Black and White Digital Prints, Compared

Over the past year I’ve been working more and more in black and white, and recently I found myself wanting to make a few black and white digital prints. I briefly considered buying an Epson photo printer, but Ken Rockwell talked me down from the ledge. In his words, “Which makes a better print: a $50,000 [professional lab] printer using real photo paper… or your $1,800 Epson? Duh …” So I decided to order some test prints to find out which printing service produces the best (admittedly subjective) digital black and white prints.

With a bit of online research I quickly narrowed down my choices to Bay Photo Lab, Mpix, and Digital Silver Imaging. Bay Photo was my “low end” choice, which is only to say that they’re the cheapest of the three. In fact I’ve done business with Bay Photo before, and they do excellent work. Mpix’s “True Black & White” print (evidently done on Ilford silver halide paper designed for a digital c-type printer) also interested me, as did Digital Silver Imaging’s continuous tone silver gelatin prints. I ended up ordering three prints from Bay Photo and one print each from Mpix and Digital Silver.

What follows is a report on all five papers. Each printing service was provided with high-quality 8-bit jpeg files. The photographs were all shot on a Canon 5d Mark II and converted to black and white using NIK Software’s excellent Silver Efex Pro. I was pleased with the exposure of every sample print, and in each case the end results were very close to what I see on my monitor. (I calibrate my display using a Datacolor Spyder 2 with Spyder3Express software.)

Bay Photo Kodak ENDURA Lustre “E”

This is a color, lustre paper, and was my favorite of the three Bay Photo options that I tested. It produces relatively neutral looking, smooth b&w tones. The discerning eye wouldn’t mistake this paper for a real silver halide black and white print, but the results are pleasant. You may find this to be a good choice for black and white printing on a budget.

Price: $5.99 for a 12x18 print, plus $1.50 shipping (for entire order) to CA.

Bay Photo Kodak ENDURA Glossy “E”

This paper is too glossy (no big surprise) for my taste, but I can’t fault the quality of the print. My sample has a contrasty look with a light greenish/blue cast. Again, no one will mistake this for silver halide, but the results are pleasant. I probably won’t be ordering more black and whites on Glossy “E”, but others might want to give it a try.

Price: $5.99 for a 12x18 print, plus $1.50 shipping (for entire order) to CA.

Bay Photo Fuji Pearl

Fuji Pearl was the most expensive and also my least favorite of the three Bay Photo papers. My test print is warm, with an odd, very soft and low-contrast look. Also, this paper is only available for 16x20 size prints and larger.

Price: $16.00 for a 16x24 print, plus $1.50 shipping (for entire order) to CA.

Mpix “True Black and White”

The Mpix option is supposedly made using Ilford black and white paper designed for c-type color printers, though Mpix doesn’t give many details  on their website. My test print has just a slight blue/green cast, with contrasty tones and very nice, dark blacks. Unfortunately this paper is glossier than I would prefer for most jobs, but I can’t fault the quality of the print, which looks better than any of my Bay Photo samples.

Price: $13.59 for a 12x18 print, plus $7.95 shipping to CA.

Digital Silver Imaging Silver Gelatin Fiber

This is black and white printing the way your grandfather intended. According to their website, DSI uses a Durst Theta 51 laser printer to expose Ilford silver gelatin paper, which is then processed using traditional black and white photo chemistry. The result is a picture with perfectly neutral tones along with wonderful contrast and texture. The quality of these continuous-tone prints really must be seen to be understood. Nothing about my test print appears “digital.” To my eye, the look is exactly as if it were produced from a high-quality negative in a chemical darkroom.

Price: $16.99 for a 12x18 print, plus $12.93 shipping to CA.

Summary

If you want truly fantastic black and white prints and cost isn’t an issue, look no further than Digital Silver Imaging. Their results are astounding, and I’ll certainly be ordering more prints from them very soon.

Mpix produces a very strong b&w print with their “True Black and White” paper, but unfortunately I believe that they offer the worst value of the three printers that I tested. Their b&w print prices are nearly as expensive as Digital Silver Imaging, but the results fall short of DSI’s beautiful silver gelatin fiber prints.

Finally, Bay Photo Lab is worth trying if you’re looking for an inexpensive black and white option. With Bay Photo you’ll be printing on color paper, so there’s always that chance that unwanted color hues will sneak into your pictures. But their Lustre “E” paper gives decent results and a relatively cheap path to archival b&w printing.

Questions or comments? Feel welcome to email me at bwtest@clubofhumanbeings.com.

High Quality Q & A:

Since this post first appeared, I’ve been asked by readers to clarify a few points about black and white digital printing.

Q: I don’t understand how a photo lab produces silver halide prints from a digital file. Is it a kind of contact print process?

A: No. The silver halide paper is exposed with your digital image using a specialized laser printer, then the paper is processed in the normal fashion. The laser printer simply replaces the film and projector that you would use in a traditional darkroom.

Q: Could you really notice a big diference between the various prints?

A: Yes, the diference is night and day, especially between the Bay Photo color papers and Mpix and DSI’s true black and white prints. I’ve tried to describe the differences above, but keep in mind that you’re reading one photographer’s opinion.

Q: This is an interesting comparison and I see the point of using a pro lab for quality prints. How does the cost per print compare?

A: If you mean between the various labs, I’ve included the per-print costs above. If you mean to compare lab printing costs to using a high-quality ink jet printer at home, that’s more difficult to say. The per-print cost of ink jet printing can vary widely, depending on which printer you buy, how many prints you make, and how many tries it takes you to get the right result. The more expensive printers come with larger ink cartridges, which lowers your per-print cost, while increasing your upfront investment. With an ink jet printer you also pay for every mistake, paper-jam, nozzle clog, and so forth.

I suspect that many photographers who use ink jet printers like the feeling of controlling the entire print process, but that control comes with a high price and time investment. My day job takes up a lot of my time, so personally I would rather spend my remaining free time taking pictures rather than messing around with ink jet printers and supplies. Nonetheless, if you intend to make a large number of prints, having your own printer will at some point be cheaper than using a lab.

Posted
June 5, 2012
Tagged
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