Making B&W prints with an inkjet printer requires some finessing in order to get those prints that live up to the hype of “glorious black & white.”
This is the case, because there typically aren’t dedicated B&W printers (unless you do some aftermarket tweaking). Inkjet printers use their color inks and the black ink to generate B&W prints. But there are some noticeable drawbacks in doing it this way. Namely the possibly of having a color cast on your B&W prints, which is a barely perceptible color tint (usually green or magenta) that prevents your print from being true “black & white.”
The color cast occurs because the printer “mixes” the color inks to get the monochromatic look that we all admire. This is far from ideal, because the best way to “process” a B&W image is to use the “grayscale” setting in your image processing program (Photoshop, Lightbox) and you give something up when you’re asking the color inks to approximate the gray tonalities. One of the ways to eliminate the color cast is to use specialized monochromatic ink sets. These inks, which you can easily replace your color ink cartridges with, produce shades of gray (usually 15%, 25%, 45%, 50% and 75%), plus the Black. This allows you to end up with prints that have extremely smooth tonalities and, thankfully, no color cast.
Something else to watch out for with B&W inkjet prints is Metamerism, which is a funky phenomenon in which you achieve the same final color by using different color sources… the problem with this in B&W printing is that the discreet colors used to generate the monochromatic tones might not blend smoothly; metamerism is most noticeable in neutral gray areas because the ink mix is the most complex in reproducing those shades. Metamerism is especially apparent on glossy photo paper, because of the way various light sources (i.e. fluorescent, incandescent, etc.) react to the paper’s glossy finish. You can eliminate this by using special printer drivers designed to not create the colors that cause metamerism or use the dedicated shades of gray ink sets or use special paper. However, the complication with using shades of gray ink sets is that you can’t readily go back to using color inks as the inkwells are a total pain to clean. Better to have a dedicated printer for B&W prints.
Since metamerism can be a problem, third-party software companies have developed a series of specialize printer drivers known a RIPs (Raster Image Processors) to handle the intricate specifics of color management, particularly when you’re looking to control the Black density of a print. RIPs are important for enabling the photographer to have the printer (and its output) match that of a calibrated monitor. RIPs enable you to calibrate your printer’s profile to react as favorably as possible to the light source in which the prints will be displayed (isn’t that neat?!?!). RIPs are also calibrated to specific substrates (a 25-cent word for paper), so you have to take that into consideration as well. RIPs give you the type of control that you’ll demand when working in B&W. To paraphrase American Express, don’t go printing in B&W without one.
Something else to watch out for is “bronzing.” Inkjet printers typically mix in other colors with the black ink. And when you print on glossy paper, the tinted black ink produces a color shift that causes the blacks to look bronze when viewed at an oblique angle. This is VERY apparent in B&W printing (hidden by other colors in color prints) To avoid this you’ll want to get a printer that employs Photo Black and Matte Black inks to handle the blacks in a grayscale image.
As digital B&W prints becomes more of a choice for photographers, the need to get glorious B&W prints from “color” printers has become more and more of an issue. The top printer manufacturers have specialized printers that have upwards of 12 inks to generate the grayscale tones, and they’re designed to mix the inks for the most neutral blacks-and-whites. These printers accept paper in sheets or on rolls as well as other types of flat media (like canvas) and some have customizable color profiles built-in to the printer for an additional adjustment layer. It’s worth it to dedicate your printer as “B&W only” printer if you’re going to be shooting and printing a lot in B&W.
Chris Derrick is a writer, photographer, screenwriter and director living and working in Los Angeles. He studied film production and screenwriting at the University of Southern California, and continued to expand his photographic knowledge through classes at the Art Center College of Design.