Is your printer OK for black and white photography?

Choosing a basic printer for black and white

Keith Cooper with large B&W print

OK, not everyone wants to make prints this big

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.

Black and white test image for printing

Black and white test image for printing

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.

All in one printer

If your printer works as a copier, then black and white photos were probably not high in its list of design goals.

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).

The R2880 and R3000 (links are to my reviews) both have multiple black inks and offer a special B&W print mode in the driver software.

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.

Note – I’ve not had a chance to test the Pro-1 yet, and hope to have a full review before too long.

That’s fine, but too expensive…

A3+ prints

Do you need both colour and B&W on the printer?

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.

More help

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 2500 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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15 comments to Is your printer OK for black and white photography?

  • matthew rappaport

    Will an epson 1400 make black and white primts?

    • Yes, but you’re only using one black ink, so it needs careful profiling and then it is still prone to colour shifts under different lighting.

      One way would be to use a specific monochrome ink set, but these are not easily available in the UK (import from US)

  • Tim

    Selecting your printer entirely on the results might leave you dissatisfied. I used an Espson R2880 for A3+ prints for a couple of years, teaming it up with a Lyson CIS ink system. When it worked it delivered beautifully rendered colour and B&W prints. The trouble was that I spent more time cleaning the print head than I did printing! In the end the yellow jet got a permanent block and that was the end of the printer.

  • Stephen Tyler

    Hi,

    I’ve seen a number of low cost mono lazer printers around, are these any good for Back and White prints?

    • Generally no. The difficulty is that they have a very limited range of greyscale levels available.

      I experimented with this several years ago, and found that it was possible to print some reasonable looking images, with a lot of care over dithering and tone curves.

      Most of the time they just looked awful :-(

      Laser printers may have changed, but not much I suspect – I’d get one for crisp text and diagrams – not photos.

  • Jack

    Re: A4 printers lacking greyscale.

    I have just bought the Canon MG6250, it has a grey cartridge, which is why I bought it!

    Thanks for the article and print samples, I printed the B&W one onto glossy Canon paper and am very pleased with the result.

  • Hi Keith,
    thanks for your articles.

    Probably many users will be happy to see a direct comparison between the R3000 and the new Pixma Pro-1.
    The latest Canon printer have more colors than the R3000 and on the paper it should be a better choice, anyway if I’ve understood correctly it seems that the R3000 is better for black and white prints.

    I’m relatively new to printing and I would like to start my experience with one of the latest printer on the market so I’ll be really happy to understand which one will fits my needs (therefore is better for BW prints)

    Thanks!!
    Andrea

    • Canon in the UK have had supply problems with the PRO-1 and still nothing to send me for a review :-(

      Whilst I’ll not do direct comparisons (for all the reasons I mention in reviews) I’ll certainly be giving it a very thorough going over ;-)

  • K. Thompson

    Thanks for the useful article. You talked about Epson and Canon, but do you have any experience with these HP Printers? They’re designed to print photos “at home” and are affordable at least… What do you think?

    • HP seem to have left the quality photo printer market – just small ‘home’ printers and a few in the large format area.

      ‘Affordable’ is not part of the sorts of reviews I cover I’m afraid (remember I do high quality printing as part of my job)

  • i have a simple question you probably get asked alot but it wasnt covered her.

    Which A3 printer is the cheapest and best for B&W prints.
    I want to sell some of my work and cant settle on a printer
    any advice would be brilliant.
    i know its tough call but if it was your money and knowing the things you do with your experiance then which would it be?

    • The reason it wasn’t answered is that cheapest and best don’t go together… :-)

      I’d buy the bigger Epson 3880, since it won’t take many prints before the lower ink costs of the bigger printer win out – If you’re selling prints and they are any good, then the ability to make A2 sized prints will also be useful. If you are serious about selling, then you can calculate true costs (and if you don’t then you are not serious about selling ;-)

      If you really want A3+ then look at an R3000, or the new Canon Pro-1 (Canon have not sent me one yet to review)

  • Hi, You don’t mention the R2400 which has frustrated me with mottling in the shadow areas of mono prints. Any thoughts on this ? I’ve been scanning B/W film w/a Nikon coolscan 5000.
    Thanks and also for the lInked in group.

    M

    • The R2400 is a bit long in the tooth now – it predates my regular printer reviews, although I looked at it with a 3rd party ink system, where B&W with the ABW mode was OK if you linearised it.

  • Thanks for the article – currently using Canon MP 990, which is great , including with Pearl Metallic paper. FWIW, the link to your site was provided by RedRiver Paper, a really good place.

    Thanks.

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