now shoot with 5, 10, 15 or 20 stops of ND without stacking two filters together or vignetting! 

I am in pig heaven.  Seriously.

But my perfect kit would not be complete without a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. This is a variable filter that gives you between 3 and 8 stops of neutral density and it works just like a polarizer: turning it one way gives you more ND and turning it the other way gives you less.

It is critically important for me to have this variable filter because it allows me to photograph dynamic subjects (eg: people or other moving objects) quickly without removing the filter to compose the image.

With fixed filters the viewfinder is so dark that I cannot compose without removing the filter. And taking filters on and off takes precious time (which I may not have when photographing people) and sometimes I accidently change the zoom or focus settings, which ruins the shot.

With the Vari-ND I can dial the filter open, compose, and then close the filter down to shoot. I can do this very quickly which is critical.

The Vari-ND filter is the one piece of equipment that allowed me to photograph the ghosts at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

If had I visited the camps armed only with my fixed ND filters, I could not have created these images.

Now some of you looking at this list of filters might be thinking: everyone has heard of a 5 and 10 stop…but a 15 and 20???  

Yes! Singh-Ray offers a 5, 10 and 15 stop filter and then they built a 20 stop filter for me (which I think they’ll be offering to the public before long).

Why would I want a 20 stop filter? Because it allows me to get an 8 and 16 minute exposure in bright daylight, and now I don’t have to stack to get it! Stacking creates some serious vignetting when shooting wide, here’s a before-and-after of a two stacked filter shot to illustrate:

Being able to go from 5 to 20 stops without stacking is a huge deal for me.

I hope this doesn’t sound like a commercial for Singh-Ray because it’s not, but it is an honest plug. I’ve long depended on Singh-Ray’s filters, they are top quality and the customer service is unbeatable. 

So if you’re wondering what ND filters to buy, here is the perfect combination of filters to aspire to. 


P.S. Just to balance out all this technical talk, here is a favorite story of mine that puts equipment into perspective:

A photographer went to a socialite party in New York.  As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’ 
He said nothing until dinner was finished, then:
‘That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific Stove.’” 
Sam Haskins

August 3, 2014

Monolith No. 27

Here are two new short video tutorials that have been released by my friend Greg McKean over at Master Photo Workshops. These are a part of a larger comprehensive DVD tutorial we are putting together on how to shoot long exposures.

Shooting a 30 Second Exposure with the Singh-Ray Vari-ND and Mor-Slo 5 Stop ND Filter:

Fixed Vs. Variable Filters

The other DVD we were working on, which is about how I create in black and white on location in Death Valley, is nearing completion.



July 9, 2013


Tech Report: Cole Thompson explains how to determine correct exposures for long exposure images


An acknowledged master of long-exposure photography, Cole Thompson shares his techniques for finding his “correct” exposure, and extrapolating that to dramatically longer exposure times.

Balance – Split, Croatia – 2013 (2 minute exposure)

Getting the correct exposure when using one or more neutral density filters can be challenging. I use up to 18 stops of ND with exposures ranging from 30 seconds to 8 minutes. At first finding the correct exposure was very frustrating and my images were often underexposed and I’d have to resort to guessing at the correct exposure, which often meant I missed the shot.

Miss Danielle – Guanaja, Honduras – 2010 (4 minute exposure)

It took a while to figure everything out, but now I have a very simple system for setting the correct exposure and it usually works right the first time. Most of it is straightforward, but there are a couple of “secrets” that could make your long exposures a bit easier.

Lake Erie – Cleveland, Ohio – 2013 (1 minute exposure)

I use a Canon 5D digital camera for most of my work. While I could use a film camera, getting the right exposure would take much longer because film doesn’t have the immediate feedback that’s provided by a digital camera. I mention that I use Canon because one of my “secrets” applies only to Canon cameras.

Honduran with Plastic Rake – Guanaja, Honduras – 2010 (30 second exposure)

Let me give you an idea of how much 18 stops of neutral density is. If my correct exposure for a scene on a sunny day is 1/500 at f8, then using 18 stops of ND would allow me to shoot a 4 minute exposure with that same sunny scene! That is a lot of light reduction and that means only a tiny fraction of the light is making it through the filters and onto the sensor.

But even with this small amount of light, the camera’s meter is up to the task! I have never needed to use a handheld light meter or long-exposure calculator.

To start off I set my ISO to 50 (typically the lowest ISO available on a digital camera) and set my shutter speed to 30 seconds (typically the longest exposure setting on a digital camera) and then take a meter reading of the scene.

And now for my first and most important secret:
Secret number 1: To get a correct exposure reading at these low light levels I must completely seal off the viewfinder so that no light enters the camera from the rear. 

At these low light levels even the smallest amount of light entering the camera from the viewfinder will give an incorrect exposure reading. How do I seal off the eyepiece? I use an eyecup, such as this one offered by the Hoodman Corporation (see photo).

When using the eyecup I take extreme care to seal my eye completely so that no light enters the viewfinder, otherwise my image will be underexposed.

Once the eyecup is sealed, I simply match my exposure needles for a “correct” exposure and I’m all set for a perfect 30 second exposure.

Now what if I want to use a longer exposure, say 1 minute? How can I calculate my exposure for 1 minute when my camera will only meter to 30 seconds? Simple!

I do everything the same as I did for the 30 second exposure, but now I set the exposure needles to under-expose by 1 f-stop so that my meter looks like this:

Now I switch my camera to Bulb mode and I expose for 60 seconds.

What did I just do here? By using the exposure compensation scale, I underexposed by 1 stop when I metered and then I made up for it by doubling my exposure time.

What is Bulb mode? In Bulb mode the shutter stays open as long as you hold down the shutter. It’s not practical for me to hold the shutter button for one minute because it would shake the camera, so I use a remote switch that allows me to lock the shutter button down for the duration of my exposure. You can use your camera’s official “branded” shutter lock, but there are “off brand” ones available at a fraction of the cost that do the job just fine.

Monolith No. 27 – Oregon Coast – 2010 (5 minute exposure)

Now for secret number 2 for Canon users: When I first used this approach, the images would sometimes turn out okay and sometimes they’d be very dark. I couldn’t figure out what was causing my calculation to be so far off. Was it some sort of reciprocity failure, a phenomenon we experienced in the old days of film that required extra exposure time beyond what the meter said? Or was it something else?

My research found nothing on reciprocity failure for digital cameras. And then one day I accidentally discovered why my longer exposures were not working out the way they were supposed to. This is due to a quirky feature of Canon cameras.

When I metered and set my aperture to f8 in Manual mode, I expected the aperture to still be at f8 when I switched to Bulb mode. It was not. It was set at f22 and that explained why my images were grossly underexposed. The aperture setting does not carry over from Manual mode into Bulb mode; you must manually set it each time.

So secret #2 is to be sure that I reset my aperture once I switch to Bulb mode, every time!

So how do I determine the correct exposure for a 2 minute exposure? I do everything the same again, except I set my meter to underexpose by two stops. My meter now looks like this:

I then switch to Bulb, re-set my aperture and expose for 2 minutes.

And for a 4 minute exposure I set my meter to underexpose by 3 stops so that my meter now looks like this:

I switch to Bulb mode, change my aperture and expose for 4 minutes.

What I am doing with this approach is to underexpose when metering, and then I compensate by increasing my exposure time. For every 1 stop I underexpose, I double my exposure time.

Here are the settings to remember:

Meter for a 30 second exposure, and then adjust as follows:
Meter for correct exposure30 second exposure
-1 stop underexposed1 minute exposure
-2 stop underexposed2 minute exposure
-3 stop underexposed4 minute exposure

At first this system seemed complex, but once I used it a few times it was very easy to remember.

Ancient Stones No. 2 – Joshua Tree, CA – 2012 (5.5 minute exposure)

When I’m going to use a very long exposure (over 30 seconds) I’ll start off by first exposing at 30 seconds to check the exposure and composition. If everything looks good, then I’ll expose at the longer exposure time. This saves a lot of wasted time when I’m doing a four minute exposure and then I discover that something wasn’t right!

Wedding Day – La Jolla, CA – 2013 (20 second exposure)

When I’m using a 30-second exposure, the camera times the exposure for me. But my camera doesn’t time for over 30 seconds and I must time these exposures myself. At first I used my wristwatch, but I frequently forgot where I started from and I wasted the exposure. So now I use my iPhone timer because I always have it with me, and because I cannot ignore that obnoxious Marimba alarm! There are also various smartphone apps that can help time your exposure, some are free, others cost a couple dollars.

Stonehenge – England – 2009 (90 second exposure)

To create my long exposures images I use a Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter and stack a second 5-stop or 10-stop Mor-Slo fixed ND filter on top of that. There are two reasons why I use the Vari-ND.

First, I can open up the Vari-ND filter for easier composing. At 18 stops it’s almost impossible to see anything even after my eyes have adjusted. With the Vari-ND I can allow more light to enter the viewfinder so that I can compose the image, and then I stop down for the exposure.

The second Vari-ND advantage is that I can use the variable feature of the filter to adjust my exposure instead of using the aperture. This allows me to set my aperture to where I want it, to control my depth of field.

Both of these advantages are significant and I always use a Vari-ND when shooting long exposures.

Little Corona – Corona del Mar, CA – 2010 (3 minute exposure)

Conclusion: Setting the correct exposure for long exposure photography is pretty easy, it’s all based on accurately metering at 30 seconds and extrapolating from there. Using an eyecup is a must to seal out any extraneous light and the Vari-ND makes composing easy and offers me more control over the scene.

Use the links below to check out Cole’s website, blog, and social media for more information and news updates.

ColeThompsonPhotography.com | Blog | Facebook | Google+




April 23, 2013

Cole Thompson shares some of his latest long-exposure images from recent trips

Veteran outdoor photographer Cole Thompson tells us that, “since my last post, I have been on a number of trips and thought I’d share some images from them. Each of these long exposure images has something in common, the Singh-Ray Vari-ND and the Mor-Slo 5-Stop ND Filter.

John Holland Memorial – Convict Lake, California

“I was in the Sierras to attend the memorial of an old friend and mentor when I created this image.

“John was on my mind as I spent several days reminiscing about our times together and missing him. He loved the Sierras and this is where he wanted his earthly ashes to spend eternity. I loved him and wanted to create an image to honor him and to remind me of him for the rest of my life. This is that image.

“When I create an image, I do not plan it, but rather ‘see’ it in my mind through my vision, and from there my challenge is to recreate that vision on paper. I envisioned this scene as very dark with movement in the skies.

“There are certain things I cannot control when creating an image, and clouds are one of them. I took a number of exposures here because the clouds just didn’t look right at exposures of 30 and 60 seconds. Because the clouds were moving so slowly, I needed a 4-minute exposure to create the feel I wanted. And to obtain such a long exposure in bright sunlight, I used a Vari-ND and ten stops of fixed ND filters.

“While creating this image, two girls played in the water in front of the rocks. But because the exposure was so long, their appearance never registered and it was as though they were never there.

Monolith No. 52 – Bandon, Oregon

“Each autumn I photograph the ‘Monoliths’ at Bandon Beach on the Oregon coast. I’ve been working on this series for several years now and have photographed these Monoliths in every season, weather, light, angle and time of day, and yet I always come home with something new.

“That’s the beauty of the creative process, there is always something new, even at a location I’ve photographed many times. There are so many variables, and I never know how one will change and trigger a new vision of a familiar subject.

“I used a 30-second exposure to highlight and isolate this Monolith, and it also simplified the image by smoothing out the details in the water and sky. In this image the effect of the long exposure is very subtle. In the majority of the situations I encounter, a 30-second exposure is sufficient to provide the look I’m after.

Resting – Kahaualea, Hawaii

“Sometimes the effect of the long exposure is not even noticeable as in this image. A fast exposure captured the ripples in the water and I found this distracting. I fixed this by using an 8-second exposure which smoothed out the water and simplified the image.

“The photographer does not always need to create an obvious long exposure look in order to improve and strengthen the image.

Pigeon Point Light House – California Coast

“When I came across this light house I almost dismissed it because it was such a very traditional black and white scene that had probably been photographed by every photographer who had ever passed this way. But it was such a beautiful scene that I wanted to try to put my touch on it and make it just a little unique.

“The wispy clouds in the sky were what caught my attention. I envisioned the final image with the water and sky tied together by a similar look. I tried dozens of different exposures from a few seconds to several minutes, with each exposure creating a very different look. Because the water and sky were constantly changing, I could sometimes get the sky just right but not the water, and vise versa.

“Finally I got the look I was after with this 100-second exposure.

Dunes of Nude No. 58 – Death Valley, CA

“This image is from my series ‘The Dunes of Nude’ which is my interpretation of sand dunes. Normally I get very close to the dunes and photograph them in a very intimate and almost abstract way, but in this image I took a much wider view. Like the Pigeon Point image above, I wanted to tie the sky to the foreground by making the clouds look like sand dunes in the sky.

Ancient Stones No. 12 – Joshua Tree, California

“This new addition to my ‘Ancient Stones’ portfolio was created in Joshua Tree. I want to emphasize the permanence of these stones and the movement in the clouds is a subtle way of doing that.

“A key to my work is being able to move quickly; to be able to compose quickly and to adjust my exposures quickly. If I cannot do that, conditions change and I miss the shot.

“That is the primary advantage of the Vari-ND filter over fixed filters. I can open up the filter to quickly change my composition and can quickly adjust from a 30-second to a 120-second exposure. The Vari-ND is one of my most important tools.”

In May, Cole will be presenting an exhibition of his ‘The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau‘ portfolio in Split, Croatia at FotoKlub Split. You can check his website, blog, and social media for more news and information.

ColeThompsonPhotography.com | Blog | Facebook | Google+

December 20, 2012

Note: I am publishing this shortly before the clock strikes 12/21/12.  I do hope you are around to read it!


December 18th 2012 by Andrew S Gibson

This article is part of a series of interviews with long exposure photographers to celebrate the release of my ebook Slow. You can keep track of the interviews by clicking on the Long Exposure Photography Interviews link under Categories in the right-hand sidebar.

Cole Thompson is a fine art photographer based in Colorado in the United States. As part of the interview I asked him how, in a world where it seems that many photographers are producing similar work, it is possible to create original photography? His answer is worth reading, as it brings up one of Cole’s most interesting concepts, ‘photographic celibacy’.



How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look do you try and create in your photos?

I cannot describe my vision because I believe vision is intangible and indescribable. I view vision as the sum total of my life experiences. It is what makes me see the world a bit differently than another, because my experiences have been different.

I do not try to create a look or pursue a certain style in my images, I simply follow my vision. If you pursue a look, style or technique without vision, then those things are mere gimmicks and your images will lack power and conviction. I have been creating images since 1968 and so my skills would allow me to pursue many different styles or looks, but I’m only interested following my vision.

What I’ve learned is that vision must always come first and then techniques and style must flow from it. I’ve also learned that I must only create images that I love, that’s where my passion is and where my best work will come from.

Name three photographers you like and why.

Edward Weston is my photographic hero, not because of his images (although I do love them) but because of his attitudes. In my opinion Weston was a true artist and not a photographer (I draw a distinction between the two). He was independent in thought and did not care what others thought of his work. He created for himself and he had no obligation to explain his work to others.

One of my favourite stories is told by Ansel Adams on his first meeting Weston:

“After dinner, Albert (Bender) asked Edward to show his prints. They were the first work of such serious quality I had ever seen, but surprisingly I did not immediately understand or even like them; I thought them hard and mannered. Edward never gave the impression that he expected anyone to like his work. His prints were what they were. He gave no explanations; in creating them his obligation to the viewer was completed.”

In so many ways Weston has been my mentor. I re-read his Day Books every year and often read them just before I go out to create new images. His independence and obligation to self has inspired me.

Wynn Bullock. As a 14 year old boy I taught myself photography and part of what I did was to sit for hours looking at the work of photographers. Wynn Bullock was one whose work I admired and it wasn’t until years later I realised how much he and I saw alike, with both of us gravitating towards dark and contrasty images.

Ansel Adams. For many years I dreamed of being the next Ansel Adams (like millions of other young photographers). And for years I tried to imitate his look and even specific images. But then something happened to me that changed my attitude and led me on my quest to find my own vision. I was at a portfolio review and a gallery owner quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back towards me and said “It looks like you’re trying to copy Ansel Adams.” I proudly told him that I was because I loved his work! He then said something that really made me mad at the time, but later opened my eyes, he said:

“Ansel has already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him better. What can you create that demonstrates your vision?”

That was the beginning of the search for my vision. I still love Ansel Adam’s work, but I no longer want to be known as the “best Ansel Adams imitator in the world.” In fact, now if someone says to me “your work reminds me of Ansel Adams” I know that I have failed to distinguish myself with my own vision.

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

Long exposure photography – what’s the attraction and why do you do it?

The long exposure is not something I set out to pursue nor is it a marketing strategy I chose to become known as “the guy who uses long exposures.” But rather it’s the outcome from following my vision: it’s what I love, it’s how I feel and it’s how I see the world.

About 90% of my recent work was created using long exposures. I initially started off with water, then moved to clouds and now have been creating images of people with it as well. I suspect I’ll find other areas in which to use it as well.

Why black and white – what is the appeal for you?

That is a very difficult question to answer and perhaps my artist statement says it 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 childhood heroes were in black and white and even the nation was segregated into black and white.

Perhaps my images are an extension of the world in which I grew up.

I really don’t worry too much about the “why” behind things, I simply accept them as they are. I love black and white and always have. I’ve tried dabbling in colour and I’ve seen a few colour images that I’m drawn to, but in the end I really am just a black and white guy and I’m okay with that.

I can see from your portfolio that you are widely travelled, especially within the United States. How important is the contribution of travel to developing your portfolio from an artistic point of view? How has travel helped you develop as a person?

Travel is not critical for me in terms of subject matter, I can create similar images anywhere. But in terms of concentration and freeing my mind of my daily responsibilities, it is very important to get away. I have a full time job, a large family and many professional responsibilities, and I find that it’s difficult for me to concentrate when I’m on my home turf. However when I get away I’m able to leave all those things behind me. The best thing about being away is that I’m able to focus on just one thing: creating.

So travel has become very important for me. Many of these trips are to visit my children who have been stationed around the world. We visited my Marine Corp son who was stationed in Japan, my Peace Corp son in Ukraine and Poland and next year I’ll visit a son in Russia and Croatia. I am very fortunate to have family in these places because I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to venture there without them. However next year will be a first for me as I visit Iceland by myself.

I do also travel within the United States. I go to Death Valley every January, the Oregon coast every September and I’m looking to add a third location, probably Hawaii. I like going back to the same spot each year because I can continue working on an idea, but once I’ve lost interest in that idea, I find a new location.

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

There are so many photographers working with long exposure photography techniques in black and white that sometimes it is hard to be original. Yet your work is very original. Can you give our readers any tips for finding an original approach to long exposure photography?

One of the side effects of the internet is that everyone quickly knows what everyone else is doing. When someone creates a new look, it seems as if overnight everyone is copying that look. I did that for many years, imitate others look, until I realised that I wanted to be more than an imitator or copycat. I want to create my own unique work and that is what I focus on, ignoring what others are doing.

I have a friend who thinks the key to success is to photograph something that nobody else has photographed before. He once told me that he had discovered something unique: frozen chickens. He said that he would always have a frozen chicken in his images (to this day I’m not certain if he was kidding or not!). In my opinion success is not about finding a subject that’s not been photographed before (I doubt there are many such things) but rather creating something unique, from your own vision.

I never focus what others are doing, I simply go down my own path. I am unaware what others are creating because I practice something that I call Photographic Celibacy. It’s the practice of not looking at or studying the work of other photographers. I do this to reduce the number of images floating about in my head and to reduce their influence on my own work. I find that when I see a great image, my first thought is “how can I do that?” Then I catch myself and remember that I do not want to imitate, but create. I’ve practicing Photographic Celibacy for five years now and it has been very helpful, but I still have some iconic images floating around in my head and when I go to the grocery store I have to admit that I still look at the bell peppers! But I’m doing better at not imitating others.

Most people who hear about this practice think I’m crazy, they believe that imitation is how we build our skills and grow creatively. I disagree, I believe imitation is harmful because it retards the development of our own vision.

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

Can you tell us a little about The Lone Man series? What inspired it? What are you trying to express with these images?

Like most of my series, the Lone Man was an idea that I just stumbled upon and spontaneously created. Whenever I get an idea for a new project, I write it down on a long list. However the truth is that I’ve never once used one of those ideas, all of the ideas for my portfolios have been spontaneous and just took off like a wildfire.

That’s what happened with the Lone Man series. I was in North Laguna at one of my favourite dive spots, creating long exposures of the water. It was a pretty crowded day at the beach and so people were out on the rocks looking for creatures in the tide pools. A group of people were in my shot and I was impatiently waiting for them to leave. While waiting I decided to do a test exposure so that I’d be all ready as soon as they left. After the 30 second test exposure, I noticed that one of the people had stood still for the entire 30 seconds and I recognised his body language. It was pensive, thoughtful and you could tell the man was thinking about things larger than himself.

Soon I started noticing this effect in a lot of people, they would come to the edge of the world and just stare off into the distance. I began photographing these people and the Lone Man series was born. Here is the artist statement for this series:

Something unusual happens when a person stands on the edge of the world and stares outward. They become very still and you can almost see their thoughts as they ponder things much greater than themselves:

Where did I come from?
What is my purpose?
What does it all mean?
What is beyond, the beyond?
Do I make a difference?
Is there more?

At that moment they are The Lone Man, alone with their questions and thoughts about life, the universe and beyond. People are affected by this time of meditation and they often vow to make changes in their lives. But this moment is short lived as these weighty thoughts are replaced with more immediate concerns:

Should I eat at McDonalds or Burger King and should I try that new green milkshake?

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

Normally I do not comment on what my images mean, sometimes because they are just beautiful images and don’t have any deeper meaning, and often because I think it’s the viewer’s job to decide what they mean. But in the case of The Lone Man, I have revealed a bit of what I’m thinking about in my artist statement. When I was creating these images I was impressed at how standing at the edge of the world causes people to ponder their smallness and their purpose in life.

So many people have asked me “how did you get those people to stand still for 30 seconds” and “did you ask them to stand still?” I didn’t have to ask people to stand still because this is just what people do! You could see them deep in thought as they stood there, often for several minutes, and pondering the “bigger questions” of life.

The last part of my artist statement is a little dig, at how little time we spend thinking about those bigger issues and how easily we are brought back to our own petty concerns; my burger wasn’t cooked right, I don’t get a good cell signal at my house, the guy in front of me is driving so slow etc. So much of what we concern ourselves with is so unimportant in the larger scheme of things.

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

Another series I like is Monoliths. What draws you to photographing seascapes? What’s the appeal of the giant rocks that appear in these photos?

I grew up in Southern California and spend my youth at the Huntington Beach pier, bodysurfing at lifeguard tower number 1. I spent countless hours diving Laguna, La Jolla and Catalina. The ocean was a large part of my life until I moved to Colorado in 1993. Truthfully the ocean is the only thing I miss about California and whenever I visit, I am drawn back to it.

Photographing the movement of the ocean with long exposure is just a part of my vision, it’s how I see the ocean. To photograph it with a static image, seems to me a sin!

I have always had a “thing” about Monoliths, first when I was a young boy and read Thor Heyerdahl’s “Aku-Aku, the Secret of Easter Island.” Those stone giants really captured my imagination and I wondered who created them, how and why?

Next I was fascinated with the Monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” And so when I first saw the beaches of Bandon, Oregon with their statuesque “monoliths” (sea stacks to the locals) all of my past fascinations flooded back and I knew that I would photograph them. I am certain they have been photographed a million times before, but since I don’t look at others work, I am ignorant of how others have portrayed them. Even if I were to find out that I had unknowingly created images similar to others, it would not concern me, as my images are honest creations borne from my vision.

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

Perhaps related is your series Ancient Stones. What is the story behind these photos? What is significant about these stones, and where did you get the idea of photographing them?

The Ancient Stones series is related to the Monoliths in sense. I was wandering about in Joshua Tree, waiting for inspiration to hit me, and nothing was happening. In response to those “dry spells” I’ll usually find a nice spot to sit for a while, clearing my mind of clutter and trying to see more clearly. As I sat there looking at those large rocks, I had some thoughts that were similar to what I was thinking when looking at the monoliths in Bandon. How long have these rocks been here, millions of years? How many men have they seen scurrying about, going here and there, building this and that, full of self importance? I wonder if “they” find all of this amusing?

That made me want to photograph “them” in a way that showed their permanence and timelessness. I hoped the long exposure helped do that, contrasting the still stones against the movement in the sky. I’ve only just started this project and so I’m not sure where it will go from here.

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

I believe you earn a living, or at least a part-time living, as a fine art photographer. Do you have any advice for our readers on how they can work towards achieving the same goal? What can they do from an artistic viewpoint to improve their work and a practical viewpoint to selling their work?

I have a full time job and do not earn my living from my art. Many years ago I purposely chose not to pursue photography for my living because I feared it would take the fun out of it, and I’ve never regretted that decision. I create only for the pure love of it and am proud to be an “amateur” in the truest sense: I am self taught, I create for myself and I do not earn my living from my work.

What I dislike about earning a living from your art is that it invariably involves compromises and I never want to create for others. I want to create whatever and however I want, not caring if a single person likes my work. Ironically it is that independence that brings out your best work and may bring about success. I once posted on my blog that the fastest way to earn money from your photography is to sell your equipment. There is truth in that!


Cole Thompson’s website
Cole Thompson’s blog

You can contact Cole by email at Cole@ColeThompsonPhotography.com

Photo Gallery

Here are some more of Cole’s long exposure photos:

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson

Long exposure photography by Cole Thompson


March 15, 2012

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.

January 20, 2011


I’ve just completed filming two DVD workshops, one on “Black and White Photography” in Death Valley and the other on “Long Exposures” filmed at La Jolla in San Diego.  During the production a recurring theme kept coming up; that the foundation of a great image is a great composition and there are no substitutes.  Using long exposures, HDR, shift-tilt, pinhole, Holga, soft focus, retro treatments, infra-red, or any technique and look are simply poor substitutes if the image is not built upon a solid composition.

I’ve fallen into this trap before, thinking that a particular “look” would make my work unique and therefore successful.  Unique is certainly not a bad thing, but just because I’ve created a unique look doesn’t mean that I’ve created a great image!

My art is always best when I focus on the composition and then use a technique or look to enhance an already great image.



October 23, 2010

This blog appeared on the Singh-Ray site on Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cole Thompson explains how he uses long exposures to create his mystical black and white images

Fine-art photographer Cole Thompson creates his images and visual essays in dramatic black and white. His images involve the use of very long time exposures of 30 seconds to several minutes. “I have always been intrigued by monoliths, first by the statues on Easter Island, then by the monolith in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and most recently by Stonehenge in England. In each case, seeing these monoliths prompts the question; Who built them and for what purpose? I’ve always loved visiting Bandon Beach in Oregon because of the natural monoliths strewn along the coastline. Randomly placed, it is as though the earth were God’s chessboard and the monoliths the pieces from an unfinished game. I’ve included several images of these Bandon Beach monoliths to illustrate my use of long exposures for my various monochrome print portfolios.

“I have often created my monolith images using long exposures of 30 seconds, but recently I found myself experimenting with daytime exposures of up to 5 minutes. In each case, whether 30 seconds or up to 5 minutes, the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter was essential to creating these images. If you’ve ever tried such exposures with a fixed ND filter, you know the challenges. First, to compose you have to remove the filter because the filters are so dark you cannot see through the viewfinder. Second, when removing and replacing these filters you can accidentally change the focus or the focal length of your lens. Often you’re not even aware of these lens movements until later, when it’s too late.

“When I mount the Vari-ND filter on my lens, I dial it to the minimum (Min) setting. At this point the filter has already added about 2 f-stops of density which is just enough to darken the image in the viewfinder a bit, but I can still see clearly enough to compose and focus accurately. I then rotate the front ring to increase the density by as much as 6 additional f-stops. When I need even more density, I stack the Singh-Ray Mor-Slo 5-stop ND Filter in front of the the Vari-ND to achieve up to 13 stops of density. This allows me to use very long exposures, even in full daylight.

“Here are some of the things I’ve learned about using very long exposures. First a tripod is a must and a remote shutter release is desirable. While it’s true that slight camera movements do not seriously affect the very long exposure, it’s best to eliminate vibrations as a “best practice” and because camera movement can ruin an image with a 5 second exposure or less. I shoot at ISO 50 at F22, put my camera into RAW/monochrome mode and set the exposure mode to manual.

“The most frequent question I am asked is how I determine my exposure. I use the in-camera meter for exposures up to 30 seconds, and beyond that I find I must extrapolate because the digital SLR’s I use only meter up to 30 seconds. With my camera set to F22 and 30 seconds, I dial my Vari-ND’s density ring until my exposure is correct. To extrapolate for exposures longer than 30 seconds, I do the same thing but set the exposure to 2 f-stops below ideal and then quadruple the exposure in my head. If 30 seconds is what I’m metering for, then quadrupling brings me to a 120-second exposure.

“But strange as it seems, if I expose at 120 seconds, the image will be very underexposed. So I’ll generally expose at 300 seconds for a good exposure. I’m not sure why the 120 seconds doesn’t produce the correct exposure, but it could be due to some kind of digital equivalent to ‘reciprocity failure,’ which is a phenomenon experienced when shooting extra long exposures with film. The reason for such reciprocity failure with film is that the longer the exposure, the less effective the film is in recording the light and so the exposure length needs to be increased. In the case of my digital camera, when the meter says I need a 120 second exposure I extrapolate that reading and give it 300 seconds. It works for me.

Something else that is very important when using the in-camera meter is that I must completely isolate stray light from coming into the viewfinder and affecting the meter reading. To do this I use a Hoodman eye-cup which allows me to seal the viewfinder with my eye. This is essential for a correct exposure.

“Shooting long exposures at the beach creates a couple of additional challenges. Waves hitting the tripod legs will cause them to sink into the sand, ruining the exposure. I can either move out of the water line or build wide feet for my tripod that give it a larger footprint. The beach also has strong winds and a lens makes a great wind sail. I combat this by using a heavy tripod that allows me to hang a weight onto the center column to steady it. I also position myself between the wind and the camera and often turn my jacket up above my head and use it as a wind shield.

“Lastly, let me repeat that camera movement is the primary enemy of long exposures. Even the slightest movements can ruin the image. Sometimes it’s just not easy to detect this movement by checking the camera’s display. For this reason, I check every image with a hooded loupe which enables me to see the image clearly even outdoors.

I have found extra-long exposures to be especially appealing to me, perhaps because they help convey nature as timeless. I’ve come to a point where the technique has become part of the message in my work. Choosing the length of the long exposure will control how that movement looks in both water and sky. Exposures from 2-30 seconds can give a completely different look in water while the longer exposures measured in minutes are usually needed to produce dramatic skies.

There is no better tool than the Vari-ND to produce these types of images. As I’ve said before in my other Singh-Ray posts, this filter not only makes it easier for me to create these images, in many cases I could not have produced them without the Vari-ND.”

To learn more about Cole’s work check out his previous stories on this blog and pay a visit to his website.

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