When is black not black

A few experiments in printing black and white photographs.

These days we are all so used to instant gratification and seeing photographs almost instantly on social media. There is nothing to beat holding and viewing an actual printed photograph though.

I’ve recently rediscovered the pleasure of darkroom printing of my black and white photos onto silver gelatin paper. The experience of seeing the quality of the tonal range of a printed photo is quite something. This led me to thinking about doing a comparison between the same photo negatives scanned digitally and printed on an inkjet printer and those produced by the traditional darkroom process.

I should, at this stage, point out that I’ve had problems in the past producing black and white prints at home using my inkjet printer. They look acceptable until you put them against a good quality black and white reproduction. The inkjets always seem to have a slight blue tinge.

Scan of image printed using an Epson SX200 inkjet printer

The first example is a scan of an image printed using an Epson SX200 inkjet printer. This is a 4 cartridge printer with only one black cartridge.

Scan of an image printed on an Epson Stylus Photo 1500W printer.

Both of these prints appear to be not too bad but you can only really see the difference when put side by side as in the next image scan. As you can see, the image on the left lacks punch and has a distinct blue tinge. The image on the right was printed on an Epson Stylus Photo 1500W inkjet printer. This printer has six cartridges but still has only the one black cartridge. It appears though that it can achieve a much improved tonal range with richer blacks.

That’s until you compare the image from the 1500W to those produced by other methods. My next comparison was to compare the image above and on the right to those printed from my Smugmug site and have them delivered mail order and .

Left image printed on 1500W inkjet printer and that on the right from SmuMug site.

Not bad and the one on the left has a slight blue tinge. The one on the right commercially printed is definitely better but as they are reasonably priced and are delivered to me in 2 days it’s not really worthwhile printing from home.

As for quality, I know one can print better on an inkjet printer if you are prepared to pay a £1000 for the printer and up to £50 per cartridge for replacement cartridges. These printers usually have 9 cartridges because they include 3 shades of grey so that can mean and ongoing layout of £450 which is outside most people’s budget.

Before we leave this subject I should point out that the photographs used as examples were all taken on 35mm Ilford HP5+ film around the Barbican, London. So, I should say that there is one alternative to the above methods and that is going back to traditional methods of producing the print in the darkroom by printing from an enlarger onto silver gelatin paper. In my opinion this gives the best result in terms of the blacks really being black and the range of tones are fantastic. Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to use a darkroom but an interesting comparison all the same.

Print on the left printed with the Epson Stylus Photo 1500W. The one on the right is a silver gelatin print produced in the darkroom.

All photographs printed on lustre finish premium quality paper.

One thought on “When is black not black

  1. I’ve taken to having digital c-types printed at the same lab where I have my film developed.

    While ink jets can certainly produce higher resolution prints, the quality and colors offered by c-types even those that have been digital produced is far superior. And in the end I have an archival quality photograph that cost me a fraction of the headache of printing at home.

    Personally I miss my university darkroom. For black and white, making prints was such a rewarding experience that I’d spend may weekends in the darkroom.

    Liked by 1 person

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