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.
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.