How to create outstanding B&W photographs.

Many photographers enjoy producing the occasional monochrome picture, either because the tonality suits the subject or to differentiate the composition from the multitude of colour pictures seen in everyday life. Fortunately, all cameras and most smartphones include a monochrome mode.

But what’s the best way to create B&W photos and how should they be printed to obtain the best possible quality? Many systems are available; some better than others. What matters more is having the right printer for the task.

For starters, the printer’s ink set will include two or three levels of grey (or ‘light black’) ink to ensure a good spread of tones between bright white and total black. Printers with only one black ink rely upon the coloured inks to reproduce intermediate grey tones. That almost inevitably results in prints with noticeable colour casts.

Six-colour ink set with only one black ink

When there is only one black ink, the printer may not be able to produce a full range of monochrome tones and prints will have a noticeable colour cast, as shown above.

The addition of grey inks fills in the deficiencies in the tonal range, allowing monochrome prints with neutral tones to be produced.

To reproduce the full tonal range of a B&W image, you need at least one grey (‘light black’) ink. Professional quality photo printers sometimes provide two levels of grey ink, giving them access to a wider range of intermediate grey tones. If you make a lot of monochrome prints, these are the printers to buy.

What makes a good monochrome image?

You need the right shot, effective editing, the right printer and the right media for printing your photograph.  Best results will be obtained when you start with a full-colour image file containing maximum image data. This means shooting with the highest available resolution and quality and using the camera’s raw format where it’s available.

In most cameras, selecting the B&W or monochrome shooting mode will discard the colour information when JPEG files are saved, giving you much less image data to work with. Unless you capture RAW+JPEG files, monochrome modes are best avoided unless you need a ‘quick and dirty’ conversion for an application where quality doesn’t count. (Raw files always capture all image data, including colour information.)

You can obtain a true monochrome image in several ways…

Monochrome conversion methods

The simplest way to convert a colour image to monochrome is to select the grayscale option in the Image dropdown menu. If you’re using a sophisticated editor like Photoshop, it’s useful to change the bit depth from 8-bit (the JPEG standard) to 16-bit, which will give you more intermediate tones to work with.

Simple grayscale conversion in Photoshop.

Another simple way to obtain a monochrome image is to open the image in an editor and use the Saturation slider in the colour adjustment menu. Dragging it all the way to the left will remove all colours from the image.

saturation slider

Dragging the Saturation slider to the left removes colours from the image.

The dropdown menu in Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation control provides a selection of colour tones, including popular options like Sepia (shown here), Cyanotype and Old Style (which simulates old photos).  The sliders provide further hue and tonal adjustments.

Photoshop also provides a much more powerful monochrome setting that lets you apply different filters and adjust image contrast as well as adding tints like sepia and blue or brown toning. Coloured inks will be required to print the end results of this type of conversion to obtain the necessary tonal subtlety.

This illustration shows the various options available in Photoshop for monochrome conversion. The dropdown menus on the left side will disappear once Black & White is selected from the Adjustments menu.

(See more on monochrome conversion.)

Black ink only
Some printers will allow you to print with black ink only. The end result varies, depending on the printer. At best, the print will include a decent range of tones with subtle tonal transitions. However, with cheaper printers, you’re more likely to obtain a print with a coarse texture in which a pattern of dots is visible because of the way the printer driver converts the data into ink on paper.  Some printers will introduce either posterisation or banding or, in the worst case scenario, both.

Don’t expect to match the results obtained through using a full ink set with multiple grey inks.

Working with office printers

If you only have an office printer, it’s possible to obtain tolerable monochrome prints. Start by working with the inks and papers recommended by the printer manufacturer.  Third-party inks and/or papers can yield unpredictable results and fade-resistance will usually be compromised.

When setting up to print, avoid printing in Greyscale mode unless you’ve run some preliminary tests and are happy with the results. Don’t adjust colours in the printer driver; it could produce colour casts.

Make test strips to minimise paper and ink wastage and when you achieve a good result, save the printer driver settings using the Custom Settings box in the printer driver. This allows you to call them up again whenever you want to make another monochrome print.

Monochrome printing modes

Some specialised photo printers come with dedicated B&W settings that allow users to fine-tune image tones and/or introduce colour toning effects. The Advanced B&W driver in Epson’s printers gives users four Colour Toning options: neutral, cool, warm and sepia and allows them to adjust the tone across five levels from light (the hardest) to darkest (the softest).

Epson’s Advanced B&W driver makes it easy to adjust colour toning for monochrome prints.

Sliders provide adjustments for brightness, contrast, shadow and highlight tonality and optical density (sharp or soft focus). Users can check the Highlight Point Shift box to add a little more ink to white areas to overcome highlight blow-out and the resulting gloss differential.

The most subtle adjustments are made by moving the white cross about in the colour circle on the right side of the dialog box. In all cases, the adjustments will be reflected in the sample image shown beside the reference


You can use the same papers for printing monochrome images as you do for colour printing. However, tests have shown the best results come from printing on semi-gloss and matte papers. Glossy paper can produce quite varied results and specular reflections will always be problematic with B&W photos.

Fine Art papers can produce very attractive looking B&W prints. But make sure your printer is able to handle them as they are usually quite a lot thicker than regular inkjet papers. Special feed-in mechanisms are often required.

(See more on paper selection in Photo Review Magazine Issue 80 and in Photo Printing Pocket Guide)

Article by Margaret Brown –  see Margaret’s photography pocket guides

Excerpt from Photo Printing pocket guide