There's something magical about a black-and-white print. In the world of inkjet printing, we can create prints that resemble virtually any darkroom process, often with estimated longevity ratings that rival darkroom-processed prints.
The following tips are designed to help you to improve the quality of your black-and-white digital files and prints. They cover color to black-and-white conversions, as well as how to optimize the quality of your black-and-white prints using some of the pro-level pigment-based inkjet printers on the market today.
Optimize color to black-and-white conversions and toning
Converting from color to black and white is as much an art as a skill. The best approach is the one that is within your budget, gives you results that you like, and the one that you can use effectively. You may even decide to use multiple tools depending upon the type of images that you are converting.
To help you decide, I've compiled a list of books, online articles, plug-ins, and software related to converting from color to black and white on my website, InkjetTips.com (http://tinyurl.com/37htvm).
There are a few standout tools that I like to use for converting to black and white and for simulating certain black-and-white films. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom's Grayscale Mix option is the first. Apart from having many other functions, within Lightroom's Develop module (under the Grayscale Mix section, circled in red, Figure 1), Lightroom allows you to choose specific areas of an RGB file and then mix the RGB channels intuitively by first clicking on the Target Adjustment–Grayscale Mix button (circled in blue, Figure 1). After hovering over an area in the image with the Target Adjustment tool, there are three ways to mix the channels depending upon what color range you are targeting: scrolling up or down with your mouse wheel, pressing the up and down arrows on your keyboard, or clicking and holding and dragging your mouse (or moving your finger on a trackpad) up or down.
It is especially powerful when used together with the "Recovery" and "Fill Light" adjustments available under the "Basic" section of the Develop module (circled in green, Figure 1). The Recovery adjustment helps to bring detail back to the highlight areas, and the Fill Light adjustment helps to open up shadows while preserving overall contrast and detail. Settings can also be saved and applied to other images, or shared with others.
Adobe Photoshop CS3's Black and White adjustment (Image>Adjust-ments>Black and White) has a very similar interface, but works inside of Photoshop CS3. If you use it, I highly recommend first creating an Adjustment Layer. This will offer more control, and, more importantly, the adjustments you make can then be saved and applied to other images.
Apple's Aperture has a similar tool called the "Monochrome Mixer" adjustment that can be used to produce great-looking black-and-white images from RGB originals.
Alien Skin Software's Exposure plug-in is also well worth checking out. It has an interface with presets that emulate many different film stocks, and in some cases, can produce what I like to call "clumpy grain." Certain classic black-and-white films, such as Kodak T-MAX 3200, have a unique grain structure that makes the grain appear to be clumped together. It is easy to configure and save settings, and the preview window is fantastic.
In general, if you plan to use any filter or plug-in, I recommend first optimizing your black-and-white files using a tool such as the two Adobe products mentioned previously.
Choose a color printer with multiple black and gray inks
Due to the popularity of black-and-white printing, inkjet printer manufacturers have been creating inksets with multiple black and gray inks. Depending upon the company, the darkest black inks are generally called Matte Black or Photo Black, and the lighter shades of black have a number of names depending upon the manufacturer. A few of these names are Gray, Light Gray, Light Black, and Light Light Black.
The reasoning behind this is that by using multiple black inks, high-quality black-and-white images (especially neutral-toned black-and-white images) can generally be printed with less overall color ink compared to an ink set with just one black ink. Advantages of using less color ink in the mix are longevity (color inks generally fade faster than black inks) and a smoother, more even-toned Gelatin Silver darkroom look, especially when viewed with a loupe.
In some cases, such as Hewlett Packard's HP Designjet Z3100, three or four of the system's black inks (and none of the color inks) can be enabled when printing by selecting "Print in Grayscale" in the printer driver. With this setting enabled, three black inks are used with semi-gloss or gloss media, and four black inks are used when printing on matte media.
I've made black-and-white prints (from cool- to warm-toned) on gloss and matte papers, as well as canvas, using printers from Canon, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard that contain a mix of multiple black inks and color inks. In my experience, all three companies' multi-black ink printers can produce darkroom-quality black-and-white prints. This makes it possible for photographers to achieve fantastic color and black-and-white prints from the same inkset-convenient and cost effective, in that you don't need to have dedicated printers for each.
A few of the pigment-ink-based printer models that fall into this category include the Canon imagePROGRAF iPF5100 (17 inches wide), the Epson Stylus Pro 3800 (17 inches wide), and the HP Photosmart Pro B9180 (13 inches wide).
Andrew Darlow is a photographer, author, and digital imaging consultant. He is editor of The Imaging Buffet (www.imagingbuffet.com), an online resource with news, reviews, and interviews covering the subjects of digital photography and printing. Portions of this article were excerpted from his new book, 301 Inkjet Tips and Techniques: An Essential Printing Resource for Photographers (Course Technology, PTR), which covers tips and techniques for prepping, printing, and displaying prints made using inkjet and other photo-quality printers. For more information and to sign up to receive a printing-related tip each week, visit the book's companion site at www.inkjettips.com.