An Alternative Approach
Revised September 18, 2005
Copyright © 2002 - 2005 Clayton Jones
All Rights Reserved
years ago black and white digital printing was a very different sort of
mountain to climb. Getting any kind of decent results was extremely
difficult and seemed more like an arcane dark art than anything else.
Some people, including myself, never seemed to find the proper incantations
and couldn't get satisfactory results, experiencing only struggle and
frustration. In despair after months of struggle I tried Black Only
printing, supposedly a poor and unworthy method, and discovered it to be an
extremely easy and direct approach that produced beautiful prints, in many
ways better than those produced by the various full ink methods.
I began exploring this technique and shared my results in the forum and in these articles. Many people responded positively, saying that they too found it a very satisfying way to print, without all the struggles and frustrations of the full ink methods. Over time, and fighting an uphill battle against prejudice and entrenched notions, BO printing gained acceptance as a viable alternative and attracted a loyal band of users who love its unique look and other advantages.
That Was Then And This Is Now
technology has advanced enormously since those days, and especially with the
new K3 printers it is now easy (although much more expensive) to make
excellent BW prints "out of the box". In addition, many of the new
Epson printer models are not offering the Black Only option (although it can
still be done with a RIP). Because of these changes, and since my
original intent was to offer an easy path to get started, I have seriously
considered removing these articles. However, BO printing still remains
in use by those who love it (myself included) and I have been urged to keep
the information available.
So I have restructured the articles to reflect the new realities and will keep them here as long as they are filling a need. BO is still one of the the easiest, and certainly the least expensive, way to make good BW prints. It has a unique look that many love, and offers some significant advantages over other methods. Even though I have a new 2400 K3 machine myself, I am finding that I still prefer the BO look for many images.
Black Only Printing
approach is commonly called "Black Only" (BO) printing. Some printer
drivers have a control for choosing either black or color ink. Black
is usually used for printing plain text and pulls ink only from the black
cartridge. However, when used for printing photographs it produces
beautiful luminous prints with intense dmax and a unique sharp-edged grainy
look that resembles 35mm Tri-X prints. It gets its different densities
by changing the spacing of the tiny ink droplets or "dots". It is
these dots that give BO it's grainy look.
When I first began talking about it in the forum and sharing some sample prints, I soon learned that I was not alone. While BO printing has been generally downplayed, there were other photographers out there who had been quietly and happily printing this way, and still do.
I suspect BO's poor reputation was earned in earlier days when printers had larger ink droplets which produced rather crude results. But the modern printers have higher resolution and variable droplet size down to four picoliter and less, and the results can be gorgeous.
This is one attribute of BO printing which I like better than with
full ink printing. In FI printing in the high value areas the dots are made with the lightest of
the inks and are much closer together. What little space is between the dots appears to be covered by the clear base
fluid. Only in the pure white areas where no ink is
applied is bare paper visible.
BO printing, since it doesn't use gray inks, gets tonal gradation by varying the size, spacing and dithering patterns of the dots. With a loupe you can clearly see the individual dots, especially in the higher values where they are farther apart. They are not blended into a coating of base fluid but are separated by bare paper. Except for the darkest zones, the paper is not completely covered with ink (and therefore less ink is used). The result is that the color and reflectivity of the paper itself are a more active part of the image. BO prints have a beautiful luminance which extends all the way down into the mid tones. They have a glowing appearance where FI prints have an opaque look to them, similar to the difference between transparent and opaque watercolors.
I have held several different sets of BO and FI prints of identical images
side by side, and I usually prefer the BO print for its luminance. One person in the forum reported showing four sets of BO/FI prints to a master darkroom printer with no knowledge of digital printing, who chose the BO print in all four cases as being the one that "looked the best". Similar stories continue to appear in the forum from time to time.
of the added benefits of Black Only printing is the excellent D-max (maximum
density) it gets from the ink. According to experts in ink technology, many of the full-ink
systems mix a little bit of the gray ink in with the black, even in the
darkest zones right up to pure black at RGB 0. With BO printing only black is used, and the result is
very intense blacks which invokes positive comments from other photographers who use
My favorite ink is Eboni (which has excellent D-max; it is also less warm than some of the others). I showed a print to a good friend and master printer who was using a full grayscale ink set on a 7500. I asked him if the fact that it was a BO print stood out in any way, and he replied, "Only in that you are getting better D-max than I am."
is another important aspect to Black Only printing - archival longevity.
Assuming a high quality carbon ink such as Eboni is used, BO prints have the
highest longevity possible because only pure carbon ink is used. No
color inks or toners are added. Ink makers openly acknowledge that
color pigments are not as lightfast as pure carbon. Whether mixed into
the ink as toners or mixed on the paper as different colored dots, prints
with color inks will not last as long as BO prints.
What About The Dots?
dots are there. However, with the modern high resolution printers
which print at 2880 dpi they are all but indistinguishable to the naked eye.
With close examination in good light a sharp pair of eyes can see
dots in the highlights, but at normal viewing distances they are not
noticeable. There is a grainy appearance in smooth areas in the higher
zones which resembles film grain, which is why I like to call it
I have shown a small scrapbook of 4x5 BO prints to several other photographers and experienced darkroom printers, only saying that they were inkjet prints, nothing about BO. Being 4x5's they naturally require close up viewing. All were impressed and none of them said anything about them looking coarse or grainy or any sort of negative comment.
For a long time I was troubled by the dots, but I finally realized most of the difficulty was in my own mind. Numerous times I have been immersed in other work, only to turn around and be struck by the stark beauty of one of these prints hanging here, and would be forced to wonder what I was worrying about. I accepted that BO printing is simply what it is and there is no sense being bothered by it. The prints are beautiful and intense, with deep rich blacks and glowing highlights.
What Will Other People, Especially Photographers, Think of Them?
are some quotes from other photographers:
Advantages of BO Printing
Here is a summary of advantages of black only printing:
Recommendations For Getting Started
Here are some recommendations for anyone getting started who wants some
Printer - For letter size paper I recommend either an older 870 or the current R200. I don't recommend the C86 because many users report it does a poor job at BO.
For 13" paper I recommend getting either the 1280 model or the 2200. Both can print up to 13x19 paper, have variable to 4 picoliter ink droplet size, and can print up to 2880 dpi (although the 1280 has lower vertical resolution, 2880x720 vs 2880x1440 for the 2200). Both are very popular and have proven track records. There are pros and cons to both. For example, the 2200 is made for pigment inks and seems to have fewer clogging problems with the new inks (based upon comments in the forum). It also has a different dither pattern which can have a slightly different look in smooth mid tone areas, and with the higher vertical resolution can produce more precise rendering of very tiny details (usually requiring a loupe to see the difference). If you want to print color, the 2200's UltraChrome inks can be used on glossy papers. On the other hand, the 1280 has been around longer and has more inks and products made for it and is less expensive. So be sure to weigh all the factors before making a decision. Most of the older models have lower resolution and/or larger droplet size, and will produce lower quality BO prints.
If 16x20 prints are needed, the model 4000 is highly recommended. While large, heavy and expensive, it has a unique dither pattern and produces the best BO prints I have seen so far.
Ink - I recommend the Eboni ink sold by MIS Associates. Eboni is widely regarded as the best of the new generation of inks. If you plan to do BO printing exclusively then it doesn't matter which ink you get for the colors. If you want to do color printing, the Eboni black works well with the Epson color pigment inks that come with the 2200, or you can use the full UltraTone set from MIS for the 2200, or a special formulation for the 1280. If you want to try full-ink black and white printing, MIS also has UT7, a gray scale set of UltraTones for the 2200 and 7600 which uses Eboni for the black ink. Users report excellent results.
Note: If you are ordering an Eboni cartridge for BO printing with the 2200, be sure to order cartridge # ARC-T0348-K. They have another cartridge #ARC-T0347-QUT which is made for the light black ink slot and is only for use with the UT inkset. It cannot be used for BO printing.
Here is a link to the MIS web page for ordering that cartridge.
As for CIS units, I recommend not buying one until you have some experience and have been following the forum messages for awhile. If you will be printing large prints, or in large volume, then you may be forced into a decision earlier, due to ink costs. The alternative is to get into refilling your own cartridges, which is now much easier than ever before. More information about that can be found at the MIS web site.
Paper - Get 50 sheets of 8.5x11 EEM to start with. You'll be using a lot in the beginning. I recommend cutting it down into quarter page sheets for proofing and experimenting. This will require creating a custom paper size in the printer driver.
I have grown to
love the look and feel of black only prints. I sometimes
refer to it as Digital Tri-X, because in spite of
Kodak's Tri-X being an older
film with larger grain than the modern emulsions, it remains one of
the most well loved films of all time. Yes it has grain, but it is
clean and sharp-edged and adds to the beauty of the print. It is still
the preferred film of many photographers. So it is
a matter of taste. Some like it, some don't.
BO prints are like that. Yes, they have dots, if you look close enough, but BO prints have a quality of luminance which FI prints don't have. I have grown to like that, and others have reported the same. So it, too, is a matter of taste. Some like it, some don't. If you want to make beautiful, luminous prints without all the hassles, it's a great way to go.
In any case, printing black only does not mean you are locked into it forever. You can experiment with other methods any time you wish. And if you get tired from the "ink wars" you can always come back to BO for some R&R.
Wishing you many beautiful prints.
© 2002 - 2005 Clayton Jones
Return to: Home Page | Gallery Entrance | Articles Page