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Printing Black and White digital photography

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Printing Black and White digital photography

An interview with Keith Cooper (part 2)

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Keith was recently interviewed about black and white digital photography by Josie Reavely of Digital Photographer magazine.

He has added some additional pictures and information to the interview notes, and added in examples from other photography articles and the Gallery on this site.

BW prints on a wall

The article dates from 2007, with minor updates in 2015, 2018 and 2020
Keith still regards it as relevant today, despite changes in software, printers and cameras.

Black and White printing

Part one of the interview covers general aspects of black and white photography, including how to convert your colour images to black and white.

Note, the opinions in the interview represent the personal views of Keith Cooper and not Northlight Images

Keith Cooper with printsAbout Keith Cooper (more detailed bio)

Keith is a commercial photographer (i.e. no weddings or baby photos!)

He specialises in work for corporate advertising and promotion, ranging from detailed product photography through to interiors, architecture, corporate events and his fine art black and white landscape work.

He produces all his own large fine art works, recently supplying black and white landscape prints over nine feet long for an interior design project. Keith also lectures on aspects of digital and commercial photography, and teaches commercial aspects of photography to companies, including such areas as product photography and teaching estate agents to take better house photos…

How do you prepare images for printing?

Having a great looking black and white image on your screen is one thing, but what people really want to see is a good looking print.

I know that some of my prints only look at their best when printed very large.

The panoramic view from the Grand Mesa, Colorado, looks great at eight feet wide.

View from Grand Mesa, Colorado

View from the Grand Mesa, Colorado, on a cold spring day.

If you are going to make very big prints, you need to pay careful attention to your image processing workflow right from the original raw conversion.

How to go about enlarging (resizing) your images as needed, is an area where you will find a lot of discussion in web forums. If I’m reading someone’s thoughts on their workflow or re-sizing techniques, then I’m more likely to pay attention if I can see that they do indeed create huge prints themselves… A3+ doesn’t count as a ‘big’ print here ;-)

I find the key is the amount and types of sharpening applied at different stages of the process.

Different re-sampling software does sometimes show slight differences, but from my own tests, most of these differences are quickly lost in the sharpening required at different stages of the work.

At the moment I frequently use Nik Sharpener Pro for selective print sharpening. I wrote up quite a detailed review some time ago, and it’s often still my sharpener of choice for my very big prints.

Don’t be afraid of sharpening for the intended viewing distance – I know that anyone who comes and immediately looks at one of my huge prints from six inches away is probably not the kind of person who is going to buy one.

Selective sharpening can do a lot to give the impression that a print is sharper all over. In the large panoramic print above, the nearby trees are sharpened quite a bit, while the clouds have had no fine sharpening applied at all. I’ve also sharpened some parts of the rock strata visible in the distant cliffs (~45 miles away) to give an impression of more detail in the intervening space. It’s all about how it looks as a print from a typical viewing distance – you need to experiment, since it never looks the same on a screen.

Some people also seem to have an almost pathological dislike for the concept of re-sizing, or resampling their images to make bigger versions, almost as if there is some ‘purity’ in using ‘just’ the original image data – get over it I say :-) … it’s an integral part of any workflow aimed at producing impressive large prints.

As new software comes out and old software evolves, it’s always worthwhile looking at how you do things and whether it’s worth changing?

Several times I have been asked to produce large prints of an image, looked at a print I already have, and decided to go back to the raw file to see if I can get a better print. Not always – some prints just work fine as they are, others -may- benefit from a re-working. I find that the challenges of using new printers and new software keeps moving my creative skills forward.

There’s an article I wrote in 2005 at just one such point of ‘re-evaluation’ that I read every so often just to remind me how things change… (still relevant if you are using Photoshop CS)

There is nothing better than to see someone at an exhibition just stop in their tracks and gaze into one of your pictures for several minutes. You can usually be pretty sure they’re not wondering what PPI (pixels per inch) the print was made at, what make of paper I used or which particular tool I used to resample the image :-)

What is a good print?

Apart from one that someone wants to buy? … ;-)

A good print comes from the combination of ink and paper and the printer used. Many people first try printing black and white with their normal colour printer and are invariably disappointed with the results. Typically colour casts and uneven gradients show up.

Different subjects work better on different types of paper and with different ink choices. I have many different boxes of paper samples which I often try with different images (there are 16 boxes under my desk as I write this)

black and white printing test imageAs a first test of your black and white print setup, I’d suggest a known printer test image – I created one specifically for this purpose.

The download page also includes notes on how to use it and links to other colour and black and white test images.

Many newer printers have specific ‘black and white’ printing modes, which can give very good results with manufacturers inks and papers.

The results may be slightly/much poorer with third party inks and papers, usually not because of any deficiencies in the ink or paper, but because the software printer drivers will have been optimised for their own media.

When I’m teaching aspects of black and white photography I always try and get people to think of the final print as what they are aiming at.

Too many people spend lots of time getting the view on the screen ‘just right’ and are then disappointed that their prints don’t look identical.

To my mind this is doing things all the wrong way round. The view on the screen is just an intermediate step in producing your final results (unless you are only ever going to display the image on screens).

printer testingIt doesn’t take that much practice to get a feel for how a particular print will look on a particular paper.

Soft proofing is great for colour work, but I find it much less useful for black and white where, for me, the paper and ‘feel’ of the print is important.

If you are testing samples of paper, then don’t forget that you needn’t to print a whole sheet to get a feel for how a paper looks.

The photo to the right shows just how much paper you can quickly get through, although I was also testing a printer ink system and print profiling system at the same time…

I have a narrow ‘strip’ version of the test image for fitting on odd sized bits of paper, and if I’m going to print a new image at any size, I’ll often print part of the image on an A4 sheet first.

Note that it’s part of the image, not the whole image reduced to A4. This is so I can check things like whether my chosen amount and type of sharpening works at a particular scale and viewing distance.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the importance of having your monitor calibrated, this isn’t just for colour working. The idea is that your display gives a nice even greyscale – it makes it a lot easier to predict what your prints are going to look like.

What sort of printer do you use?

large black and white print on wallI use an Epson Stylus Pro 9600. It takes paper in sheets or rolls up to 44″ width.

For my largest prints such as the Shingle Street print above the bed, I print at 43″ by whatever length is required. As part of my commercial work I regularly create large prints for interior design projects)

Very big prints are in some ways easier to make than ones at say, A3 size.

People view them from further back and you can drop the resolution from a typical 300 to 180 pixels per inch, which keeps file sizes down and reduces the amount of resampling required.

Some might consider that fast 35mm B/W film is just too grainy for such large prints. It didn’t stop me making an excellent 78 inch wide print from scanned ISO 400 film. I read lots about how you -must- have so many megapixels to do prints at a certain size, and that there is a reasonable size limit for each camera.

Well I choose to ignore this and work on the principle that a good print is a good print if I like it, and it conveys the feeling that I want to convey.

My own approach to large landscape prints is that they are works for people to enjoy and contemplate, they are not exercises in camera technique or produced to help find the comparative resolution (MTF) of different lenses ;-)

The software you use to drive the printer also makes a noticeable difference for black and white printing. My Epson 9600 is driven using ImagePrint RIP. A RIP or Raster Image Processor is just a specialist print driver package – many offer additional features such as page layout and handling multiple prints at a time (useful if you have 44″ wide paper and want to print several smaller images)

When I got the 9600 a few years ago, the quality of black and white printing using the Epson printer driver left a bit to be desired, and the ImagePrint RIP produced excellent black and white results.

One of it’s key features for me was that the prints were bang on neutral and didn’t show any colour casts when viewed under different artificial lighting – You may hear this mentioned as ‘illuminant metamerism’ (or just ‘metamerism’)

One issue with RIPs is that with a few exceptions they cost a significant proportion of the cost of your printer. This may or may not be a problem, but I’d usually not just spend money for the hell of it ;-)

The latest printers have excellent black and white printing using the normal printer drivers. Epson UK lent me a Stylus Pro 3800 for a while and it works a treat for black and white.

The 3800 A2 sized prints were particularly good quality.

  • Note – I’m seriously looking at getting a new Epson Stylus Pro 4880 for colour and some (glossy) black and white printing, after trying out the 3800. Given the cost of a RIP I will be seriously looking at different programs to drive the printer for some work, such as printing panoramic images, where the current Epson drivers have a limited print length. Note though, that print drivers in the next version of Mac OSX will support 16 bit printing and Epson are supporting this (I choose to only use Apple Macs for my work – not a PC in the building ;-)
  • [Jul 08] 4880 review – 7880 review – what I currently use (2010)
  • [Apr 2018] P5000 reviewP7000 review

comparison of blacks

Paper testing with the 4880

Lest you think that good black and white is going to cost you dearly, consider the excellent shareware QuadToneRIP (QTR) It can be used to drive the printer directly or even produce ‘corrective’ profiles to get the best out manufacturers printer drivers.

If you get curves for your particular paper and printer then it’s pretty easy to set up (PC and Mac) – there’s also helpful web based discussion forums that provide a wealth of additional information.

Two particular black and white forums I’d suggest would be

Both are full of helpful people and you will find a lot to make use of.

One minor caveat that I’d add is that if you are not of a technical background, then don’t feel intimidated by those who are! Remember that some people approach black and white printing with a technical approach reminiscent of those who spend a lot of time building a kit car or tuning an engine and then never taking it out to drive. It’s one of those subjects that can evoke lots of technical discussion that sometimes (IMHO) misses the fundamental point ‘is it a pleasing print’. Different people have different approaches… ;-)

There are lots of ways of profiling printers to get better black and white printing – this gets a little technical, but I have looked at it when reviewing some profiling products.

You can also try specialist ink sets in ordinary printers. There are lots of different versions available, and I’ve looked at how these things can work together. The specialist inks are, with improving B/W printing from ‘normal’ ink sets, becoming rather more of a niche market.

If you do try 3rd party monochrome ink in your printer, then do be sure to clean it thoroughly with ‘flush’ cartridges. When I tested some different inks I made sure to do this every time, not just to stop the colours mixing, but also to prevent the inks reacting with each other and leaving deposits in your print heads (not something you want).

Note (2015) Monochrome ink sets are still available, but very much a niche product, since colour printers have just continued to get so much better at B&W printing.
(2018) See the X-Rite i1Studio package for B&W profiling

For cleaning the outside of the heads and other parts of the printer, I found that a common household cleaner worked a treat

Choosing a paper

Your choice of paper also has a big effect on how your images print. One thing you’ll hear a lot on discussion groups is the term ‘D-max’ – it’s effectively how black the blackest black is.

As you’d expect from something that can be measured and quantified, this appeals to a certain way of looking at the world (not mine! ;-) and you can find endless discussions about how a certain technique produces a D-max of 2.14 instead of 2.09

Most of the time I can’t be bothered with the minutiae of this (I’d rather be taking photos ;-), but it is important to know about, since an image printed on a matte paper with a D-max of 1.8 will look quite different from one on a semi-gloss paper that manages a D-max of 2.3

The important thing is that while the prints will look different – as to which is better, is entirely a matter of your own taste and the type of image.

Hood Canal, washington

For example, I regularly print the Hood Canal print on heavy matt art paper (D-max ~1.5) I’ve tried it on a rich dark fibre gloss paper and it just isn’t the image I wanted.

I’ve had a look at various papers (here in the UK) and have written up some of my thoughts on a few.

You can also tone and tint your black and white prints, however this is one area where to me black and white –is- black and white.

The nearest I come to toning is in choosing a slightly warmer paper colour for some prints. You may like toning, but I often see it as an attempt to make an ordinary picture look more ‘interesting’  – properly done it can yield stunning images, unfortunately I just don’t see that happening very often.

How do you display your prints?

I like to see my landscape work in traditional frames, with a good large white matte border

The examples to the right were at a local restaurant, where I had an exhibition of some of my work.

I buy the frames from a local manufacturer and cut the cardboard mattes (surrounds) myself.

One reason for doing this is that I frequently don’t print at standard sizes.

For many of my images I fine tune the composition by cropping the image slightly.

On more than one occasion I’ve taken a shot, and when I’m back looking at the image from the camera, wonder to myself exactly what it was I wanted to show? :-)

Frequently, a slight crop helps to give the image just the right ‘feel’ that I’m after.

The best example is the Shingle Street image (on the front page of this site and as a print, over the bed in the shot earlier in the article). It sat as a negative in my collection for some time, until I scanned it one day and then cropped off some of the beach at the bottom. A completely different image.

I know some people set store in using the whole of the frame in their prints – I don’t ;-)

For framing larger prints, having a glass or plastic sheet in front may be too expensive or just too heavy.

One way round this that I have used for my commercial prints, is laminating, such as the one in the bedroom above, or this one in the stair well of a restaurant.

The print (I often print on a paper like Epson enhanced matt) is stuck to 5mm thick ‘Foamex’ (trade names may vary where you are). This is then covered in a thin layer of semi-matt finish plastic film.

For large prints the plastic doesn’t have any effect on detail, since I’m not expecting people to study prints this size in detail.

You would have to be a lot more careful in choice of film with smaller prints (such as A3)

The film can affect the look of prints in various subtle ways, so do test a range of small sample images before doing it to a full size print.

The foam backing I use (in the UK) comes in 8 foot by 4 foot sheets, so it’s best to get several smaller works done at the same time. I recently had two 8 foot B/W panoramic images laminated for about £50 – check your local yellow pages for sign makers and printers, take along some small sample images and see what they can do for you…

I’ve also had prints mounted onto blocks of acrylic and on to Aluminium sheets. All very nice, but not cheap…

There is also the option of printing on canvas – several people have test printed versions of my B/W images on canvas. To me, it always looks a bit cheap and tacky (for my own images), hence I do not offer my own B/W prints on canvas :-)

Of course tastes vary, so as ever, experiment and find out what it is -you- like!

The First part of this article covers aspects of black and white photography

There are many articles and reviews related to B&W photography written since this article.

Have a look at the Black and White index page for a guide to them

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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:

More of Keith's articles/reviews (Google's picks to match this page)



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