Solutions: Big B&W Prints Made Easy

Quick tips for Adams-esque results

Epson Stylus Pro 4900

When he was working in a black-and-white darkroom with glass plates and later with film negatives, Ansel Adams frequently made very large prints. His dramatic scenes of the American landscape, rendered in black-and-white, called for prints that could show every razor-sharp detail. For Adams, the printing process was both art and craft. The art lay in determining how to render each aspect of the image while the craft was translating that vision to the light-sensitive, emulsion-coated paper.

Today, it's easy to become complacent about the craft side of making a print. We have tools that are both immensely powerful and easy to use. You don't have to be a good craftsman to get a pretty good print, but if you're not satisfied with pretty good, we have some tips to get you on the road to gallery-quality.

1 It Starts With The Image File. If we were still shooting film, we'd be saying it starts with the negative, and that's how you should be thinking of your photograph from the moment of initial exposure. Having the most detail and the best possible exposure from the outset puts you on the path to top-echelon prints. Otherwise, you're always going to be fighting against shortcomings and trying to coax detail where it has been lost. Take care to get the exposure perfect. If possible, bracket in the field to give yourself options down the road. You may have met photographers who say they never review images in the field and who say they can tell the proper exposure without the use of a light meter. Maybe they can, but if you have the DSLR on a tripod and you're shooting a landscape, chances are, you have the time to do a quick check of the composition on the LCD screen and call up the histogram to be sure you aren't clipping.

2 Shoot In Color. We always suggest shooting in color and converting to black-and-white in the computer. This gives you the most image information in your image file. A number of DSLRs do an excellent job in monochrome mode, and we like using that mode in the field for getting a quick look at how a scene will render, but when it's time to make the critical exposure, do it in color.

3 Shoot In RAW. This one is a no-brainer. If you're looking for the most detail and best tonality, you have to shoot in RAW. As good as JPEG compression is, it's still compression. If you want to make Adams-esque prints, start with a RAW file.

4 Convert To Black-And-White. There are lots of options for doing the conversion. Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom have sophisticated controls, as does Apple Aperture. Our favorite choice is Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 for its combination of power and a simple photography-oriented interface, and the fact that it gives you a layered file, which gives you even more control over the image as you proceed to printing.

5 Set Your Image Resolution To 300 dpi. There's no shortage of opinions about this point on the Internet, but we prefer to keep it simple. Set your image resolution to 300 dpi, and if that doesn't leave you with as large of a print as you'd like, up-res with a program like onOne Perfect Resize (this is the new name for Genuine Fractals). Boosting resolution isn't ideal, but if you start with a large image file that has a lot of image data, the resizing algorithms do a very good job. We prefer this to resampling in Photoshop most of the time.

6 Print In Color Or Monochrome Mode? This one is a little more subjective. Printer drivers and inksets do a very good job in pure black-and-white modes, but for the best possible prints, we still like to print in full color. For most images, this gives you added depth and dimension. It also lets you give the image a warm or cool tone, if you'd like.

7 High-Quality Paper. The printer manufacturers make excellent papers that have been designed to give you optimum image quality with their printers. There are several third-party paper manufacturers who make a variety of alternatives. Ultimately, this is a subjective choice. A glossy paper will show detail better, and it will make incredibly rich black areas. Satin and matte papers give a slightly softer effect. Watercolor paper is much softer still. For highest impact and an Adams-esque look, we suggest glossy or possibly matte papers.

1 Comment

    [we still like to print in full color]I’m probably missing something obvious, but can somebody tell me how to do this? I have Lightroom 3, and an Epson R1900 printer. I downloaded the profiles for the Epson papers I use.

    I shoot in raw and in color as advised in the article. In LR, I click the “black and white” button to convert to monochrome. When I print, I select the paper profile and click print.

    To print in color, I suppose I’d have to click the “color” button. But if I do, I’ll get a color print.

    Does LR maybe print automatically in color even though I’ve converted to B&W?

    Thanks for your help

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