Making a great black-and-white print starts with a good subject and composition, spot-on exposure and skillful postprocessing, but it doesn’t stop there. To make a truly exhibition-quality print, whether for display in a gallery or in your home, you’ll need the right printing tools and techniques, too. Becoming a great printmaker is an art form, in itself, and takes practice and trial and error.
Depending on your own shooting habits and preference, you may perform more steps to optimize, or maybe less, but before any image goes out the door at my studio, I apply this 10-step process.
PRINTERS & INKS
The printer you choose can have a big impact on the quality of your black-and-white prints. While most of today’s inkjet printers will produce acceptable-quality monochrome prints, printers that offer multiple monochrome inks in the set are desirable if pro quality is your goal. Printers with just one black ink rely heavily on the color inks to produce gray tones, and this typically results in grays with some color cast and reduced subtleties of tone. For truly neutral grays and an expanded monochrome tonal range, we recommend printers that offer inksets with three or more shades of gray.
Canon’s PIXMA PRO printers are all capable of producing stunning black-and-white prints. The PIXMA PRO-100 uses ChromaLife 100+ dye-based inks, with three monochrome inks: Photo Black, Gray and Light Gray. Stepping up to the PIXMA PRO-10 or PIXMA PRO-1 will get you LUCIA pigment inks, with the PRO-10 offering three monochrome inks—Photo Black, Matte Black and Gray—and the PRO-1 expanding the inkset to 12 in total, with five dedicated to monochrome printing, adding Dark Gray and Light Gray to those found in the PRO-10. All three PIXMA PRO models can make prints up to 13×19 inches. List Price: $499 (PIXMA PRO-100); $699 (PIXMA PRO-10); $999 (PIXMA PRO-1).
The Epson printers that employ their UltraChrome K3 pigment inkset—currently, the Stylus Photo R2880, Stylus Photo R3000 and Stylus Pro 3880—produce excellent black-and-white prints, with three levels of black ink (Photo Black, Light Black and Light Light Black). There’s also an additional Matte Black ink for increased black density when using matte and fine-art papers. The Stylus Photo R3000 and Stylus Pro 3880 even automatically switch between Photo Black or Matte Black, depending on your print settings. The Stylus Photo R2880 and Stylus Photo R3000 can make prints up to 13×19 inches; the Stylus Pro 3880 can go up to 17×22 inches. List Price: $599 (Stylus Photo R2880); $799 (Stylus Photo R3000); $1,295 (Stylus Pro 3880).
No matter what printer you’re using, dig into its driver settings. At a minimum, you’ll be able to select the general type of paper you’re using and print quality (draft, normal, best quality, etc.). Choose the highest-quality setting and select a paper type that most closely matches the paper you’re using.
More advanced drivers will give you the option of installing ICC profiles for your specific paper selection. These profiles are available for download from your paper maker’s website and will help ensure that your printer’s output is optimized for the characteristics of the specific paper you’re using. If profiles are available for your paper selection, it’s definitely worth the effort to install them.
Driver software for premium inkjet printers will offer other customization options, as well. For example, Epson’s Stylus Pro 3880 driver features an Advanced Black-and-White Photo Mode, which lets you select options like neutral, cool, warm or sepia toning, and offers an advanced mode for fine-tuning brightness, contrast, highlight and shadow tonality, and more. Although you may not need to make adjustments to these settings, it’s good to know they’re there if your output needs small tweaks to match your vision.
There’s no "best" paper for printing in black-and-white. Your choice of paper might be influenced by a variety of factors: the subject of the photo, how and where the print will be displayed, and your personal preferences.
Matte and semigloss (luster, pearl, etc.) surfaces generally lend themselves well to black-and-white printing, echoing the restraint and subtlety of monochrome. If the print will be mounted in such a way that the texture of the paper will be evident, consider a cold-press paper that reveals that texture; a deckled edge is another nice touch if you won’t be matting the image.
Another key consideration is whiteness. Some papers are very bright white and neutral-toned, while others have a slightly warm or cool cast. This affects the tonality of your final print, and especially influences the highlights and lighter grays.
We recommend trying a variety of papers to discover which work best for your favorite subjects and for your printer and ink combination. It’s good to have a few types on hand—glossy, matte, warm, neutral—so you can choose the best fit for your subject and intended use.
Canon’s premium Photo Paper Pro Platinum is a high-gloss paper that promises excellent print longevity with ChromaLife 100+ inks. For a semigloss surface, try Canon’s Photo Paper Pro Luster. Both papers are excellent choices for use with Canon’s PIXMA Pro printers.
Epson’s Signature Worthy line of inkjet papers is a natural choice for Epson printers, and is available in a variety of textures and surfaces, including smooth Hot Press Bright and the more textured matte surface of Cold Press Bright.
Epson’s Exhibition Fiber Paper is another popular choice a
mong pros for black-and-white printing. A 14-sheet sample pack lets you try each of the Signature Worthy line (two sheets per type).
For photos that you’ll mount without matting, you can get the look of a handmade artist’s paper with Photo Rag Deckle Edge from Hahnemühle. Also from Hahnemühle is Harman Gloss Baryta, a popular paper choice among black-and-white printers for many years, with a very smooth, high-gloss surface.
Ilford papers were legendary in the wet darkroom, and they now offer an extensive line of inkjet papers. Their GALERIE Prestige Gold Mono Silk is specifically created for black-and-white printing, with an emphasis on smooth tonal transitions and a finish that emulates the look of traditional darkroom prints.
Moab Slickrock Metallic gives black-and-white images an almost 3D look with its exceptionally reflective, metal-like surface. Another popular paper from Moab is their classic Entrada Rag, a smooth cotton fine-art paper available in both Bright and Natural fibers. A sample box is available with two sheets each of 15 paper types, including Slickrock Metallic and Entrada Rag.
Red River Paper also offers a sample pack, the Photographer’s Choice Sampler, which includes two sheets each of 18 different paper types, from glossy to matte to pearl metallic. You can add on to this with the Specialty Sample, for an additional five types of paper, including the popular San Gabriel SemiGloss Fiber Baryta.
MAKE A TEST PRINT
|In the chemicaL darkroom, to save money on expensive papers, we’d cut a few sheets into thin strips and use them to expose and develop a section of an image to fine-tune our exposure time for that image without wasting an entire sheet—or several sheets! You can do something similar in the digital darkroom by making a test print.
1) Start with your image already adjusted to your liking (brightness, sharpness, etc.).