Black and white photography is often seen as the pinnacle of the trade. Traditionally seen as the most technically challenging, advances in tech and consumer-friendly prices have made achieving a high-quality print possible to the average punter.
Then again, achieving a professional standard B&W photo isn’t just point, click, and print. There’s a process that takes you from taking that initial snap, to post-processing, choosing the right equipment, to finally printing your photo. Here’s how you can get it done.
Tools of the Trade
Before you grab your camera and head out the door, you need the right kit throughout the process. If there’s a chink in your armour along the way, the results won’t be pretty. And yes, that’s even if you use the best DSLR on the market. Here’s what you need:
- The stuff you get at your local Walgreens won’t cut it. Go for acid-free archival paper, which will ensure your print will stand the test of time. If this is a little beyond your budget, go to a decent studio or a major manufacturer and buy paper that specifically caters to photo printing.
- Photo inkjet printer. While the laser printer was a pioneering invention, it has nothing on the good old inkjet for photography. You want to go with pigmented ink here (as opposed to dye-based varieties), as they’re more equipped to handling fading. You also want to avoid the cheaper varieties that print with only four colours. Ideally, you want the professional standard printers that have various monochrome ink pots (rather than just a single black cartridge).
- For most day-to-day uses you don’t really need to think about the driver you use. For the best black and white print results, however, they can make a big difference. You’re looking for drivers that give you a wide range of control over the printing process. Some of these drivers cost more than the actual printer they serve. Popular options include ImagePrintRIP and QuadToneRIP.
- You didn’t think we were going to forget the camera, did you? Well, the reason it’s last on the list here is that your choice of camera, assuming you’re not going bottom of the barrel, isn’t actually as relevant when it comes to capturing black and white. You’re basically looking for the same characteristics you’d want to take colour photographs. Some purists will tell you that a monochrome camera is the way to go, but that is a little extreme considering what you can achieve with a professional-standard DSLR.
How to Capture Your Shot
You can buy the best camera on the market, and buy a printer that would make anyone jealous, but if you can’t take the right shot there’s no point in even attempting to print.
In order to get a snap that’s perfect for black and white printing, you need to be aware of how composition differs from colour photography. Imagine taking a shot of a bright red dress in front of a dark blue background. The result? A lack of tone contrast, with the dress merging with the rest of your shot.
Remember, it’s not cheating if you use your tools at your disposal. For example, a wee trick that works extremely well is changing your camera’s setting to monochrome. This means you’ll get an instant preview of your print, giving you some feedback about your composition visualization skills.
When it comes to post-processing, nothing beats Adobe’s Lightroom in our opinion. While it does have many similarities with Photoshop, Lightroom is specifically tailored for photographers. What we like about it is that it’s non-destructive to your original shots. The original image data is left intact, meaning you’re not messing with the ‘real’ photos.
Tone. When you import your colour photo into Lightroom (or the software of your choice), it’s more than a ‘click and prays it works’ process. You need to get the tone just right, depending on your subject matter. Landscapes work incredibly well with what’s called pure B&W, though shots involving people may benefit from a touch of sepia (remember, just a touch, otherwise things will look a little fake).
Noise. When things such as bad lighting or other environmental factors negatively affect the quality of your shot, it’s referred to as ‘noise’. You know the kind, the annoying grain, the image distortions, the blurriness. Lightroom does an excellent job in cleaning this up almost automatically, though it’s always best to try and take photos under good conditions.
Sharpening. Most B&W photographers tend to blow up their shots, as this is what creates that powerhouse visual effect in prints. In order to enhance the effect, you need to sharpen to the distance. In other words, think about where your viewer is going to be standing when looking at your shot. This will dictate what you sharpen, to what degree, etc. Selective sharpening can really help with this, and a good plugin for that is Nik Sharpener Pro 3.