Nuts & Bolts
Color Me Gray

June 2003

by Bill Pierce

In the early days, color often came to newspaper printing so that the paper could sell color ads. Color news pictures appeared on the same sheet of paper that went through the press with color ads on it. Hey, it was a tough world out there for the early pioneers.

Now, of course, color is the norm. Digital cameras are color cameras. Scanners are color scanners. Black-and-white pictures are, now, just color pictures with the color stripped out. (And the fact that news pictures printed in color often appear on the same sheet of paper that went through the press with color ads is just coincidence.)

Unfortunately, color can be a problem in photojournalism. Most often it can’t be controlled by the photographer; he’s got enough things on his mind. Sometimes it confuses the viewer; he’s got enough on his mind.

Were it that a somber gray funeral under a beautiful cloud-filled, blue sky would remind us of just how complicated the world is. But it doesn’t work that way; complicated reality isn’t always the best way to present an idea. Sometimes we need to simplify.

If we accept color, but choose not to think about it, sometimes it will make our pictures better, sometimes it won’t have much of an effect at all and sometimes it will make out pictures weaker. In my experience, working with a “colorful newsweekly,” the majority of times it makes your weak pictures stronger and your strong pictures weaker.

Therefore, a lot of gutsy photojournalists - Don McCullin, Jim Nachtwey, Sebastiao Salgado, Gene Richards, Elliot Erwitt and so on - have spent much of their time in a color world shooting black-and-white. Even my two favorite commercial photographers, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, have done much of their personal work in black-and-white.

So what does this have to do with the nuts and bolts of photography and digital journalism? The editor decides whether your digital file is going to run as a color picture or a black-and-white, and that’s it.

But what if you don’t want to use yesterday’s digital file to wrap fish? You like to exhibit black-and white prints. Or worse, what if you are some kind of a recidivist who has been seen after hours carrying a Leica loaded with Tri-X and who has no choice but to make black-and-white prints from his scanned negatives.

Most of the ink jet photo printers were designed for color. Their black-and-white images suffer from metamarism. They take on different color casts under different light. It’s really unattractive.

You can purchase a RIP, a computer program initially designed to print photographs with a laser printer, that maximizes the quality of black-and-white printed with ink jet color inks. The one that I have heard great things about from photographers I trust, the Image Print,, starts at $495 and runs to $2495 for big printers. I use a cheaper system.

Special black-and-white inksets from independent producers can do a wonderful job. However, with some sets it is best to dedicate a printer to just black-and-white. The special inks can also clog your Epson printer or shut it down if the cartridge computer coding does not mimic Epson’s. I’ve liked the black-and-white prints I produced this way. I’ve also had all the problems I just mentioned. I use a simpler system.

I’m indebted to Nicholas Hartmann for introducing me to black-only printing. Wait, using only the black ink in a color printer? That’s OK for text, but can’t you see the dots that make up the photographic image? Aren’t the tones chalky and awful?

You could see the dots in 6x9 prints with my old Epson1270 if you looked close. But nobody ever did. And on big prints, less. As to tonality, use Photoshop’s curves to boost the contrast in the shadows and highlights and the tone is fine (the curve should be just the opposite of what we think of as a typical H&D curve).

With the Epson 2200 you get smaller dots and a carbon based black ink for long
lasting prints. When I first printed on semigloss paper with the standard Epson black ink, the results were awful. Using the Matte Black cartridge on Epson’s Enhanced Matte paper (the paper formerly known as Archival Matte) gave me results that pleased me and my photographer friends.

Photographers are pushovers; so, I borrowed some negatives from one of the best and most demanding silver printers I know and made black-only computer prints to be compared to his silver prints. He simply said, “They’re different. Sometimes I like the silver print best; sometimes I like the inkjet print best. But they’re both good.” I never thought I’d hear that. There is another simple, economical way to print black-and-white on some papers with some printers with some computer programs. I can testify to the fact that it doesn’t work with all combinations, but does work with Photoshop and the Epson 2200 with the Matte Black ink on Enhanced Matte paper. Convert your black-and-white Photoshop file into an RGB file and use the eyedropper that converts a tone to neutral and convert a mid tone in the RGB image. It’s important to not look at a black-and-white monitor image and presume it’s color neutral; use the eyedropper to make the gray neutral by Photoshop’s standards. Print the “neutral” color image with a color synch setting or with Photoshop in it’s color controls in color management position with all controls at the null position. See which print you like best. Make minor (and I mean “minor”) adjustments in image tone by adjusting the mid tone color in Photoshop. Do not adjust the color with the printer controls.

If it works for you, you now have two economical ways and very simple ways to print black-and-white with color inkjet printers. If it doesn’t - back to black-only. You’ll like it.

You can read a Mike Johnston interview with Nicholas Hartmann on black-only printing at: and

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer


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