January 5, 2013

2008-7-26 Flaming Gorge Clouds No 1 - Final 7-14-2011 750


I use a very simple workflow and for years I hid it from others because I thought it  unsophisticated and backwards. As I listened to other photographers talk about their process, I was embarrassed to let them see my rudimentary procedures.  What if they started talking about layers, I didn’t even understand them!

Fortunately with time I came to the realization that it’s not about the process, it’s about the image.  Nothing else matters.

There are many ways to use Photoshop and I doubt many photographers use more than a small percentage of its many tools.  There is no right way or wrong way to use it and not one workflow will be right for everyone.  My procedure works for me and I’d like to share it to illustrate a point: that you don’t need to know a lot about Photoshop or have a complicated workflow to produce beautiful images.  

Here are the six tools that I use to process most of my images:

1. RAW Converter – I use Photoshop’s RAW converter to set my image to a 16 bit, 360 ppi, 10X15 TIFF file.

2. B&W Conversion tool – I like Photoshop’s b&w conversion tool and play with each color channel to see how it affects the different parts of my image.

3. Levels – One of the most basic secrets to a great b&w image is to have a good black and white. I use Levels to set the initial black and white point and I use the histogram to judge this, never my eyes.  Throughout my processing I keep my eye on that histogram to maintain a true black and white.  Something else I do while in Levels is to adjust the midtones, which can radically change the look of my image and tends to set the direction I will take it.

4. Dodging and Burning – This is where I do most of my processing and where I have the most fun!  I feel most at home with dodging and burning because that’s how I did things in the darkroom.  However the primary difference today is that I can take my time and exercise minute control over every part of the image. I use a Wacom tablet to dodge and burn because you CANNOT do a good job with a mouse.

5. Contrast Adjustment – After I have the image looking great on screen, experience teaches me that it will print flat, and so I add some contrast.  A monitor uses transmitted light and a print uses reflective light, so that means it will take a lot more work to get your print to look as snappy as it does on the monitor.  Contrast helps.

6 Clone Tool – I use the clone tool to spot my images.  Cloning is so much better than the old days when you had to spot every single print and your mouth tasted like Spottone all day!


My point isn’t that you should imitate my workflow, but that a workflow need not be complicated.  Did you notice that I didn’t make mention of special b&w conversion programs, plug-ins, curves or layers?  I also don’t use monitor calibrators, profiles, RIP’s or special inksets.  

I use Photoshop and six tools.  Ofttimes there’s beauty in simplicity!



October 21, 2011

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.

September 11, 2011

DropBox has suspended my account for too much activity (I thought that’s what Dropbox was all about?)

So, here are the files on Microsoft’s Skydrive.  I apologize for the problems due to my lack of expertise in this area!

“Why Black and White?” PowerPoint Presentation

“Workflow” Word Document

Please let me know if you’re not able to download these files and we will try something else!


September 9, 2011

A number of people had asked that I record my presentation to Denver’s South West Photo Club last evening.  Unfortunately we did not have those facilities available to us, but what I can offer is my PowerPoint presentation and the handout that details my Workflow.  You can download those here:

PowerPoint Presentation on “Why Black and White?” (118 mb)

Handout on my Workflow (Word Doc)

Please note that on the PowerPoint presentation I do have notes available if you view it in the editing mode.

Regarding the Workflow handout; if you’re under the impression that I’m some sort of Photoshop wizard then you certainly will be disappointed!  I tell people that I use about 1% of Photoshop’s features and use that 1% incorrectly.  Truth!

If after reading the presentation you have any questions, please feel free to email me at Cole@ColeThompsonPhotography.com

My thanks to Denver’s South West Photo Club, I was given a very warm welcome!


May 29, 2009

James wrote and asked:

“Can you tell me how to get better at dodge and burn. I try and try, but I overdo the blacks and whites and get an image that’s too contrasty. Any tips you can give me would be great.”

This is a very common question and issue,  and one that can easily be addressed.

First a little background, for those who don’t follow my workflow, it’s a very simple one.  I primarily adjust brightness and contrast and then dodge and burn the image in a fairly detailed and intricate manner.  To successfully dodge and burn you must own a pen and tablet, a small 4X6 Bamboo tablet can be purchased for about $100 and a larger one is very nice if you can afford it.  I like Wacom tablets.

When you dodge and burn there are four basic controls you want to be aware of; Diameter, Exposure, Hardness and Range.

The “diameter” of the brush is simply how large the brush is and choosing a brush size is generally obvious; big brushes for big areas and little brushes for little areas.  The larger the brush is, the easier it is to blend in your work and make it look natural.  So for big areas such as skies, use a very large brush.  Obviously for bringing out the highlights on tree branches you want a brush about the size of what you’re dodging.

The “exposure” or strength of the brush is perhaps the most critical setting and the easiest to abuse.  I generally use an exposure of 4% and work the dodge/burn very slowly, building up the areas with many passes of the pen.  I often see people going at it with 50% and this where things get overdone and artificial looking.  Think of dodging/burning as painting the image, you must work slowly and carefully.

The hardness is how hard of a edge you want on the brush.  I generally work with a 0% brush for areas such as skies.  When you are working in very small areas with very sharp detail, you might choose a small and hard brush, so that you can confine the dodge/burn to a very tight area.

The “range” of the dodge/burn refers to the range of values you’re affecting, either the highlights, midtones or shadows.  This is the hardest technique to describe (it’s much easier seeing it being done).  If you set your dodge to highlights, then your brush is brightening the highlights and ignoring the midtones and shadows.  While this three setting separation works pretty good, you have to be careful because the highlight dodge will tend to bleed over to the lighter midtone areas as well.  So you might choose to use a smaller brush and confine your dodging to just the highlights that you want to brighten.  Likewise with the burn tool, if you set it to shadows you can generally darken just the shadows, but again be careful not to affect those darker midtones.

In general, I’ll dodge my midtones to bring out detail in shadow areas and my highlights to increase contrast and make my images pop.  I’ll generally burn my midtones and shadows to darken down my images.  I rarely will dodge shadows or burn highlights.

An example: The image above was created recently at Stonehenge; I wanted to darken the blue sky, increase the contrast in the clouds, darken the foreground and stones and bring out the highlights in the stones.

I started with the sky, if I had tried to darken the sky with a big brush, I’d have also darkened parts of the stones I didn’t want to.  If I had tried darkening the sky with a smaller brush, I’d have done a blotchy job of it and I’d have created halos where the stone and sky met.  So instead, I masked out the sky so that I could process it separately without affecting the stones, and then I reversed the mask so that I could process the stones without affecting the sky.  I’ll address my masking techniques in another article.

First I took a midsized midtone brush and burnt the blue sky and some of the darker parts of the clouds.  Then I used a medium sized midtone brush to dodge the highlights in the clouds and then did the same with a midsized highlight brush.  Going back and fort between dodging and burning, and working slowly, I created a dark sky and contrasty clouds.

All along this process I keep careful eye on my histogram.  Your eye doesn’t always accurately tell you if your blacks are dark enough or when your whites get blown out, so the histogram is my constant companion.

Then I reversed the mask so that I could work the foreground and not affect the sky.  I burned the grass almost to black with a large brush set to shadows.  Then I burn the stones down, first with the midtones and then the shadows and finally I brought up the highlights on the stones with a stronger dodge.

The result is my preferred dark image, with strong contrasts. lots of  100% blacks and 100% whites.

So summarizing; get a tablet, set your exposure to 4% and work slowly, alternating between the dodge and burn.  When necessary, mask and work each part separately.  Paint and caress your image like a painter would a canvas!

I know this is a quick overview, but a lot of what you need to learn will come from doing, not reading.  So get out and do!