Achieving professional-grade black and white photo printing

Sceptics said inkjets could never match the quality of traditional photo printing. Discover the history of how Canon developed new inks, papers and innovative print technologies in its quest for monochrome photo printing perfection.
A Canon printer prints out a black and white image of a herd of elephants walking towards the viewer, with the matriarch leading the way at the front.

Even in the age of colour photography, black and white photo prints remain fresh – and can often have greater impact, because they emphasise forms and composition without the distractions of colour. Wildlife photographer Chris Fallows specialises in monochrome images like this one, titled Defiance, taken with a Canon EOS R5 and RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens. "East Africa has the last remaining 'big tuskers' and this particular female is one of the most spectacular left on the planet," he says. "The cracked earth has incredible texture and the clouds add real drama, both of which are really emphasised in a black and white print." © Chris Fallows

"The world looks very different in black and white," says wildlife photographer and Canon Ambassador Chris Fallows. "You're drawn into tone, texture and light in new ways. When you remove colour from an image, the emphasis naturally shifts to the key elements and composition. From a creative standpoint, that's absolutely key for me. It brings out the meaning and emotion of a photograph, giving it a deeper perspective."

Chris is one of many photographers who embrace the artistry of black and white photography and demand perfection in their prints. However, black and white photo printing is not as straightforward as it might seem. So how did Canon develop the technology to meet the demands of professional photographers and produce monochrome photo prints with quality comparable to the traditional silver halide print process?

A monochrome image of the front of a large church depicted – left to right – in cool, neutral and warm tones.

Silver halide photo printing, at least in the hands of a skilled darkroom technician, was capable of fine subtlety of tone, producing both cooler and warmer images (left and right respectively) in addition to neutral "pure black" (middle).

At the outset, some photographers said it wasn't possible. Even as inkjet printing gradually replaced traditional chemistry-based photo printing, black inkjet inks at the time didn't seem capable of recreating the subtlety and nuance of silver halide paper, where tones could appear warmer or cooler, harder or softer. As general market demand for silver halide photo printing rapidly declined, photographers felt they were losing the exquisitely precise control of colours and tones they regarded as essential. If things didn't change, it could have meant the end of black and white photography as an art form.

Canon didn't want that to happen. With a deep commitment to photography culture, it determined to develop inkjet printing technologies that could produce professional art quality prints for black and white photography in the digital age.

Seven prints, fanned out, of a monochrome photograph of a boat printed on different types of photo paper.

As part of its quest to redefine black and white photo printing, Canon investigated a wide variety of different print media from around the world.

A black and white photograph, with a wide white border, of a beached boat.

This striking black and white image was printed on an inkjet printer using Canon's groundbreaking Chroma Optimiser technology. The innovative clear coating delivers both uniform glossiness in dark areas and smooth tonal gradation.

Developing Canon ink for black and white printing

Canon started by collecting about 30 of the most popular black and white photo papers available and thoroughly researching their characteristics.

Through painstaking trial and error, steady improvements and repeated evaluation, Canon developed three new types of ink: grey ink, which creates smooth tonal gradations; photo black, which achieves deep blacks of quality comparable to glossy photo paper; and matte black, which expresses blacks by utilising the characteristics of matte photo paper.

With these three new inks, subtle gradations of tone – along with rich depths of black in the dark areas of images – could now be achieved in monochrome prints on a variety of media.

And yet, inkjet prints didn't behave like silver halide prints when on display. Their tone and brightness seemed to vary, depending on the environment and viewing angle.

A technician wearing white gloves cleans the sensor of a Canon camera.

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A black and white photograph of the flukes of a whale's tale, viewed square-on above the surface with streams of water running off them as the whale dives.

Chris says this image, entitled Leviathan, was 25 years in the making. "I had a boat specially designed that allows me to shoot right down at water level," he explains of his shoot with the Canon EOS R5 and RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens. "I had to earn the whale's trust, so it would feel comfortable swimming towards me rather than away from me. As with many good photographs, there's an element of luck as well, with the whale's tail being so perfectly symmetrical and parallel to the surface of the ocean." To do justice to an image so hard-won, Chris demands perfection in his photo prints. This print was made with the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300. © Chris Fallows

Canon developers continued to struggle with this problem. Using the latest light simulation technologies, they undertook exhaustive research into how light reflects off walls, floors and ceilings. Finally they had a breakthrough. They found that the cause of these variations was the light diffraction and interference that occurred in the spaces between printed ink droplets.

With this knowledge, they developed Canon's unique Chroma Optimiser technology, which fills the gaps between ink droplets with a special transparent ink. By removing inconsistencies and ensuring uniform reflectivity across the print, Chroma Optimiser makes printed photos appear sharper, reveals the true depth of black tones in the image and reduces a whole range of reflectance phenomena including bronzing, where mid-tones take on an iridescent, metallic appearance.

A black and white print of a whale's tale emerges from a Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 printer.

To ensure print quality, Canon made the decision to develop its own range of photo print papers, which includes glossy, lustre and matte options, as well as a wide selection of fine art media.

 A technician holds a large pipette in one gloved hand above a sheet of paper with squares printed on it in different colours and grey tones.

The development of Canon's photo papers entailed exhaustive research, including testing with a chemical substance designed to emulate perspiration.

Canon's quest for the perfect photo paper

Despite their success, Canon's developers still had other issues to contend with. Problems were being caused not by the black of the inks but by the white of the papers. Both glossy and matte paper for inkjet printers routinely contained fluorescent whitening agents, which made prints shine with a bluish-white tint when exposed to sunlight, and areas with no ink on them appeared slightly blue. This made it a significant challenge to produce prints with exactly the desired degree of warmth.

To solve this problem, Canon decided to develop its own photo print papers. With much less optical brightening agent, the new papers also offered greater colour fidelity than ever before.

Having developed new inks and papers, Canon was finally able to deliver inkjet black and white photo printing comparable to the finest quality silver halide prints. But the developers wanted to go further still. The silver halide process requires paper with a very specific set of characteristics – it must be coated with a gelatin emulsion containing light-reactive chemicals, porous, but robust enough not to dissolve and fall apart when immersed in the chemistry (developer, stop bath and fixer) used in the process. Inkjet technology is compatible with a far wider range of media, and Canon's developers realised that it had the potential to offer even greater scope for creative expression.

The developers procured more than 100 different types of art media from around the world, including fine-art paper, Japanese washi paper, film and baryta paper. They subjected each to extensive testing for such characteristics as porosity, colour reproduction, light-fastness and resistance to weathering. They also thoroughly tested how prints on all these media would be affected by exposure to different substances including water, ozone gas, alcohol and perspiration.

The outcome was the development of a wide range of glossy, lustre and matte photo papers, as well as an impressive array of fine art media with a variety of smooth and rough textures. This gives photographers a huge choice in the look and feel of finished prints, providing an additional element of creative expression.

A Canon camera next to a Canon printer and a selection of black-and-white prints.

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A Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 printer with its top cover open and a hand pressing one of the 10 ink cartridges into place.

The Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 uses a pigment-based 10-ink system, including matte black, photo black and grey inks as well as Canon's innovative Chroma Optimiser, producing gallery-quality monochrome photo prints at up to A3+ size.

A screenshot of Canon's Professional Print and Layout software, with a fine art paper being selected in the Media Type pop-up menu.

Canon's powerful Professional Print and Layout (PPL) software makes it easy to produce outstanding prints – simply select the precise media you're using and the software optimises the output settings to ensure the best results. You can further customise the image and print settings to your preferences.

Canon print software

In parallel with all this, Canon also developed software that matches inks, media and printer technologies to ensure optimal results, as well as enabling users to customise their prints to suit their creative intentions, personal preferences, display environments and other factors.

In addition to each printer's built-in driver software, Canon's Professional Print and Layout (PPL) software was developed for use with Canon imagePROGRAF PRO professional photo printers. It can function as a standalone application or as a plug-in within your preferred image editing software, and it offers an array of options for customising your prints, with powerful soft-proofing and hard-proofing features to take the guesswork out of printing and help ensure that your photo prints match what you see on screen. To assist creative decision-making, the Pattern Print feature is particularly useful. It outputs a set of thumbnails of the same image on a single sheet of your chosen media. Each thumbnail uses subtly different brightness, contrast and tone settings, and you simply pick the best, enter the code alongside it into PPL, and the software then uses those settings to create the final print, exactly as you want it, eliminating wasteful and time-consuming trial and error.

PPL includes intuitive layout tools for creating borderless as well as traditional bordered prints. Together with the ultra-high-precision paper handling systems of the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 and imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 pro photo printers, it makes full-bleed printing possible on matte and fine art media, as well as glossy photo paper.

A black and white photograph of a herd of elephants walking towards the camera, with a large female at the front, sits on a circular wooden table in front of a Canon printer.

"Aesthetically, black and white photo printing adds a timelessness to my images," Chris says. "It gives an intrinsic element of distinction, and you can really push the contrast in processing to add drama." Whatever the size of print you want to produce, with a border or without, Canon's end-to-end, shot-to-print solution delivers on quality. © Chris Fallows

With Canon's integration of papers, inks and print technologies, you can be confident of superb monochrome prints. For the most demanding applications, the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 features a high-longevity 12-ink system, including Chroma Optimiser and a dedicated monochrome set of matte black, photo black, grey and photo grey inks. It can output anything from 4x6-inch prints right up to A2 size and even banners, and its LUCIA PRO pigment-based inks are optimised to deliver a huge tonal range with ultra-smooth gradations in black and white prints, without the compromise of having to use other colours of ink to fill in the gaps.

"It avoids unwanted colour shifts through the entire greyscale range, from deep blacks to bright whites," says Canon printing expert Suhaib Hussain. "The matte black ink of the newer A3+ format imagePROGRAF PRO-300 has again been reformulated to deliver even deeper blacks, surpassing all expectations for creative expression in black and white printing."

It isn't even necessary to use Canon papers. Canon has worked closely with specialist paper manufacturers such as Hahnemühle and Canson, who create exceptional fine art media to the highest standards. "We've developed ICC profiles to ensure the utmost accuracy and fidelity when printing with a massively diverse range of media," Suhaib explains. "The companion software for our imagePROGRAF PRO printers makes it easy to select and use the relevant ICC profile for any given media, so that photographers can be assured of the best possible results."

In all these ways, despite those who said it was impossible, Canon's end-to-end solution not only meets the demands of professional photographers but exceeds them, expanding the possibilities of photographic expression through print technology.

Matthew Richards and Alex Summersby

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