Plugged In: Photo printing from black to white

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

High-quality photo printing is the art of getting from black to white as elegantly as possible.

This week, let’s look at one possible method of zeroing in on the best possible print from a digital image. It’s much easier with modern digital photography tools and far more controllable than in film and chemical days.

Typically, you’ll need a bit of pure black in the darkest shadows of a photographic print, but typically not too much, so that your prints have a sense of solidity and strength to them. You’ll need a touch of pure paper base white in the highlights so there’s sparkle and life to your prints but, again, not too much.

Shadow and highlight areas usually should have texture and show fine detail rather than blanking out into large areas of pure black and pure white, which are distracting and usually visually unpleasant.

  • Before adjusting exposure, be sure you’ve corrected any problems with the overall color balance of the image. Color balance can affect proper exposure, so it’s wise to make a first order color balance correction prior to adjusting exposure and contrast. Be sure you do this with a calibrated system where “what you see is what you get.” Otherwise, any changes will be hit or miss. After you’ve made your first order corrections to exposure and contrast, go back and fine-tune color balance to eliminate any overall color casts. For example, if you make a snow scene a bit darker, then bluish colors may become more pronounced and require correction.
  • Overall printing exposure should be just right, so that the intermediate tones are neither too dark overall nor too light. The “right” exposure depends on the subject and how you want to treat it, so there’s no hard-and-fast rule. Even a small exposure change, on the order of .33, more or less, can make a big difference in the appearance of your final print. Instead of simply guessing and wasting expensive materials, I suggest you first make smaller proof prints using the same computer, printer and photo paper, but at varying exposures. Make notes of what exposure you’ve used for each test print. After deciding which test print looks best for that photograph, check your notes and reset your exposure darker or lighter as needed. Then make the full-size enlargement.
  • Assuming that exposure looks about right, it’s time to adjust the contrast, which determines how quickly intermediate tones change from dark to light. Incorrect contrast is probably the biggest single problem with photographic prints. It’s generally easy to spot when contrast is set too high — the print appears stark, with strong areas of featureless black and white, but little in between. There are occasions when higher contrast results in very striking images, but you’ll need to recognize when you’ve gone over the top when increasing contrast. Prints that lack sufficient contrast look gray, weak and generally lifeless. There’s no other way to describe it. Make a few test prints at different contrast and “curve” settings to see what seems to work best for your image.
  • In addition to overall contrast, a well-made digital print has good microcontrast that provides cleaner tonal separation between immediately adjacent parts of the image. Microcontrast is separately controlled by the “clarity” slider in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. Clarity does not change the overall contrast of the extreme darks and lights of your image but does improve the tonal separation among adjacent image areas. Increasing the separation of adjacent tones often improves the “presence” of important parts of your subject, making them stand out in an almost three-dimensional way against the background. When used carefully, the clarity control can make a very noticeable improvement in your final print, improving apparent sharpness without increasing digital noise. Lightroom’s clarity control can also be used to decrease apparent sharpness, if desired. Film photographers may remember using “high acutance” films and developers to achieve similar sharpness and tonal separation effects. Some years ago, I discussed Lightroom with the Adobe software engineers who developed the program. They’re also serious photographers. Each of them told me that they adjusted clarity before making any other changes to an image.
  • The next step is to correct more specific colors and regions in your image that don’t quite work when everything else seems right. There are several workable ways to do this. If the troublesome parts are within a few compactly defined areas, then use either the correction brush or the neutral density tools in Lightroom. These make discrete corrections fairly easy. I like to use the correction brush with automatic masking for small, irregularly shaped areas and the neutral density filter for more linearly defined areas, such as correcting a too-bright sky. Both tools allow you to adjust exposure, sharpness, color saturation, clarity and contrast, but only within the area you specify. Another useful approach is to adjust only those areas that are a specific color. You can use Lightroom’s “target adjustment tool,” or make individual color hue, saturation and brightness adjustments to specific colors. These corrections also allow you to lighten or darken all areas containing a particular color or mix of colors, even if your final image will be printed in black and white. This is another handy tool for controlling the brightness and contrast of specific parts of a black and white image.
  • Your initial corrections using any of these tools will necessarily be rough, first-order approximations. Before making your final print, go back and fine-tune everything.
  • Don’t forget — you’ll need to calibrate your computer monitor, camera and printer to a single standard so that what you see really is what you get. Xrite’s ColorMunki and Color Checker Passport products are the least-expensive calibration tools that work reliably. In the long run, good initial calibration will save you time, expensive materials and a lot of frustration.

Odds and ends

  • Science Book of the Week: This week’s recommended science book for laypersons is Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” Although not now a practicing scientist, Bryson explains the fundamentals of biology, particularly DNA and molecular biology, in simple, clear prose that’s easy to read. This is a good basic explanation of the life sciences.
  • Your Own Exhibition: If you’re interested in submitting a proposal for an individual or group art exhibition to hang in 2012, contact the Kenai Fine Arts Center at 283-7040 during weekday afternoons for more information.
  • Shameless Self-Promotion Department: My photo exhibition, “Obscured Views,” is on exhibit through the end of June at the Kenai Fine Arts Center.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website,


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