Wednesday, May 23, 2007
The Ultimate Black & White
New technology and techniques are giving rise to the ability to create the best black-and-white images ever
The following images are actual scans directly from prints made with an Epson Stylus Pro 4800 printer. The images were printed on Epson Premium Luster paper using either the Epson-supplied ICC profile (for the color and the black-and-white through ICC profiles) or using the Advanced B&W Photo mode of the Epson print driver. The prints were then scanned on an Epson Perfection 4990 Pro scanner with very little modification of the actual scans. The printed images have been submitted to Digital Photo Pro for verification and accuracy for this article.
Figure 23 is the result of printing the original color image via Photoshop's Color Management using the suggested color-managed method.
Figure 24 is the result of using color management to reproduce the color-toned black-and-white image using the Hue/Saturation and Color Balance adjustment layers. The result is a relatively neutral print with a slight warmth to the highlights and a slight coolness to the shadows.
One of the unique aspects of the Epson Advanced B&W Photo driver mode is that you can print color images directly through the driver without first converting to a grayscale image. The image above was printed in this manner. However, note that this method eliminates the ability to do a locally adjusted conversion from color to black-and-white (Figure 25).
Selecting the Advanced B&W Photo mode allows access to specialized driver controls dedicated to producing black-and-white prints (Figure 26).
When selecting the Printer Color Management panel of the driver, you're presented with a variety of tone and color controls to adjust the image density and output color. By default, the Neutral setting comes with a tone setting of Darker. While it does produce a darker image, I've found that when printing images with a gamma of 2.2, I prefer the tonal output of the Dark setting (Figure 27).
The image in Figure 28 was output from the custom grayscale conversion using the layered channel method. It was output using the Neutral and Dark setting, with no other adjustments in the driver applied (Figure 29).
Within the dialog, one can choose from a drop-down menu of preset color toning. The toning is applied in a linear tint from dark to light without any adjustments in the color of the highlights or the shadows (see Cool Dark, Warm Dark and Sepia Dark). This is one unfortunate limitation of the current driver. To my taste, the default color tones are a bit too saturated.
My preference is to reduce the intensity of the horizontal and vertical color axis, thereby reducing the amount of the colors used in printing (Figure 30). For the record, one of the attributes of the Advanced B&W Photo mode is to alter the usual use of color inks. Only the three black inks, dark cyan, dark magenta and, if needed, a tiny amount of yellow are used. The light cyan and light magenta inks aren't used at all.
An additional benefit to the ink limiting of the Advanced B&W Photo mode is that the primary inks used—the black inks—are composed of highly stable carbon pigments, resulting in significantly higher print-permanence ratings as reported by Wilhelm Imaging Research (www.wilhelm-research.com). Preliminary results indicate that Epson Premium Luster paper framed behind UV-resistant glass will last more than 200 years. Epson Premium Glossy and Epson UltraSmooth Fine Art papers will last up to 300 years in an album or dark storage (73 degrees F and 50% pH).
This is the current state of the art of black-and-white conversion and digital printing. Never before has it been this easy and with such high quality. Will it displace the traditional darkroom and silver gelatin prints? For the vast majority of photographers, it will. The quality of printing available with the Epson Ultra-Chrome K3 inkjet printers and the absolute control offered by Photoshop will enable photographers to take their digital black-and-white images to a level that meets or exceeds traditional darkroom prints.
In tests I made using traditional silver gelatin prints, previous inkjet printers and the new Epson printers, I've found the level of neutrality to be remarkable. The holy grail of black-and-white prints is the Dmax, and that's where the new printers shine. I read prints from an Epson Stylus Photo R2400, a Epson Stylus Photo 2200 and traditional silver-based prints. I found that the prints on Epson Premium Luster paper from the R2400 (as well as the Epson 4800/7800/9800 printers) produced a Dmax of 2.39, the Epson 2200 delivered only 2.04, and the silver gelatin prints topped out at about 2.24—substantially less black than the R2400 prints. Combined with the long-term permanence and the fact that traditional black-and-white photo papers are being phased out, it's clear that at long last, digital black-and-white printing has arrived and will finally take over silver gelatin printing in traditional darkrooms. How does this make me feel? I'm excited at the prospect of finally getting back into black-and-white photography after all these years.