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.

Skeleton Before and After 1024x355 I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

Dunes of Nude 43 Before and After 1024x357 I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

Lone Man No. 20 Before and After 1024x358 I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

Harbinger No 1 Before and After 1024x355 I Am a Digital Photographer, Photographing in Color

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

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).

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.

For 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 side by side comparisons is that 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:

Histogram12 300x300 Before and After   Lone Man No. 20

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.