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|| News Item: Posted 2009-06-25

It's all in the Details
Don't let dark prints bring you down

By Josh Lehrer

Photo by

This target can be used to find the black point of your printer and paper combination.
Often times I hear the question "why did my print come out so dark?" As a photographer, a print represents a physical extension of my work and myself. When I sell, or even give away a print, I want people to appreciate my image for what it is, and not be distracted by a bad print. Frequently, a viewer cannot articulate why they don't like an image; it just looks "a bit off.

This is especially apparent on matte papers, but I see this dark print epidemic on gloss/luster papers often as well. You might have heard the term "black point" before; it is often tossed around but rarely utilized. Visualize a gradient, starting from pure black, numerically, 0, to pure white, numerically, 100. If that gradient is viewed on a computer monitor, you might be able to tell the difference between a value of 4 and a value of 5, for example. Eventually, there will be a point where you cannot differentiate between two values and everything just looks black.

A monitor is capable of showing detail in blacks far better than any printed media. If you were to print out that same gradient, and look at it on paper, you might not be able to see a difference until 10, 12, or even 20 (higher for some matte papers). This number, the point at which you can begin to see separation in the blacks, is known as the "black point." Every printer and paper combination will have a unique black point; in general, a higher gloss paper will have a lower black point.

I've created a handy target to calculate this number. Simply print it with the exact settings you would use to print your actual images, and identify which patch starts to be differentiated from the pure black background. The corresponding number is the black point for that workflow, which includes: printer, paper, ink and driver settings.

Photo by

The black point on an image can be adjusted in levels or curves. The yellow dot represents where you make the change.
The black point is almost always higher than you anticipate. Once you get your number, now what? It is now time to set your black point on the image. This is the very last step to complete prior to printing following your other adjustments, such as resizing and sharpening. There are two easy ways in Adobe Photoshop (CS3 in this case) to set your black point. One method uses Levels and the other uses Curves.

Using the Levels tool, locate the "Output Levels" slider (a small triangle) at the bottom of the dialogue box, and use the left slider to adjust the black point. The number in the box below the slider represents your black point. You can also manually type in your black point number.

Using the Curves tool, click on the lower-left corner of the curve and drag it upwards. The number in the "Output" box represents your back point. The Curves tool, as with Levels, allows you to manually type in the desired number.

Your image will look flat and dull on the monitor, but when it prints, you will have maximized your shadow detail and prevented your mid tones from going dark.

In concept, black point is simple. In practice, it is one easy way to retain shadow detail in prints and preserve as much of your original vision as possible. This is especially true when viewing the print in low-light conditions, as in most home environments. It's important to recall the days of the darkroom… never be satisfied with the first print, even though digital printing makes it almost effortless.

(Josh Lehrer is a recent graduate from the advertising photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He is currently working as a freelance photographer/assistant out of New York City; his work can be found at

Related Links:
Josh's member page

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