Is your printer OK for black and white photography?
Is your printer good enough for black and white
Not all printers are good at black and white – what should you look for?
Colour printers have steadily improved in recent years – not all work so well for black and white. Keith looks at some of the features you want to look at if you plan on making B&W a part of your photography.
Update: A few years on (2017) printers have steadily improved – all our printer reviews contain specific information about B&W print performance.
Choosing a basic printer for black and white
At Northlight Images, we’ve a range of printers, but it’s a 44″ width Canon iPF8300 I currently choose for our black and white prints (smaller 24″ iPF6300 shown)
It’s huge and not cheap …but we’re a business.
What about if you’ve been printing a few photos at home and have decided that you want to experiment with black and white photography?
I get asked about this quite often, and have put together some thoughts that also include links to some of our B&W related reviews and articles that may be of further interest.
First up, the bad news.
It’s much easier to produce an acceptable colour print than black and white with most cheaper printers.
If your current printer has just three colour inks or three colours and a black, then you are quite likely to find that black and white prints show a distinct greenish or magenta tinge under some lighting – there is no neutral grey between pure black and the white of the paper.
Printers have improved a lot over the last few years, but greyscale (or ‘black and white’) performance has not been a priority for the design of smaller printers.
Just trying your existing printer…
If you already have a printer and want to see how it performs for black and white, download and print out our free A4 printer test image.
See our Test Images page, for more info.
Let’s say that you’ve tried the test image on your printer and noticed a slight colour tinge.
Slight colour tints can come in from a combination of paper colour, optical brighteners (OBAs whiten paper and make it much brighter if there is any UV light present – think glowing white shirts in clubs), illuminant (viewing lighting) dependant colour shifts of inks, and profiling accuracy.
The first two of these are part of your paper choices. The third, I’ve discussed in an article about fixing colour tints, whilst the fourth one varies with your print setup (from no profiles, through to making your own).
Probably the most common question I get asked about prints, after ‘My prints are too dark and not matching the screen‘, is why people’s monochrome prints come out green or magenta.
It’s not that nice sometimes to have to tell someone that the printer they are using, just isn’t much good for B&W, and that no matter how much tweaking and test prints they make, or new papers they try, it just isn’t going to give good results for B&W. By all means give it a go, but don’t expect too much.
What about a new printer?
A4/ letter sized prints in B&W
Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see an A4 sized printer that includes additional inks to expand the greyscale performance.
It is possible that the printer driver will give a moderately good black and white print on some papers, but prepare to be less than overwhelmed.
Note that printing black and white photos is not the same as ‘text’ or ‘black only’ print modes, which are designed for printing text.
By all means try out the test image on small printers – if you come across one which works well, please do let me know.
Bigger printers – Black and white at last
Once you move up from an A4 sized printer to A3 or larger (often 13″ width or A3+) the options improve greatly.
These printers are often sold as ‘Photo printers’ and whilst they will print out a letter or sheet of text perfectly well, it’s ‘photo’ that will appear in the marketing materials.
Look for multiple black inks in the specifications, for best black and white performance.
If I look, for example, at Epson’s current A3+ printer range, I see an R2000, R2880 and R3000.
The R2000 is an excellent solution if you want glossy colour prints, that look like they were from a photo shop. Or colour prints on matt paper. However, it only has one black ink (two are listed, one for matte papers and one for glossy).
For Canon, similarly I might look at the PIXMA 9000 MkII, 9500 mkII and the new Pro-1. As with the Epson printers, only the last two have multiple black inks, aimed at B&W printing. I note that the Pro-1 has a total of 5 black inks (4 for any particular paper type) and is being particularly marketed for its B&W performance.
[2018: the PRO-1000 is very good]
That’s fine, but too expensive…
What if you can’t run to a bigger printer and want to try with a smaller one?
Well you could try with some different printer driver software.
For the Epson R800, R1800,R1900, R2000 pigment ink printers, you can try QuadToneRIP software (QTR – $50 shareware) which can give some excellent results.
I’d point out that it also works with the older 2000, 2100, 2200 and 2400 printers that you may find for sale (BUT -check used printers, as you would used cars)
If you get more into black and white, you might want to look at specialist ink sets, which are supported in many older Epson printers through QTR.
One major difficulty for me though, is that they are not easily available here in the UK. You are also tying up a printer for just monochrome printing.
I’ll try my best to answer people’s questions sent to me here at Northlight, or I’d also suggest asking on the specialist Digital Black and White Photography group I’ve set up on LinkedIn. It’s got some 9000 members, and is aimed at people at all levels of interest and ability.
You might also want to check out the full index of all the different Black and White photography articles and reviews, here on this site.
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More print related information
For information about other printers, paper reviews and profiling (colour management) see the Printing section of the main Articles and Reviews page, or use the search box at the top of any page. There are also specific index pages for any articles connected with the following topics:
- Digital Black and White
- Tutorials and 'How to' articles
- Colour Management
- Printer test images
- Why do your prints look wrong?
More of Keith's articles/reviews (Google's picks to match this page)