Digital Tri-X
An Alternative Approach
Revised September 18, 2005

Copyright © 2002 - 2005 Clayton Jones
All Rights Reserved
by Clayton Jones
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Several 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

The 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

This 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.

Great D-Max

One 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 full-ink methods. 

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."



There 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?

The 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
"Digital Tri-X".

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?

Here are some quotes from other photographers:
  • "Very nice work and impressive results with your black only
    workflow.  Good tonal gradations and clean whites."

  • "Your prints have just arrived, and very convincing they are!
    The portrait is especially good.  The whole range of tones --
    from the near-white tones in the gown, through the skin tones,
    to the dark oak pew -- are rendered beautifully.  That's a
    stunning black you're getting."

  • "I just received your prints today.  My overall comment is WOW!!
    In particular, the "Forest" image is very, very nice.  The tones
    in this image are simply exquisite!  The portrait is truly

  • "I received your sample prints.  Thanks very much!  They are just stunning."

  • Very nice B&W prints-I'm particularly impressed by the white snow in 'snow road' and the stucco wall in 'secret garden'. Your claims are accurate.

If you are interested in seeing one of these BO prints, for information on ordering a sample 5x7 print, signed and printed on highest quality paper.

Advantages of BO Printing

Here is a summary of advantages of black only printing:

  • Easy to learn - no workflows, separation curves or profiles.

  • Inexpensive because it uses less ink (about 1/3 the amount in FI prints).

  • No special software or drivers required.
  • Does not lock you into a system and prevent experimenting
    with other inks.
  • Works on any paper without special profiles. You are not dependant on someone else to make a profile for a paper you want to try.

  • A wide tonal range, from warm to neutral, with different papers.
  • Beautiful luminous quality, glowing highlights.

  • Excellent D-max, deep intense blacks.
  • Highest longevity possible because it uses only pure carbon ink with no toners or color inks added.

  • Print B&W and color from the same printer.


Recommendations For Getting Started

Here are some recommendations for anyone getting started who wants some guidance:

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.

Best Regards,
Clayton Jones

Copyright © 2002 - 2005 Clayton Jones
All rights reserved.

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