Tips for Printing Monochrome Photos – Photo Review
How to create exceptional B&W photographs.
Many photographers like to produce the occasional monochrome image, either because the tonality suits the subject or to differentiate the composition from the multitude of color images seen in everyday life. Fortunately, all cameras and most smartphones include a monochrome mode.
But what’s the best way to create B&W photos and how should you print them to get the best possible quality? Many systems are available; some better than others. What matters most is having the right printer for the job.
For starters, the printer’s ink set will include two or three levels of gray (or “light black”) ink to ensure a good tonal distribution between bright white and full black. Printers with a single black ink rely on colored inks to reproduce intermediate gray tones. This almost inevitably results in prints with noticeable color casts.
When there is only one black ink, the printer may not be able to produce a full range of monochrome tones and prints will have a noticeable color cast as shown above.
The addition of gray inks fills in the gaps in the tonal range, making it possible to produce monochromatic prints with neutral tones.
To reproduce the full tonal range of a B&W image, you need at least gray (“light black”) ink. Professional-grade photo printers sometimes provide two levels of gray ink, giving them access to a wider range of intermediate gray tones. If you do a lot of monochrome printing, these are the printers to buy.
What makes a good monochrome image?
You need the right shot, efficient editing, the right printer and the right media to print your photo. Best results will be obtained when you start with a color image file containing maximum image data. This means taking photos at the highest resolution and quality available and using the camera’s raw format when available.
In most cameras, selecting B&W or monochrome shooting mode will strip out color information when saving JPEG files, giving you much less image data to use. Unless you’re capturing RAW + JPEG files, monochrome modes are best avoided unless you need a “quick and dirty” conversion for an application where quality doesn’t matter. (Raw files always capture all image data, including color information.)
You can achieve a true monochrome image in several ways…
Monochrome conversion methods
The easiest way to convert a color image to monochrome is to select the Grayscale option from the Image drop-down menu. If you’re using a fancy editor like Photoshop, it’s useful to change the bit depth from 8 bits (the JPEG standard) to 16 bits, which will give you more midtones to work with.
Simple conversion to grayscale in Photoshop.
Another easy way to get a monochrome image is to open the image in an editor and use the Saturation slider in the color adjustment menu. Dragging it all the way to the left will remove all colors from the image.
Dragging the Saturation slider to the left removes colors from the image.
Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation control drop-down menu offers a selection of color tones, including popular options like Sepia (shown here), Cyanotype, and Old Style (which simulates old photos). The sliders allow further hue and tone adjustments.
Photoshop also provides a much more powerful monochrome setting that allows you to apply different filters and adjust image contrast as well as add tints like sepia and blue or brown tone. Colored inks will be required to print the final results of this type of conversion to achieve the necessary tonal subtlety.
This illustration shows the various options available in Photoshop for monochrome conversion. The drop-down menus on the left side disappear once Black and White is selected in the Adjustments menu.
(Learn more about monochrome conversion.)
Black ink only
Some printers allow you to print with only black ink. The final result varies depending on the printer. At best, the print will include a decent range of tones with subtle tonal transitions. However, with cheaper printers, you are more likely to get a coarsely textured print in which a dot pattern is visible due to the way the printer driver converts the data to ink on the paper. Some printers will introduce either posterization or banding or, in the worst case, both.
Don’t expect to match the results you get from using a full ink set with multiple gray inks.
Work with desktop printers
If you only have a desktop printer, it is possible to get acceptable monochrome prints. Start by working with the inks and papers recommended by the printer manufacturer. Third party inks and/or papers may give unpredictable results and fade resistance will generally be compromised.
When setting up printing, avoid printing in Grayscale mode unless you have performed preliminary tests and are satisfied with the results. Do not adjust colors in the printer driver; it could produce color casts.
Create test strips to minimize paper and ink waste and when you get a good result, save the printer driver settings using the Custom Settings area of the printer driver. This allows you to recall them each time you want to perform another monochrome print.
Monochrome print modes
Some specialty photo printers come with dedicated B&W settings that allow users to fine-tune image tones and/or introduce color toning effects. Epson’s Advanced B&W driver provides users with four color tone options: neutral, cool, warm and sepia and lets them adjust the tone in five levels, from light (hardest) to dark (softest). .
Epson’s Advanced B&W Driver makes it easy to adjust color tone for monochrome prints.
The sliders provide adjustments for brightness, contrast, shadow and highlight tone, and optical density (sharp or soft focus). Users can check the Highlight Point Shift box to add a little more ink to white areas to overcome highlight blowout and the resulting gloss differential.
The more subtle adjustments are made by moving the white cross in the color circle on the right side of the dialog box. In all cases, the adjustments will be reflected in the sample image shown next to the reference
You can use the same papers for printing monochrome images as you do for color printing. However, tests have shown that the best results come from printing on semi-gloss and matte papers. Glossy paper can produce quite varied results and specular highlights will always be problematic with B&W photos.
Fine Art papers can produce very attractive B&W prints. But make sure your printer can handle them as they are usually much thicker than regular inkjet papers. Special feed mechanisms are often required.
(Read more about paper selection in Photo Review Magazine Issue 80 and Photo Printing Pocket Guide)
Article by Margaret Brown – see Margaret’s Pocket Guides to Photography
Excerpt from the pocket guide to photo printing