The Digital Journalist
Nuts and Bolts
June 2004

by Bill Pierce

For the photojournalist, unlike the artist or commercial photographer who can control the color in the picture, color can be the great leveler.

So-so and average pictures look a little better for being in color, any color.

Inappropriate color that doesn't contribute to an outstanding picture can drag it down almost to the same level as the so-so and average pictures. It can become just another pretty picture.

There are exceptions. Look at any shot of the earth from space. It doesn't look like the globe in geography class. It is covered with a beautiful blanket of blue. And that color is part of the story.

But itís hard to think of Eddie Adams' Pulitzer being made better by being in color. It's not hard to think of it being made worse by being in color. A few months ago I saw a "War" show, primarily in color, in which the pictures you remembered were rather posterish. While the images reflected well on skill the photographers, they did little to hit you in the gut. They were "pretty" pictures.

Had the show been printed in black-and-white, the "pretty" pictures would have been more forgettable. And you would have walked away remembering some powerful images that hadn't been helped, and were probably weakened, by color.

The digital cameras that we use today are color cameras. Most newspapers have color printing capabilities (installed as much for printing ads as news shots). We are so conditioned to seeing color on the lead pages that a black-and-white shot would be out of place. But, when it comes to printing shows or portfolios, the photographer can choose to print those images in black-and-white.

I can remember printing black-and-white shows from color transparencies I had taken for Time, Inc. That could get pretty difficult and time consuming. But itís a lot easier in the digital world.

My own procedure is to desaturate the color image in Photoshop, making adjustments to the curves, levels and color (much as I might use a colored filter in black-and-white film photography), then convert the RGB image to grayscale and make further adjustments. In many cases, you won't see a significant difference if you just convert the color image to grayscale and make all your adjustments on the black-and-white image.

The real problems is making computer prints of those images. The printers we use are primarily made for printing color images. Printing black-and-white with colored inks can result in metamarism. That is to say, the image will shift color under different lights sources. What is a nice black-and-white under one light source may become a not so nice green-and-white or magenta-and- white under another light source. Matter of fact, with some ink sets it will be difficult to get a neutral print under any conditions.

The easiest way to overcome this is to turn to "black only" printing. That is to say, use the printer settings you would normally use for black only text printing to print a photograph (even after a large notice comes up on the screen and warns you this is suitable for type only). With some printers it works; with some it doesn't. The Epson 1270 and 1280 work. The Epson Photo 2200, using the more permanent inks containing pigment, works even better with the matte black ink, but not well with the conventional Photo Black.

If you are going to print a lot of black-and-white, I would recommend that you use ImagePrint, generally accepted as the best of the rip programs. Among the many ways it improves both color and black-and-white computer printing, Imageprint allows you to use standard color inks to print black-and-white images without metamarism. And the full inkset provides a tonal range that is approached, but not reached, by 'black only' printing.

Information on Imageprint is available at

This rip works only with the Epson 2200, 4000 and their big brothers. Version 6, the latest software, works only with System 10 on a Mac; the Windows version will be available shortly.

Computer printing was always my favorite way to handle color. As my experience and skill with the computer increases, I have begun to favor computer printing in black-and-white because of some of the controls it affords.

I am aware that collectors want silver prints, and I'm not about to give up my wet darkroom. But.....

Next month we will talk about some of the changes a good silver printer has to make in his technique when he moves to the dry darkroom of the computer.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer