26 January, 2014

Epson ABW, is it better?

The Wall in colour
The Wall in black and white

I've been lazy so far this year, so I'll try make up for the hiatus with some (it's to be hoped) useful printing information.

I like black and white, but it's not my focus. I plan, however, to do some black and white portraits this year; so I've been doing some homework. I use an Epson 3880, so the question that keeps coming up in my reading is whether to use Epson's Advanced Black and White (ABW) driver in preference to the usual workflow?

In my case, the "usual workflow" is using Lightroom (that uses Epson's "colour" driver) to produce black and white prints. As a baseline, however, it's important to say that Epson's colour driver produces great black and white prints. So, the question isn't, are they great; it's could they be better?

ABW seems better

I've done some preliminary testing and it suggests that ABW is better. But it's not just that simple. Not only is there ABW, it's also possible to use specialised black and white profiles* with ABW if you're using a PC. (Apparently on the Mac, when you've chosen ABW, profile selections are greyed out.)

The companies that make the papers that I use don't provide black and white only profiles for ABW; but there are some to be found on the website of Eric Chan. Happily, Eric's provided profiles for two of the papers that I use: Canson Baryta Photographique and Canson Platine Fibre Rag. Eric has also provided instructions for printing out of Lightroom (to the 3800). Thank you, Eric.

I decided to take one image and make three prints: 1) Using the colour profile, 2) using ABW with an Eric Chan B&W profile, and 3) using ABW without a profile.

I chose an image (see the image and its black & white cousin at the top) that fell entirely within the exposure range of the camera (a NEX-6). I also wanted an image with some detail that continued into the shadows. I converted it to B&W in Lightroom, adjusted the white point up (but didn't clip any highlights), and adjusted the black point down. In bringing the black point down, I did bring a few small areas to black (the shadows under the white fence, near the top, for example). I added some post crop vignetting to provide a bit of gradient in the sky. I printed all three on A4 Canson Baryta Photographique.

The print with the best "pop" was the ABW with Eric Chan's profile. There was more detail in the shadow areas, and better contrast in the brighter areas. The "ABW only" print was a very close second. And the colour profile print was a very close third. Both of the ABW prints were slightly darker overall, a seeming result of the gamma shift. There was no "banding" in any of the prints and although some writers have discussed colour casts in the Epson colour-profile prints, I couldn't see any.

The differences between prints are only noticeable when comparing the prints next to each other. If I had only made one print using the usual workflow, I would have been happy with it. You don't know what you don't know.

Is ABW the clear winner for me? Not just yet. Having seen them, I don't think that these three prints have provided enough answers. At A4, we're not pushing many of the limits. The native resolution of these A4 images is 521ppi. Will the various results be similar at A2, as the resolution decreases? Will ABW pull ahead? Will using matte paper and matte black ink mask the ABW advantage? And, in the end, will the print quality of ABW be sufficient to overcome the convenience of Lightroom's colour-profile, print workflow? Stay tuned.

* When you're printing on higher-end printers, the printer driver gets information about how a particular paper needs to be treated by that machine's ink set; so that the image will appear on the paper as it appeared on the monitor. (We might talk about monitor calibration on another day.) Each manufacturer provides downloadable profiles for each of its papers for each of the popular printers. In Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, or whatever program you plan to print out of, you will want to "soft proof" that image. That is, compare how the image looks on your monitor and how the software predicts your print will look using that paper and its profile, and make adjustments to compensate, if possible. Soft proofing is much more important, however, for printing in colour. (We might talk about soft proofing on another day.)

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