Simply Beautiful, Simply Black and White: Cole Thompson’s Artful Images Touch The Soul By Jack Neubart


Cole Thompson stands at the cutting edge of black and white fine art photography with his creativity, vision and simplicity with his processing workflow. What makes Cole special not just as a photographer but as a person? I met Cole on line responding to one of his blogs on “Vision.” Not long after I found us discussing our views on vision. But what was so profound Cole went the extra mile as we were discussing backgrounds, family and where we were at in life; like friends separated by time. I am privileged to come to know Cole Thompson and thank you Jack Neubarth, for sharing some of Cole’s Lessons in Fine Art Photography.


Cole Thompson is a refreshing voice in photography, speaking through the medium of black and white as he sees it. Self-taught, he seeks out the simple and intrinsic beauty in life and the world around him. For Thompson, shades of black, white, and gray are enough to define the most complex elements that surround us, even the nature of the universe. “I always had a darkroom,” he noted. “Initially, I started in black and white because there were no color processes for the home. I cut my teeth on all the great masters. “My biggest influence back then was Ansel Adams. I spent most of my photographic career trying to be the next Ansel Adams. I even went to Yosemite to try to find where he shot his great images so I could recreate them.


Auschwitz No. 14

I have come to the conclusion that “Finding Myself” will be an ongoing evolution and have discovered that there many artists who have and are suffering from the same frustrations.

“Europeans are very polite, and when they see someone taking a photograph, they’ll move out of the way. I wanted them in the picture, to appear ghostly, representing prisoners of the concentration camp. So what I did was, I turned my back and pretended to talk on my cell phone so they’d re-enter the shot, at which point I triggered the 10-second exposure with the cable release in my hand.” Thompson used a variable ND, which was “indispensable,” since he needed to recompose the shot quickly.


Working In Photoshop

Thompson doesn’t use plug-ins or layers; he doesn’t calibrate his monitors (although he does adjust them for brightness and contrast “so that I know how it’s going to print”); and he doesn’t employ special ink sets. “I use a simple process that revolves around dodging and burning.” Specifically, “I’ll typically underexpose my shot by about one stop from that recommended by the camera meter. Then I dodge the highlights that I feel are important to the shot. I don’t have a lot of shadow detail in most of my work. It’s very blocked up, very dark.” He’ll often burn in the shadows to a deep black, which lends added depth to the image. He added: “When dodging and burning, I do so at 1, 2, and 3 percent, very gradually in layers, so as not to overdo the effect.”


His entire digital workflow is centered in Photoshop CS6. Thompson uses a Wacom Intuos4 tablet, explaining “it’s the only way you can effectively dodge and burn.” That workflow begins with converting the Raw files to 16-bit TIFFs. Toward that end, he takes full advantage of Adobe Camera Raw to bring out as much of the raw essence as possible at this point. The next step involves converting to black and white using the Black & White tool under Adjustments. He tweaks each of the color channels while being careful not to overdo it with the blue channel (for skies, mostly), which he notes will introduce unwanted noise. He then nourishes the image with tonal adjustments in Levels to set a true black-and-white point, followed by the midtone slider. Dodging and burning comes next. That’s followed by increasing contrast to give his creation the same vitality it had on screen. And he ensures that it springs to life fully presentable with the cloning and healing tools.


Isolated No. 3

Isolated No.3

“Logging had destroyed most of the trees, leaving one isolated stand that caught my eye as I was heading to Portland from the Oregon coast. I thought this scene would fit naturally with a project I was working on, which I titled ‘Isolated.’” In post, Thompson accentuated the layers, notably toning down the sky, darkening the middle layer so it formed a contrasting black void, and lightening the foreground tree trunks.



“I’m a minimalist, really. I go on a shoot with the simplest setup I can work with.” Thompson only carries three lenses, all Canon: 16-35mm f/2.8L, 100-400mm IS, and his workhorse 24-105mm f/4L IS. Thompson carries a full-size carbon-fiber tripod with him always, even on vacation. For that matter, he practically goes nowhere without his camera gear. Plus he uses a basic Canon locking cable release for those long exposures.

Thompson prints most of his images in two sizes: 8×12 inches, which he’ll then matte to 16×20 inches, and 10×15 inches, which he mattes to 20×24 inches. “I sell most of my prints, but I also donate some to local charitable causes and to individuals who I learn are having a hard time in life.”




According to the National Park Service, what is now called the “Manzabar War Relocation Center was one of 10 camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were interned during World War II.” This camp was also the subject of a book by Ansel Adams. Thompson took a completely different tack from Adams, shooting the foreground and sky separately and then compositing them into the final shot. “I’ll often do that where I have a distinct line separating foreground from background, so that I can expose for each individually.” The clouds were actually streaking this way without a time exposure.


To see more of Cole Thompson’s work, visit