Colour management for black and white photography sounds almost oxymoronic. Why would a black and white photographer need to invest time and money in a technology that sounds as though it only applies to colour photography?
The reason that all black and white photographers should have their workflows properly colour managed is that as far as your computer software and hardware is concerned grey is just another colour, and without calibrating and profiling your kit you won’t get truly neutral accurate black and white prints and your monitor won’t be showing you the actual tones in your image. If anything colour management is more important for a black and white photographer than those that only shoot colour.
Colour management isn’t difficult. It needn’t be expensive. It will save you time and save you money. You will also get better looking images and prints.
Monitors for Black and White Photography
You might expect this article to start with image capture but first I want to talk about the most important piece of kit in a digital darkroom: the monitor. We all judge our images based on what we see on a monitor, but while it’s said that a camera never lies, a bad monitor – or a badly colour managed one – certainly can.
Just as a cheap lens may not capture the detail you want, a cheap monitor may fail to show your image to its full potential. Among the worst are those on laptops, where the manufacturer will often scrimp on quality to keep the price low. Monitors bundled with PCs too, are often not the best. The first step to achieving a monitor you can trust is to buy one designed for viewing colour critical images. In much the same way as you’d never judge a lens purely on its focal length or speed, you can’t judge a monitor solely on its size or resolution. Most are designed for general office use, where image quality isn’t that important. Budget for a monitor in the same way you would for a lens: spend more to get the best, and economise only with a knowledge of the compromises you are making. Look at the specification long and hard for features that help ensure greater uniformity or evenness of colour, stability over time, controls for colour adjustment, and advanced calibration functionality. EIZO has a range of monitors called ColorEdge, and NEC has the SpectraView range. Both are designed specifically for image editing.
Even if you only plan to display monochrome images you won’t see accurate tones or neutrals unless you calibrate and profile your monitor. Calibration is the process of adjusting something to certain standards or values. In the case of monitors, you generally adjust them to a certain white point (Kelvin value), tone curve (or gamma) and luminance (or brightness). Use the same target values on multiple monitors, and they will look similar; use the same target values on a single monitor, and over time it will always display the same colours. Profiling is the process of measuring the colour capabilities of a device, and how it reproduces colour. These measurements, used in colour conversions by your operating system and applications, are saved as a computer file called an ICC profile.
When you view an image in Photoshop, for example, the colours or tones are being converted from the image colour space to the monitor profile, before going via the graphics card to the monitor. If you haven’t got an accurate monitor profile, then a default one will be used, which will not reflect the behaviour of your monitor.
Monitor calibration systems, such as X-Rite’s i1 Display Pro, come with a colorimeter – a device for measuring colour, and software to load on your computer, to enable you to calibrate and profile your monitor. The i1 Display Pro costs around £150, is easy to use, and very accurate. Your monitor should be calibrated about once a month. If you have a specialist monitor such as an EIZO ColorEdge then you should use the calibration software that came with it. EIZO’s ColorNavigator software has a specific mode to increase monochromatic accuracy.
A good quality monitor, properly calibrated and profiled, will reproduce your images accurately, and can be trusted. Colours will be accurate, greys will be neutral and you’ll see better highlight and shadow detail. To ensure your monitor remains accurate, it should be recalibrated every month. One last thing. I used the phrase ‘digital darkroom’ earlier. Often used to describe the processing of images, it also has an important literal meaning. The environment around your monitor should be neutrally coloured and dim. Excessive ambient light falling on your monitor, or brightly coloured surroundings, will mean that your eyes may struggle to fully adapt to the image on the monitor. The influence may be small, but then so may be the tweaks and edits you are doing to an image.
Colour Managing Capture & Processing
Assuming that you are shooting raw then with a profiled and calibrated monitor you can begin to make tweaks to your images with the confidence that the image you are look at is accurate. There are tools to help you to adjust and colour manage raw images. The most popular one is X-Rite’s ColorChecker Passport, which consists of a test target and some software. You take a shot of the test chart, process it through the software and it creates an ICC profile for your camera and lighting. It’s used a lot by fashion and fine art photographers and can really improve the colour accuracy of a shot. However, for those shooting pure black and white it’s probably not the best tool. Datacolor’s SpyderCube is excellent for getting the tonality of an image spot on. The SpyderCube has white areas for setting highlights, grey for mid-tones and a great black trap for the shadows. With a few clicks you can get much better tones out of an image and then apply the same settings to other shots from the shoot.
If you are shooting colour then the choice of RGB working space, the ICC profile that Photoshop uses while editing images and that you convert the raw image into, is vital. The choices are sRGB, Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB. sRGB is the default for most software but is small colour space. Adobe RGB is bigger and better and the most common choice. ProPhoto RGB is very large and can be a little difficult to handle but is the default for Adobe Lightroom. For the black and white photographer though all working spaces can display a similar range of tones so the choice is less important. If you want to edit your images in greyscale rather than RGB then the best working space is Gamma 2.2. If you remember I recommended you mentioned that monitor calibration is often done to the same gamma or tone curve value, 2.2. So consistency with the working space makes sense.
Profiles for Printing Black and White
To get an accurate print from an inkjet printer you need a printer profile. Most paper manufacturers have ICC profiles for combinations of their media with common inkjet printers available for download. A printer profile enables the software printing an image to tune the output for a particular printer and paper combination and so print as accurately as possible. Many paper resellers will provide a free printer profiling service. They’ll send you a special test chart of around 1000 colour patches to print along with some instructions, you then post the print to them and they measure it with a very accurate colour measuring device called a spectrophotometer and then email you back an ICC profile. I offer a similar service for £15 per profile but can also offer extras such as post profile optimisation for better neutrals and tonal detail. I can provide a special test image of 2,500 grey tones that I can measure and fine tune the profile with. You can also buy the equipment to profile your own printers. X-Rite’s i1 Photo Pro 2 system sells for around £1200, which means you have to using a lot of different papers or printers for it to be worth buying your own kit.
Most printer profiles are made by measuring a full range of colours, and of course neutrals and near neutrals are an important part of that range. A good printer profile will produce a neutral print of a black and white image, and of course if you want a sepia or other slightly toned print they will print those accurately as well.
It is also possible to produce profiles for the Advanced Black and White modes some printers have, modes that mostly just use the black inks. The Quad Tone RIP is a very inexpensive piece of software designed for monochromatic printing and includes a module for creating grey ICC profiles for inkjet printers. Using the Advanced Black and White modes with good profiles will create prints with richer tones and depth.
What You See is What You Get
When your workflow and equipment is properly colour managed you will get the results you want with the minimum of fuss, just as if you controlled your traditional dark room processes well you’d get better prints. A colour managed monitor will show highlight and shadow detailed that would be lost on an uncalibrated monitor, and grey will be grey not slightly green or magenta. A profiled printer will reproduce the image from the screen as accurately as possible, retaining the tones and neutrals so you get a good print without endless rounds or printing, editing and then printing again. Any investment in colour management rapidly pays for itself and you’ll be able to spend more time behind the camera and less time in front of a desk. I do provide onsite training and profiling services for a reasonable cost so please contact me if you need further help.