December 6, 2014

Sometimes the strangest things can catch your eye and make for a nice image.  

I was driving down the Oregon coast when I saw this sandbar. I liked its shape and how it contrasted against the water, and how it provided balance to the land in the background. It was a simple image and I further simplified it by using a long exposure to mute the detail in the clouds.

When I compose an image, I compose simply by how it feels and when it feels right, it is done. I never give a thought to the so-called rules of composition.

Thinking that following rules will produce a great image is like believing that following the instructions and staying within the lines on a paint by number kit will produce a masterpiece.


Following those rules may produce a “competent” image, but not a masterpiece!

I have no doubt that Apple will one day program the rules of composition into an iPhone so that every image we take is a competent image, but it will never create a great image. Great images are created by feeling people whose images cause others to feel.

Remember the wise words of the philosopher Yoda: 

“Feel the force.
A photographers strength flows from the Force.
But beware of the dark side.”

Feel the image and beware of the dark side (rules).


February 19, 2014

Harbinger No. 16 – 2014


Ansel Adams said: “The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant, immaterial.”

And I’ll go one step further and say that in my opinion these rules are actually harmful because they get in the way of developing creativity and Vision.

For years I’ve rebelled against the rules of photography. Why? Because my experience has taught me that they encourage dependency and discourage independent seeing.

I’ve had people criticize my images because they didn’t follow some imaginary rule of composition and I thought: how sad that when they look at this beautiful image, all they can see are the rules. That’s called not being able to see the forest for the trees.

The rules of composition is an attempt to distill the creative process into a series of simple guidelines that if followed, will produce a good image. It reminds me of the old “paint by numbers” painting kit: simply put the proper color into each numbered area, stay within the lines and you’ll have a “real” painting! Yes, but it’s not a very good painting and it’s certainly not an original.

Do you remember IBM’s Deep Blue computer?  It was programmed to play chess and it beat the world champion chess player, Garry Kasparov.  Do you think that if we were to program the rules of photography into Deep Blue and take it to Yosemite, that it could beat Ansel Adams?

Of course not, because composition is about seeing and feeling, not about following rules. And the irony of these rules is that they are supposed to help you learn to be creative, when what they actually do is cause dependency.

I love travelling with a GPS because I can plug in an address and it gives me turn-by-turn directions. But I’ve noticed that there’s a negative side effect that comes from relying on my GPS: I’ve become so dependent upon it that I cannot find anything without it, even in cities that I frequently travel. The GPS has made me so myopic that I’ve never developed the big picture of the city.

That’s what I believe happens when you rely on the rules of composition: you become myopic and dependent. You don’t develop the big picture, you don’t see for yourself, you don’t trust your own feelings.

“So Cole, if I shouldn’t follow the rules, how do propose that I learn to compose an image?”

I like the Professor Harold Hill approach, do you remember him? He was the likeable charlatan from The Music Man who rode into River City, Iowa selling band instruments. He taught the boys in town how to play their instruments using the Think System, that’s where you “think the notes and just play the notes.” It sounds silly, but I think there’s a lesson to be learned from this approach!

When I approach a scene, I simply look and see and feel.  I compose instinctively until the scene feels right, without a single thought about the “rules.”  And if the composition doesn’t feel right, I change it.  I move the camera, I zoom in, I try another angle…but in the end all I care about is that it “feels right.”  Does that sound as silly as Professor Hill’s Think System?

And after I’ve created the image, I don’t ask others what they think and I don’t listen to the “experts” who will tell me how I should have done it. I trust my instincts and remember that I’m learning to express my vision and not theirs. Learning to trust your instincts is one of the first steps in the creative process.

What a simple and empowering concept: to see and feel for yourself rather than following the rules. Creative people already know this secret: that great art comes from within and is not found in a set of rules.

Start by believing in yourself and your own inherent creativity.  Then forget about the rules. Next comes practice, practice, practice and evaluating each image by asking yourself: “what could I have done differently to make this image better?” And most importantly, rely on your own opinion and don’t ask others what they think of your images.

This approach is not an easy shortcut, it’s a long and hard process in which you’ll create thousands of failures. But with each failure you’ll get better and most importantly, you’ll be creating originals and not “paint by number” counterfeits!


P.S.  Here’s a test question: I have friends who ask me “how will I know if I have a good image if I don’t ask other people’s opinion of it?” How would you answer this?


October 14, 2011

Old Car Interior is one of those images that is both complex and yet simple at the same time.  This 1934 Chrysler interior was found just down the road in my friend’s backyard (I say “junkyard” but Frank gets mad at me).  I was looking at the car’s dashboard and marveling at the incredible nostalgic detail, and thinking “if I could only capture it!”  I had an idea of how I wanted this to look, but wasn’t sure if I could actually do it.

I’ve always believed that the rule of thirds was the key to a successful image, however not the traditional rule of thirds, but my own!  It is:

  1. 1/3 the vision
  2. 1/3 the shot
  3. 1/3 the post processing

(you can read my post about the rule of thirds here:

My first challenge was space, this was a very small interior and it was not practical to photograph from inside the car.  Fortunately there was no back window and so I set up the tripod so that I could shoot through the back window.  To capture the interior I used a 10-22mm zoom at 15mm on my 20d, making it a 24mm in full frame terms.

My next challenge was that it was quite dark inside the car and very bright outside.  One exposure was clearly not going to span that wide dynamic range and so I decided on two exposures, one for the interior and one for the exterior.  I chose not to use HDR as I personally find the look a bit unnatural.  Using Photoshop I cut out the three windows from the exterior exposure and pasted them into the interior exposure, giving me a perfect exposure for the entire scene.

The processing was responsible for the uniqueness of this image.  Using my pen and tablet I went over each piece of the interior to bring out the detail with what I call “local contrast enhancement.”  This is a fancy way of saying that I would dodge and burn each piece to enhance the contrast in just that area.  I prefer this localized approach rather than using a global contrast setting, which would affect all areas equally.

Part of my style is extreme contrast and so I would burn down the shadow areas to ensure great blacks, which further gives the impression of contrast and sharpness.  In all I spent 50 hours to get this image right, which is the longest I’ve ever spent on an image.

The results surpassed my initial vision and has become one of my most published and requested images.  I was by Frank’s today and visited “Old Car Interior” and was shocked to remember just how dull the interior actually looked compared to my final image.  And something else that impressed me was the detail I was able to convey with 8 megapixels, demonstrating that it’s not always about megapixels!


Note:  The matted 10 X 15 print of Old Car Interior sells for $400 but will be on sale for $275 until 11/1/2011.  Just email me and please mention the discount.


February 10, 2011

Many of you know of my disdain for photographic “rules” and so you might wonder why I’m writing about the “rule of thirds.”  It’s because I’m writing about my rule of thirds:

A great image is comprised of 1/3 vision, 1/3 the shot and 1/3 processing

A great image begins and ends with your vision.  Vision is a tough concept to describe, but I think each of us instinctively know how we want our image to look, and our job as an artist is to bring that image into compliance with our vision.

When we pursue an image with vision, then equipment and process becomes the servant and the creative process the master.  It’s only then that great images can occur.

Vision is everything.