Digital Photo Pro

Black and White Printing
by David Willis

DW What are the big differences, if any, between printing in black and white and color? Is black and white printing more complicated technically?

JPC The differences between making color and black and white inkjet prints are very small. The same printers, inks, and substrates can be used. Color management and ink separation routines are often modified, but the solutions for these are usually contained within the same drivers used in color printing and are extremely easy to implement. When making black and white prints extra attention is often paid to dmax, shadow and highlight detail, neutrality, and graybalance. But the same level of attention to these elements benefits any color print.

DW Are there tried and true techniques to digital black and white printing? Is there a good workflow to approaching prints? Or does each image necessitate its own specific printing solutions or methods?

JPC There are optimum black and white workflows and tried and true techniques for digital black and white printing. Knowing these helps you get the very best results. (I've been teaching these in my digital printmaking workshops for 13 years now. I even teach special workshops and seminars with black and white focuses. Many free resources are posted on my website

Ultimately, workflow is dynamic; it's something you customize appropriately for a given situation and set of needs. If you know your craft and their objectives you'll modify your approach or treatment of individual images knowledgeably to achieve the unique appearances you most desire.

DW Is there something specific that ost people respond to in a great black and white print? In other words, can you define a good print for me? This might be an easier question to answer by stating what not to do.

JPC Classic print criteria apply. Crisp detail. Dark blacks. Bright whites. Subtle shadow and highlight detail. Smooth tonal transitions, without posterization or noise. 20th century aesthetics favor very smooth semi-gloss surfaces with a high degree of light reflectivity (but a lower degree of surface reflection). 19th century aesthetics favor slight surface texture, little or no surface reflection, reduced dmax and ISO brightness but exceptionally refined tonal separation within a comparatively diminished dynamic range. While most people think of black and white as absolutely neutral, in both centuries toning solutions span the gamut adding either trace or substantial amounts of hue.

There are many classic printing styles. 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. Some artists use extreme contrast reducing the number of tones in an image to as few as two – Harry Callahan occasionally worked this way. Yet another printing style favors reduced contrast with lighter blacks, darker whites, and exceptional tonal separation in the midtones – Alfred Stieglitz's work is an excellent example of this. Other printing styles limit the tonal structure of an image by shifting it towards one end of the tonal scale or the other (dark or light) – Matt Mahurin uses a very dark palette while Joyce Tenneson's early work was extremely light. Each of these black and white palettes directs the viewer's attention to specific aspects of an image and imparts a distinct mood.

In the end, it all starts with a compelling image. Good printing enhances the delivery of strong content. It cannot replace it. The Bach prelude remains the same, played by amateur or professional, but a masterful performance brings more of its wonders to light.

DW What are the latest innovations in inks, papers, printers, and equipment that are the most relevant or promising to you?

JPC New inksets always bring the greatest changes. Ink largely determines gamut (saturation), dmax (black), graybalance, metamerism, and longevity. Printers are usually designed to take one inkset, so a new inkset usually brings with it all the latest hardware innovations as well.

Epson Ultrachrome Ink (K3) set many new milestones. Recently, a lot of attention has been given to Epson's new Exhibition Fiber paper; dmax figures exceed 2.6 (amazing when you consider silver gelatin rarely, if ever, exceeded 2.35). The new 64" Epson 11880 uses a new head and screening technology that delivers the least visible, most precise, and smoothest dot structure I've seen to date. Epson has set the standards for the inkjet industry for many years now and continues to do so today.

DW Thanks to digital, we can pretty much print on anything. What substrates and coatings are you finding most useful to the average photographer?

JPC Most photographers (save the most experimental) favor smooth surfaces. Here's a generalization that can take this a little further. Those who prefer a classic late 20th century look favor semi-gloss and glossy surfaces. Those who prefer a late 19th or early 20th century look favor matte surfaces. Additionally, a majority of people also favor materials that have an organic rather than synthetic appearance.

DW Most would agree that it's best to shoot in color and covert from there. But are there things to watch for while shooting for black and white prints?

JPC You have to see differently to truly access the extraordinary new power we have for making black and white images today. With previous mediums we learned to largely discount hue, focusing primarily on a general quality and direction of light and shadow. Now we are also able to factor in saturated hue, which gives us the ability to make an image's fundamental tonal structure variable. This is a profound new development.

It also helps black and white photographers to understand color adjustment. A digital file that has an optimized color balance provides the best conversions to black and white.

Black and white photographers need to understand color management.

The too often over-emphasized division between color and black and white is somewhat arbitrary and largely based on workflows from historical media processes. In reality, black and white are colors – very specific colors with their own unique expressive possibilities.

DW How relevant are labs? Can you get great quality prints at home or the studio without the need for a lab? Will a lab always have something that home or office computers and printers don't?

JPC You don't need a lab. You might want one. Labs may provide access to technologies that would be difficult to afford and maintain for the average individual. Given money, space, and time these considerations disappear. Individuals can now access the highest quality printers, inks, substrates, and even profiles that are easy to use and maintain and are relatively affordable. This doesn't make labs obsolete. The true values that labs offer aren't technological resources, their true values are human resources. Expertise. Labor. It can be not only helpful but advantageous in many ways to collaborate with other craftsmen in the production of your work. While some might stigmatize it, collaboration is a time-honored, accepted practice within the arts. Collaboration brings additional dimensions to the artistic process. It's up to the individual to decide if this is helpful for their work or not.

DW The future of printing? If digital continues in its path, will prints even be necessary in the future?

JPC Necessary is such a strong word. Prints aren't necessary now. We used to have to make prints in order to view certain images, particularly black and white ones. Now you don't. But for many of us, prints are still very much desired – I think they always will be. Physical prints do many things that no other method of presentation does. With a print you experience an image in combination with specific materials, which enhance expression. You experience a print at specific scales, which has an impact on how an image is viewed and in many cases modifies the message the image conveys. Prints offer non-powered portability; they can be retrieved and distributed at a moments notice to anyone without the need for other supporting devices or additional communication. Prints can be displayed in ways that make an image's presence more durable, affecting and even shaping the environments they inhabit; with sustained viewing this can add additional depth to looking. Prints are collectible. While the time-honored tradition of printmaking is currently evolving rapidly (so rapidly that it would be fair to say it is experiencing a profound paradigm shift) it is very much with us today, and will be for the foreseeable future.