Epson’s Advanced Black and White Printing Mode: Translating Settings to Ansel Adams’ Zones

Epson's Advanced Color Mode Printing Panel
Epson’s Advanced Color Mode Printing Panel.

Well, you’ve learned a lot about printing after purchasing your Epson Stylus Pro 3880, Epson SureColor P600 or Epson SureColor P800. You’ve even bought premium papers from the likes of Hahnemühle, Canson Infinity, Moab or Red River. But now you’re hoping to get that masterpiece black and white print using Epson’s Advanced Color Settings panel, adjusting your image to the exact density and tones you’ve visualized.

But wait. Darkest? Darker? Light?

If your head is spinning trying to understand the differences between the Advanced Color Settings panel tone selections, this brief post will help. It’s the first in a series looking at using the Epson black and white controls to their fullest capabilities.

Before I continue, I’ll say this up front: When you choose to purchase printing papers such as Hanhemühle, Red River, Epson, Canson or Moab, please do so using the links on this blog. Dick Blick Art Materials provides all the papers listed except for Red River, which provides its paper direct. Whenever you purchase by clicking through from this blog to these sites, it helps pay for all the materials, ink, time and technology I need in order to provide you with these posts. Thanks in advance.


This article assumes you’ve read a previous post in which I explained how to use Ansel Adams’ Zone System to visualize tones. In this post, we’ll be looking at luminance values as they translate to the zones on paper. Confused? Not for long—be patient.

Essentially, we’re starting this series by looking only at changes in specific zones depending on our selection of the five simplest Tone settings in the dialog: Darkest, Darker, Dark, Normal and Light.

First, though, let’s examine the Lab system of measurement to make sure we’re all speaking the same language.

Zones to Lab

Figure 01. A Zone System–RGB–Lab chart.
Figure 01. A Zone System–RGB–Lab chart.

Figure 01 shows a more complicated Zone System diagram than you saw in the aforementioned post. In this new image, you’ll see the zones, but also RGB values and Lab values; it’s those Lab numbers we’re concerned with here.

The “L” in Lab refers to luminance, or the relative brightness (tone) of a measured area. The nice thing about using this measurement with the Zone System is that it gives us an exact value for each of the zones—something Ansel wished he had. You’ll also notice that the measurements are in intervals: 0, 10, 20, and so on. Think of these numbers as having the words “Zone ___ has” before them and the words “percent brightness” after them. For example, “Zone III has 30 percent brightness.” And there you have it: luminance values in action.

An easy way to remember this is to take the zone in question times 10. Notice that in the Zone System, Zone 0 has 0 percent luminance; 0 x 10 = 0. Conversely, Zone X’s equation would be 10 x 10 = 100 percent luminance. Easy, right?

Testing the Epson Settings

Figure 02. The luminance values of Zones I, III, V, VII and IX for each of Epson's tone settings. From top to bottom: Darkest, Darker, Dark, Normal, Light.
Figure 02. The luminance values of Zones I, III, V, VII and IX for each of Epson’s tone settings. From top to bottom: Darkest, Darker, Dark, Normal, Light.

I used the above Zone-to-Lab image to print five different 4×6″ images on my standard proofing paper, Red River Aurora Art White. For each image, I accessed the Advanced Color Settings dialog (in Photoshop: Print > Print Settings > Printer Settings > Advanced Color Settings) with all values set to neutral, and then I selected each of the Tone settings in order. This resulted in five prints: a Darkest, a Darker, a Dark, a Normal, and a Light.

I then took these prints to the copy stand (a Beseler CS-21) and shot high-resolution images of each on a Sony A7R using the exact same settings for each image (ISO 400, ƒ/11, 1/30 sec.). The images were then cleaned up in Lightroom to 5000 K, +10 contrast, to ensure comparability. I then exported them to Photoshop, compiled the zones for comparison, and using the Info tool, measured the luminance values of each of the zones. You can see them labeled in Figure 02.

What do these tell us?

First, there is a 57 percent increase in the luminance (14 percent brightness to 22 percent brightness) of Zone I from the Darkest setting to the Light setting. If you’re dealing with subtle, dark shadows with detail, that means Darkest may obliterate those details, while Normal or Light will not.

Second, a fairly large difference appears in Zone V, where there is a 48 percent increase in luminance from Darkest to Light settings (87 percent brightness increases to 91 percent). Midtones, such as clear sky or weathered wood, are thus significantly affected by this change.

Finally, Zone VII and IX see much less change, with 14 percent luminance increase in Zone VII and only 1 percent in Zone IX. Light skin will see some change, while snow with texture will see almost none.


I hope this first excursion into understanding the Epson Advanced Color Settings / Advanced Black and White Mode dialog is helpful. Knowing how each of the Tone selections impacts your print is crucial, and the above diagram should help you stop guessing and begin accurately predicting your print results.

Keep in mind that these results are going to be impacted by paper choice. While I proof on Red River Aurora Art White, it’s not my gallery paper. I also have Lab grids for my final papers, such as Hahnemühle Museum Etching 350gsm, which tends to have slightly brighter low-zone values (about 10 percent higher than the Red River). The lesson is to download my Zone-RGB-Lab image above, and test your papers before printing.

Be sure to check back for more from this series. Next time, we’ll look at how Darker Tone selections impact the Color Toning output with the Epson dialog. Until then, I hope your next print, is your best print.



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