How to Print a Book of Black-and-White Photographs?

Proudly holding a test run sheet at the back of a Heidelberg Speedmaster

Proudly hold­ing a test run sheet at the back of a Heidelberg Speedmaster

My exhib­i­tion, (Be)Longing, has closed, but the book of the same title, which I have prin­ted for the show, is here to remain. I am pleased with the book. The lay­out is nice, and the repro­duc­tions of my prints came out really well. I’d like to share a few thoughts about the pro­cess, and the people, who helped me get it prin­ted. Of course, you can buy it here, too.

Rafał Sosin, DTP, makes a last minute adjustment

Rafał Sosin, DTP, makes a last minute adjust­ment

Agfa thermal plate being fed into the platesetter

Agfa thermal plate being fed into the plate­set­ter

Heidelberg Suprasetter that made the better offset plates for me

Heidelberg Suprasetter that made the bet­ter off­set plates for me

An exposed and developed plate emerges from the setter

An exposed and developed plate emerges from the set­ter

Patrycja Warmińska, Prepress, checks a plate

Patrycja Warmińska, Prepress, checks a plate

Paper waiting at the front of a Heidelberg Speedmaster offset press

Paper wait­ing at the front of a Heidelberg Speedmaster off­set press

Tomasz Gołdyn, Machinist, removes excess ink

Tomasz Gołdyn, Machinist, removes excess ink

Janusz Moskiewicz, Chief of Production (left) suggests ink delivery adjustments to Paweł Dziurdzia, Print Supervisor (right)

Janusz Moskiewicz, Chief of Production (left) sug­gests ink deliv­ery adjust­ments to Paweł Dziurdzia, Print Supervisor (right)

The hard­est part in plan­ning of the book’s pro­ject was the decision about the print­ing tech­nique, which ought to be as faith­ful as pos­sible to the prints. I had three require­ments: the res­ol­u­tion had to be good, the ton­al­ity (con­trast) rep­res­ent­at­ive, and the tone (col­our) as close to the subtle plum tones that sel­en­i­um pro­duces on the pho­to­graph­ic paper, which I like using in my wet dark­room. Together with my design­er, Rafał Sosin, we settled on tri­tone off­set. After some test­ing, we chose to use a mix­ture of a 400 dot screen for Pantone Cool Gray 6C and Pantone 663C (a light purple) inks, and a stochast­ic screen for the pro­cess black ink. The gray and black com­bin­a­tion built a good con­trast with juicy midtones, while the 663C provided the sel­en­i­um tone, which I so very much wanted. Having done a fair bit of research, and hav­ing chat­ted to sev­er­al print­ers, I felt we have made a good dis­cov­ery, as I have not found any­one who had used this com­bin­a­tion, or in fact, who has pre­vi­ously pub­lished any inform­a­tion on how to repro­duce the spe­cif­ics of sel­en­i­um tone in off­set print­ing. The use of the stochast­ic screen for the black ink has giv­en us a much bet­ter con­trast in the high­lights, espe­cially in the clouds, which do have some small, but import­ant areas of pure white, with only an occa­sion­al dot of ink.

Another major decision, which I had made at the begin­ning, was that I was not going to use scans of my large format neg­at­ives, but instead I decided to take digit­al pho­to­graphs of the actu­al, fin­ished wet-dark­room prints. I wanted the book to be faith­ful, and I felt that using scans would, per­haps, cre­ate an image that was some­times bet­ter, some­times worse, but nev­er true to the hand-made print. It is not easy — not for me — to duplic­ate, digit­ally, the hand burn­ing and dodging that is applied dur­ing the print­ing pro­cess under the enlar­ger.

After debat­ing the choice of a paper, we decided on a nice matte 170 gsm bright white. The hard cov­er was bound in anoth­er paper, over­prin­ted with plain CoolGray 6C, which provided con­tinu­ity with the prints inside the book. We decided not to use any var­nish, except on the cov­er, due to its slight yel­low­ing prop­er­ties — I wanted the prints not to have any sug­ges­tion of sepia, which I feel does not agree with my sub­jects.

The best part of the entire exper­i­ence was the day at the print­ing shop. Watching the presses deliv­er sheets con­tain­ing my prints was magic­al. Being able to assist the oper­at­ors in adjust­ing the flow rates of the three inks, in little ver­tic­al strips that run top-down of each page, was the final bit of the mys­tery in the pro­cess that led to the res­ults I desired. It was that very final adjust­ment, some­times very subtle, which got the prin­ted pages to have a glow, which is often hard to find in black-and-white, pho­to­graph­ic albums. The patience and the exper­i­ence of the machin­ists, oper­at­ors, and the chief of pro­duc­tion was a big part of the suc­cess. Being able to spend a full two days on-site, super­vising what is only a small job of 64 pages with 24 prints, was my good good luck of hav­ing chosen a very under­stand­ing press (Drukarnia Skleniarz) in Kraków, the city of my birth, and the place where my exhib­i­tion took place. Had I not been there, in per­son, the book would have been prob­ably fine. On the oth­er hand, the feed­back I was able to give to the staff meant they knew exactly what I was look­ing for, and they recip­roc­ated by being cre­at­ive and ready to sug­gest inter­est­ing solu­tions to the issues we have encountered. For example, the idea of mix­ing a reg­u­lar ras­ter with a stochast­ic one was sug­ges­ted, on the day, by Mr Janusz Moskiewicz, Chief of Production. Later, they told me, that they wished every author was on-site when their book was being prin­ted. I sup­pose they wished none would be as demand­ing of their time as I was…

Printed sheet comes out of the Speedmaster

Printed sheet comes out of the Speedmaster

If pos­sible, I would recom­mend that any­one who prints black-and-white pho­to­graphs, digit­ally, or tra­di­tion­ally, should con­sider hav­ing their pic­tures prin­ted in a book, a tra­di­tion­al one, rather than made on an inkjet or a laser print­er, at least once in their life. It was an incred­ible learn­ing oppor­tun­ity for me, which taught me more about my work, but also a won­der­ful, very enjoy­able two days, and an elat­ing exper­i­ence. I won’t for­get the smile I had on my face when I saw my prints appear on page of a book for the first time — it was one of the hap­pi­est days of my life.

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2 Responses to How to Print a Book of Black-and-White Photographs?

  1. didio ·

    Witam, 99% ludzi nie będzie wiedzi­ało co ozn­acza “który został nadru­kowany CoolGray 6C” przy­dało by się dop­isąć co ozn­acza Cool Gray 6C —  naprzykład far­ba Pantone jedna z 1114 kolorów o odcieniu jasno szarym.


    • Rafal Lukawiecki ·

      For my English speak­ing vis­it­ors: Didio sug­ges­ted that I should men­tion what is “CoolGray 6C”. Quoting the com­ment, it is one of the 1114 Pantone col­oured inks, a light gray one.

      Dziękuję za sug­estię.

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