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monochrome test print for testing black and white printingBlack and white printing

Keith Cooper is interviewed about his current approach to B/W printing

Keith was recently [June 2010] asked about his current approach to black and white printing, in connection with an upcoming magazine feature.

This short article is an extended version of his comments, which includes links to relevant articles and reviews Keith has written for the Northlight Images site. These are also listed on our specialist Digital Black and White page.

As he mentions, black and white inkjet printing is still a developing field, so this reflects the situation at Northlight in the summer of 2010.

  • January 2012 - see the Canon iPF8300 we currently have in our print room

What printers do you use and why did you choose it?

We've currently got two printers that I use for black and white at Northlight Images.

An Epson SP9600, 44” width printer with original Epson Ultrachrome inks, and an Epson 7880 24” width printer with Epson Ultrachrome K3 Vivid Magenta inks.

The older 9600 is driven via the ImagePrint RIP. This is a printing package that uses its own driver, not the normal Epson print driver.

In 2004 it represented a very good way of getting excellent colour and B/W from the 9600.

digital black and white logoKeith runs a LinkedIn group (~7900 members) for people interested in any aspects of modern Black and White photography: Digital Black and White

The software is still available for modern printers, but costs an awful lot to keep up to date. Hence in our offices it runs on an older OSX 10.4 Apple Mac which lives in our server/printer room (our old darkroom). With a fast network and screen sharing, it's easy to print from my normal desktop machine in another room.

The 9600 prints very well on the heavy matt papers I like for my B/W prints and only has the matt black (Mk) ink installed (with other inks), so won’t print well on gloss/luster finish papers.

The Epson 7880 is connected via Ethernet and driven using the usual Epson driver, both in colour and in its ABW mode for black and white.

For page layout with roll paper I use the ImageNest software, which supports any printer you’ve a driver for.

The 7880 has photo black (Pk) ink installed and works well on modern ‘Fibre’ type papers.

Note: Jan 2011, we now have a 44" Canon iPF8300 printer

Associated Articles/reviews

Do you think there are better ones out now?

If a printer is over a couple of years old then the answer is likely yes...

The biggest problem with the two Epson printers we use, is the need to swap black inks (matt or photo depending on paper) - it's one reason that there are two large format printers in the print room.

If I was to replace them with an Epson printer, it would be with a 9900, which has automatic swapping of black inks.

It also has an extended range of inks offering a somewhat wider gamut and better quality than the 7880 and definitely improves on the 9600.

However, at the moment, I’m evaluating a new 24” Canon iPF6300 on loan from Canon, which in the guise of the wider 44” iPF8300 is a definite alternative to the Epson SP9900.

Printers are improving all the time - only recently I tested the Epson 3880 (below). This 17" printer avoids the need to swap black inks, and if I wanted a high quality (smaller) black and white capable printer, this is probably what I'd choose. It's more expensive than the smaller A3+ printers, but economies of ink costs and the amount of ink you get supplied with the printer mean that other than for light use, it is (IMHO) better value.

test prints on epson 3880 - B/W and colour

Associated Articles/reviews (* = updated after initial article publication)

Do you think that manufacturers own ink is the best to use or is a 3rd party type just as good?

For large format print work, I don’t want to have to re-profile all my papers, so I use only original inks.

The only exception to this is where I might consider a specialist B/W ink set.

Such inks are not at the moment widely available in the UK, so I’d have to ask, do I want to be at the mercy of importing inks from abroad, when I start to run low?

When I first acquired the Epson 9600 [2004], I was also printing with an Epson 1160 and Lyson SG inks - I retired this printer last year after flushing out the B/W ink set and converting to third party colour inks [2006] for office printing and experimenting with colour management software.

It's important to remember that my main business driver is print quality. At Northlight we don't do large volumes of prints, so savings in cost with 3rd party inks are just not worth the effort.

What's your favourite paper and why?

Epson 7880 with 24 inch roll of paperThis is like asking someone to justify their favourite car or film.

I choose papers to complement the image, and it’s end destination.

Sure I measure print performance when profiling, but I won't get hung up on the numbers. Do I care if one paper manages a dMax of 2.1 and another 2.2 ? probably not that much compared to whether I think it's from a known source and will be around in a few years if I want to use it again. Sometimes, just following the numbers leads you up blind alleys and doing more and more for less. I'm a strong believer in the old engineering adage - 'Perfection is the enemy of the excellent'. With care and an understanding of what you are doing, 'Good enough' really does just mean exactly what it says...

With some of my printing I do care about the archival properties - people are paying a lot for some prints and I want something that should last. For commercial prints in a restaurant, I doubt they are looking for a 200 year archival rating.

I read some fancy nonsense in some people's paper 'reviews' - lots of pretty graphs and charts that make the reviewer look knowledgable, but don't really help much. I always tell people to get samples and try them out with known test images - see what you think and learn to trust your judgement.

For matte papers I’ve currently got a roll of Smooth Cotton Natural White 100% Cotton 315gsm (IFA 11) white loaded in the 9600 and a roll of Innova FibaPrint Ultra Smooth Gloss 285gsm (IFA 49) in the 7880.

Both these papers are what I chose for a series of recent exhibition prints produced for photographer Paul Joyce.

For both, I like the overall finish and depths of blacks – I’ve got a -lot- of paper types in the print room, including those from from Hahnemuhle (photo rag), Epson (velvet fine art) and some from a local paper supplier Paper Spectrum.

I use some of the 'economical' papers for commercial prints for hotels and the like.

  • The picture to the right is from when I'm just loading a 24" roll of paper into the Epson 7880 in our print room. The computer behind is used remotely, to drive the Epson 9600.

Associated Articles/reviews

Are there any changes you make in the printer properties to get the best black & white results?

For the 7880 I usually use the Epson ABW printing mode and for some papers I’ll apply a corrective linearising profile.

Although printer B/W print modes are usually pretty good, I find that they can be inadequately linearised, so that shadows are either a bit too dark or light. I like to know that a paper is properly linearised before printing an image - it makes the process in going from screen to print just that little bit more consistent,

If I didn’t still have the ImagePrint software for the Epson 9600, I’d probably be using Roy Harrington’s excellent shareware package QTR or Quad Tone RIP (Mac/PC)

I’m also testing the ‘True Black and White’ driver software for the Canon iPF6300 (Mac only)

Associated Articles/reviews (* = updated after initial article publication)

Is black & white printing still popular or do you think it's a niche market?

It’s having a resurgence – printer manufacturers are putting more effort into black and white printing for higher end printers.

In the darkroom, black and white was always the easier and cheaper option, so it was popular. I suspect that many people would have preferred colour, but for the equipment and expense. With inkjet printing, colour is the default, and many cheaper printers are not up to printing neutral black and white, so B/W is the more expensive option.

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I look forward to manufacturers making their B/W printing solutions a bit more flexible, if you are looking for high quality. However, the proportion of people wanting this probably makes it unlikely to appear in ordinary driver software.

I’ve recently looked at the A3+ (13" x 19") Canon 9500 II and Epson 2880 printers, which both have good B/W print modes, but are still at prices beyond many hobby photographers.

The cheapest –good- solution I currently know of would be a 3rd party B/W ink set in a printer such as the Epson1400. However as I mentioned, this would rely on imported (to the UK) inks so is relatively unknown over here.

Quite a few new papers in the last few years also look very nice with B/W printing – giving a look much closer to many darkroom results.

Associated Articles/reviews

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The views in this article represent those of Keith Cooper.
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