Black and white printing: the inside story

Discover how Canon ink, software and printer technologies enable professional quality black and white printing, and how to get the best results in monochrome printing.

Printing presents some inherent challenges. For a start, colours on-screen and on paper are produced in fundamentally different ways, and there are many hurdles in translating the RGB colours on-screen to the CMYK colours used on paper. However, tonal fidelity can be just as tricky as colour accuracy, because screens have a much greater dynamic range than paper prints. For this reason among others, printing in black and white brings its own demands.

Despite this, black and white printing remains tremendously popular as a creative photographic medium. Black and white prints can exhibit immense depth and tonal quality, highlighting form and texture without the distractions of colour.

Traditional silver halide monochrome prints had a depth and richness that proved problematic to reproduce in digital printing, but Canon responded with a series of key advances in printing, paper and ink technologies, delivering an end-to-end solution to achieve monochrome photo printing quality that meets the requirements of professionals.

Canon offers a range of printers for straightforward office printing in black and white, including single function mono printers and multifunction devices. Here we explore how Canon's technologies facilitate and enhance the next level of creative monochrome printing, with expert insights from Canon Europe print expert Suhaib Hussain. We'll also advise on how to get the best black and white printing results.

Canon FINE printer head technology

Canon inks for black and white printing

Paper for black and white prints

Using Canon PPL software for black and white printing

PPL advanced options for black and white printing

Tips for perfect black and white prints

A monochrome print emerges from a Canon printer as a user's finger presses one of the controls on its front panel.

Professional fine art photographers demand black and white printing technologies that can recreate the tonal richness of traditional darkroom prints. Canon developed innovative inks, papers and inkjet print technologies to deliver professional quality black and white photo prints.

Canon FINE printer head technology

High quality photo printing requires microscopic ink droplets and extremely precise ejection. With conventional inkjets, however, the finer the ink droplets, the more vulnerable they are to airflow disturbances resulting from print head movement and to changes in ink viscosity caused by temperature fluctuations. Canon's FINE (Full-photolithography Inkjet Nozzle Engineering) print head technology addresses both these issues.

Instead of spraying ink droplets onto the paper surface, FINE technology ejects ink by heating it, producing much smaller and more uniform ink droplets and increasing droplet placement speed to more than 1.5 times that of conventional systems. This results in much greater placement accuracy, hugely improving the resolution and smooth tonal gradations so critical in black and white photo prints in particular. The Canon PIXMA PRO-200, for example, produces ink droplets of just 3 picolitres in size and places droplets with a dot pitch of 4,800 dots per inch.

FINE technology uses high-precision manufacturing techniques employed in semiconductor production, integrating the heating elements and nozzles into a single unit on a wafer. FINE print heads fit 6,000 nozzles or more on a chip just 20mm x 16mm, roughly the size of a thumbprint.

This compactness in turn makes it possible for Canon's PIXMA FINE Cartridge system to include the print heads in the ink cartridge. The FINE print head technology, however, is the same in printers with separate ink cartridges including Canon's high-yield MAXIFY printers, and in MegaTank printers with refillable ink tanks.

A view from underneath of the print head in the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000.

Canon's FINE print head technology produces smaller and more uniform ink droplets that are less susceptible to airflow disturbances and temperature-related changes in ink viscosity. The technology is used both in the multi-colour ink cartridges found in affordable consumer printers and in the print heads of pro printers such as this Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000.

The eight ink cartridges in a Canon PIXMA PRO-200 printer.

The PIXMA PRO-200 uses eight dye-based inks including photo cyan and photo magenta for improved, more vibrant colour reproduction, and grey and light grey for exceptional subtlety of tone in monochrome prints as well as faster output.

Canon inks for black and white printing

Colour inkjet printers combine cyan, magenta and yellow inks on the paper in different proportions to create all the colours of the spectrum, plus a black ink to ensure a solid, dense black. This is the basis of the CMYK colour system used at all levels from desktop printers to commercial printing presses. Depending on the model, some Canon pro inkjet printers use additional colours of ink to increase the gamut of colours that can be printed, improve the subtlety of individual hues and enhance the tonal transitions between them.

You might assume that when you print in black and white, the printer uses only its black ink, but this is not the case. To reproduce some shades of grey, printers usually attempt to mix coloured inks in precisely controlled proportions. However, it is tricky to achieve a desired colour-neutral result this way. For this reason, some pro printers have extra mono inks in addition to extra colours.

If you want high-quality black and white prints, Suhaib says, one of the most important things to look for in a printer is the number of monochrome inks it has. "The more monochrome inks, the better the tonal range you can expect," he explains. "Gradations will be more natural, with better neutrality of tones."

The Canon PIXMA PRO-200, for example, uses eight dye-based inks including black, grey and light grey inks. This makes it capable of finely-nuanced black and white printing with deep, rich blacks, especially on glossy photo papers.

The imagePROGRAF PRO-300 uses Canon's advanced LUCIA PRO pigment inks, with 10 inks including matte black, photo black and grey. The matte black ink is enhanced to give deeper, richer blacks and better reproduction of shadow details on absorbent papers than photo black, which is formulated for use on glossy papers. It also has Canon's unique Chroma Optimiser, adding a clear coating to ensure consistent reflectivity in between ink droplets, eliminate bronzing and prevent colour shifts under different lighting conditions.

The imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 uses 12 LUCIA PRO pigment-based inks including Chroma Optimiser and four inks dedicated to black and white printing – photo black, matte black, grey and photo grey – for exceptional tonal depth and clarity. It is optimised for multiple media types including gloss, matte, fine art paper, canvas and baryta paper. The matte black and photo black nozzles are separated, avoiding the need for nozzle cleaning when switching from one media type to another.

Generally speaking, dye-based inks are absorbed into the paper, which means they accurately reflect its character and texture. They produce vibrant colours, smooth gradients and a wide dynamic range, making them ideal for photo prints, particularly on glossy papers. Pigment inks sit on top of the printed surface rather than permeating it, which means they produce deep blacks and crisp detail rendition, even on matte or textured papers, where dye-based inks may bleed and dissipate into the paper fibres. Pigment inks also have better water-, dust- and UV-resistance, making them ideal for fine art prints where longevity and lightfastness are desired.

Seven prints, fanned out, of a monochrome photograph of a boat printed on different types of photo paper.

Different inks are formulated to work with specific papers because different papers have widely different absorption and reflectivity characteristics – and very dissimilar white levels, which can give the same image a radically altered appearance and feel.

Paper for black and white prints

In practice, your first step will usually be to choose a paper finish to suit your particular requirements and personal preferences. For a start, do you want a glossy, satin or a matte surface? "Matte paper tends to be good for black and white or desaturated images, as well as images with a softer colour palette," Suhaib advises. It is less reflective, reducing the problem of glare, so that tones appear more even and uniform. However, glossier papers often support a wider dynamic range, from very bright white to very dark black tones. "Semi-gloss or lustre is good for high-contrast, detailed and saturated images. Super glossy works well for vibrant images."

Fine art photographer Antonio Gaudencio feels that finding the right combination of printer and paper allows him to "paint" in a way an artist would, and he uses fine art papers from specialist paper supplier Canson® Infinity. Magical realist photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva chose a fine art rag paper from Hahnemühle for her prints for a London exhibition. Canon itself offers a range of fine art and premium matte papers. Within this broad category, however, there is a range of finishes to choose from, and it is important to consider how well any visible texture in the paper will suit each image. So-called dead matte papers have a completely smooth surface, which will support dense, even blacks and work well for portraits because the grain won't alter the appearance of skin. By contrast, papers with more texture can add a three-dimensional impression to landscapes and architectural photos, for example.

Another vital consideration for black and white printing is the whiteness of the paper. "The white level of the paper will affect the look of the print, similar to how white balance affects a digital image," Suhaib explains. "Matte papers tend to be a lot more muted – the whites are softer, so prints might look warmer than on screen." Papers with optical brightening agents have a bluish tint, making it a challenge to produce prints with the correct warmth. This was the main reason Canon developed its own range of photo print papers without optical brightening agents, and other makers also avoid them for environmental responsibility reasons.

In practice, particularly if you're using one of Canon's pro photo printers, which have different types of inks available to use, the printer software will deploy the inks best suited to the media you're using. So let's talk about software.

A screenshot of Canon's Professional Print and Layout software, with a fine art paper being selected in the Media Type pop-up menu.

Canon's powerful Professional Print and Layout (PPL) software makes it easy to produce outstanding prints – simply select the precise media you're using and the software optimises the output settings to ensure the best results. You can further customise the image and print settings to your preferences.

Using Canon PPL software for black and white printing

The software you use to print can make a significant difference. Canon's Professional Print and Layout (PPL) software can be used as a standalone application or as a plug-in within your preferred image editing software, including Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom or Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP), and has a dedicated Black and White Photo print mode designed to get the best from your printer, particularly models with more than the three basic colours of ink.

"The Black and White Photo mode reduces the amount of colour introduced into the print to make up the tones that can't be replicated by the black and grey inks alone," explains Suhaib. "It uses a specially developed algorithm to generate a neutral print, by using only the lighter photo cyan and photo magenta inks in addition to the printer's black and grey inks. It's a quick and easy way of avoiding unwanted colour casts."

Of course, you might not want a completely colour-neutral monochrome print in the first place but something with a subtly warmer (more red) or cooler (more blue) tone. For this type of nuance and depth, using coloured inks instead of just black and grey is a positive advantage.

To adjust tones when printing in PPL, click the Color Settings tab and you can select Cool Tone, Warm Tone or Black and White (neutral). You can fine-tune in the colour tone adjustment space by clicking on a colour close to what you want. In addition, you can adjust the highlights, shadows or both, as well as the brightness and contrast. All these adjustments will not affect the image data, only the print output, but they will apply to all the images you are printing in the same batch.

A picture of a man's face in profile being edited in Canon's Digital Photo Professional with the colour adjustment tools.

You can fine-tune the print output of your images in Canon's Professional Print and Layout software, but for more nuanced control, adjust the image in Digital Photo Professional (DPP) first. For this monochrome print project, we used the Adjustment Area Panel tools in DPP to selectively darken any light parts of the shot other than the face, then convert the image to monochrome.

PPL advanced options for black and white printing

PPL offers fine control over print settings, the ability to save settings for re-use, and extensive support for different media via printer profiles, an essential step in achieving consistent, high-quality black and white output. It also offers some advanced options of particular benefit for printing in black and white.

The option to Use contrast reproduction in the General Settings reduces the degradation of sharpness that occurs when printing photos. Unlike conventional sharpness controls, this option performs corrections according to the characteristics of the paper selected, so as to maintain a natural impression.

The HDR Print option optimises your image's dynamic range for the paper you're using, but is available only when started from DPP (v4.9.20 or newer) and an HDR PQ compatible RAW image is selected.

Finally, if you're producing prints for an exhibition, you can minimise blown-out highlights by using the Optimize for exhibition lighting option, so that the prints' dynamic range is visually expanded under bright exhibition lighting. You simply choose the setting that best matches the conditions under which the prints will be viewed.

Two people examine a sheet of variations of a portrait photo produced using the Pattern Print feature in Canon's PPL software.

A contact sheet printed using the Pattern Print feature in Canon's Professional Print and Layout software enables you to compare variations of an image and choose the one you like best. Simply input the code beneath it back into PPL, and your full-size print will be produced using the appropriate settings for exactly the result you want.

Tips for perfect black and white prints

1 Calibrate your monitor. If you want to be confident that what you get in print will match what you see on-screen, then it's vital to ensure that your display is colour-calibrated and your workflow colour-managed. This isn't just for colour printing – at factory settings, most screens are too cool (too blue) and too bright, which risks your black and white prints emerging with unwanted colour casts and looking too dark.

2 Print using ICC profiles. For the most consistent and reliable results without time-consuming trial and error, PPL and other print software can utilise ICC profiles, which fine-tune the printer settings to suit the specific paper you've chosen. PPL comes with ICC profiles for a wide range of Canon's photo papers and fine art media, and if you're using third-party media you can download the appropriate profiles from manufacturers' websites.

3 Proof before you print. To save costly paper, PPL enables you to soft proof on-screen – with a calibrated monitor, it can simulate different inks and papers to accurately preview how your print will look.

4 Use Pattern Print. PPL also offers the incredibly useful Pattern Print feature, which enables you to produce a test print on your chosen paper containing a set of thumbnails of your image, each with slightly different brightness, colour balance and contrast settings. Simply choose the best to print at full size.

Rod Lawton and Alex Summersby
Adobe, Lightroom, Photoshop and Photoshop Elements are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

Related articles

Get the newsletter

Click here to get inspiring stories and exciting news from Canon Europe Pro