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Monday, August 13

Back to the Future

Way back in the mists of time, I was an early adopter of things digital. The cameras were handy for a young father with little free time and helped me get back into photography after a lay-off of several years. Mucking about with image files on the computer was good fun but I soon wanted to see some prints. That's where the problems began.

I've touched on my not entirely successful relationship with inkjet printers from time-to-time on the blog. Suffice to say that they were capable of producing really fine prints some of the time but were usually an exercise in frustration thanks to weird colour casts, colour shifts under different lighting and "bronzing".

Another huge bug-bear was the need to keep the print heads clear so that they didn't clog up and become useless. If I used the printer on a weekly basis things were normally OK. If the machine sat for any length of time, though, clogs would bung up the printer nozzles and "cleaning cycles" would be required to clear them. Sometimes, the clogs were so bad that they couldn't be cleared at all, rendering the printer a fairly worthless piece of junk. All these cleaning cycles use up fairly significant quantities of expensive ink making the proper maintenance of a colour inkjet printer quite a dear proposition.

For me, however, it was the "not exactly black and white" output from the printer that occupied most of my time and caused me most grief. Banishing subtle but noticeable colour tints from the shadows and mid tones was a near impossible task. Maybe I'm hyper-sensitive to it but the slightest hint of an unwanted colour cast anywhere on a black and white print completely ruined it for me. Possibly, if I'd called in a colour profiling company and spent hundreds of pounds then I might have ended up with a workable system.

Instead, out of sheer frustration, I hit the internet and found a website run by a man called Clayton Jones (one of his early articles can be found here). who was advocating "black only printing" - producing prints using only the ink from the black cartridge. Perceived wisdom at the time (still is) was that all the cartridges, colour and black, should be used to ensure the smoothest tones in a black and white print but this, for me, produced the colour shifts I hated. Obviously, there would be no colour shifts from just the black ink.

For a very reasonable price, Clayton was happy to send out a 5x7 print produced on a fairly basic Epson printer using the black ink only so that people could see the sort of quality achievable. I ordered one and thought it looked great. It wasn't smooth like a medium format print but had the look of something that could have come from a 35mm camera and Tri X - slightly grainy but nice and snappy. To my eyes, it was a much more convincing print than those produced using all the ink cartridges. BO printing gradually lost what popularity it had when printers with two or three black and grey inks started to appear, making it easier to produce genuinely monochrome prints using more than just the one cartridge.

I used the BO method for a while before deciding to go back to film and the darkroom and my digital experiment came to an end. However, I hung on to the Epson R220 printer that I used for the BO method and just last week decided it would be fun to see if it could be resurrected. Given that it last spat out a print probably ten years ago, I wasn't holding out much hope that the print heads would be functional and a test print using the still installed cartridges confirmed that.

Before chucking the printer out, I ordered a cheap set of inks off Ebay and set about doing multiple cleaning cycles. The only nozzles that produced any ink were the black and yellow ones, everything else was clogged solid. I kept plugging away and to my amazement managed to completely clear the black nozzles which was the only colour I needed anyway.

An evening spent experimenting with all the various settings in the printer driver saw me producing quite nice black only prints once again. Coming from just the black ink, the prints are quite convincing with no casts or odd tints. Their colour resembles warm-toned darkroom prints. So far I've just printed some small, postcard-sized images but the good thing with BO printing is that, providing you start with a big enough file, the quality actually improves as the print size goes up.

The prints posted here were taken a few days ago when Cath and I were about to have a pub lunch at an eatery bordering the local airport. I emerged from the car, looked up at the scene depicted in the first image above and thought, "There's an Andreas Gursky*." Out came the iphone for a quick pic. I stepped back a bit to include the wire fence I'd just shot through and snapped another. The third photo was a quick shot through the window from the table we were sitting at.

I edited the files using the software on the iphone, simply converting the photos to black and white using the pre-set silvertone setting. They were then opened up in Photoshop and printed just four inches wide on glossy paper before being scanned and uploaded to the blog. I hope you share my opinion that they're quite nice little images - all the more so for being scans of small BO prints from iphone files.

I'm not going to make any outrageous claims about them: they are what they are. However, I think this way of working might be ideal for producing small prints on lightweight paper for pasting in a photo journal. It's a very quick and convenient way of getting some prints for that purpose. In the case of the Carse Project, for instance, I could print out the successful shots from the rolls of negatives, paste them up and write a bit about them so I can see where the whole thing stands. I've been meaning to start a photo journal for months but it always seemed like too much bother having commercial prints done or printing them in the darkroom.

The best bit is that my R220 with the clogged colour print heads couldn't be better for A4 BO printing. Ink costs are minimal as I only need the black cartridge and I can get six for about £18 on Ebay and they would last me years. All I have to do with the black nozzles to keep them clear is to print a few lines of text once a week. The rest of the clogged-up, troublemaking colour print heads, as far as I'm concerned, no longer exist. 

*This is the image I had in mind:


Dr. Elliot Puritz said...

Black and white digital printing is light years (excuse the pun ) ahead of where it was when you first began to print. If you are still interested in printing black and white consider investigating the Cone Piezography work flow and the much improved black and white printing available from the new generation of Epson printers including the reasonably priced "P" series.

With reference to Piezography: There are many who state that the dynamic range and quality of black and white prints available using the Cone inks are superior to prints that can be produced via the analog pathway.

Herman Sheephouse said...

I get what you're saying, and I suppose it is easier than waiting on finishing a roll, developing, drying, assessing, printing - so go for it, a small workbook would be a good thing.

Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Elliot,

It might not have read that way but I'm fairly up to speed on black and white inkjet printing. I read the odd review about the latest printers and know what they're capable of but they still seem to suffer from clogging unless you burn though ink on a regular basis to keep them clean. I could see them working well if you're the type of person who prints a lot.

I looked at Jon Cone's system years ago but for every photographer who sang its praises there was another one who didn't get on with it. One of the latter was Nicholas Hartmann who tried it, gave up and went on to make some lovely prints using BO printing. You can read about his journey here:

Part One.

and here:

Part Two.

Overall, though, I'm just not interested in digital printing for much the same reasons I don't like digital photography.

John Carter said...

I don't have a dark room anymore, so I have to depend on either printer prints or sending my files out. I do send my color to Costco, they have a laser exposed paper that is then wet developed. They use Fuji Crystal Achieve color paper that has a color cast with B&W files. If I want a really nice B&W I send to Fromex in Long Beach, CA. They have true B&W paper (MPIX does the same) that is exposed like Costco but it is void of casts. Their matte B&W prints are especially nice.

DavidM said...

If only you'd had another path in the foreground, you might be rich.
I found that earlier black digital prints lacked the intriguing colour casts but lacked proper blacks too. Not a problem for a scrapbook, perhaps, but not for exhibition. Epson ABW seems to do a good job, but that would involve a new printer.
Epson is not content to provide printing without problems. They still have the accursed (by all) changeover from glossy to matt. Sometimes this is unexpected, so you have to do another ink-gobbling changeover to get back to where you thought you were already. They must have read about where the profits in the mustard trade come from.

So now, between the iPhone and the Mamiya Press, your photographic needs seem to be satisfied. But what's the betting that you won't sneak back to the Olympus when you think nobody is looking?

(The link to "here" doesn't seem to link.)

Bruce Robbins said...


Thanks for pointing out the non-functional link. It was that way simply because I forgot to add it...
It should be working now.

Bruce Robbins said...


I've never sent anything away for printing. Maybe I should give it a try.

John Carter said...

Well, I wouldn't either if I had a Darkroom. I went to an exhibition today in Hayward, CA of prints by Bill Owens. I was surprised (because some were so sharp), I assumed he use 35mm but they were too sharp. Some were obviously 120; and some may have been LF.

Anyway, nothing like a sharp silver gelatin print.

David Taylor said...

Yes, you should seriously think about using the Jon Cone Piezography inks for converting to a 'dedicated black and white' printer.
I converted an Epson R2880 and started using his Warm Neutral inks. The results are honestly better than I ever got from my black and white darkroom days.
I photograph with a Hasselblad, scan the negs on a Nikon 9000 (bought second hand 2 years ago) and print on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag. Wonderful!
Using Photoshop to pre-process my images gives me so much more creativity than the adjustments I could make in the darkroom, though I know now that starting with a film negative is better than starting with a digital one. Just learn to love the film grain.
David Taylor