Your Ultimate B&W Print

Ansel Adams didn't have a digital darkroom at his disposal, but you do. Learn how you can make the most of it.
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In film-based wet darkrooms, photographers would spend years in pursuit of becoming a master printer. Digital printmaking is every bit as much a matter of technique and art as it ever was. It all comes down to style and knowing your medium.

The big three of printing, Canon, Epson and HP, now offer technologies that have made black-and-white printing more exciting than ever. With inks, papers and printers providing black-and-white prints that can last well over a century, it's time to learn a little more about how to get quality black-and-white prints from your images.

While most cameras offer black-and-white in-camera conversion for amazing prints, it’s generally accepted that it’s best to shoot in color. In-camera black-and-white or sepia modes are great for previewing images, but you’re essentially throwing away information when capturing that way. Also, digital technology has made black-and-white conversion as easy or as difficult as you want it to be, so there’s little reason to take images only for grayscale use.

There are numerous ways to do black-and-white conversion, many of which have already been covered in OP. A few methodologies include Lab-color, Photoshop’s Channel mixer, the new Black and White mode in CS3 and grayscale conversion. Essentially, the more complex the conversion process, the more sophisticated the level of control you have over the final print.

During the black-and-white conversion process, whichever method you choose, it’s important to maintain a nondestructive workflow by using layers that can be altered or removed. This gives you more options later and even can be reversed from black-and-white back to color if necessary. For that reason, it’s best to process the image in color first, which gives a properly optimized color print, ready to go and right from the same image file.

Personal tastes aside, every great print, black-and-white or color, will have sharp details with highlights that aren’t blown out and blacks that are rich and full. A print also needs contrast with smooth transitions. This is something to think of when printing as well as when choosing your subject matter. Blacks and whites and grays that are evenly and gradually spread throughout a print are vital, too. Dodging and burning with digital dodging and burning tools, or through removable layers, help to reduce or intensify smaller, localized areas for a print. For larger areas, curves adjustment is often best for tweaking contrast.

 

St. Elmo's Keep

"There are many classic printing styles," says photographer John Paul Caponigro. "Expanded tonal range with a high degree of both contrast and separation in shadows, midtones and highlights is the most popular. Ansel Adams’ work is an excellent example of this. Another printing style favors high contrast with a reduction in shadow detail—less frequently of highlight detail—and midtone separation. Brett Weston’s work is an excellent example of this printing style."

Proofing is probably more important than anything. While the 72 dpi resolution of a computer screen gives a great approximation of how an image looks, proofing a print allows you to compare differences in the real world. Thankfully, digital provides a lot more flexibility than test strips did. The Easy Photo Print Pro Photoshop plug-in that comes with some Canon printers, for example, uses a pattern print that can contrast an image in up to 36 different version of brightness, hue, contrast and color.

Printers themselves also need to be proofed. Many companies, such as Datacolor, Pantone and X-Rite, offer color-management systems that calibrate computer monitors to printers to paper and ink profiles. As black-and-white’s popularity increases, these systems are adapting modes that target black-and-white specifically, such as Datacolor’s Spyder3Elite, which includes an Extended Grays Target. Printers themselves often include test images, too.

Ink systems, available as dye- or pigment-based, now include wider selections of densities, blacks and grays for more accurate hues and smoother tonal transition. Third-party inksets and papers exist for extended printing options (and budgetary constraints), but swapping of inks can take a lot of time and often gums up the works of a printer, so pros suggest choosing one inkset and staying with it.

In contrast to the days of film, many modern papers can be used for either color or black-and-white prints. Most of them are interchangeable with ink systems, too. With quality paper manufacturers like Hahnemuhle, Harman, Moab and Red River, there may never be one perfect paper for every situation, but there’s a perfect paper for each situation. Surfaces like glossy, matte, canvas and others provide a subtle, but visceral feel to a print. When selecting your paper, watch for gsm weight, which denotes strength. Basic papers range from 220 to 285 gsm, while more durable fine-art papers are in the 300 to 400 gsm range. The whiteness of the paper and the density of blacks, specified by ISO brightness and D-Max, are especially important for black-and-white printing. Be leery of brightening agents, though, as they can decrease the longevity of your print.

These are only a few of the possibilities to keep in mind as you experiment with technologies and processes. As with most science, once applied to art, the final product you’re happy with ultimately depends on your own sensibilities.

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