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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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Epson Stylus Pro 4900
Second, as you’re making test prints, have a plan and be a meticulous note-taker. This is an old lesson from the wet darkroom. Photographers who kept a detailed print log were able to get a photograph dialed in quickly without burning through a lot of expensive photo paper and without blasting their negative with a lot of damaging light from the enlarger head. In the digital age, you don’t have to worry about damage to the negative, but photo paper is still expensive so use it sparingly. That said, you should always use the same paper throughout the process of making a print. Avoid the temptation of trying to get the image dialed in with cheaper paper and then switch to the real thing. You’ll just get frustrated and spend at least as much money.
Digital technology has confused the issue of image longevity for many photographers who didn’t fully under-stand the process or why one type of print was considered to be archival while another was not. Some clarification is relevant to a discussion of black-and-white printers because the process for creating a digital black-and-white print is thought to have more in common with color science and technology than traditional black-and-white wet-darkroom printing.
HP Designjet 130
Traditionally, black-and-white photographs were considered to be archival while color images were not. The reason: A traditional silver-halide print is inert. Assuming that one used photo paper with no acids or other materials that react with light or the atmosphere, the image itself was composed of, essentially, tarnished metallic silver that would not react with either the paper or the air. Black-and-white prints made in a wet darkroom that were properly fixed and rinsed could last indefinitely. All of this assumes that anything else with which the print comes into contact is also archival. Mat boards need to be acid-free, and the print itself can’t be in direct contact with anything that may contain moisture or damaging chemicals. For an excellent resource on archival preservation, see The Life of a Photograph by Sam Abell.
Traditionally made color materials—prints, negatives and slides—generally aren’t considered to be archival because their processes leave a number of reactive chemicals such as dye-couplers and acids. Most traditionally made color images will fade or color-shift over a relatively short time when exposed to light. Of course, there are exceptions, such as dye-transfer prints, Kodachrome transparencies and some others, but generally, color images were never expected to last and weren’t considered to be archival.
Another part of the archivability problem is in the paper. The manufacture of paper uses all sorts of nasty corrosive chemicals. Most papers are loaded with acids and over time they break down the paper. But all papers aren’t created equal—some are completely acid-free. Have you ever pulled an old paperback novel from your shelf and noticed the yellowing along the edges of the page? This is because of the chemicals in the paper reacting with the air. On the other hand, if you have an old, particularly well-made photo book on your shelf and you pull it out, the edges may still be a perfect pure white because that paper was made to acid-free standards.
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Dye-based inksets like the Canon ChromaLife100 have become much longer lasting as chemistry has improved.
The life of a digital print depends on the same factors as a traditional wet-darkroom print, but all digital prints made with inkjet printers have more in common with color processes, so even black-and-white digital prints have some significant challenges for longevity. Inkjet prints rely on several complex chemical reactions beginning with the inks themselves. We’ve mentioned that to make a fine black-and-white print you should be printing in full color. Don’t be fooled into thinking that if you use only the black inks for your print you’ll be making a stable image along the lines of a traditional wet-darkroom silver-halide print. The black and gray inks in an inkjet printer have the same fundamental chemical issues as the color inks in the same printer.
There are two types of ink technologies used in inkjet printers: dye-based and pigment-based. Of the two, pigment-based are the more stable and more archival because their pigments are mostly inert—they won’t react with the air or fade with exposure to light. Dye-based systems contain more corrosive chemicals, making their images inherently less stable than pigment-based systems.
Does all of this mean you should avoid dye-based printers? Absolutely not! Dye-based systems are capable of producing beautiful black-and-white images. All other things being equal, they won’t last as long as a pigment print, but even dye-based prints have improved dramatically in their longevity. Go to Wilhelm Imaging Research where longevity testing shows some dye-based prints lasting over 100 years (wilhelm-research.com). Also, in the digital world, some question the need for longevity because, unlike a film-based original, the actual image file doesn’t fade or break down. You can make a perfect new print if you notice degradation.
Advanced pigment inksets like these Epson UltraChrome HDR and Canon LUCIA inks have migrated from high-end commercial printers to desktop models.
For the purposes of this article, we’re looking at a portion of the total universe of inkjet printers that are most geared to OP readers. These are printers for photographers who want a dedicated photo printer for producing outstanding images. We’re limiting the scope to desktop printers.
As mentioned, all of the printer manufacturers have developed methods for improving the way color inks can make black-and-white images. Canon’s LUCIA inksets and Epson’s UltraChrome K3 inksets are excellent examples of pigment-based ink technologies that build on the basic cyan, magenta, yellow and black with photo colors like light cyan, light magenta, matte black, photo black, light black, light light black, gray, red, green and blue. The upshot of this cornucopia of color is, ironically, a black-and-white print that has deep, pure blacks and the sorts of smooth transitions from tone to tone that we see in silver-halide prints.
The Canon LUCIA system is available in the PIXMA Pro9500 Mark II. There are 10 pigment-based inks in individual ink tanks. The inkset employs standard color inks as well as photo black, matte black and gray inks. These latter three inks, in particular, are said to help deliver a higher-contrast image with lesser metamerism and excellent neutrality—all qualities one needs to make top-level black-and-white prints.
Epson was the pioneer of pigment-based inkjet printers. Its current UltraChrome K3 inks feature eight individual tanks, and the system is available in the Stylus Pro 4880 and Stylus Pro 3880. Photo black, matte black, light black and light light black are used in conjunction with the pigment-based colors to create prints that have smooth tonality, strong contrast and rich blacks.
Epson’s newest pigment-based ink technology is called UltraChrome HDR. It’s available in the Stylus Pro 4900, and it features a combination of new colors and Epson AccuPhoto HDR screening technology. UltraChrome HDR was developed for professional and commercial printers who need absolute consistency as well as perfect-looking images.
On the dye-based side of the business, Canon has its ChromaLife100 technology. The PIXMA Pro9000 Mark II uses this system of eight individual ink tanks, and when used with the appropriate Canon paper, it renders prints with good longevity. Canon claims that the combination of its ink formulation, Canon FINE print head and Canon media produces prints that rival the quality of silver-halide images.
Hewlett-Packard PhotoREt IV technology uses six individual ink tanks to create a print. The HP Designjet 130 and Designjet 130r both use the PhotoREt IV system, as well as HP Color Layering Technology to produce vivid prints with good contrast and smooth tonality.
Size Matters, But Don’t Get Too Carried Away
One aspect of print technology that we haven’t addressed has been the issue of printer resolution and droplet size. Early on, printer makers made a big deal about their resolution, and many photographers were confused. A printer would come out with “2880 dpi!” on the label, and we’d start changing our image settings in Photoshop to match that number. It was all very confusing and gave rise to the ppi vs. dpi debate. When printers list a dpi number, that’s the physical number of individual dots they can lay down on the paper in a square inch. Those dots don’t directly equate to the number of pixels per inch that your image file is comprised of. The printer dots get laid down in various patterns of color to create your image’s pixels. In other words, let’s say that a pixel in your photograph is assigned the value of GRAY 127. To make that up, the printer might lay down a dot pattern of MATTE BLACK-CYAN-YELLOW-MAGENTA-PHOTO BLACK-MATTE BLACK-MAGENTA-CYAN-YELLOW-MATTE BLACK. In this hypothetical example, the printer laid down 10 printer dots to make up one of your image’s pixels. Having a higher printer resolution theoretically gives the printer the ability to more precisely create each possible color combination and, therefore, better fidelity and smoother tonality.
Just like in a wet darkroom, there’s a real art to making a fine black-and-white inkjet print. It’s a craft that’s honed with experience, patience, and no small amount of ink and paper. The rewards are beautiful images that hang on the wall where you can enjoy them and share with friends and family.