Black & White

Getting a great black-and-white print is easier than ever. Deciding the best way to get there is the hard part. The more you understand about the black-and-white process, the better the prints you’ll produce. While a single perfect method won’t work for every image, there are plenty of routes for optimizing the unique properties of individual black-and-white images. With that in mind, we take a look at black-and-white printing, from capture to final output.

Black-And-White Capture

Great black-and-white prints start life as great black-and-white image captures. This means sharp and properly exposed images that have an adequate pixel count for the intended print size. There are some effective up-rezzing programs out there, like onOne Software’s Genuine Fractals 2.0, but if you’re shooting for big, larger-than-life prints, you should always utilize the maximum dimensions available to you.

Black-and-white images can be captured in-camera or by converting them in the computer afterward. It’s universally accepted that for best results, you should capture in color, particularly in RAW, for later conversion. There are a few advantages to initial monochromatic capture, however. Capturing in black-and-white not only saves conversion time later, but more importantly, gives you a good LCD preview, which will get you thinking in black-and-white for a better concept of how tones, colors, contrast and hues will appear in your final image. Some cameras also include built-in color filtration that can be used at this point to enhance the black-and-white capture and make it similar to using film.

Even better, most cameras offer JPEG + RAW shooting modes, which can be set to monochrome (or sepia, etc.), leaving the RAW file untouched. That means you get the best of both worlds: a black-and-white image on the LCD monitor for checking tonal mergers, and a RAW image that you can process to monochrome as you wish.


The first step post-initial capture is to calibrate your system so that all of your equipment is color- and contrast-matched. The print will never look ex-actly as it does on the monitor because a printed image consists of inks or dyes on various papers, while monitor images consist of glowing phosphors or LCD pixels. With a properly calibrated system, however, you can produce prints that will meet your expectations.

A number of tools on the market perform this function effectively and relatively painlessly, including Datacolor Spyder3 Elite, Pantone hueyPRO and X-Rite ColorMunki. Because monitors will color-shift over time, you should recalibrate at least every few months for best results.

With film, we were able to dodge and burn selectively to a print. This isn’t possible with inkjet printers, so basic dodging and burning and contrast adjustment should be done prior to printing. It’s also generally accepted that image adjustments should be performed on the color image, prior to conversion, and tweaked as needed. Sharpening the image for the print size, printer type and media should be the last step before printing, applied to the image after black-and-white conversion. Again, there are software products that make this very easy, including Nik Software’s Sharpener Pro.

Thanks to complex conversion processes, sophisticated programs and an overabundance of quality inks, paper types and printers, digital has brought so much flexibility to black-and-white imagery that the definition of a black-and-white image has become more complicated than ever before. Tonality, hue and saturation are no longer limited by darkroom processes, and the final black-and-white image itself is limited only by your imagination.

Black-And-White Conversion

There are a number of ways that color digital images can be converted to black-and-white, some of which are definitely better than others. The simplest methods provide the least amount of control, while many of the more complex operations require the sacrifice of time involved, as well as a steep learning curve.

You can open the image in Photoshop and move the saturation slider (Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation, or Layer > New Adjust-ment Layer > Hue/Saturation) all the way to the left. This generally results in a grayish rendering that only rarely is optimal for a specific image, though it will give you a quick and easily reversible view of your image in black-and-white. A second simple method is to change the image mode to Grayscale in Photoshop (Image > Mode > Grayscale). This also rarely produces the optimal conversion for most images.

Another simple Photoshop conversion method is to convert the color image to Lab Color mode (Image > Mode > Lab Color), then discard all but the Lightness channel by high-lighting that channel in the Channels palette, then change the mode to Grayscale (Image > Mode > Grayscale). You’ll get a window asking if you want to discard color information; click OK.

Photoshop’s Channels palette provides more control. Click on any of the RGB channels individually, and you’ll get effects equivalent to shooting a black-and-white image through a Red, Green or Blue filter, respectively. If one of these looks suits your image, go to Image > Mode > Grayscale with just that channel selected and save the resulting image. This method still is quite limiting, however.

Probably the most versatile ways to do black-and-white conversions in Photoshop are the Channel Mixer and the Black & White mode (in CS3 and CS4). To use the Channel Mixer, go to Image > Adjustments > Channel Mixer (or Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Channel Mixer). Click the Monochrome box, and the image will change to black-and-white. You can then use the sliders to control the densities of the individual primary colors (Red, Green and Blue). There also are presets for Black & White Infrared, and Black & White with Blue, Green, Orange, Red or Yellow filters. Moving a slider to the right makes tones of its color lighter; moving it to the left makes tones of its color darker. Try to keep the cumulative percentages of the three channels around 100 for most natural-appearing results.

The Black & White tool is versatile and easy to understand. Go to Image > Adjustments > Black & White (or Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Black & White), and you get a work palette with sliders to control Reds, Yellows, Greens, Cyans, Blues and Magentas, from -200 to +300. If you click on any part of the image, the Eyedropper cursor turns into a pointing finger and activates the slider for that color. Dragging the finger to the right lightens the color, dragging it to the left darkens the color—much quicker than trying to guess which sliders will affect a specific olive-brown. If you click the Tint box near the bottom of the Black & White palette, you can use the Hue slider to tint the image just about any color and the Saturation slider below that to control the intensity. There also are a number of handy presets.

RAW converters provide a means of converting color RAW images to black-and-white. Even the autoconvert features of newer RAW converters produce good conversions, with minimal tweaking needed. In Adobe Camera Raw, black-and-white conversions are done via the HSL/Grayscale panel, which is the fourth icon across the top of the ACR toolbar (or you can press Cmnd-Opt-4 to access it). If you check the Convert to Grayscale box, you’ll get a series of sliders that lets you adjust the lightness or
darkness of Reds, Oranges, Yellows, Greens, Aquas, Blues, Purples and Magentas. But if you work on the color image first, you get to adjust these eight colors for Hue (warmer or cooler), Saturation (intensity) and Luminance (adjusting the brightnesses of individual colors)—more control. You then can convert the optimized color image to grayscale by clicking the Convert to Grayscale box.

There also are a number of dedicated black-and-white software products, generally in the form of plug-ins for Photoshop. These include Alien Skin’s Exposure 2, B/W Styler for Windows from The Plugin Site, Black & White Studio from Power Retouche, Nik Silver Efex Pro, Imagenonic’s RealGrain and Tiffen’s Dfx 2.0.

The plug-in converters provide effective conversions with a single click in “auto” mode and offer tremendous control over the process when you want it. Many also let you do things like produce conversions with the “looks” of real black-and-white films or even create your own “film” spectral sensitivity, add realistic film grain, simulate the effects of different traditional multigrade paper contrast grades and more.

For the hard-core black-and-white worker, it’s not a bad idea to have several of these products because one might work best with one image, while another delivers the best results with another image. Of course, the drivers with today’s pro printers provide good conversion capabilities, too. But most photographers will probably want to do their image editing and conversions in-computer rather than let the printer do it.

Black-And-White Printing

Large-format inkjet printers (13×19 inches and up) from the likes of Canon, Epson and HP can produce excellent black-and-white prints. Their drivers include black-and-white settings, and their paper and inks handle black-and-white well. Inks determine saturation (gamut), the level of blacks (Dmax), gray balance, color shift under ambient lighting conditions (metamerism) and print longevity, which, thanks to in-credible advancements, is measured in centuries instead of decades. High-end systems, available with dye- or pigment-based ink sets, include varying densities of blacks and grays for better hues and smoother tonal transitions.

Canon printers use their 10-color Lucia pigment ink set (including Gray, Black and Matte Black), Epson printers use their 10-color UltraChrome K3 pigment inks (including Photo Black, Light Black and Light Light Black), and HP printers use their Vivera pigment inks (including Photo Black, Matte Black and Light Gray). You also can use third-party black-and-white inks and fine-art papers, which offered the best way to achieve good black-and-white inkjet prints in the early days of digital imaging.

Some good sources are Adorama, Forte, Harman, Ilford,, Inkjet Mall, Lyson, MediaStreet, Moab by Legion, Museo (Crane), Pantone and Tetenal. If you do use third-party inks, it’s a good idea to have a printer dedicated to black-and-white printing with those inks because switching back and forth between color and black-and-white inks can waste a lot of ink, and it takes valuable time to clean the system between ink changes with a single printer.

Dye-based inks provide more intense colors but a shorter lifespan, while the longer life expectancy of pigment-based inks has made them the choice of professionals and large-format printers. Both, though, are a great choice. Inkjet papers are made of layers of ink-absorbing materials on resin-coated bases. What this means is that the heavier the weight of the paper, the thicker and hence more durable the paper will be (measured in gsm). Fine-art, quality papers generally run be-tween 300 and 400 gsm.

Most papers generally are compatible with both ink types and both black-and-white and color. Types include many varying surfaces and textures that are as unique as they are extensive. Dmax levels and the brightness of the paper can have just as much impact on a final print as image manipulation itself, so pay attention to these factors when experimenting with surface types like glossy, matte, canvas, watercolor and others. Watch for whitening agents that can cause premature print aging.

Whatever inks or papers you use, be sure to set the printer driver for them. If the driver doesn’t include a third-party paper, start with the paper manufacturer’s recommendation. Lacking that, use the driver setting from the listed paper closest in type to the one you’re using. You can let your image-editing software do your color management (even black-and-white prints must be color-managed for best results) or let the printer driver do it. Don’t have both attempt to do it. You might try making a print with Photoshop doing the color-managing and then one with the printer doing it, and see which you prefer.

It’s not all that difficult to produce great black-and-white prints, but it does require a feel for the medium, a little experimentation and either a good pro inkjet printer or a good pro lab. Black-and-white can do a lot for your business and portfolio, and many consider the effort worthwhile.

Working With A Pro Lab

While many photographers enjoy the control provided by making their own prints, others prefer to spend their time shooting. A good pro lab will give you the freedom to do just that, not to mention that labs also provide services that are difficult, if not impossible, to provide yourself—such as gallery wraps.

Pro labs have experienced staff and the latest equipment, and are able to do volume output with fast turnaround, thanks to optimized workflows. Their printers know what constitutes a good print and can produce the best possible print from your digital file. But “best” is sometimes a matter of personal taste, so it pays to develop a relationship with a good lab so they’re able to provide you with results expertly tailored to your sensibilities.

Just as when making your own prints, it’s important to have a properly calibrated monitor. Color management is the subject of articles and books, but you can get good tips from the lab you choose. For the best compatibility, use a computer monitor with a good industry rating for maintaining Kelvin temperature and gamma. Use a monitor hood for optimum conditions while viewing, and use testing and input between lab and photographer, including submitting test files prior to submitting a large job to the lab.

Each lab’s website provides lots of information as to how to submit images. Some labs will work from RAW images, while others want edited and calibrated TIFF or JPEG files. It behooves you to look over all available information, and call and talk to someone at the lab if you have any questions. You also can e-mail questions to the lab.

Many labs offer prints on a variety of media via a number of processes, some providing greater permanence than others. You’ll want to ask the lab people what processes they use, and why, to ensure that you choose the best process for your needs.

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