Darkness at Noon: Long Exposures and ND Filters

By Cole Thompson Back to


Ask Cole Thompson why he works in black and white, and he’ll offer the notion that it’s because he grew up in a black and white world. Television, movies and the news were all in black and white, as were the heroes he found in photography. The images he makes are an extension of that world. Color records the image, but black and white capture the feelings that lie beneath the surface.

As a young fine art photographer, Thompson’s hero was Ansel Adams, whom he once met. However, a career in business delayed his inevitable vocation in photography until 2004, when Thompson craved some creativity in what he considered his “boring business life,” and he picked up a camera once more.

This time he realized that rather than copying another’s work (no one could do Ansel better than Ansel), he would aspire to do more. This was a pivotal point that began Thompson’s pursuit of his own vision and the development of his individual style. He became intrigued by the dynamic of his subjects. Rather than merely recording their static object qualities, he focused his mind’s eye on their fluid action. He found that normal exposures, even at low ISO’s, were still too fast to record the time element necessary to capture the extended action.

Rocks and Mist

To accomplish this, Thompson uses a full-frame Canon DSLR with an interesting filter configuration. He uses a neutral density (ND) filter to obtain a long exposure, preferring the Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter. This is a ND filter that when turned similar to a true polarizer is able to provide neutral density from two to eight stops. Then he adds the MOR-SLO 5-stop Solid ND filter, and the combination together can create up to 13 stops of neutral density. This is enough to permit a 30 second exposure in any light. He uses zoom lenses for their convenience. Obviously, using a tripod and cable release is essential.

Thompson says, “I shoot in RAW and convert to black and white using the Channel Mixer or  Black and White Converter in Photoshop. I often use a lot of blue channel in my conversion, which gives a contrasty and grainy look to my images. My work is typically dark with a bright and contrasty subject. It’s what I like.”

He explains his process, “I shoot very dark, usually underexposing one to two stops, and then I make extensive use of dodging and burning.  I don’t use layers, levels, curves or plug-ins. I basically convert, use a small amount of contrast adjustment, and then do extensive dodging and burning. It’s a primitive style that I’m frequently criticized for, but it works for me.”

Light From Above

Among the works that fit the category of “darkness at noon” is Thompson’s Harbinger series. It began somewhere in Utah when Thompson saw a single cloud making its way toward the hills he had just been photographing. His gear was packed and he was on the way back to the car when he made the choice to unpack and try to catch the shot. Right away he knew what he would call it and the series that it would initiate: Harbinger. Its definition: one that goes ahead, foreshadows a future event. He didn’t know then what chance existed of finding similar shots to continue the series and admits surprise at the number of companion images that followed.

Some of the images are short exposures, while others are longer, to capture the motion of the clouds. Most, but not all, center the cloud subject; but that is not a “rule,” as Thompson loves breaking from the traditional. He adheres to the philosophy that there are no rules, only vague guidelines that ought to be ignored most of the time.

Harbinger No. 2

Feeling stale and in need of a new creative direction, Thompson took a week to travel to a new location and limit his focus to just one thing. His thinking was that although there are great images everywhere (even in our own back yards), daily life doesn’t always allow us to see them. A week in Badon, Oregon gave him the opportunity to see something for the first time and to create a new series of photographs, this time working with water in his motion studies. Spending a week repeatedly looking at the same thing resulted in seeing details overlooked in the initial glance. He admits some frustration, “I am a cloudy or dusk shooter, I hate shooting in the sun, so this trip tried my patience, but it caused me to try something different.” His Primordial Soup is among the images that came from this experience.

Although Thompson considers himself a “technophile,” experimentation with software applications is not the most definitive aspect of his work. This doesn’t mean that experimentation is not a critical component of what he does, as he has experimented with long exposure for several years and has moved from applying it only to images of water to images of almost everything, including portraits.

Storm Detail No. 3
Primordial Soup

An amazing aspect of Thompson’s work is that the images, at the time of exposure, must be anticipated rather than seen. The final photograph is an image that can only be shown as the result of the extended exposure.

Asked to explain what his work means, Thompson quotes playwright Jean Cocteau, “An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.” He will say that although Adams was his earliest influence, Edward Weston’s work has greater appeal for him now, as well as Weston’s attitude and approach to photography. “It seems that he understood that he was an artist and not simply a photographer. This has become an important theme in my life.”

Product Resources: Camera: Canon DSLR; Filters: Singh-Ray Vari-ND filter, Mor- Slo 5-stop ND filter; Software: Adobe Photoshop

About the Author

Cole Thompson
Photographer Cole Thompson has exhibited in a wide range of venues in his home state of Colorado and beyond. His award- winning photographs have been published in a variety of national photographic magazines, as well as in his own newsletter found at www.colethompsonphotography.com and blog, www.photographyblackwhite.com.