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I am interested in printing some black and white photos and can't decide on the type of paper to print my photos on. I have struggled to discover comparisons between different photo papers. For example, White Wall offers many different paper types. Other labs don't offer "b&w" paper. Would I just print monochrome onto color paper? Or why not?

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There would be a legitimate question if you were looking at inkjet (giclée) printing, where the choice of paper surface is largely a matter of taste and preference. In this case, though, you're looking at "lightjet" printing, which is an optical printing process (just like in the film days) except that it uses a scanning laser instead of a projected image to expose the paper (not at all like the film days). So you can think of it in exactly the same terms as you would have with colour or black-and-white film.

The colour papers don't have a black or greyscale, they only have different combinations of cyan, magenta and yellow. No matter how careful you are when exposing colour paper, it can never truly be black and white, and can only give the appearance of being black and white under one particular set of lighting circumstances. Change the light, and the print will have a colour cast (often a sickly sort of green). There is a way around that problem, but it means choosing a non-neutral tone for the print, and one that's far enough away from neutral that you won't get any unexpected colours if the lighting changes. (Something that's very obviously "sepia" will do nicely.) And there's also differential fading of the dyes in the print to keep in mind: as the print ages, it will change colour — often very differently in different tonal ranges in the print.

Printing on black-and-white paper means using a traditional silver process. The blacks in the image are black because little grains of silver scatter and absorb (well, trap) light. That effect doesn't change with changes in visible light; the only difference will be the apparent colour of the paper if the light itself has a visible colour bias. There are no dyes to fade, although the paper or coating may age, and the silver may tarnish over the years (very old prints may develop some bluish patches, or may "bronze out" somewhat, but we're talking very old unless the prints weren't processed properly.) Done properly and framed properly, a black-and-white silver print should last well over a hundred years without showing its age.

Again, this is strictly because "lightjet" prints are just standard photochemical prints done using a different sort of machine to expose the paper. If you choose to go with an inkjet-type print instead, the choice of paper isn't as much a technical consideration as it is an aesthetic one.

  • Thanks. I understand that what I am asking is aesthetic, and I have not been able to find much to help guide me to learn about this section of the art. I am interested in ink jet as well, can you expound on this choice as well? – mh00h Nov 29 '15 at 15:58
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It is possible to print color negatives and color slides on color photographic paper. However, It’s unlikely that high quality black & white prints will result. As previously stated --- Chemical based black & white prints yield monochrome images that display appropriate contrast and neutrality. Color photo papers display an images from imbedded transparent, yellow, cyan, and magenta dye. In theory, an observer will see a monochrome black & white image when and if these three dyes overlap in equal proportion. The problem is, color papers are unlikely to display a neutral monotone. To achieve, the lab would need to test and reprint over and over again. Such an undertaking would likely be expensive. Let me add, in art there are no rules, you are free to follow your heart. Go for it!

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