There are at least 10 different options for creating a black and white print on a Canon photo printer, but almost no documentation available suggesting at optimal settings, other than, “use the Black and White mode when printing black and white photos.” Duh! As it turns out though, this may not be the best advice.
A search for how to use Epson’s Advanced Black and White mode, or ABW, returns innumerable tutorials, blog posts, and forum discussions, albeit most of those are dated to 2010 or earlier. A similar search for Canon’s equivalent returns almost nothing aside from links to Canon’s own websites around the globe. The difference is obviously due to the lack of a clever acronym on the Canon side, but also because Epson printers were favored for black and white photography early on when inkjet printing was immature and unreliable. Epson’s system could be reverse-engineered, allowing for the development of third-party dedicated monochrome inksets that overcame the limitations of color inks at the time.
In 2023, however, the black and white print quality available from consumer-level inkjet printers has surpassed what could be achieved in the darkroom, and I suspect the dearth of detailed nerdy information is simply because it is not needed. Nowadays the printers just work and produce beautiful prints. Still, I’d like to understand the actual differences (if any) between printing from Lightroom with an ICC profile compared to using the Hard Tone setting in the Black and White Photo mode in Canon Professional Print and Layout.
I recently borrowed a Colormunki Photo spectrophotometer from a friend and immediately put it to good use analyzing grayscale patches printed every way I could imagine to see exactly what those different settings were doing to my black and white prints.
Canon Black and White Print Options
I printed a 21-step grayscale target using all of the black and white print options available printing from Lightroom or using Canon Professional Print and Layout. In PPL: Black and White Photo mode with Strength options of Soft, Standard, Medium-Hard, Hard, and Strong Hard Tone settings; ICC profiles with rendering intent options of Perceptual or Relative Colorimetric (with and without Black Point Compensation). In Lightroom: profile printing (same as in PPL) or using the Black and White Photo setting in the Canon printer driver with options of Default of Manual (different than in PPL).
Looking for What?
At this point, I should probably explain what it is that I’m hoping to learn through this exercise. After all, I’ve already developed a workflow for black and white printing that produces what I consider to be excellent prints. But what if those prints can be made even better by simply selecting a different print option? For example, is there a particular setting that provides better tonal separation in the shadows? Or one that produces a deeper black?
I”m not looking to produce monochrome print profiles specific to each paper or to create correction curves to try to create a perfectly linear print. I’m after a better understanding of the available options and how I can use that understanding to improve my black and white prints.
Without going into too much detail, my process is to print the 21-step grayscale target (specially designed for use with the Colormunki courtesy of Keith Cooper) using the desired settings, let the ink dry for several hours, then scan the strip with the spectrophotometer using the Color Picker software. The results are exported and reformatted (again courtesy of Keith) for use with the Quadtone RIP ICC application which generates a table and chart of standardized values of density, luminance, and color. These are imported into Excel for further analysis and comparison.
Paper and Ink Characteristics
For the first set of tests, I printed the grayscale test strip on Canon Pro Premium Matte paper. Looking at the darkest and lightest readings across all of the samples, the highest density is 2.01 corresponding to a luminance (L*) of 8.8, or an RGB value of 25. A dMax value of 2.0 for a matte paper is very good and says a lot about how much inkjet technology has advanced since about 2010. Many references still state that a value of roughly 1.6 is typical for matte papers (density is measured logarithmically with higher numbers indicated deeper black). The lowest density is 0.037 corresponding to L*=96.7 (RGB=245).
I presented these results first because I think they are possibly the most enlightening. On screen, the images typically span the entire range of brightness values from 0 to 255. On this paper, that range of brightness values is limited to only 25 to 245, or about 86 percent of the range in the image. Since contrast is determined by the range of brightness in the image, we can see immediately that contrast in the print will be reduced, and the greatest loss of contrast is in the shadows.
Many discussions on inkjet black and white printing refer to linearizing the printer output, or obtaining a one-to-one match between the image brightness value and printed brightness value. But if the print is limited to a maximum of 86 percent of the range of values, then obviously a linear output is impossible. If the print is perfectly linear across the range of printed values, i.e., from 25 to 245, then image values above or below those limits must be printed at the limit value and all image details outside that range are lost.
To avoid this loss of image detail, the printed tones must be non-linear, and the objective should instead be to produce a range of tones on paper that best represents the image on screen. This is where having a better understanding of the available print options can be beneficial.
Most of the black and white print options produce nearly the same minimum and maximum luminance values on the paper but differ in how the values in between those limits are reproduced. These are visualized as tone curves that show the printed luminance as a function of the image, or screen, luminance. The straight dashed line shows an ideal perfect print where all printed values match the values on screen. Areas where the tone curve is below that line will print darker while areas above the line will print lighter. Similarly, areas where the curve is steeper than the line will have more contrast, or separation of tones, than the screen image, while flatter areas will have less contrast.
The first set of curves are for the ICC profile options available when printing from Lightroom or Photoshop or using PPL. These are all almost identical except that Black Point Compensation raises the black level slightly and provides a tiny bit more separation in the deepest tones. With these profiles, shadow contrast is very flat, the lower midtones are darker with more contrast, the midtones and upper midtones are linear, and highlight contrast falls off approaching the white point. It is a bit surprising that the Perceptual rendering curve more closely matches the Relative curve without Black Point Compensation.
Strength Setting Options in PPL
The next set of curves show the effects of changing the Strength setting in the Black and White Photo mode in PPL. The Soft, Standard, and Medium-Hard options improve tonal separation in the shadows and brighten the image overall while lowering contrast. The Hard option is identical to the ICC profile with Perceptual rendering as shown below. The Strong Hard option provides little shadow separation and darkens the image overall with increased contrast across the lower midtones and midtones.
Print Driver Options
Another option available when printing from Lightroom or Photoshop is the use the Black and White Photo option available in the Canon printer driver settings. On my Windows machine, there are no additional options exposed to the user through the driver settings whereas apparently on Mac the driver includes many if not all of the settings available in PPL.
I expected the default option in the print driver to be the same as the Hard option in PPL since it is the default; however, it is very different as shown below. Compared to the Hard option, the printer driver Black and White Photo option is more linear producing a slightly darker print across most of the tonal range while improving separation in the lower midtones. This option seems promising but I have not yet printed an actual photo using it. (Note there are two options in the Canon printer driver; both appear to produce the same result.)
Testing My Workflow
I previously wrote about my black and white printing workflow developed with some good advice from Roland Miller and comparing the printed output for several of the options discussed above. For Canon Pro Premium Matte paper specifically, I have been setting the white point and black point for the image (and making other adjustments) in Lightroom to prepare the image for print, then printing using the Medium-Hard Strength setting in PPL. For this test, I included my standard workflow and a second version using the Hard tone setting.
Increasing the black point in the image also increases the black point of the print since there are no 100% black pixels being sent to the printer. However, as shown by the curves above, setting the black point has the effect of providing much better tonal separation in the shadows compared to the Medium-Hard setting without a black point. With the Medium-Hard setting, the increased separation extends all the way down into the deep shadows at the expense of slightly reduced contrast in all of the brighter tones. The Hard setting maintains image contrast better by not providing quite as much separation in the darkest tones. Based on my previous comparisons of actual printed images (shown below), I prefer the Medium-Hard tone version (bottom right print).
Quadtone RIP Profiles
For completeness, I wanted to mention that the Quadtone RIP application produces an ICC profile to linearize the printed output based on the measured data. It is possible to use these profiles when printing (at least through Photoshop) with the output shown below. The QTR linearization profiles are based on the original Medium-Hard or Hard setting and produce almost identical output for both. These results are also very similar to the curves obtained when specifying the white point and black point before printing. I’d like to explore if one of these QTR profiles can be used to print from Lightroom avoiding the need to adjust the image for the black point and white point.
Testing Another Paper
I repeated printing some of these options on Canon Pro Luster to determine if the printing guidelines could be applied universally to most photo papers or if more detailed evaluation is needed for each specific paper. The highest density observed on this paper is 2.40 corresponding to a luminance (L*) of 3.6, or an RGB value of ~14. This dMax is substantially better than the one for the matte paper. Many references still state that a value of roughly 2.0 is typical for luster papers. The lowest density is 0.054 corresponding to L*=95.3 (RGB=243). Based on these RBG values, the Pro-200 printer is able to reproduce about 90% of the tonal range on the Pro Luster paper.
For the Strength setting, I only printed using Standard, Medium-Hard, and Hard on the Pro Luster paper. The tone curves are similar to those produced with the Premium Matte paper but the differences between the settings are less pronounced. Based on these curves, the Medium-Hard setting is the most linear across most of the tonal range but offers less tonal separation in the deep shadows. The Standard setting shows the best separation of shadow tones while only slightly reducing contrast and increasing brightness across the other tones. The Standard setting might be a better choice as a default for this paper.
My previous testing identified a black point of RGB 20 and black point of RGB 253 for the Pro Luster paper. I used a tone curve in Lightroom to apply these limits to the image and printed using the Medium-Hard and Hard Strength settings. The next chart shows those results compared to the Medium-Hard setting with no image adjustments. The tone curves for the adjusted images are very similar with the Medium-Hard version being just slightly brighter in the shadows and midtones. I think a test print would be needed to determine which version looks best for a specific photo. Looking at the increase in the black level on paper, I also think it might be good to back off the black point a couple of levels from the actual black point determined from the test image, e.g., use something like 18 rather than 20 for this paper, just to avoid raising the blacks quite so much.
Paper and Print Data
The following table shows the test data results for the Canon and Canson papers that I’ve tested using the ColorMunki Photo. The Paper section shows the data for the brightness and color of the paper itself. The Print section shows data for the printed ink on the paper, including estimated dMax and minimum printed luminance L* using the specified black and white print method. Most of these papers have a brightness in the 96 to 98 range and are very neutral white although the warmth of the Canon matte papers is evident in the b* values for those papers. Also note that while Canon Pro Luster has a superior dMax, it is the least bright of all of the papers tested. Canson Platine Fibre Rag offers the greatest range of brightness from L* 7 up to L* 98.
The color deviation columns show the average color difference from neutral (a*=0 and b *=0) calculated for all 21 gray patches (All Tones) and for only the shadows and midtones excluding the highlights that are primarily affected by the paper color. These values provide a good indication of print neutrality for the specified print method.
What I found surprising is the superior black and white neutrality achieved using the ICC profiles for many of these papers. Conventional wisdom on the internet, based primarily on older testing using Epson’s Advanced Black and White mode, suggests that using the printer’s black and white mode optimizes print neutrality by reducing the use of colored inks; but Canon does not explain how the B&W mode work or what it is doing under the hood. My testing shows that quality ICC profiles can be used to create prints with better neutrality than Canon’s B&W mode. Aside from producing more neutral black and white prints, this is great news because printing through the ICC profile allows for softproofing and for printing directly from Lightroom.
I obtained acceptably neutral black and white prints using the specified print method (ICC or B&W) for the papers in the table except for the Canson Rag Photographique and Edition Etching matte papers. For these two papers, black and white prints were not neutral (noticeable cool-toned) using either the Canson ICC profiles or the B&W print mode. I’m not sure why these papers are different from the others from Canson, but I’m sure a custom profile would resolve the issue.
For Canon Premium Fine Art Smooth, I created a custom profile using the ColorMunki because Canon does not provide an ICC profile for this paper for the Pro-200 printer. Before testing for neutrality, I performed a second profile optimization using a black and white photo as the optimization target. The values in the table were obtained using the optimized profile which reduced the color deviation by about 0.1 compared to the standard ColorMunki-generated profile.
None of this is at all necessary to create an exceptional print-even the default settings are very good. But this information is useful nonetheless. It may be helpful to have the reference of the tone curves when deciding how best to print certain images (why doesn’t Canon include this in the printer manual?). It is helpful to know the minimum and maximum values that are actually being printed on a particular type of paper. I am also glad to have validated my previously developed workflow with some real data to help me understand why that process works. Most importantly, it is helpful for someone like me to have quantitative data demonstrating that photography is an art, and that while density measurements and numbers and graphs might be useful and interesting, they don’t produce better photographs.
If you found this interesting, be sure to check out my subsequent post discussing my evaluation of fine art papers from Canon, Canson Infinity, and Red River Paper and which papers I have selected for my personal print archives.