Having a good black and white print is much more than having a high quality digital printer; it's getting great negatives too. It can get even more complicated if you shoot in medium or large format. You may think you have to be a Photoshop geek to get great results, but that's untrue.
Virginia-based photographer Lauren Henkin is a multi-award-winning shooter with many exhibits under her belt. She's always being asked how she creates prints of such a great quality.
Evidence of her expertise is apparent in a recent photo project in the gray, foggy, misty areas of Nova Scotia. The inclement weather lends itself to an almost enigmatic or mythical feeling in photos, if it is captured properly.
The area lends itself to shooting in black and white. "It's just more graphic. Color feels like a whole different medium to me," she says.
"One thing, talking about printing that people notice about my prints is that I'm not afraid to NOT have any white highlights. Meaning, I really like those midtones and I think most people are hesitant to do that because we're always taught 'you've got to have deep blacks and bright whites' in every picture," Henkin says.
First, she starts with a quality digital printer. She uses the Epson 4800.
She switched to this printer because of practical reasons: "There's not enough time to be in the darkroom daily," she says. "You need balance. This way, you can work on prints one hour here, and one hour there."
For her Nova Scotia images, she used a 6x6 Mamiya medium format camera. For this project she switched from large format to roll film, for practical reasons. "Many of these were hand held..taken as I was exploring."
Henkin prefers using XP2 film Ilford C41 process because she says it captures a wider tonal range.
Good printing begins with the very first step, picking which camera to use for what you want to capture.
"A lot of people think they need to pick one camera. But I don't. Choose one depending on what you want to do--what is the best format for it?"
Each camera gives such different results. The tiny town Henkin visited in Nova Scotia was literally in the middle of nowhere. She chose the Mamiya 6 medium-format so she was able to walk all over the place.
"I would walk for two hours straight just taking pictures. It was a very spontaneous, organic process. A looser way to shoot," she says.
With a large format, Henkin says there's a lot more driving involved to scope out locations in advance. Other factors come into play too, such as the weather and geography.
For a recent shoot in Charleston, West Virginia, for example, Henkin chose a 4x5 because she had lots of time to investigate.
When it comes to printing in black and white, large format enables the shooter to be less concerned with the scanning process, due to the higher quality of such large prints.
The details make it easier to see the tones.
With medium format, say a 20x20 size print, there's more area you need to satisfy.
Next, when printing from these formats, Henkin decides what is it she wants from the print.
"I think about what mood I want to convey, instead of thinking in conventional terms that I have dark areas and white areas. It's sort of breaking the rules."
The best way to learn how to create a desired printing look is to take a master darkroom or printing class. There students learn to give labels to prints such as too dark, too contrasty, perfect contrast, etc.
"When you practice like this you begin to recognize what prints will look like in the end based on the negative and using a desired effect in the printing process," she says.
By manipulating these basics, photographers can create any effect they want, as though they were in a conventional darkroom.
In Henkin's shot entitled "Cabot Trail" (shown right) "People are surprised at the gray resolution of it and that it also has highlights breaking up the shadow." The Chester Harbor picture (also at right) was taken with a 4x5. The brightest point in that picture is at 35 percent.
"You wouldn't feel that way looking at the print though, because everything else is so muted, that very subtle circular area in the sky that is the lightest part of the image looks much brighter in comparison," says Henkin.
"It takes people a while to figure out when looking at the print that it is still gray... Like how kids draw blue clouds and a white sky. It's kind of a visual trick in a way I think."
You may be surprised to find there are no fancy tricks in Photoshop to attain the results, that it is purely from printing technique.
"When I Photoshop, I use only as many layers as I have too." The danger she adds, is too many layers. A Photoshop job could be as many as 15 layers on one image."
Henkin suggests only uses the most basic tools. She sticks with the good ole' dodging and burning techniques as well as some contrast adjustment and sharpening tools.
"I hear all the time [from other photographers] about this plug-in and that plug-in. I never use them. I stick with the tools within Photoshop and the prints come out beautiful."
However, it is difficult for some shooters to attain similar effects because they are too wrapped up in a picture's contrast, instead of looking at it graphically, says Henkin.
"I look at every photo like an abstract painting," adds Henkin, who has a graphic arts background. "It's as thought people are so fixed on the boat that they don't see the trees to the left of the boat, or even that there is another boat." Photographers would benefit from doing an architectural drawing in their head of what will be printed—they need to imagine the 2-D photo and how it appears in the 3-D world.
The next thing to remember is to get as good a quality scan as you can get with a quality film scanner or have a professional do it.
"There is a real art to scanning. People do not devote enough time to it."
Most people don't have experience with wet mounting their scan, including Henkin, but she says that it creates the best scanning resolution.
Once you have it Photoshop, decide how you want to print. Choose a paper depending on that.
Of course, there are unlimited choices that lend to black and white: there's bright white and matte--choices she used for Nova Scotia because they had a softer, gentler effect. For harsher, angular, sharper images you may choose a Pearle coated paper.
"Try out different papers for what you think matches your work," she advises.
Next, when doing changes in Photoshop, it is important to remember to only do changes that are necessary.
When retouching, do corrections at 125 %. From there, do a "levels" adjustment extending the tonal range of image. A contrast adjustment could be an overall one or certain areas of an image.
Henkin says this is where the beauty of Photoshop comes in. Whereas in a conventional darkroom it's difficult to lighten or darken the sky, with Photoshop a photographer is able to look at an image with a range of tools.
One of the most important tools to master working with black and white prints is the masking out of the sky, she says.
Use the "apply image" command to copy your image onto a mask. "Every image I have I mask out the sky. I don't want to see dots," says Henkin.
Next, copy the whole image onto the mask. Run a "curve" on the mask to isolate sky. While this step may take a little practice, Henkin says to avoid using the "brushing" tool at all costs.
Then, if necessary, sharpen (Henkin suggests reading Bruce Fraser's "Real World Sharpening") this can be a multi-step process depending on what you are doing. But don't sharpen sky, even to reduce noise.
"With my prints, people can't tell if they are done digitally or in a darkroom," says Henkin, adding that digital printing is an entirely different animal than conventional means. "That would be like comparing a silver print to platinum printing."
For more on Henkin and her images visit her Web site at www.laurenhenkin.com.