Labs and Papers for Black & White

This post is a review of black-and-white printing on eight different papers from four U.S. photo labs.

I’ve been uploading my recent photos to Google Plus, where I’ve been getting good feedback and meeting great photographers. When I published this b&w image of Bubba’s Diner in San Anselmo, California, the comments were particularly enthusiastic. And then, totally out of the blue, two people said they wanted to buy prints. How cool is that? I didn’t get (back) into photography to sell my images, but why not? If someone can get pleasure from hanging one of my photos on their wall, that would be pretty cool.

Bubba's Diner, San Anselmo, California
Bubba's Diner, San Anselmo, California

How to sell prints to my first two customers? I quickly cleaned up my SmugMug portfolio at DougKaye.com — it still needs a lot of work — and upgraded to a Pro account so I could order the prints through there and even sell them directly. But before I accepted money for my work, I wanted to know what the prints would look like, so I decided to order prints of most of my portfolio images for myself. SmugMug uses two labs, and I opted for BayPhoto, which appears to be their more high-end lab. (The other, ezprints, is somewhat less expensive.) I first ordered a print on Kodak Endura paper, which SmugMug/Bay Photo refer to as their Lustre stock. When the print arrived, I was rather disappointed in the color and texture of the paper. So I turned to other photographers on Google+ and asked them what labs and papers they used for b&w. I got a few recommendations and then ordered prints from four labs (including BayPhoto) on eight different papers. Here’s a summary of my opinions, listed by the coolness/warmth of the papers, starting with the coolest. It’s not an exhaustive test, as I’m sure there are far more papers and labs out there. But if you’re thinking about black-and-white printing, this may be a helpful starting place.

Bay Photo’s Lustre is Kodak’s Supra Endura VC, a resin-based photographic paper finished with a “fine grain pebble texture,” which is too much artificial texture for me. SmugMug recommends it as a compromise between full matte and glossy and as a way to minimize fingerprints. I expect my prints to be matted and mounted behind glass, so fingerprints aren’t really an issue. This is the coolest of all six papers. It actually has a noticeable blue cast to it. I’d say it’s my least favorite of the batch. ($3.23 via SmugMug for an 8×10 color-corrected print. Direct from BayPhoto: $3.50, or $1.79 without color correction.)

Bay Photo’s Metallic (Kodak Endura Metallic VC) is actually a touch warmer than the Endura, which shows how cool/blue the regular Endura really is. The metallic is obviously very glossy and has a bit of a greenish cast to it. The whites and highlights are very reflective/silvery, hence the metallic moniker. I don’t think I’d be likely to use this paper. ($4.12 via SmugMug for an 8×10 color-corrected print. Direct from BayPhoto: $4.03, or $2.06 without color correction.)

Bay Photo’s Glossy (also a Kodak Supra Endura VC) is the third coolest paper, and still not particularly warm. The blacks are deep and there’s pretty good detail in the shadows. I’d probably use this for images where I wanted to emphasize the drama of a contrasty, particularly crisp picture. ($3.23 via SmugMug for an 8×10 color-corrected print. Direct from BayPhoto: $3.50, or $1.79 without color correction.)

MPIX offers a paper they call True B&W, Ilford’s True B&W. This is a silver photographic process, so there are no color dyes or inks at all. It’s yet another cool paper, almost as cool as the Bay Photo papers. Like the Endura Metallic, it has a slight greenish cast. Of all the printer/papers combinations, it’s the lowest contrast. There are no deep blacks and it has the least detail in the shadows. The opposite of Bay Photo’s Glossy paper, I might use MPIX’s True B&W when I particularly wanted a softer, gentler low-contrast look. ($2.49 for an 8×10 print)

I wasn’t really thrilled with any of these combinations, so I asked Matt Russell, a friend who shoots and sells a lot of b&w landscapes, about the high-end labs he uses. He suggested I look into West Coast Imaging and Digital Silver Imaging. WCI has a $250 minimum order, but they were willing to work with me on these tests. Obviously, you don’t want to order one or two 8×10’s at a time from WCI.

DSI uses Ilfospeed Resin-Coated paper with an Ilford Pearl (lustre) surface for their Custom RC prints. This is another lower-contrast combination, but not as low contrast as the MPIX True B&W. The blacks are also deeper and richer than the MPIX, but still not as deep as others. Furthermore the blacks are rather warm. It’s a very nice combination: a neutral paper with slightly warm blacks. One of the best. ($18 for the first 8×10; $9 for prints 2-10.) DSI also offers a less-expensive Direct to Print option (ie, not their Custom service) that delivers Ilford RC Pearl prints for much less ($4.59 for 1-9 8×10 prints; $4.19 for 10 or more).

DSI’s Custom Fiber Base prints are on Ilfobrom Galerie Fiber paper. This is fairly warm paper, but the blacks are actually cooler, similar to the MPIX True B&W. It’s a heavy double-weight semi-gloss fiber paper, about the same weight as the Ilford Gold. It’s in the lower-contrast category like the MPIX True B&W and the DSI Custom RC, but not as low-contrast as the others. The paper is quite warm, but the blacks are cool (again like the True B&W). The depth and richness of the blacks are excellent as are the shadow details. ($38 for the first 8×10; $25 for prints 2-10)

WCI offers Ilford Gold (Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk), warmer still than DSI’s Custom Fiber Base. It’s a very heavy paper made with real rag and has a marvelous rich look to it without sacrificing good, deep blacks. ($12.22 for the first 8×10 of a single image; $10 for prints 2-9; $8.33 for 11-.)

WCI also offers Silver Rag (Crane’s Museo Silver Rag), a 100% cotton paper. It has slightly more rag texture than even the Ilford Gold. This is the warmest of all the papers I tested, with a slightly yellow cast. I would use this paper if I wanted a particularly warm look. Otherwise, I’d stick with the Ilford Gold. (Same price as WCI’s Ilford Gold.)

With the exception of the Ilford True B&W paper used by MPIX, all of the above have deep, rich blacks. It’s possible that a different print on the True B&W might not have such a low-contrast look. But while all the others have solid blacks, all but the two WCI combinations do so by increasing contrast and therefore losing some detail in the shadows.

There’s no question that the more costly prints from DSI and WSI are superior to the others. DSI’s Custom Fiber Base prints are downright expensive.

I’m sure your experiences vary and you probably have used labs and papers not listed here. Leave your reactions in the comments for all to see. DSI’s pricey Custom Fiber Base prints are perhaps the best of all for most of my work, but damn expensive. It’s the one option that starts to become more than a substantial part of the total (including matting and framing) costs. A 12×18 costs $88 plus tax and shipping. For most high-quality work, I’d probably chose Ilford Gold from WSI if I had enough work to justify their $250 minimum order. Otherwise, I’d probably go with DSI’s Direct to Print Ilford RC. For by far the fastest service and the lowest cost (and so long as I wanted a very crisp look), I’d use Bay Photo’s Endura Glossy. WCI’s Silver Rag is an option I’d reserve for those times when I needed very warm (almost toned) whites.

3 thoughts on “Labs and Papers for Black & White

  1. Ilford Pearl was the required paper to in my digital photography class at school, about 8 or so years ago. We had huge Epson printers.

    MPIX is owned by the same folks that own Miller’s Lab in Kansas. I’m not sure if the lab is the same or not. They have three levels, Miller’s, MPIX Pro, and MPIX. Kelby and friends use MPIX Pro and seem to be very satisfied. I haven’t seen them comment on the B/W prints.

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  2. Doug – First love the image, looks like quiet an exposure challenge. Very informative post. I just wanted to point out that at Digital Silver Imaging all our B&W prints are printed on REAL silver gelatin black and white photographic paper. This is identical to the old wet darkroom process, only we use a laser an enlarger to expose the paper with your digital image. Unlike some other processes that use materials that also produce color prints ours will never have a color cast. And because our prints do not use dies or inks like other color/b&w materials they won’t fade and are proven archival.

    Now about the cost. If you use our direct to print service you can get a beautiful 11×14 b&w print for only $9.99. As far as quality a print we made for photographer Mike Mitchell just sold for $55,000 at Christies.

    Great Post!

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  3. Thanks for the post, you just solved a major problem that I’ve been trying to solve: Where to go for decent silver gelatin proofs and then for very high end selenium toned prints. Will be sending some test prints to DSI in a couple of hours.

    Thank you!!!

    Like

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