Master B&W Printing

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Making a great black-and-white print starts with successful exposure and processing, but it doesn’t end there. There’s art and science in crafting a stunning print, and to get the best results, you’ll need to do some trial and error with every image.

The quality of your black-and-white prints will be greatly enhanced if you’re working with a printer, inks and papers that are optimized for black-and-white printing. That doesn’t mean you have to buy a new printer right away, but if you’re planning to do a lot of monochrome prints, you’ll benefit from choosing a printer that features an inkset with an expanded black and neutral range—both Canon and Epson offer models with multiple black and gray ink shades.

Digging into your printer’s driver settings may yield some big advantages, especially if your printer offers specialized black-and-white modes. The Epson Stylus Pro 3880’s driver, shown here, has multiple settings to deliver superior black-and-white prints. 1. For example, selecting a matte paper media type automatically selects Matte Black ink. We’ve also selected the Advanced B&W Photo mode to take full advantage of the printer’s expanded inkset. 2. Here we’ve chosen a luster paper, which switches the ink system to Photo Black. You also can see the options available in the Color Toning menu. 3. The Advanced Color Settings tab gives you several adjustments for even finer control over the end print.

The paper you choose is also important. Whether you prefer glossy or matte is somewhat a question of personal taste, but we’re inclined to choose matte or pearl surfaces over glossy to minimize surface reflections that can distract from the subtle tonal gradations inherent in a well-printed black-and-white image.

Also important is the whiteness of the paper. Paper whiteness is rated on a scale to 100; the higher the number, the whiter the paper. Unless you’re going for an aged, vintage look, we recommend choosing a paper with a rating in the high 90s for clean, bright highlights.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

A safe bet is to use papers from your printer manufacturer, but there are some excellent options from companies that specialize in photo papers, such as Hahnemühle, Ilford and Moab, that you ought to explore. Most sources offer a sample of their papers you can try to see which you prefer.

Here’s something you might have overlooked. Setting a printer driver may not be the pinnacle of photographic excitement, but it’s really important, especially if your printer offers specialized settings for black-and-white.

Here’s an example of a very basic, but useful test print technique. We divided the image into five equal zones. We chose vertical strips rather than horizontal so that each zone would have similar, comparable content. (For some images, depending on the subject and composition, horizontal strips may work better.) Then we adjusted the Brightness of each zone as follows, from left to right: +150, +75, 0, -75, -150. Printing this image lets us see what the final result will be with our ink and paper combination. You can work this technique on a gradient, meaning if you prefer -75 Brightness, but think it’s maybe a little too dark, repeat the process with settings like -25, -35, -45, -55 and -65 until you feel like you’ve dialed in the right setting.

At the most basic, you should check that you’ve set your printer to its highest-quality setting and selected a paper type that most closely matches the paper you’re using. Photo printers designed for enthusiasts and professionals usually will have even more controls to fine-tune their output. It’s worth your time to review your printer’s user manual to be sure you’re taking full advantage of the printer driver.

Even with a well-calibrated system, what you see on screen is going to be different from what you see in print. A backlit screen is always going to have more pop than a print. The adjustments you’ve made to your image to prepare for printing—brightness, contrast, shadows, highlights and the like—may look great on screen, but not translate as
well in print.

Make some test prints. One of our favorite techniques is to divide an image into sections, apply different adjustments to each section and then compare the results in the final print. This does add an extra step to the workflow, but it’s worth it. It may end up actually saving you time, as well as ink and paper. You’ll want to do this for every combination of image, ink and paper.

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