|Black & White Inkjet
Tools of the Trade
by Jim McGee
Creating high quality black and white prints on your inkjet is as much about tools as it is about technique.
You can get good black and white prints from your color inkjet printer if you take the steps to calibrate it properly as was detailed in the November issue Creating Fine Art Prints at Home: Black and White Printing. But to produce gallery quality prints you'll need the proper tools.
The simple fact is that color inkjet printers are designed to produce color prints. That's as it should be. The vast majority of people buying these printers want to be able to create great color photos, so printers are optimized to do that job well. Black and white is an afterthought at best. That means that unless you're willing to tweak the printer your black and white prints will have color casts, muddy details, and will in general be less than pleasing. But even after tweaking your color printer you will find that you can only take your black and white prints so far.
The Next Step in Quality
I can hear folks screaming: "McGee you're nuts!"
Well yes, but that's a different conversation and has nothing to do with printers. Think about it this way. A good photo quality printer can be had today for between $100 and $150. Watch for sales and model year changes and you can pick up a photo printer capable of producing high quality 8x10 images for as little as $40 or $50. Want great 11x14 prints? The cost goes up a bit. An Epson 1280 goes for around $500 and a 2200 goes for around $700. But nothing says you have to buy new. I did a quick check of eBay and found used 1270's had recently sold for anywhere from $200 to $280. There was a wider spread on the 1280's which sold for anywhere from $300 to $400.
Now depending on print size that means you're spending anywhere from $40 to $400 for a dedicated black and white printer. Think that's nuts? What did you spend on your last lens?
Why Epson? The answer is simple. As we start looking at inks and papers for dedicated black and white printers you'll find that Epson is the most widely supported for inks, papers, or ICC profiles. Epson printers also do a better job with heavyweight custom papers since they have a straight through paper path. HP printers feed paper from the front and force the paper to do a 180-degree turn as it passes by the print heads. Some heavyweight art papers just can't negotiate that 180. Canon bublejets feed paper directly past the heads as the Epsons do, but you won't yet find the same level of support available from third party vendors for Canon printers - which will limit your options down the road.
Setting up for Black and White
Your next step will be choosing an ink delivery system. There are two basic types. The first, and simplest, is to purchase black ink cartridges that replace the color cartridges. The second is an ink delivery system that feeds ink into your printers from outboard inkbottles. While more expensive initially, bottle systems will save you a ton of money in the long run if you're going to do a lot of printing. The downside is that you're getting a lot of ink. Manufacturers of black ink sets offer a number of variations that vary black levels and the warmth of the tones in the prints. Cartridges allow more room to experiment, both now and as more ink types become available.
The two biggies in black ink sets right now are Luminos and Piezography. Both make high quality black ink sets in cartridge and external bottle systems for Epson printers. Expect individual ink cartridges to be a bit more expensive than standard Epson cartridges. External bottle systems range from $399 (Luminos) to $429 (Piezography via InkJet Mall).
Both ink sets work best when used with high quality papers. Luminos has their own brand of papers, which they naturally recommend for printing with their inks (though you can print on other papers as well). The good news is that the quality of both the inks and papers is excellent.
Piezography offers a wider variety of monochrome ink sets (which they call quad tone inks) that includes warm neutral, cool neutral, selenium tone, and carbon sepia tone ink sets. I've seen gallery size prints done with these inks. While all of them are obviously high quality the selenium tone in particular is striking. They offer an online color chart but it doesn't manage to do justice to the differences between these inks. In particular look at the white to gray transition areas to get a feel for tonal differences.
Piezography doesn't make their own paper but rather recommends Hahnemühle papers as their favorite (though you can print on other papers as well).
Both Luminos and Hahnemühle offer 8.5 x 11 sample packs of their papers. This is the best way to determine what papers you like. You can read all you want online and in print, but until you see the same image side by side on different papers you really can't appreciate the subtle, and not so subtle, differences. As always look closely at your prints in indirect sunlight to get an accurate feel for the differences. Incandescent and fluorescent lights will give enough of a color cast to fool the eye.
One downside to the Epson printer designs is their propensity for clogged heads. In this regard Luminos claims that their bottle system is less prone to clogging than Epson cartridges since the reservoirs that replace the Epson cartridges are always full, providing more pressure in the system and helping to prevent clogs. Piezography on the other hand says their inks are more prone to clogging than the Epson inks. The reason being that the anti-clogging agents added by Epson effect the longevity of the ink on paper.
In any case your best bet is to turn your printer off whenever you're not using it for more than an hour and definitely turn it off overnight. The Epson design parks and caps the heads when the power is turned off. This prevents the ink from drying out in the print head. Frankly it's a design flaw with these printers that the heads aren't parked automatically anytime there is a prolonged period of inactivity. Luminos offers a head-cleaning cartridge to clear particularly troublesome print heads.
Either ink set is easy to get going if you're using cartridges. Simply replace the Epson cartridges with a new set of black cartridges (both are replaced) and flush the system to get any old Epson inks out of the heads. Set up the new ICC profile if you're using color profiles, and in the case of Piezography install a Photoshop plug-in and you're ready to roll. Installation of the bottle systems is a little more involved; and includes replacing the Epson cartridges with ink reservoirs, connecting plastic tubes to the bottles, and priming the whole system with ink. There are a lot of steps but you shouldn't have trouble if you follow the directions.
Research both systems thoroughly as there are pros and cons to each; but whichever one you choose you'll be able to produce higher quality black and white prints on your home inkjet than you ever thought possible. Prints that will rival what you'd get from a good black and white pro lab.
The Next Level
Though you'll find lots of local labs that are doing large color inkjet prints, there are precious few who are printing high quality black and white ink jet prints. And if you find one are they using the same inks and papers as you? If not how different will their prints look from yours?
Piezography offers a solution here as well. Work out all the details on a test print and then contact their printing division, Cone Editions Press (802-439-5751). They've been doing large format black and white prints since 1985. Prices will depend on size, paper choice, and what you want done.