The Digital Journalist

by Bill Pierce

June 2006

When newspapers and newsmagazines increased their color printing capacities, as much to print more color ads as color stories, they also started printing more color news pictures. Up until then, in the world of journalism, color was something that had been primarily used for feature stories with a lot of lead time, often done with big cameras and big lights.

I had done a number of color filmstrips (slideshows) here, in Europe and behind the Iron Curtain. Abroad, traveling alone, I had learned to travel light and work quickly with a few fast lenses, a few small, battery-powered strobes and a tabletop tripod. Remember, the color film of choice was Kodachrome II, coming in at a sizzling ASA 25. Shooting filmstrips was almost like shooting the news in color.

Any of us who had any applicable color experience now found ourselves shooting the news in color. The Time-Life lab had a deal with Kodak to get overnight processing of Kodachrome. My gadget bag was heavier and color reversal film had none of the exposure latitude of Tri-X. And there was something else wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

One day I came into the office and a picture researcher handed me some film that had just come in from President Lyndon Johnson's funeral. She said that there was something wrong with it - overexposed? Underexposed? Badly processed? The color just wasn't right.

I realized that what was wrong was that a very sad service was taking place on a beautiful day under a bright blue sky filled with lovely, fluffy clouds. She wanted it to take place on a dark and dreary day, but the lovely color kept getting in her way.

Sometimes, not too often, when you are shooting news the color adds to the picture. Sometimes it does nothing. And quite often the pretty color reduces a good news shot to a picture postcard.

The years passed. We are all shooting digital – all color, all the time. But, unlike film, there is no problem in quickly converting a digital color image to grayscale for the newspaper or magazine. The nightmare comes in making a good black-and-white inkjet print for posterity.

In the past, photographers have printed images using just the black ink as if they were printing a written document. The prints can look good, but they have a very specific look that is not good for all images. Better are special black-and-white inksets that eliminate the colored inks, but those, too, have their problems.

There have been some excellent computer programs, RIPs that range from shareware to expensive, that blend a printer's color inkset to produce black-and-white prints with a minimum of metamarism. These are the systems that have been most effective in overcoming the problems of the inkjet printers.

But, these are all workarounds to overcome the problems of the inkjet printer. The real solution lies in the printer, and has to be solved by the printer manufacturer. Once that is done, special inksets or RIP programs can be used to enhance the ability of the printer, but are no longer a necessity as they once were.

Epson's introduction of a series of printers that use not only a black pigment ink, but also two gray pigment-based inks has produced a system that, on its own, can produce black-and-white inkjet prints that are on a par with silver prints in density range, long life and general appearance. When you add the creative controls of programs like Photoshop to the mix, you understand why many excellent darkroom printers are not in the slightest bit hesitant to convert to printing with the lights on.

The Epson Stylus Photo R2400 (13-inch paper width) was introduced a year ago. The 4800 (17"), 7800 (24") and 9800 (44") were introduced in the months following.

The printer software includes a program just for printing black and white. Indeed, when coupled with programs like Photoshop, Photoshop's color management can be turned off.

The printer program allows for "toning" with presets for neutral, cool, warm and sepia along with a color wheel that allows tones you create yourself. There are a number of other controls for other image characteristics. But photographers familiar with programs like Photoshop will probably want to use their main program rather than the printer program to control these elements.

One exception is the "highlight point shift" which simply moves the brightest point in the print to a light, light gray to ensure an even surface on those prints where an ink that imparts a glossy surface is used.

D-Max is considerably improved over the earlier Epson photo printers on paper surfaces from matte to glossy.With its gloss optimizer, the relatively new R1800 has a miniscule edge (it is truly insignificant) on glossy paper. But it is a color printer best left to only occasional black-and-white prints.

On the down side, ink-swapping for best results as you move between matte papers and papers with glossier surfaces is a pain in the butt. And the split toning effects you get with silver paper are going to have to be mimicked with the printer in color mode. That’s a pretty small downside.

On the upside, paper manufacturers are beginning to produce inkjet papers that resemble the glossy, dried matte, fiber papers that have been the standard for many of the best silver printers. While relatively new papers like Crane's Silver Rag are currently only available in roll sizes, one imagines that they will be sold in sheet sizes in due time. Prints I have seen from this paper printed with an Epson R4800 are impressive. One friend who has called me from time to time to report that B&W inkjet prints were crap and no good, and who has gone to elaborate and expensive lengths to get silver prints from black-and-white digital files, upon seeing the Epson/Crane combo called to say, "Silver is dead." A little overstated, but it is possible to say, "Inkjet lives."

Of course, you don't talk about inkjet prints without checking out their relative permanence at The Wilhelm Research figures for the Epson Ultrachrome inks under a variety of storage and display conditions for a range of Epson papers are impressive. And then you notice a little announcement in the reports. The test results are based on the color inks and the three level, highly stable, carbon pigment-based black inks should produce a significant increase in display permanence. For that reason, the very high-stability black inks require extended test times. The tests for the black-and-white prints are still going on. And the longer they take, the better for us. It is now possible to say, "Inkjet lives - for a long time."

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer