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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Printers For Black&White

For making gallery-quality prints, you need to have the right tool

Labels: Printers
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Seeing a big, beautiful black-and-white print on the wall makes an impact that a computer screen simply can't duplicate. Images look great on the glowing phosphors of a monitor, but matted, mounted, framed prints that show a compelling scene, as well as a measure of craft, remain the ultimate expression of a special photograph.

While it seems counterintuitive, printer manufacturers struggled more with monochrome than they did with color photography. Part of the problem lay in the fact that black-and-white prints aren't really black-and-white. They're gray and black-and-white and, really, mostly gray. Shades of gray aren't easy for black ink. The solution, of course, was to print black-and-white photos in color, which, by the way, is also how we print black-and-white photographs in the magazine. But using color inks to make gray photographs tends to give rise to annoying color shifts. Also, metamerism comes into play—the tendency of colors to shift under different lighting conditions and from different angles of view.

Canon PIXMA Pro9500 Mark II.
High-tech corporate research campuses around the world went into overdrive to develop a way of laying down ink that would have the same luster and pure tonality of a silver-halide print. Each of the three main printer makers, Canon, Epson and HP, have come up with solutions that are similar, but certainly not identical, including the use of inksets that incorporate special photo colors, as well as a combination of different black and gray inks and other ink-layering technology. The results have been dramatic improvements in monochrome image quality over the past few years. Issues of metamerism are now hardly noticeable in prints from most of the printers made for serious photo work, and the rendition of details is outstanding.

B&W Image Files
Well-made silver-halide prints have a special quality to them that's difficult to describe. You just know it when you see it—smooth tonal gradations, rich, pure blacks and a luminous look that some say is caused by the actual silver content. For an inkjet print to approximate that luminosity, the image file needs to be in top shape. If you've ever worked in a traditional darkroom, you probably remember that you couldn't fully judge an image fresh from the washer. Two identical prints laid next to each other, one wet and one dry, would look significantly different. As a print dried, it exhibited dry-down—the lighter areas got a bit more gray and the black areas got a bit more gray. Overall, the glossy wet image dried to a flatter-looking photograph. As he got close to a final version of an image, Ansel Adams famously used a microwave oven to dry a print so he could evaluate the dry-down and make appropriate adjustments.

Individual ink tanks not only are a money-saver, but they allow manufacturers to develop special formulations that can be swapped out from print to print. For example, in Epson's UltraChrome K3 inks, Epson photo black and matte black are switchable.
Despite the best efforts of color calibration, monitor and output calibration, and other bits of high-tech advancements, we're still dealing with the problem of dry-down to a degree. The shiny, glowing, backlit LCD monitors that are common today give a photograph magnificent luminosity. Even the most perfectly calibrated equipment and meticulous workflow can't match a print to an image on a monitor.

The issue is transmission versus reflection. On the monitor, you're looking at a transmissive medium. The whole image is glowing. On a print, you're looking at a reflective medium. Instead of coming through the image, light is bouncing off of it. A reflected white simply won't ever look as good as a transmissive white, so no matter what you do, a print will always look at least slightly less luminous than the same image will on a computer screen, and the two will never look completely identical.

To get your print as close as possible to the image on the monitor, you can do a few things. First, make sure that all of your equipment is properly calibrated. This is much less of an issue than it was even five years ago, but you probably can still make improvements. Datacolor (www.datacolor.com) and X-Rite Photo (www.xritephoto.com) are examples of companies that make hardware and software solutions to bring your monitor and printer in line with one another. Both the Datacolor Spyder3Studio SR and X-Rite i1Photo Pro will calibrate your camera, monitor and printer. This kind of calibration across the image chain will make your time at the computer much more efficient.


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