By Cole Thompson
Editor’s note: We are huge admirers of Cole’s work and have always wondered how he processed his memorable B&W images. Here Cole describes his process – and illustrates it with the video included in this article. Cole uses the Singh-Ray Vari-ND variable neutral density filter and our Mor-Slo 5-, 10-, 15- and 20-stop solid neutral density filters to help create many of his images.
A friend and I were recently discussing how I process my images. I was trying to describe some of my techniques over the phone, but it is difficult to convey some things with words, so I told him that I’d make a quick and dirty video of me processing an image.
For years I hid my workflow from others because I thought it unsophisticated and backwards. As I listened to other photographers talk about their sophisticated processes, I was embarrassed to let them see my rudimentary ones. What if they started asking me about layers… I don’t understand or use them!
Fortunately with time I came to the realization that it’s not about my processes, it’s about my images. 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 convert my RAW image into a 16 bit, 300 ppi TIFF file. There are also a number of image controls in the RAW converter and I try to do as much work here as possible.
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. I tweak everything to taste. But be careful about changing the blue channels too much, they make your skies look great but add a lot of noise to the image.
One of the most basic secrets to a great B&W image is to have a good black and white in the image. You cannot trust your eye and how the image looks on the monitor, you must look at your histogram to accurately determine this. I use “Levels” to set a true black and white point, then I adjust the midtone slider which can radically change the look of my image.
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. It is difficult to describe with words how I dodge and burn and so I hope the video helps illustrate this.
5. Contrast Adjustment
Once the image looks great on the 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 spot, on every single print!
In sharing these six steps, my point isn’t that you should imitate my workflow, but rather 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, RIPs or special inksets.
I use Photoshop and six tools. Ofttimes there’s beauty in simplicity!
P.S. My apologies for such an amateurish video, but I knew that if I waited until I learned to do it more professionally, it would never get done.