January 01, 2010 — One of the true surprises of the digital revolution is the rebirth of interest in black-and-white, or more properly “monochrome,” imaging. From fine art photographers to photojournalism-style wedding shooters, there is a resurgence of interest in monochrome prints.
However, this hasn’t prevented nearly all labs with traditional wet black-and-white darkrooms to close down operation, including my own. Photographers have been forced to accept monochrome prints printed either with an inkjet printer or a minilab printer, printing monochrome images on color paper.
Unfortunately, because these prints are created from drops of gray or color ink, or in layers on color paper, they often suffer from banding, color casts, bronzing or metamerism, where the print looks different under different light sources. While inkjet printer manufacturers in particular have been making advances in dealing with these issues, they still exist.
Now, thanks to the folks at PTS Consulting and Service Group (www.ptscsg.com), there is another solution available for monochrome printing. PTS is converting Fuji Frontier 370 minilabs to print on Harman/Ilford Express Digital black-and-white paper. This is a true silver gelatin RC paper that processes in black-and-white chemistry and is available in rolls with a glossy or pearl surface. Several labs in the country have this machine already installed, including Fromex in Long Beach, CA, and Photoworks in San Francisco, CA. It is a viable solution for high-volume photo studios also.
PTS, owned by Pat Lepera and Karen Evans, is the first company to successfully convert a laser minilab from color to monochrome. Although operations manager Jack Cutler, a former fashion photographer and lab owner, was understandably reluctant to provide details, he did let on that most of the conversion centered around software and laser calibration rather than hardware modifications. The only visible difference between the original and modified machine is the replacement of the Fuji front panel with a silver panel that has the name “Silver Edition” added and the addition of “Black and White” below the “Frontier” name. The full name of the converted printer is “Fuji Frontier Silver Edition Digital Printer.”
PTS chose the Fuji Frontier 370 not only for its build quality and reliability, but also because parts and service are available worldwide. This ensures that a PTS unit bought today will be able to remain in service for years, and will still have value if an owner decides to sell it in the future. PTS can even convert it back to a color unit if desired.
Input can be either 35mm or 120/220 black-and-white film, or a monochrome RGB JPEG file from a scan or from a digital camera. Output from the Frontier Silver Edition remains the same. Print size is 3.5 x 5 inches to 10 x 15 inches. It can print 400 8 x 10 prints per hour from a single image or about 360 8 x 10 prints per hour from separate images.
To see how prints from the Silver Edition compared to the output from a comparable Noritsu, I sent the same RGB monochrome file of two images to both Fromex Photo and Digital (www.fromex.com) in Long Beach, CA, for a “True Black and White” print and to the local lab that I use for Noritsu digital prints for a monochrome print from a color printer.
The “True Black and White” print from the Frontier Silver Edition looked just like I would have expected if I had printed it in the darkroom. Even the Pearl surface paper looked and felt like the old Ilford Pearl on which I used to print.
The print from the color lab had a slightly warm cast to it with more contrast than I wanted and just didn’t look as “clean” as the Silver Edition print. Side by side, I don’t think anyone looking for a neutral black-and-white print would have chosen the print from the color printer over the Silver Edition print.
For labs, or for photo studios with sufficient black-and-white print volume, the $24,000 PTS Fuji Frontier Silver Edition Digital Printer will produce the finest monochrome prints available today. PTS Consulting and Service Group is located in Fleetwood, PA, and can be reached at (610) 376-5202.
Stan Sholik is a contributing writer for NewsWatch Feature Service. He is also a commercial photographer with over 30 years of large format studio and location experience.