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.



17 thoughts on “My B&W Printing Secrets

  1. Glad to hear I’m not the only serious photographer who doesn’t fuss with all those printing extras. Our approaches differ(and our printers too since my recent switch from Epson to Canon)but your keep it simple mantra resonates here.

  2. Hi Cole:
    The topic of Printing can be one of the most frustrating and expensive parts of photography. I agree with each of your points. One investment I made was in a calibrating tool which I can develop a profile for the monitor and printer output. I have been doing this for many years and it real helps.
    Also, your point on the paper is so true.


  3. Cole some good points above, but I have to say I use calbration and a rip.

    I think you should have also mentioned the words very hard more than once as I’m not sure it comes across how hard orr how much work is required to get good prints.

    Enjoying the posts.

  4. Thanks so much, Cole.

    This is exactly how we are taught printing in class, just as you have described it. With one added step, stay with one paper until we can understand and apply full tonal range in a print.

    Perhaps if you do another post on printing you would consider addressing blacks…..the fine line between having a rich true black, keeping detail, but avoiding blocked up blacks where the ink puddles and there is no transition in the tones there. This is the most difficult part of printing for me. I find printing joyful and exhilirating, know there is more to learn, and mostly importantly have learned it simply requires patience and practice.

    I so enjoy your blogs,

  5. Hi Cole

    Good post, I completely agree that the key to success is finding a way to keep things simple.

    I do think though that printer profiles and profiling the monitor are very important, because without them you can’t know if your screen is showing the correct colours/tones and if your printer will print something close to what is on the screen. Its particularly important for relative beginners to fine art printing to understand this because otherwise the prints will look nothing like what is on the screen and that is always disheartening.
    Where I do agree with you though is that the point of taking fine art photographs is to produce prints, and some people spend more time on the technology than on producing prints.

    Great blog you write here Cole.

  6. James makes a great point that I may have not properly indicated how hard it is to get a great print, it’s REALLY HARD!

    Laura, you made a great point about printing and the balance between good blacks and shadow detail.

    Kieron makes the point that you must match your monitor to your printer and that some use a calibration tool. I do think those tools are very important with color work and can be useful with b&w, but I would like to point out that I calibrate manually. I simply print and then manually adjust the monitor until they match as closely as possible.

    I realized that when I talk about putting away the tools I might disagree with some, but I certainly hope I didn’t offend. I’m just showing you how I go about things.

  7. Thank you Cole! I loved how you emphasized “keep it simple”. In my darkroom days I used the same paper, the same chemicals and pretty much the same filters and exposures. When I went digital, I became overwhelmed by all the technology and equipment. Sometimes I find myself happy with an image but then feel I did not work hard enough on it because I did not utilize all the tools available. This usually leads to overworking an image – which is never a good idea.

  8. I did find that monitor calibration helped me get better prints because what I see on the monitor (on a nice NEC wide-gamut display) is now closer to how it will look in print. But otherwise, along the lines of your recommendations, I don’t do anything fancy, and just use Epson paper with my Epson printer for the easy profiling.

  9. Cole – absolutely no offence taken! This is just a great debate to have – its only by discussing different approaches that we will all land on the one that works best for us individually. I think its great you calibrate manually because it clearly works so its totally valid and its great for people just starting out or getting their heads around this to have a simple way of calibrating.
    You make the excellent point that calibration for colour is a very different thing to black and white – not calibrating in colour is just not an option.
    The importance of this post is its support of simplicity, and Dianne makes a great point that back in the darkroom you’d learn your film, developer, filters, paper, developer etc. and that would get you great and consistent results, where as now we are paralysed by the choice of Photoshop, Lightroom et al; great programs but we need to learn a new skill which is the art of the simple approach. And that needs clarity in the photographer’s mind about what they are trying to achieve before they start to try and achieve it!
    Great blog Cole. Keep up the good work. k.

  10. Cole, you said : You don’t need complicated or expensive extras to create stunning black and white prints.

    What you state here reminds me of something that Reinhold Messner (best Alpinist ever) said once: Do not replace your lack of skills with expensive gear. He was referring to Alpinists but I find this applicable to any other discipline. All the best! PS : Thanks for these stunning posts!

  11. Eduard, that’s a great quote and I’ll bet it does apply to everything. This is exactly the point I was trying to make, until you have the skills, stay away from the extras.

  12. Excellent philosophy, i have to agree with all you’ve said on this subject.
    Dodge and burn has got to be one of the best tools in photoshop.


  13. Cole
    Do you mind me asking what printer you are using, I’m in the process of researching for a possible upgrade. Fantastic blog by the way, you’re an inspiration.

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