May 23 2017

Before and After – The Jim Bridger Power Plant




This is a “before and after” of the Jim Bridger Power Plant that I created recently.

The before does not differ a great deal from the after, but there are a few differences. Can you spot them?

Hint: the first change is abbreviated b&w.

I like to use the word “create” rather than “capture” when talking about my images.


Because a “capture” implies that the image is an accurate representation of reality, as the scene appeared to the camera and eye.

I like “create” because it suggests that the image is not accurate, but rather it has been created through my Vision into something new and different.

And when did the “Vision” for this image occur?

When I first saw this power plant from I-80 from several miles away. As soon as I saw it, the Vision of the final image appeared in my head and guided how I shot it, how I exposed it and how I processed it.

Vision was the driving force.

Why am I always mentioning Vision? Because it breaks my heart to see people chasing equipment, technique and gadgets…thinking that these things are key to creating a great image. Those things can certainly be “elements” of a great image, but not key and not even always necessary.

So please, focus on your Vision! I spent most of my photographic life pursuing the wrong things and was lucky to have a mentor who was even more bull-headed than I am, and argued that I did not need document, but rather I could create.

Thank you Vered.


Jun 11 2015

Plate of Leaves – Before and After

2005-10-2 Plate of Leaves - Final 4-20-2007 1000(Plate of Leaves)

It was a rainy day up in the Colorado mountains and I decided to shoot indoors. I collected some seeds and leaves and placed them on this great wooden plate that I had purchased for such an occasion. I was shooting on the kitchen table using available light, which was the kitchen ceiling lamp.

So how did the image look to my camera?

Plate of Leaves Before and After(click on the image to enlarge and compare)

I think the color image is rather boring and unremarkable. At first glance and without Vision, you might be tempted to throw it out. But I had a Vision of what it was to be.

A lot of this image’s “look” was obtained in the black and white conversion process, where I play with the color sliders to bring out or hide details. Click on the image above and look at the leaf just left of center, see how the veins have been brought out? The green slider had a lot of affect on this image.

For me, the step of converting the image to black and white is a critical part of fulfilling my Vision. That’s why I never accept the default b&w conversion or simply desaturate the image. I know what I want the image to look like, Photoshop does not.

Then after I had done as much as I could with the b&w conversion, I dodged and burned to bring out the contrast and highlights. I worked with a very small brush and worked every leaf, seed and nut individually. Sometimes it’s tempting to use a global tool such as the contrast adjuster, but that affects everything in the image equally and it rarely can produce a look equal to good dodging and burning.

The challenge was to take that boring color image and transform it into the black and white image that’s in my head.

For me, a black and white image is so much more interesting than a color one! 


P.S. There’s something else interesting about the before and after image…it’s the sharpness. Did you notice that the b&w version seems so much sharper than the color image? It’s what I call “apparent sharpness” and it comes from contrast. This image has not been sharpened.

Nov 29 2014

Oregon – Five Before and After Images

Monolith No 78 BEFORE 1000Monolith No. 78 – Before

I’ve had a number of people ask if I’d do some more “before and after” shots. So here are five from my recent Oregon trip.


I had my eye on this Monolith by Cape Blanco for several years, but I had never found an easy way to get down to the beach. On this trip I found one.

At the hour I get there (never early!) the monolith is backlit and so it’s a difficult shot. I was fortunate to have these great delicate clouds that streak well with a long exposure and I envisioned them becoming an important part of the image, if I could deal with the backlight.

The sun was in the upper left corner and it was washing out the clouds and giving me a big flare. I used my hand as a sunshade for the 30 second exposure, properly placing it by watching where my hand’s shadow fell on the lens. I knew that later in Photoshop I’d have to even out the sky, because it was bright on the left and darker on the right.

Then there was the debris on the beach from the last few days of big storms and high tides, but I knew that I could deal with that in post processing. 

2014-10-13 Monolith No 78 - Final 11-19-2014 AFTER 1000
Monolith No. 78 – After

To deal with the debris I cloned out the tree stump and burned down the foreground to remove the rest. I don’t like anything that distracts from the main subject.

For the sky I burned down the upper left corner to bring out detail in the clouds, then I dodged up the right to balance the sky out.  I also used a very small dodging brush to follow the cloud streaks to bring them out more. Adding contrast also helped the clouds stand out against the sky.

The backlighting didn’t hurt me as much as I feared it would. There’s not much shadow detail in the Monolith, but I generally don’t prefer a lot anyway.

Monolith No 77 BEFORE 1000Monolith No. 77 – Before

This is one of my favorite images from this trip. I envisioned this Monolith framed by the very dark hills on the sides, the rocks below and the clouds above.

This was a pretty simple image and an easy one…I thought…until I got home and found out that my Vari-ND was doing the dark pattern thing on me. It’s one of the quirks of all variable ND filters, sometimes at wide angles and when the sun angle is just right, you get these weird dark patterns across the image. And here’s a heads up: the cheaper the variable ND filter the more it will do this. That’s why I use the Singh-Ray Vari-ND, it happens much less frequently and when it does, there are a couple of workarounds. 

If I had noticed the patterning in the field I could have switched lens and probably have avoided it.  This was shot with my 24-105 at 24 mm, which is where the problem can happen, when you’re shooting at the wide end of your lens. If I had switched to the 16-35 and used 24 mm the pattern probably would have gone away, because 24 mm is mid focal length for that lens. And of course another option would have been to simply switch to a fixed ND filter for this shot.

This image also had some vignetting in the corners and I didn’t like how the clouds were thin on the right side of the image.

You might notice that I underexpose my images, usually by about 1 stop. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, I like the look of a dark image with pronounced highlights.  Second, it makes it easier to deal with the wide dynamic range in these types of scenes where the sky is important to the image.  If I had opened up another stop, that sky would have easily washed out and I’d have lost the cloud detail. Shadow detail is not very important to my images, so underexposing works for me.

2014-10-13 Monolith No 77 - Final 11-13-2014 1000
Monolith No. 77 – After

I fixed the dark pattern in the sky with vey some careful and slow dodging (it’s easy for a sky to look blotchy if you use a small or hard brush or you work too quickly) I’m typically dodging and burning between 1-3% strength and for skies I’m generally using 1%. I used the clone tool to fix the vignetting and I also cloned in some clouds from the left to the right for a more balanced look.

I also used dodging and burning to bring out the water detail. I call it local contrast enhancement when I go back and forth between burning and dodging to increase the contrast in just one area.

I was happy with how this image turned out, especially after finding out about the dark pattern in the sky.

Something I noticed in the image above: there’s a thin highlight separating the sky from the monolith. I went back to the original TIFF and it’s not there, but it appears when I convert it to a JPEG for the web. I’ll have to do some work to figure out what that is and how to fix it.

Lighthouse, Cape Blanco BEFORE 1000Cape Blanco – Before

People are naturally drawn to lighthouses, as are photographers. But the lighthouse shot is soooooo overdone that I almost didn’t create this one. But I thought I’d see if I could put my twist on it.  I love to put the subject small in a large frame and then added a long exposure for a bit of movement.  I underexposed and used a polarizer because I wanted black skies.

2014-10-13 Lighthouse, Cape Blanco - Final 11-13-2014 1000Cape Blanco – After

In the final image, I further isolated the lighthouse by burning down the foreground and the sky.  Looking at this image now, a few weeks after I last worked on it, I think I’ll remove those trees on the far right because I find them distracting.

2014-10-13 Lighthouse, Cape Blanco - Final 11-29-2014

This illustrates how I work to refine an image.  I’ll let it sit for a few weeks and then look at it with fresher eyes.  I’ll then perhaps modify it again and then put it to bed for a few weeks more before I look at it again.

Now that I’ve removed those trees, I’ll come back in a week to see if I want to keep this change or not.

 Isolated No 7 Before 1000Isolated No. 7 – Before

I was driving on the road to Cape Blanco when this tree just jumped out at me! I love centered images and struggled if I should center the tree where it hits the ground or the upright of the tree.  Centering the upright portion of the tree looked more centered and that’s what I went with.

It was a windy and hazy day which made the shot a little challenging.  I took about 20 long exposures trying to get the clouds just right and ended up using this one. I didn’t underexpose as I usually do, because I didn’t want to lose the tree detail. It was still a processing challenge and I started over 4 times before I got it right.

2014-10-13 Isolated No 7 - Final 11-13-2014 1000Isolated No. 7 – After

Again, I did a lot of dodging and burning on this image. Many people feel that they can do this with a mouse, but I certain cannot! I use a pen and tablet and the control is so much better than with a mouse. I never like to be adamant, but you cannot do what I do with a mouse.  Period.

I got rid of the shadow of the tree, that bothered me for some reason, and left a highlight around the tree.  I darkened the sky and left it bright behind the tree. As I look at the image today, I think that I may go back and open up the trees a bit on the right side.

As I make decisions about my images, it reminds me of how I’ve seen some others make those decisions. They will show the image to someone and say: What do you think I should do to this image? I am very opposed to that approach, I think one should have a Vision and not adulterate it with someone else’s opinion. 

Isolated No 6 BEFOREIsolated No. 6 – After

I was lucky on this trip to have constantly changing weather conditions. Some days it was raining hard, others were sunny and others were constantly changing as on this day. The sun was coming and going and what I was trying to get was the sun hitting the island and the land left and right bits of land in shadow.

I was here for several hours trying to get the clouds and lighting just right. Sometimes the clouds were perfect, but not the foreground. At other times I’d get the shadowing how I wanted it but the clouds were no good.

I didn’t get exactly what I wanted in the shot, but I was confident that I’d be able to create the effect I was looking for in post processing.

2014-10-13 Isolated No 6 - Final 11-13-2014 1000Isolated No. 6 – After

I burned the land down on the left and right to put the focus on the island. Then I dodged up the island to make it brighter. Then I went to work on the clouds, lightening the upper ones and darkening the smaller ones just above the island. Then I darkened the foreground to hide the detail and to bring the eye to the island.


So after seeing these “before and after” shots, I hope that you’ll not conclude that you need to learn more about Photoshop. It is not my intent to focus on post processing as the key to an image because that is exactly what I don’t believe.

Instead my approach is to have a Vision of the image and then let that drive the processing. When you have Vision, your processing then has purpose: to bring the image into compliance with your Vision.

And armed with that Vision, you don’t need to ask others what to do with your image, you already know how it’s going to look in your head!


Oct 20 2012

I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

Many people assume that I’m working in film and others are surprised to learn that I photograph in color. Let me explain.

All of the work you see on my website (with the exception of the 1970’s portfolio) was created digitally. I switched to digital in 2004 after working 35 years in the darkroom. And I’ll be honest, while I have fond memories of those darkroom days, I do not miss them and I would not go back.

Why? Because my work is better since I began using digital.

I’ve often heard the assumption that digital is suitable for color but not for black and white.  That has not been my experience.  I’ll use whatever tools give me the results I’m looking for and I have absolutely no allegiance to the process; film is not sacred, digital is not sacred, old processes are not sacred…the only thing that is sacred to me is the image.

Perhaps more surprising to some is that I shoot all of my images in color. I’ve written that I shoot in B&W mode and so you might wonder how can that be? Shooting in B&W mode allows me to see the camera’s preview image in black and white, but I save my files in RAW which means they are really in color.

Confusing? When you shoot in RAW all of those settings such as B&W mode, sharpness, saturation, toning, color balance…are not recorded in the image. RAW means just that, it’s a raw capture without any of those tweaks and the image is recorded in color.

This is a wonderful thing!  This combination of B&W mode and RAW allows me to preview the image in black and white but process from the color image. Why do that? Because I don’t want my camera or software to decide how my images should look in black and white, the black and white processing is what makes my images “mine!”

Sometimes I’ll show people the “before” color photograph to illustrate how my vision and processing has changed the image.

My vision drives my processing and I’ll happily use whatever tools and processes best helps me do that.


Apr 6 2012

The Story Behind “The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau”

I would like to tell the story behind “The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau.”

My wife and I were visiting my son who was serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine (providing balance to his two brothers who were serving in the Marines). Being part Polish, we decided to visit our homeland and took a train to Krakow. Upon arriving discussions began on what to see and of course Auschwitz-Birkenau was high on the list, but secretly I hoped we wouldn’t visit the camps because I did not want see a place of such sadness. However my wife wanted to go and so I agreed.

We took a bus tour that would spend about 1 hour at Auschwitz and 30 minutes at Birkenau. Even though I had my camera equipment with me, I had not planned on photographing  the camps because it seemed that this might be disrespectful. The tour began indoors and we saw the meticulous records the German’s kept of their victims and then the piles of personal effects: glasses, shoes, hair and other items.

This was just too overwhelming and I felt like I was suffocating, so I signaled my family that I was going outdoors. Breathing in the open air I began to feel a bit better and slowly walked, looking down at my feet. The thought then came to me: how many had walked here before me, in these exact same footsteps and now were dead? How many had taken this same path and then had been murdered?

I began to wonder if the spirits of those who were dead still lingered, did they still inhabit this place? And then it suddenly struck me that I must photograph the spirits of those who had died here. I instinctively knew how I would do that, I would use long exposures of the other visitors at the camps, who would stand in proxy for the dead. The enormity of this task hit me as I realized that the bus was leaving in 45 minutes and so I ran from location to location, working incredibly fast.

Each location had its own challenges, I had to photograph people without their knowing it, because if they thought I was photographing they would politely move out of my way. I  developed techniques to fool people into thinking I was not photographing, I would set up my equipment and then talk on the phone or look in my camera bag, and then trigger the camera with a remote shutter release.

I found that the closer I was to the scene, the harder it was to get the shot because people would see me and move out of my way, not knowing that I actually needed them in the picture! Auschwitz No. 9 was the most difficult image to get, it took many exposures to capture these ghosts.

Another challenge was that people had to keep moving to produce the ghosting effects. So many shots were ruined when someone in the group would stop and interrupt the ghosting effect. In one image, Auschwitz No. 4, a man in the group stopped to read a historical placard.  This is the only image that I’ve included a “mortal” because it seemed to say “I am completely unaware of the ghosts around me.”

It’s no simple matter to get the right ghosting effects; so many factors affect the image such as the color of the clothing people are wearing, the speed in which they walk, the angle they are walking in relation to the camera and of course the length of the exposure. I  had to learn all of this in very short order and I was so grateful to be using digital so that I could get immediate feedback. There was so much to learn in such a short time, but I knew I had to finish before the bus left as I would not have another chance.

In one sense I felt prepared for this moment, for this opportunity. I had been working with long exposures for several years and I understood the basics, however I had never worked with people before and certainly not with unsuspecting subjects. I had to learn quickly and work quickly.

I do feel that I was inspired, both in concept and execution. As I looked at each scene I knew in my mind exactly how the finished image would look. However if you were to see the original shots and compare them to the final images, you would be surprised to see the extensive Photoshop work it took to bring the “shot” into compliance with my vision.

My processing included cropping the image to a square, darkening the scene for an almost nighttime look, increasing contrast, dodging up the ghosts and burning down distracting elements. You can see one extreme “before and after” example by clicking here.  Vision was the key to this series (remember my Rule of Thirds) and it was the constant that drove everything.   You can view the entire Ghosts portfolio here.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a depressing place, but I am glad that I went. I hope my images can portray the camps not just as a historical location, but as a place where real people lived and died.


P.S.  I recently had the honor of meeting a group of Holocaust survivors who attended the opening of this exhibition in Dallas. I saw a very elderly woman in a wheel chair looking at my images and I introduced myself by saying: “Hi, my name is Cole Thompson and these are my images.” She responded by pointing at the wall and exclaiming: “These are my images!”

Her name was Edith Molnar and she had been interned at Auschwitz and recognized these locations. That was a humbling moment, to appreciate that you were talking to someone who had lived through these horrors, she was “living history.”  Edith passed away several weeks later.


Oct 21 2011

Time No. 2 – Before and After

2008-12-10 Time No 2 - Final 12-22-2008 1000

This is “Time No. 2” that I created at Zabriskie  Point in Death Valley, perhaps the most photographed spot in the entire park.  This image was created just before the sun went down and it’s amazing how Zabriskie Point can look so differently as the light changes from morning, to noon and to late afternoon.

Today I wanted to show a “before and after” so you could see what the original image looked and how your vision can change it.  Sometimes vision takes place as you’re shooting and sometimes it occurs when you’re processing the image.  And sometimes your vision changes over time and so you  go back and change the image repeatedly (you should see how the The Angel Gabriel has evolved over time).

2008-12-10 Time No 2 - Before WEB

This original image is quite flat and muted, and so to make this a “Cole Thompson” image, I had to improve the contrast and separate the colors.   I do this by adjusting the color channels in the black and white conversion tool of Photoshop CS5.  By sliding each color’s adjustors in both directions, you can see how it will affect the contrast and separation.  With the colors I had in this image, I was able to change the b&w version quite a bit by adjusting the color channels; the Red and Yellow channels brought out highlights, the Blue channels darkened certain parts of the image, and the green had no effect.  When adjusting the channels, be careful not to go so far that you introduce unacceptable amounts of noise, particularly in the blue channels.

I then dodge and burn the image with my tablet to further enhance the contrast.  In this image I used a very small brush to individually work each piece of the image so that I brought out the striations that separated each set of hills.  I particularly paid attention to the ridge tops and brought out the highlighted edges.

One of the most important steps in my conversion process is to use the “Histogram” to check the blacks and white and then to adjust them using “Levels” if necessary (it’s almost always necessary).  After you have established a good black and white, you can use “Levels” to adjust the midtones and really change the mood of your image, for my images I generally am pushing the midtones darker.

Once the image looks great on screen, I then use the global contrast adjustment to push the contrast even further so that it will print with the same “pop” that it has on screen.  Remember that a monitor uses transmitted light and that always makes things look better than it will on a print.  The reason for this is that a print uses reflected light which is quite dull and flat by comparison.  By pushing the contrast further than you think you should, it will help ensure the printed piece looks good.

Time No 2 Before and After WEBFor me, the appeal of this image is it’s simplicity, it’s detailed contrasts and the compressed perspective.  Death valley is really a spectacular place, especially in the winter.  I go each January and just revel in the timeless solitude.


P.S.  What I don’t like about side by side comparisons is when someone always writes and says “I like the color image better!”  I’m just kidding of course, we all have our individual tastes and mine just runs to the black and white.

Jun 11 2010

Before and After – Lone Man No. 20

I often receive requests to show some “before and after” images to help people understand how much of my work is done in camera and how much is done in Photoshop.  I’d say it’s generally about 50/50 but that can vary by image with some images almost ready right out of the camera and many requiring extensive processing in Photoshop.

Lone Man No. 20 is a good example of a 50/50 image.  As you can see, the image I started with and the final image are both quite similar and yet quite different.  The original shot has all of the important elements; the composition, the long exposure of the water, the clouds and the lone man, but it doesn’t have the dramatic effect of the final image.

Probably the first change you’ll notice in the final image is that the severe vignetting has been repaired.  I was shooting with an extremely wide angle lens and I had two stacked neutral density filters on my lens, as a result a great deal of the filter was included in the photograph.  To repair this I first cropped the image and then I used the clone tool to fill in the missing corners.

Next you’ll notice that the sky in the original image has very low contrast and is quite bland.  To bring out the sky detail I split the image into two halves, upper and lower, and converted them to b&w differently.  In each conversion I used Photoshop’s “Channel Mixer” but in the upper half I used some blue channel to improve the contrast and detail in of the sky.  Next I used some pretty aggressive dodging and burning to bring out the definition and detail in the clouds, this information was in the image but it was almost hidden to the eye.  As a rule you can generally recover image detail as long as you have not over-exposed the image to the point that you have blown out the highlights.

Note: one of the side-effects of using blue channel in the conversion and dodging and burning is that the image can get very grainy.  When using this technique you must carefully balance the good-effects with side-effects.

Next I converted the lower half of the image to b&w, darkened the image and greatly enhanced the contrast.  This dark and contrasty approach is the look that I like and it often has the effect of making daytime look like night time.  The March/April issue of Photo Technique Magazine featured an article on my work and they used the phrase “Darkness at Noon” to describe this look.

All of this produced a basic final image, but it still didn’t have the dramatic impact I was seeking and that I had pre-visualized before I captured the image.  So my final step was to dodge and burn to bring out the highlights and selectively darken blacks to locally enhance contrast.  As I did this I carefully monitored the histogram below:

This histogram shows that I have a good black and a good white, something your eye cannot always discern when looking at the image on the screen.  Monitors are often out of adjustment and our eyes can be fooled, but the histogram never lies.  People often complain to me that what looked good to them on screen, often prints flat and muddy.  Generally the problem is revealed in their histogram; they lack a “true” black and good contrast. 

As you can see from my final image, it does not represent reality.  Reality is not my goal but instead I strive create images that reflect how I see the scene through my vision.  That is why I advocate that photographers work just as hard on developing their vision, as they do on their technical skills and equipment.  The image begins and ends in your mind’s eye.