How to Print Black-and-White Photos for Best Results
Printing black-and-white photos
We're going to start our printing exploration by working with some black-and-white images. Now, this might lead you think, I don't care about black and white, I never shoot black and white; why aren't you show me color? We're starting with black and white because it's simpler. Color adds a level of complication that it's just better for us to avoid right now. What's more, every single thing that we will do around black-and-white printing is relevant and necessary for color printing. Correcting a black-and-white image is about fixing tone, and very often when you fix the tone on the color image, you end up with correct color.
So learning tonal adjustments is actually critical to color correction. We're starting with black and white, because I think you'll find it easier to understand the concepts that we're going to cover if we leave color out of the equation right now. Many of you might have come to this course with one simple question in mind: How do I get my prints to match my monitor? Don't worry; we're going to cover that exact question. But the skills that you need to solve that problem are more easily developed if you work with black-and-white images first. All that said, there's one big caveat about black-and-white printing that you need to pay attention to.
It's possible that you may have a printer that does a fantastic job of printing color but that isn't quite as capable with black and white. The tricky thing about black-and- white printing is neutrality. It's hard for many printers to create a truly neutral gray; instead, you get a gray that's maybe a little warm or maybe a little cool. That is, your black and white might have the barest hint of magenta over it, or maybe green. The good news is that you might not notice this unless you set that print next to a truly neutral copy. So for the purposes of these exercises, the fact that you're printer might not be an ideal black-and-white tool doesn't really matter.
Just know that if you see a color cast in your print, that doesn't mean that you're doing anything wrong or that your image needs an adjustment; it just means that your printer is weak when it comes to black-and-white printing. If you find that you're enjoying black-and- white printing, but you're printer isn't quite up to snuff, it might simply be time for an upgrade. You also, though, need to understand what makes good a black-and-white print. Here's what I'm talking about. If this print came out of your printer, you would probably being very happy, and you should be. This is a beautiful image. It's wonderfully composed. Then some snobby print guy like me would walk in and go, oh, yeah, nice.
Your whites are a little off. And here's what I'm talking about. This is a very nice print; this is a nicer print. And let's talk about why. First off, I'd like to issue the disclaimer that we of course can't be sure what you're seeing on your screen by the time this image has been compressed and put on your particular monitor. So I'm going by what I'm seeing here in the real world, off of real prints. There is a big difference between this image and this image, and at first you go, well, yeah, this one looks different. And then as you get more into it, you might think, oh, this one is brighter, and that's a big part of it.
These white highlights in here are very different than these over here. So that's expanding our contrast range. It's making an image that's got more texture and detail in it, and it's bringing more focus to this central lit area than I can see here. But there's something else going on that's maybe a little more subtle: overall, this image looks a little more brownish somehow. Even the brightest little bits of texture in here are so gray that it has this just overall darker cast. This image, thanks to all of these bright bits, gets a little more silvery.
It looks more like the great tradition of silver gelatin black-and-white printing. I've got this wonderful range of gray tones in here that is broader than the more limited tones in here that go from a very dark gray to a lighter gray, rather than from a black to a full white. One of the critical things about black-and-white printing is you got be sure you have true black. you got to be sure you've true white, and you want as broad a range of midtones as you can get. Now, obviously, there will be times when an image like inherently be low-contrast and it's okay to not have that broad range and extreme contrast range.
But in an image like this, we want that, and by expanding these midtones in here, that's where we pick up that beautiful silvery look. That's why we get an image here that looks finished, and an image here that's 90% to 95% there. What I want you to work on is understanding and learning how to get this extra expansion here that gets you that last 10%. This image is 90% there. This image is there. That's what's going to make the difference between a great black-and-white and ultimately great color print, and an almost-great print. Let's look at another example. Again, another nice print right out of the printer, but hopefully by now you've already figured out what I am going to say.
Black and white, how are they? Black here is looking a little weak, the black back here is a little weak. Now black in a print is a little bit tricky because how black a black can be is often dependent on your paper, and we're going to talk about that later. But still, I'd like these blacks to be stronger if they could be. Whites in the image, there is a specular highlight there and there. They look probably pretty white, but her hair looks like a lot of light gray, very light gray. And the great thing about white is you've actually got to reference for it on the same page. I can see that, for the most part, other than here and here and maybe here, there's not a lot of this tone right here throughout the image.
So my blacks and my whites are off in this image. When black is not black enough and white is not white enough, the contrasting your image greatly decreases, and that's what's creating this overall gray haze over the image. It just looks like I am looking through a fog of some kind. So let's take a look at a corrected image. Ah, the haze is gone. I can really see everything really clearly. Now my blacks here are very black. I've got white speckled throughout the image. Her buttons--actually, the buttons may be a little overexposed. We'll have to fix those.
But her hair look great. Her face is a little bit lighter. Again, the image has more punch. It's got true black. It's got true white. It's lost that overall haze. And again, going back to that somewhat ephemeral silvery quality, this image has an overall cast of gray. This one, thanks to its true whites and true blacks, is revealing many, many more midtone gray patterns throughout the image, or gray tones throughout the image, and that's giving me that really good silvery look.
That's what we're aiming for in a black-and-white print. And again, these same tonal considerations are also going to come into play when you're working in color. Finally, one more thing about black and white: the broader of your tool set is, the more creative options you have for capturing a scene. So even if you don't normally work in black and white, it can't hurt to do a little exploration of it. And you learn more about black and white in my Foundations of Photography: Black and White course. You may find that black-and-white shooting is an area of photographic expertise that you want to explore further. In case you don't have any black-and-white images of your own, I've provided one you can download and play with.
Just follow the onscreen link to grab an image that will give you some good editing and printing practice.
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