Less than pleased with your black and white photo prints? Follow this guide to master mono printing with a greyscale wedge – and see your black & white pictures improve!
Printing black and white photos at home should be fun and creative, but it’s all too easy to sit by your inkjet printer watching endless sheets of wasted paper and expensive ink spewing out. However, it’s simple to get consistent and fantastic looking black and white photo prints with the gear that’s in front of you, rather than blowing your budget upgrading your printer and monitor.
Problems with black and white pictures
Leaving aside the dots per inch quality of your home printer, problems with black and white photo prints usually arise due to a combination of monitor calibration, inks and paper. What you see on-screen can’t be replicated faithfully because the emitted light image on a monitor is capable of producing many more shades and tones than the reflected light from prints.
Another factor that affects the look of your mono prints is whether you’re using colour ink to create black and white pictures. Colour inks produce the finest quality dots, but result in slightly green or magenta-washed photos. You can use the black cartridge only for a more faithful reproduction, but the trade-off is that your prints appear grainier.
If money is no object for you then there’s a wealth of dedicated black and white printers, inks and papers on the market. However, getting the best results from the equipment you already own isn’t only thrifty, it’s also deeply satisfying. Also, the level of experimentation that’s involved means you’ll be creating something original and unique to you.
How to improve your black and white photo prints
You have two basic choices: manufacturer or third-party brands. Manufacturer inks tend to be more consistent print by print and are arguably better quality. But can be expensive. Third-party inks are often cheaper and can produce great results if you’re prepared to experiment.
There are so many paper types, brands and shades of white on the market. Carrying out a test is key to finding a brand that suits you, but heavyweight papers generally produce better quality prints. Store your paper in a dark, clean and moisture-free environment, and load only one sheet at a time when printing.
An often-overlooked aspect of printing is the dusty, coffee cup cluttered work area. Choose an airy, neutral coloured room that has adequate daylight for viewing prints, yet can also be shaded for editing work. Keep the area tidy, dust-free and avoid putting your monitor near bright windows.
This is your ticket to the best black and white prints! A greyscale wedge will help you transpose the tones you see on your monitor to what is eventually printed on paper. You’ll need one for every paper and ink combination you use (and a printer and scanner to get the wedge into Photoshop).
Better black and white photo prints: greyscale wedge FAQ
How to use your greyscale wedge
Often it’s the shadow detail in mono prints that suffers the most, because when the ink output gets above 85% it all bleeds into a muggy mess. But that’s easily taken care of by using a greyscale wedge to create an Adjustment Curve. This can then be applied before printing to provide the best ink coverage. It’s not an all-out cure, but it should ensure better print consistency.
1. Print and scan
Open the ‘greyscale wedge’ file and, using colour ink, print it onto photo paper using the Best Quality setting. Leave it overnight to dry, then scan the wedge with a scanner at a resolution of roughly 600ppi.
1. Make adjustments
Open the scan in Photoshop and click Image>Mode>Greyscale. To enable even sampling, click Filter>Blur>Gaussian blur and set a Radius of 8 pixels. Select the Eyedropper tool [I] and ensure the Info tab is visible.
3. Sample the wedge
Get the wedge print out and a pen. Run the Eyedropper around each wedge centre on screen and note a few values of the Actual Colour – the percentage next to K – in the Info tab. Write the averages in the Sample Value box on the printed wedge.
4. Adding up
The difference between the Wedge Value and the Sampled Value is found by subtracting the Sampled Valve from the Wedge Value. Jot the results down in the Difference Value box, including a plus or minus symbol. Now subtract or add (depending on the symbol) the Input Value and the Difference Value to work out the Output Value for your Curve.
5. True black
Open the Curves box in Photoshop with [Ctrl]+[M] and click on the top right-hand point with an Input and Output Value of 100. You may find that your Output Value is above 100 and the Curves dialog won’t let you enter this number. If this is the case either leave it at 100 or enter your Sample Value in the Input box to get a deeper black.
6. Curves adjustments
Work your way down the Curve from 95 to 30, altering the values as you go. When you hit 30 there won’t be any more points available to adjust. The Curve is fairly accurate at this point, but if you need to make any further adjustments you can take away points that are close to each other on the Curve by dragging them off-screen.
7. Save profile
To save the Curve, click on the Options button next to the Curve preset at the top of the box and select Save Preset. As this Curve only gives accurate results for the paper stock, ink manufacturer and printer settings used to print the greyscale wedge, name the saved Curve so that it can be identified and referenced to the printed wedge.
8. Test print
Close the scanned wedge file and make the original wedge active again. Apply your Curve by clicking Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Curves and select Load As from the Preset drop-down menu. Print the adjusted greyscale wedge and compare it to the unadjusted one. You’ll see better separation between the sections and finer tonal gradation.
9. Tweak the Curve
For better results, let that print dry, scan it and try re-sampling any problem sections. You can even create another Curve for stubborn areas, such as deep shadows. You’ll use lots of ink and paper, but tweaking the points on your Curve to get the best looking separation by eye is the best way to finish off this technique.
Greyscale Wedge FAQ
Q: I’m struggling to separate 100% true black from 95%. Are you sure that this can be done with my set up?
A: Yes, this is a common problem and it can be solved by having one Curve for the overall image, then creating and applying an Adjustment Curve for the deep shadows. This may mean changing the 95% value on-screen down to 92% to give good separation, but be aware that if you’re printing with colour inks this tends to introduce a colour cast.
Q: The image looks good on-screen, until I apply the Curve and then it looks awful. Why?
A: You’ve changed the pixel values to what you want to see on paper, rather than printing the screen values, which your printer can’t handle. At this stage, just trust your print.
Q: How come I’ve scanned the corrected greyscale wedge, but when I sample the values of each section they don’t match up?
A: It would be almost impossible to get a perfect wedge with a basic home set-up. This method is designed to get you as close as possible to the best results. As long as the printed wedge and your test prints look good, even if some sections are 3 or 4% out, you’ve done the job correctly.
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