Maximum White Value


Today’s Question: You said [in yesterday’s edition of the Ask Tim Grey eNewsletter] that you don’t recommend limiting the maximum value for white in your photographic images. I’ve often heard that the whites should be set to no brighter than 250 or even lower. Why don’t you think that is necessary?

Tim’s Quick Answer: Put simply, I prefer to retain the maximum possible range of color and tonal values for my photo. In my mind, you should only restrict that range if you have a good reason to do so. If you have such a reason, it probably applies on a per-image or per-print basis, not across your entire library of photographic images.

More Detail: If, for example, your printer is not able to produce discrete values for the brightest shade of white for the specific ink and paper combination you’ll be printing to, then you could reduce the maximum white value to “fit” the range for the photo into the range supported by your printer.

However, if you are printing your photos using a photo inkjet printer, this probably isn’t an issue for you. Many photo inkjet printers have a difficult time producing discrete values for the darkest blacks, but they generally don’t have difficulty with the brightest whites.

Some monitor displays and digital projectors may have difficulty producing a full range of bright values, but that is often the result of incorrect settings (or a lack of calibration) rather than a true issue with the display.

When I hear a photographer say that they adjust the maximum white value for their photos down to something less than 255, the first thing I want to know is why they are doing that. Again, if this adjustment were being applied to compensate for limitations of a printer or other output, that would make sense. But as far as I’m concerned, limiting the white value across all images to something below 255 makes absolutely no sense.

Some images don’t have a full tonal range from black to white in the first place, and some images don’t need to be adjusted to include that full range. But for images where it makes sense to have a full range from black to white, in almost all cases I want to optimize my photo so that white really is white, not some value that is darker than white.

Frankly, I would be more understanding if we were talking about keeping the black value up at a higher value than true black considering the limitations of many printers. But that’s a different matter altogether, and even then I would still retain a true black in my master image in most cases.