Make A B&W Digital Darkroom

A master photographer needs a master darkroom. We’ll guide you through the key tools you need in the digital age.
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Photography is digital. Even the few photographers who continue to work in film take their negatives and prints in the digital arena at some point in their workflow. Black-and-white digital tools and controls provide you with far more control than a purely film-based workflow ever could. The black-and-white digital darkroom essentials are a computer, software, a good printer and appropriate paper. In this article, we're not looking at computers, but we'll take you through the necessities to get you on the way to making your best possible black-and-white photographs through digital means.

Nik Silver Efex Pro 2; onOne Perfect B&W; Topaz B&W Effects 2

Software For B&W
Assuming you shoot RAW, you can process your image as black-and-white with whatever RAW converter you normally use for color: the one provided by your camera's manufacturer or a third-party product like Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom, DxO Optics Pro, Phase One Capture One, etc. These RAW converters and image-editing software such as Adobe Photoshop give you good control over your monochrome images. But there are also software programs dedicated to monochrome work, and these provide even more control over results.

Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 is part of the Nik Collection by Google ($149,, available for recent Mac and Windows operating systems. It offers unique algorithms for quick and powerful performance, U Point technology for easy control, intuitive darkroom-inspired tools and even a history browser. It can emulate nearly 20 popular film types, tone images and apply borders, and has an excellent Grain Engine.

onOne Perfect B&W is available as a stand-alone standard edition ($29.95, or as a premium edition ($99.95) that works as a stand-alone or as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom and Apple Aperture. It's available for recent Mac and Windows systems, and also as an app for iPhone and iPad. Powerful, intuitive tools, a library of effects and adjustment brushes provide lots of control over your black-and-white images.

Topaz B&W Effects 2 ($59.99, is available for Mac and Windows, and includes over 200 one-click effects. Based around a finely tuned black-and-white conversion engine, the software includes adaptive exposure technology, a Zone System View Mode, integral local adjustments and film grain scanned from actual films.

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Printers For B&W
Most of today's better inkjet printers produce very good black-and-white prints. While early color printers often produced tinted "black-and-white" prints (sometimes with lighter tones tinted a different shade than darker ones if you used the color inks and grainy prints if you used only the black ink), today's higher-end printers use multiple black inks (black, gray, light gray) and advanced algorithms to deliver much better black-and-white as well as color prints. For monochrome landscapes, you'll want a printer that can make at least 11x17-inch prints, with good longevity.

Some inkjet printers use dye-based inks, others pigment-based inks. Historically, dye-based inks (with fine colorant particles and additives dissolved in liquid) produced better colors, while pigment-based inks (with larger colorant particles and additives suspended in liquid) provided longer life and better water-resistance. Today, both types of inks can produce excellent colors (and monochrome tonal range) and long life. Most higher-end inkjet printers use pigment-based inks.


The top member of Canon's trio of pro 13-inch printers is the PIXMA PRO-1 (, which uses a reformulated 12-color Lucia pigment inkset (including five monochrome inks: matte black, photo black, dark gray, gray and light gray for deep blacks and smooth grayscale tones) in 36ml cartridges. Canon doesn't provide a print-life estimate. A new 12,288-nozzle print head can deliver droplets as small as 4 picoliters, while OIG (Optimum Image Generating) ink-balancing technology optimizes image quality. The PRO-1 can print on cut media from 4x6 to 14x17 inches; manufacturer's literature says it can print a 13x19-inch color or black-and-white image in 4 minutes, 20 seconds. ICC profiles are available for Canon papers, as well as for some third-party papers. Dimensions are 27.4x18.2x9.5 inches and 60.9 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $999.

Canon's PIXMA Pro-10 features wireless connection via Wi-Fi or Ethernet, as well as conventional wired connection so you can place the printer where it's most convenient, and multiple users can seamlessly print from several printers (and Apple AirPrint allows users to wirelessly print photos, emails, Web pages and documents without installing device drivers). The Pro-10 features Canon's 10-ink Lucia pigment-based inkset (including three monochrome inks: photo black, matte black and gray) in 14ml cartridges. As with the Pro-1, Chroma Optimizer minimizes bronzing. Per Canon, the Pro-10 can produce a high-quality, bordered 13x19-inch print in color or black-and-white in 5 minutes, 20 seconds. OIG technology introduced in the Pro-1 enhances image quality. Dimensions are 27.2x15.2x8.5 inches and 43.9 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $699.

The Canon PIXMA Pro-100 is similar to the Pro-10, but uses the company's eight-color ChromaLife 100+ dye-based inkset (including three monochrome inks: gray, light gray and black) in 13ml cartridges and can deliver droplets as fine as 3 picoliters. Wireless Wi-Fi, Ethernet and AirPrint compatibility are provided as with the Pro-10. Per Canon, the Pro-100 can produce a high-quality, bordered 13x19-inch black-and-white print in just under three minutes—5.4 times faster than previous models. It also employs Canon's OIG technology. Dimensions are 27.2x15.2x8.5 inches and 43.2 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $499.

Epson's most popular 17-inch inkjet printer, the Stylus Pro 3880 ( uses the company's eight-color UltraChrome K3 with Vivid Magenta pigment inkset in 80ml cartridges: cyan, light cyan, vivid magenta, vivid light magenta, light black, light light black and either photo black or matte black (automatically chosen to suit the paper being used). The lightfastness rating is up to 108 years for color and over 200 years for black-and-white. AccuPhoto HD2 screening technology ensures precision placement of each individual ink droplet and optimal selection of ink combinations to maximize color gamut and provide smooth gradations. The MicroPiezo print head with Advanced Meniscus Control creates variable-sized droplets as small as 3.5 picoliters to deliver excellent detail. Advanced Black-and-White Photo Mode provides control and optimal results for monochrome prints. The 3880 can print on virtually any cut-sheet media from 4x6 to 17x22 inches; manufacturer's specs say a highest-quality (SuperPhoto 2880 dpi) 16x20-inch print takes a little under 19 minutes. Dimensions are compact (for a 17-inch printer) at 27x15x10 inches and 43.2 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $1,295.

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Epson Stylus Pro 4900

Faster and more versatile than the 3880, the Epson Stylus Pro 4900 also takes papers up to 17 inches wide, but uses Epson's 10-color UltraChrome HDR pigment inkset in 200ml cartridges: orange, green, cyan, light cyan, vivid magenta, vivid light magenta, yellow, light black, light light black and photo black or matte black (automatically chosen to suit the paper being used). The display permanence rating is up to 200 years for color and over 200 years for black-and-white. AccuPhoto HD2 screening and MicroPiezo TFP print head technology improve image quality and speed print times; manufacturer's literature says a highest-quality (SuperPhoto 2880 dpi) 16x20-inch print takes a little under 7 minutes. The 4900 can print on virtually any media, in roll or cut sheet, from letter size to 17 inches wide. Dimensions are 34x16x30 inches and 115 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $2,495.

For those who want to print bigger, the Epson Stylus Pro 7890 accepts papers up to 24 inches wide and utilizes Epson's UltraChrome K3 with Vivid Magenta inkset: cyan, light cyan, very light magenta, light magenta, yellow, light black, light light black and photo black or matte black (to suit the paper being used) and large 150ml, 350ml or 700ml cartridges. The Advanced MicroPiezo TFP print head delivers droplets as fine as 3.5 picoliters and features ink-repelling technology to minimize clogging. The display permanence rating is up to 200 years for color and over 200 years for black-and-white. The AccuPhoto HD2 screening algorithm optimizes print quality. The manufacturer's literature says a 20x30-inch print takes 4:03 to 12:52. The 7890 can use virtually any media type, cut sheet or roll, up to 24 inches wide. Dimensions are 54x27x48 inches and 187 pounds. Estimated Street Price: $2,995.

Ilford Galerie High Gloss; Hahnemühle FineArt Baryta; Moab by Legion Slickrock.

Papers For B&W
You can make black-and-white prints on any paper your printer can handle, and as in the days of film, paper choice is somewhat subjective: Use what gives you results you like. High-gloss surfaces work well for some subjects, but landscapes generally look best on matte surfaces. Textured surfaces hide fine details, so aren't the best choices for landscapes.

If your printer uses pigment inks, get papers suited to pigment inks; if the printer uses dye-based inks, use a paper suited to those. Some papers work well with both ink types. Certain paper/ink combinations provide longer life than others. Check the specs for those you're considering, and if several papers look good to you, pick the one that produces the longest-lasting prints (bearing in mind that manufacturer's specs may be somewhat optimistic).

All of Canon's inkjet papers can deliver fine results in color and mono-chrome with Canon printers and inks, but an especially good one for black-and-white is Photo Paper Pro Luster. This one is optimized for the Pixma Pro printers and inks, delivering quick-drying, long-lasting prints that maintain a consistent look under various display lighting conditions, with rich black tones and smooth tonalities. Estimated Stree Price: $69 (50-sheet pack/13x19 inches).

Epson offers a wide range of inkjet papers, and all can deliver fine black-and-white and color prints. You might start with the Signature Worthy Sample Pack, which contains two sheets each of seven high-quality papers. Exhibition Fiber provides a classic darkroom look and feel, with rich blacks and a soft gloss surface. For a painterly, smooth matte surface, try Hot Press Bright (with optical brighteners) or Natural (no brighteners); if you prefer a textured matte surface, check out Color Press Bright or Natural. Note that textured surfaces work better with large print sizes. Epson has a new, special black-and-white website, which launched in June ( It features step-by-step video tutorials and interviews with inspiring professional photographers.

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Red River UltraPro Satin

Hahnemühle ( offers a range of fine-art inkjet papers. For black-and-white, recommendations include Photo Rag Bright White 310 gsm, featuring a smooth matte finish with a very bright white for good contrast and detail; William Turner 190 gsm or 310 gsm, a 100% cotton mould-made paper with a texture that gives a unique rustic look to a black-and-white image; and FineArt Baryta 322 gsm, a glossy medium with extremely high density and excellent gray tones.

Ilford Galerie ( is a name well known to black-and-white darkroom workers, and today it appears on a fine line of inkjet papers. Galerie Prestige Gold Cotton Smooth is a good choice for monochrome landscapes, as well as color work. The mould-made 100% cotton-rag base is manufactured in a traditional paper mill. Designed for pigment inks, the archival-quality paper contains no optical brighteners and comes in sheets up to 13x19 inches and rolls up to 50 inches wide. Galerie Prestige Fine Art Smooth is an alpha-cellulose-based paper with similar characteristics and "look," but can be used with dye-based as well as pigment inks. Galerie Gold Mono Silk was designed specifically for black-and-white printing with dye- or pigment-based inks (providing richer blacks with dye-based), producing rich blacks and bright whites with smooth tonal transitions in between. It's available in sheets up to 17x22 inches and rolls up to 50 inches wide.

Print quality is a product of the printer, inks and paper working together. One of the bigger challenges of digital printing is to get the print to match what you see on screen. Since the monitor image produced is completely differently than the print image, they never will match perfectly. But a key to getting them as close as possible is the ICC profile. A profile describes how a monitor or printer produces color. Your printer comes with profiles for its manufacturer's papers built in (when you choose the paper type, you're selecting a profile), and profiles for third-party papers are generally available for download from the manufacturers. Using the appropriate profile (paper setting on the printer) will help produce the best possible results, in color or monochrome.

Moab by Legion ( offers a wide range of quality papers. Good choices for black-and-white printing include Entrada Rag Natural 300, Slickrock Metallic Pearl 260 and the new Slickrock Metallic Silver 300. Entrada Rag Natural 300 is a warm-toned, 100% cotton heavyweight paper that produces deep blacks and a very wide tonal range for a matte paper, popular with fine-art photographers. Slickrock Metallic Pearl 260 features a high-gloss surface, metallic/pearlescent luminescence and a huge Dmax, producing deep blacks with lots of detail. The newest member of the Moab family, Slickrock Silver is the first true-metallic, instant-dry, fine-art inkjet paper on the market, very forgiving for reproducing fine-art black-and-white prints with a reflective metallic enhancement.

Red River ( recommends matte, satin, luster and semigloss media for landscapes and nature images to maximize detail. Warm-toned papers work better for wildlife and warm scenes, cool-toned papers for snowscapes and the like. UltraPro Satin (warm tone) and Arctic Polar Satin or Luster (cool tone) work well, as does 60 lb. Polar Matte (also cool tone). San Gabriel SemiGloss Fiber fine-art paper gives the look of darkroom prints from bygone days, while Aurora Art White and Aurora Art Natural provide cool and warm tones, respectively, with a 100% cotton base.


    When talking about printers and inks, it is useful to remember that one is not obligated to use the printer manufacturer’s inks. I use Cone Color inks for my color work on an Epson r2880, and have had amazing results, with their custom profile for MY printer on my paper. Cone Color also produces an 8 ink B&W set for gradations in tone in B&W that defy believability. If you do a lot of B&W, check it out.

    This article is frustrating. I wish it gave me some direction as to which of the products is best for different skill levels, needs, budget, and style of photographer. I own the NIK product but, how is that better or worse than the other two? Is something missing from the others? Same with the printers. At the very least, break them down as to recommend which combo of plug ins, printer, ink and paper work for a beginner, enthusiast, and pros.

    Your opening image, shows a traditional enlarger, presumably with one of De Vere’s digital heads on it, but that method of printing (expensive as this probably is) just isn’t mentioned. It would enable users to use traditional papers, as well as (even more expense!) CibaChrome colour paper, which has qualities yet to bettered by anything else. Notwithstanding the huge costs incolved in such a system, I still think it deserves a mention!

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