June 26, 2010
My B&W Printing Secrets
Printing is a very large topic, but it doesn’t need to be a complicated one. I keep my printing process simple because I’ve found that the fewer the steps, the fewer things there are to go wrong. As I said in a previous blog entry: “Let me oversimplify and summarize it this way; I produce my prints with a copy of Photoshop and an Epson printer, and that’s about it. You don’t need complicated or expensive extras to create stunning black and white prints.”
Here are my guidelines for great B&W prints:
1. Start visualizing the print the moment you look at the camera’s preview screen.
Have you noticed how great the image always looks on that little screen? One of the reasons it looks so good is because it uses transmitted light, or in other words the image is back-lit, and that produces an image that is very bright and contrasty. Unfortunately a print uses reflected light and that just cannot hold a candle to that little screen. I have to work very hard to get my print to look that good and I use preview screen image as my goal; it will not look exactly the same, but it will have that same pop and sizzle.
2. Make sure you have true blacks and true whites.
When people come to me with the complaint of flat and dull prints, I almost always find that it’s because they do not have true blacks or whites in their image. To know if you have a true black and a true white, you must look at the histogram because your eyes cannot judge this accurately by looking at the monitor. There are several ways to get a true black and white, such as using Levels, the contrast control (not recommended) and by dodging and burning. Whatever method you use, have that histogram open and let it be your guide.
3. Contrast is what makes the image pop.
Look at the image above, it has a great deal of contrast and that’s what makes my images pop. To increase contrast many people instinctively go for that nasty contrast control, I say nasty because it generally has nasty unintended consequences like blocking shadows and blowing out highlights. There are other ways to improve contrast such as Levels and my favorite; Dodging and Burning.
4. When you get the image to look good on screen, then you have to go further still.
An image that looks good on screen with transmitted light will look flat and dull when viewed as a print with reflected light. So once it looks good on screen, you must go further and increase your blacks, increase your whites and increase your contrast. While you’re pushing the image further, your instinct will be to stop because the image can start to look artificial, but with time and experience you’ll come to know how far you need to go and how far you should go.
5. Don’t Search for the “Perfect Paper.”
There are thousands of paper choices these days and you shouldn’t get hung up on finding the “perfect” paper, there’s no such thing! There are many great papers and you simply need to find one that is suited to your work. I use either Hahnemuehle Photo Rag 308 which is a matte paper or Epson Exhibition Fiber which reminds many of an air-dried “F” surface, reminiscent of the darkroom days. I find that these two papers work for 99% of my work.
Why choose a matte or a glossy? A lot of it has to do with your personal preferences and the vision you have for the image. The Hahnemuehle is a “fine art paper” that has a nice texture and works well with most of my images. I use the Epson Exhibition Fiber for prints when I want a more “traditional” look and when I want a bit more pop from the blacks. Glossy/semi-gloss papers will always give you better blacks than matte papers, but the differences between the two are minimized when they are put under glass.
6. Spend good money and get a good printer.
Unfortunately this is an area where you must spend some good money to get a good print. General purpose home or office printers just cannot produce a great black and white print. I love the Epson printers and their K3 inks, but the other big names produce nice work too.
I am often asked about special inksets and profiles and RIP’s. I don’t use them, I find the Epson ink and “Advanced Black and White Mode” gives me everything I need and it keeps my workflow simple.
7. Avoid the extras.
I know that people swear by such things as profilers, calibrators, b&w converters, plug-ins and RIP’s, but from my experience they only add a little bit to the image and they really complicate the workflow. Another danger of using these extras is that you can lose sight of your objective and get caught up in the process. So my advice is; put those extras away until you can produce a great print using the basics, and then you might consider getting them out again (but I’m guessing you won’t!).
8. Look at the print the next morning.
Sometimes you can stare at a print for so long that you get a distorted view of it, so leave it for the morning and look at it with fresh eyes. You’ll often find that you’ll want to tweek it again. Fresh eyes are always good.
Producing a great print doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact “complicated” just gets in the way of a great print. Keep it simple, standardize your workflow and become very good at the basics and you’ll soon have a procedure that produces great prints and is reproducible.