Inkjet Nirvana: Achieving Exceptional Black and White Prints in 3 Easy Steps black and white, fine art, lightroom, photography, printing

Inkjet Nirvana: Achieving Exceptional Black and White Prints in 3 Easy Steps

Modern photo inkjet printers are capable of producing black and white prints that rival or exceed the quality of traditional darkroom prints. Although it is now much easier to create acceptable prints, like the darkroom, it does require skill and practice to achieve truly exceptional prints. 

Since starting on my journey into fine art printing, I’ve found that much of the information and conventional wisdom still being shared is outdated and often not relevant for the current generation of photo printers. For example, excellent black and white prints can be made on most modern pigment-based inkjet printers, yet many forum posts still insist that  custom monochrome ink sets are needed. 

Inkjet black and white print
Photo of Final Printed Image

Similarly, I’ve not been able to find any in-depth explanations or guides to using the advanced black and white photo settings available within Canon’s Professional Print and Layout software even though the software provides some very powerful tools for optimizing black and white printing (Update November 2023: I got my hands on a spectrophotometer and did my own testing.). In this post, I’m presenting the process I’ve developed for evaluating the best print driver settings for the selected paper and preparing the image for printing. My process is the culmination of a lot of trial-and-error over the last month or so along with semi-quantitative evaluation of various settings within the Canon Professional Print and Layout (PPL) software.

Inkjet Nirvana: Achieving Exceptional Black and White Prints in 3 Easy Steps black and white, fine art, lightroom, photography, printing
Black and White Mode Print Settings in Canon Professional Print and Layout
Optimal Settings for this image on Canon Pro Premium Matte paper
are Medium-hard Tone and a custom color toning.

About the Image: East Spanish Peak After a Summer Storm

The photo featured in this post was captured in August 2019. I was out with my infrared camera during golden hour as some midsummer thunderstorms were clearing over the Spanish Peaks. I remember being disappointed with the photos because I never got this kind of dramatic light on the West Spanish Peak. Obviously I was impressed with the light on the East Peak as I was watching with my camera, but for some reason this image never got my attention on the screen until recently. I think perhaps it was overlooked because I had not yet developed an eye for seeing images in black and white. When I recently rediscovered this photo, it grabbed my attention immediately.

The photo was captured with a 590 nm infrared filter using a Sony a6000 camera with the 18-105mm f/4 G lens at 105 mm, 1/80 sec, f/8, and ISO 100, The image was processed completely in Lightroom using Denoise to eliminate infrared shadow noise and remove sensor artifacts. I thought the image was finished until I started trying to print it and discovered that it still needed a lot of work.

Through the process of printing, I was able to significantly improve this image because looking at the print I saw what was lacking in the image. On paper, the white summit of the mountain against the inky black sky is just gorgeous and is truly more dimensional than how it appears on the screen. It has now become one of my favorite fine art photos in my portfolio.

Black and White Printing

When printing black and white images, photographers have three options: 1.) use the ICC profile provided by the paper manufacturer, 2.) use the dedicated black and white mode within the print software provided by the printer manufacturer, or 3.) create a custom ICC profile for the specific printer and paper combination. Generally, using the provided ICC profiles will be hit-or-miss for each paper; you should always give it a try when testing out a paper, but expect that it is not going to provide optimal results for black and white photos. The best option is probably to create a custom ICC profile if you have the required hardware; however, the cheapest hardware options are $350 and up with professional solutions starting at $1,500.

For me, it is hard to justify spending several hundred dollars for a profiler on top what I just spent buying a printer and paper, so I’m stuck with using the Black and White Photo mode in PPL. The good news is that the printed images are almost perfectly neutral even using a dye-based inkjet printer like the Canon PIXMA Pro-200 that I’m using. The harder part is dialing in the appropriate settings to produce exceptional prints.

The three steps in my process are:

  1. Determine white and black points for the paper.
  2. Select the optimal Strength setting for the paper.
  3. Prepare the image to print well as a black and white image.

Some of the information below is specific to the Canon Professional Print & Layout software; however, the overall process is applicable for printing with any modern photo inkjet printer, and Epson’s Advanced Black and White mode offers similar options.

Determine Black and White Points

Paper and ink are not capable of reproducing the full range of tones that we might see in an image on a monitor. The printed black point will always be lighter than 100% black on screen, and any values in the image that fall below the printer’s black point will just be printed as pure black with no perceptible detail. Similarly, highlight values above the white point for the paper and printer combination will just appear as pure paper white. 

Fortunately, the black and white points can be determined visually quite easily by printing and evaluating a test chart. The best test chart I have found was created by photographer Roland Miller. It is easy to use but very powerful; determining the proper black and white points for my paper using these charts was the single largest improvement in my printing workflow. Roland provides detailed instructions on his site with the file downloads.

White Point Test Chart A (255-238)
White Point (255-238) and Black Point (10-26) Test Chart from Roland Milller

I printed the test chart using the Standard Strength setting and determined that the white point is 254 and black point is 11 for my printer on Canon Premium Matte paper. When I printed the test image provided by Roland using these custom white and black points, I noticed a dramatic increase in perceived detail in the very dark shadows of the test images as a result of lifting the black point up to the minimum level that the printer can achieve. Based on my subsequent testing using a spectrophotometer, I recommend dropping the measured black point a couple of points for printing to avoid raising the printed black level unnecessarily.

 Select the Optimal Strength Setting

The Black and White Photo mode in the Canon PPL software has a Strength setting that controls the contrast and linearity of the print. Linearity simply means that the printed value matches the image value across the full tonal range of the image from black to white. I wasted a lot of time trying to evaluate linearity by printing grayscale step wedges, scanning and measuring the gray values, and attempting to create custom curves in the PPL software to improve linearity in the printed image.

Inkjet Nirvana: Achieving Exceptional Black and White Prints in 3 Easy Steps black and white, fine art, lightroom, photography, printing
Printed and scanned step wedges
(courtesy of Northlight Images)

What I should have been doing was printing the image using various Strength settings to determine which one works best for a particular paper or image. I found that the Standard Strength setting provides the most linear output for Canon Pro Premium Matte paper although it does lift the deep shadows somewhat. The default Hard Tone setting darkens the image while adding some contrast but tends to make the shadows too dark so that detail is lost in the printed image. Therefore, I settled on Standard or Medium-Hard Tone for printing on the Premium Matte paper. I recommend making a set of test prints for the various Strength settings for comparison as shown below.

Inkjet Nirvana: Achieving Exceptional Black and White Prints in 3 Easy Steps black and white, fine art, lightroom, photography, printing
Hard Proof of Strength Tone Settings (Standard, Hard, Soft, and Medium-Hard)
in Canon PPL Black and White Photo Mode

The graph below shows the approximate L* curves for three different print settings for the Canon Pro Premium Matte paper: Hard Tone with no white point or black point adjustment prior to printing, Hard Tone with custom white and black points for the paper, and Standard Tone with custom white and black points. The curves were created by printing the grayscale step wedge using the specified settings, digitizing the print using my Sony a6600 and a linear raw profile, then using Photoshop to read the L* luminance for each gray patch. This method has a lot of shortcomings so is semi-quantitative at best, but the results are more reliable than using a scanner*.

Inkjet Nirvana: Achieving Exceptional Black and White Prints in 3 Easy Steps black and white, fine art, lightroom, photography, printing
Comparison of L* Curves for 3 Different Print Settings

The curves show that the Hard Tone strength setting adds some contrast and darkens the image across most of the tonal range but the deep shadows (L* less than 30) are relatively flat indicating loss of shadow detail. When the image is adjusted for the custom white and black points prior to printing, the shadow tone contrast improves considerably, and Hard Tone provides a linear output in the lower midtones. However, the upper midtones are still darkened somewhat. The Standard Tone setting provides mostly linear contrast but brightens the shadows and lower midtones while providing linear output in the upper midtones. Note that the darkest printed value is near L*10 for all three curves indicating the darkest black that the paper and ink can achieve.

With the understanding gained from these curves and the printed comparison images for the four tone settings, I decided to use the Medium-Hard Tone Strength setting (lower right comparison image) for this image on Premium Matte paper. These results were confirmed by later testing using a spectrophotometer.

*I found that the scanner always adds some contrast even when I turned off all color management and set a linear curve in the scan settings. Using my digital camera with a linear profile in Lightroom provided a true linear output that could be used to measure the L* values in Photoshop.

Prepare the Black and White Image for Print

This final step is the most difficult and subjective. With color images printed using an ICC profile, Soft Proofing can be used to adjust the image for print by making edits so that the soft-proofed image on screen matches the original image as closely as possible. When using the Black and White Photo mode in the printer software, Soft Proofing is not available because no ICC profile is involved in the process.

At a minimum, the image should be adjusted so that the black and white points for the paper as determined in the first step are set for the image. With the recent updates to Lightroom, I am using a Tone Curve adjustment applied to a mask of the entire image to raise the black point. I typically limit the whites in my images to about 95% brightness so a white point adjustment is not required for printing. This adjustment ensures that the full tonal range of the image can be printed without blocking up deep shadows or losing highlight detail.

In addition, brightness and contrast adjustments will also likely be needed. However, as I learned from watching Ben Long’s excellent “Inkjet Printing for Photographers” course on LinkedIn Learning, black and white images often need some rather strong midtone and highlight adjustments before printing to achieve the classic silvery look of a darkroom print. In the course, Ben teaches his students how to use the histogram to make sure that the image features strong white and black points and a good distribution of tones across the histogram. In particular, it is important to look for missing upper midtones or highlights in the histogram.

Inkjet Nirvana: Achieving Exceptional Black and White Prints in 3 Easy Steps black and white, fine art, lightroom, photography, printing
Making print adjustments in Lightroom. In this example, I used a Luminance Range mask to apply
a relatively strong Exposure adjustment to brighten the midtones and highlights.

The adjustments required for each image will be unique, but in general, I took away four key recommendations:

  1. Add contrast.
  2. Lift shadows.
  3. Push upper midtones and highlights.
  4. Add clarity/midtone contrast.

For my infrared photo of the East Spanish Peak, I made some strong adjustments to the brighter areas using a Luminance Range mask in Lightroom, and I also lifted the deepest shadows and then applied a vignette using a Radial Gradient mask, ensuring that I did not push the shadows down below the black point.

Inkjet Nirvana: Achieving Exceptional Black and White Prints in 3 Easy Steps black and white, fine art, lightroom, photography, printing
Comparison of the Final Screen Image (left) and Print Image (right) in Lightroom

Color Toning

My original screen image includes a subtle split toning with warmer highlights and cooler shadows that had to be removed for printing. However, I prefer a slight color toning for this image so I experimented using the color toning effects in the Canon PPL Black and White Photo mode. The Canon Pro Premium Matte paper has a slight warm tone, so by adding a cool tone to the image I was able to mimic the split tone look of the original screen image.

I used the Pattern Print option to print nine variations of a Cool Tone effect, then selected the one I liked the best. In this case, I selected X: -30 Y: 25 from the Pattern Print. The final image has a very slight cool tone that I think gives the impression of slightly more contrast and deeper blacks in the final printed image.

Inkjet Nirvana: Achieving Exceptional Black and White Prints in 3 Easy Steps black and white, fine art, lightroom, photography, printing
Printed output of Pattern Print to select an appropriate Cool Tone setting. (Image captured with my Sony camera and is slightly shaky.)

Final Thoughts

It’s been about six weeks since I started on this journey into printing my fine art black and white photos. I have to say that I (foolishly) didn’t expect it to be this difficult. However, now that I learned about inkjet printing, developed some skills, and gone through some tedious experimentation, I am absolutely loving the process of printing and being able to hold the printed photos in my hands. And compared to the difficulties of working in a darkroom, working with an inkjet printer is actually pretty easy.

Bonus: Enable Printing High Resolution Images in Canon Professional Print and Layout

By default, the Lightroom plugin for Canon Professional Print and Layout will reduce the size of the exported TIF file (I think to 2400 pixels on the long edge). You can override this setting in the Export dialog in Lightroom. Simply go to the Export dialog, select Canon Professional Print & Layout in the Export To: menu, then turn off the resize option. Images will then be exported at full resolution as shown in the screenshot below.

Inkjet Nirvana: Achieving Exceptional Black and White Prints in 3 Easy Steps black and white, fine art, lightroom, photography, printing

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