The beauty of Black & White, on paper

by Juan Seriñá

Black and white photographs have that special beauty that can evoke so many different feelings; they are images brought back to their fundamentals. While Black and White is the progenitor to color photography, this does not mean it is any less relevant in the modern world. Marketing and advertising are areas where this minimalist, beautiful photography can be deployed to its fullest potential.

With digital technology today, creating excellent black and white images does not demand complex input. However, as we grow more accustomed to our increasingly digital lives, we forget the difference it makes to have photographs printed on real paper.

The challenge is that if you print a photograph that looks great on the screen, it will dullen on paper and you may think it has lost all its appeal. This is actually true for color photographs too.

The primary reason for this is that the screen emits light and paper does not. The image qualities are displayed differently on each medium, and therefore need to be adjusted individually.

To create great black and white prints you need to do two things:

  1. Spend some time digitally processing the image to optimize it for paper. Read on for more details on this.
  2. Send the image to a lab that uses true black and white printers (not inkjet) and silver gelatin paper. I provide resource information below.

Most printing services focus on color prints and when you send a black and white image, they still print it using the standard inkjet printers. These printers create black and white tones by applying different combinations of colors in multiple layers. This usually leaves a faint hue of color on the photo, a discernible detail that does not look appealing. The true black and white printing process uses laser light exposing a silver gelatin layer within the photographic paper to produce real, continuous shadows and highlights. It is indeed more expensive but truly worth the extra cash.

Preparing the Image for Printing

Preparing the image to print requires some skill that you can only acquire by trial and error. Here are a few general guidelines.

Converting from color to black and white

The most likely scenario is starting from a digital color image. There are many ways to convert an image from color to black and white and you might be tempted to take the shortcut of changing the color mode to grayscale. In most cases, this does not lead to good results.

I normally use the Photoshop black and white function (Image > Adjustments > Black and White) and selecting the filter preset that achieves the best result. You can then tweak the color sliders to fine tune your image if necessary. This achieves the basic primary conversion.

But which settings are the most optimal? At the beginning is hard to judge the quality of an image and to know if it is good for printing. But trust me, with practice you will get there. Here are some further tips:

Look for true blacks and true whites in your image

You can’t judge this by looking at your image, you must look at the histogram. I will write another article about the histogram because it is a mystical graph most beginners dismiss. For now make sure your histogram reaches to the left and right edges, avoiding spikes at either end. If you see gaps at either end, you can use the Levels control to correct this (Image > Adjustments > Levels). The gaps are an indication that your image is missing details that can easily be restored with the Levels control.

Contrast

Contrast is what is going to make your print pop. Do not use that Photoshop contrast control because it is too broad, instead use the Dodge and Burn tools to be selective where you want to deepen the shadows and strengthen the highlights.

Even though the image may look good on the screen, it may still need further accenting the blacks and whites to make it look good on paper, so press your adjustments even further, almost to the point when it starts to look weird on the screen. Once again, the experience of doing this a few times will tell you when to stop. Compare your final, printed image with your screen to learn what you did and how to adjust your process.

Glossy or Matte?

This is a matter of preference, depending on how the photo will be displayed, the subject of the photo, etc. I typically go for matte, perhaps because it was my father’s choice back in the day when he developed his own photos in the makeshift darkroom at home. It is a familiar look and aesthetic.

Print Resources

My go-to labs for true black and white prints are Fromex and The Darkroom. They both offer quality, true black and white prints at a reasonable price.

Summary

Please don’t let those beautiful black and white images never take a new life on paper. Experiment and you will be rewarded.