Getting good black-and-white prints used to mean mixing batches of chemicals, being secluded in a darkened room, calculating exposure times, dodging and burning, then finally watching an image magically appear out of the developer soup onto a sheet of paper. While digital photography made it easier to get images without the effort or cost of processing film, it wasn’t until the last few years that software applications and, more importantly, inkjet printers were equipped to handle the ever-growing desire of photographers to create and print black-and-white images that rival—or sometimes exceed—what once was the domain of the traditional darkroom.
First Steps: Conversion Tips
To get a great black-and-white print, you need to start off with a good digital file since it’s as important in black-and-white as in color to avoid the GIGO syndrome (garbage in, garbage out). Forget about using the black-and-white setting in your camera. Instead, shoot in color and then convert the image in software. Color files contain more image data than black-and-white shot in-camera, and it’s important to maintain that data because the black-and-white conversions discussed below are based on the color information. And, with a color file, you always have the option of printing a color photo in addition to the monochrome image.
First Steps: Conversion Tips
Using software to convert a color image to black-and-white has its pitfalls as well as its benefits. The simplest methods won’t necessarily give you the best results, so stay away from features like “Remove Color,” “Desaturate” or “Convert to Grayscale” for your JPEG images in Adobe Photoshop and Elements, for example, since these conversions depend totally on the software’s default settings. Instead, explore conversion processes that allow you to control the tonality of the image.
Conversion options in Adobe Photoshop CS3 alone are enough to boggle the mind, and some require a comfort level working with layers and channels. But Adobe has made it easier with its Black and White conversion function. In Elements, you’ll find this under Enhance > Convert to Black and White; in Photoshop CS3, go to Image > Adjustments > Black and White. From there, you can either choose a black-and-white preset or, for more control, adjust the slider bars to increase or decrease the amount of color information (lightness or darkness) in the image for each color (RGB in Elements; Reds, Yellows, Greens, Cyans, Blues, Magentas in Photoshop).
When it comes to black-and-white printing, all printers are not created equal, so be sure your inkjet printer is up to the task…
While using the CS3 or Elements Convert to Grayscale isn’t optimal for JPEG images, Adobe Camera Raw’s Convert to Grayscale works quite well, because you have a number of adjustment options to fine-tune the conversion.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (now in version 2.0 Beta) and Apple Aperture 2.1 also have grayscale mixers, so you can quickly convert your color image to black-and-white and then adjust the lightness or darkness according to the colors in the image. Both are easy to use. Lightroom offers control over more colors than Aperture, but Aperture has more black-and-white preset options.
There are more than a few third-party Photoshop plug-ins available for black-and-white conversions, and one of my favorites is Alien Skin’s Exposure 2. This plug-in offers a ton of presets that simulate black-and-white (or color) film and film effects that can be tweaked by color, tone, focus and grain. There’s even an infrared option that’s pretty cool, too. Similarly, Imagenomic’s RealGrain Photoshop plug-in has an excellent selection of black-and-white conversion and adjustment tools. Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro 3.0 plug-in, despite its name, also has a small but effective set of black-and-white conversion options among its amazing array of color and special effects.
One of the main goals in creating black-and-white digital images is to create a broad dynamic range, with rich shadows, clean highlights and a representation of grays throughout the image. Aesthetics aside, if you create an image with good tonal range, you’ll be ready for the next step—putting your image on paper.
Epson Stylus Photo R2880
When it comes to black-and-white printing, all printers are not created equal, so be sure your inkjet printer is up to the task if you plan to make monochrome prints on a regular (or even semi-regular) basis. Being up to the task means, at the very least, that the printer—such as the Epson Stylus Photo R1900—has at least two black print cartridges: Photo Black for glossy-type surfaces and Matte Black for matte surfaces. Additional gray inks will improve output even more, because it’s difficult to get truly neutral (no colorcast) black-and-white prints from a printer with no gray inks.
Also, with the addition of gray inks, your photos will show a broader and smoother gradation between gray tones. For example, the Canon PIXMA Pro9500 and the HP B8850 both have a separate gray ink cartridge, in addition to the two black inks (Photo Black and Matte Black). The new Epson Stylus Photo R2880 (the successor to the R2400) takes black-and-white printing one step further with its three “black” inks (Photo Black or Matte Black, as well as Light Black and the cleverly named Light Light Black). Unfortunately, you have to manually remove and replace the Photo Black and Matte Black inks when you’re switching between the two. The prints I’ve seen from the R2880, and from my long experience using the R2400, are of such high quality that it eases the minor inconvenience of having to manually switch inks when changing media.
|Canon PIXMA Pro9500|
If you find that the extra gray and black inks still don’t meet your expectations or needs, third-party ink sets consisting of only black and gray inks are available from companies like Cone (Piezography) and Media Street. The benefit here is that you have a broader range of gray inks, and some of these ink sets are available in continuous-flow configurations (you set up large bottles of the ink outside the printer and connect the inks to the printer via tubes, which can be more economical than replacing individual cartridges. On the other hand, you may have to pay for ICC profiles and special software to use the inks properly. With Canon, Epson and HP, the ICC profiles are free, although only for the companies’ respective papers.
Fortunately, most inkjet printer manufacturers have expanded their inkjet paper offerings, so you can easily find everything from glossy and luster to matte, watercolor and fine-art media in a variety of sizes and surfaces. My personal preference is to print monochrome images on matte, watercolor or fine-art media, but advances in technology, from Epson in particular, make it possible to use these pigment inkjet printers to output on glossy surfaces, as well. Good options include Epson’s Velvet Fine Art paper and Hahnemühle papers for Canon and HP. Still, not all printers are compatible with all papers, so do a little homework on your specific printer model and paper combination before you stock up on media. It’s also a good idea to buy a small quantity of a variety of papers, test them out yourself, and pick your favorites before you buy in quantity.
Third-party paper options abound, and ICC profiles for the most popular inkjet printer models usually can be downloaded for free. Within the past year, paper manufacturers have noted the growing interest in black-and-white printers and have developed “Baryta” inkjet papers (named after the special barium sulphate coating applied to fiber-based paper) to simulate the surfaces of black-and-white papers used in the traditional darkroom. Epson has a wonderful Exhibition Fiber paper, and there are a number of excellent Baryta-like papers from Hahnemühle, Harman Technology, Innova and Moab by Legion Paper.
Before you start printing, be sure the ICC profiles for the paper you’re using are installed. Most inkjet printer manufacturers include profiles for their branded papers in the driver, so if you’re using Epson paper with an Epson printer, you should be all set. Just keep an eye on the manufacturer’s website in case there are any updates or new profiles. As mentioned earlier, most third-party paper manufacturers offer free ICC profile downloads on their websites—be sure to download and install them. Without the right ICC profile, you may well be spinning your wheels (and using up a lot of paper) to get the output right.
Also, do a little reading about color management and make sure that your computer monitor is calibrated. Before printing, double-check to ensure that you’re not double-profiling. For example, it’s possible to have both the software (i.e., Photoshop) and the printer handling the color management, and that can easily mess things up.
More importantly, experiment with different papers to find the surfaces you like best, with an eye toward matching a specific image with a particular media. With only a little effort, and following the tips we’ve included in this article, you’ll soon be hanging gorgeous black-and-white prints on your walls.