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Choosing A Paper For Your Next Print

17th February 2021 Printing, Papers & Presentation

Note:

This article is essentially a transcript of a webinar given to Warragul Camera Club in early 2021.

A recording of the webinar is available (scroll all the way down to the bottom) - if you prefer to listen/watch rather than read. (Fair warning, it's about 80 minutes long!).

As it was a talk, it is noticeably more rambling, opinionated and conversational than most articles here, but hopefully still quite useful!



Introduction

Let me start by prevaricating.

Paper is amongst the most subjective subjects in all of art, and there are many opinions.

Whilst some opinions are perhaps more informed and than others, there really are no rights or wrongs in paper choice. Blacks and whites, certainly, but no corrects and incorrects. As ever, your choices are a big part of the artist you are - you are free to take or discard advice as you see fit, along your own journey. What is offered here, such as it is, is just well meant advice form someone who has made, and - perhaps more importantly - really, and very carefully, looked at a lot of prints.

To begin again - I think of it like this. If we are printing purely for pleasure, purely for the art of making a beautiful thing, and what happens thereafter to the print is of no importance, then the only concerns are aesthetic. Those are discussed below, of course.

But, the more typical situation is that we're printing for some sort of reason - a print to go in an album, say, or to go for assessment at an awards ceremony - or, as a print that will become a prized object on someone's wall.

Thus, we usually need to look at the physical necessities and desires for the print as the initial concern - there's little point making a gorgeous print on tissue like paper, if that print is then to be handled by friends and family for years to come - it simply won't last the distance, or stay beautiful, for very long.

But to begin a third time, let me begin at the beginning.

As it applies to photography, here is...

A Basic History of Paper

People with a traditional visual arts background - that is sketchers, painters, printmakers and so on, tend to have a much better grip on how paper as a medium fits in to the general artistic landscape than photographers. Paper is something traditional visual artists consider from the very beginning of their process - and they delight in it, and get to know it intimately.

For many photographers, their introduction to paper and printing began (if you're my age!) with the altogether much more depressing experience of photo-finishing services offered by chemists and newsagents. If you're a bit younger, then your version of this initial unpleasantness was most likely experienced with some sort of chain store that does printing as a sideline - Harvey Norman or Officeworks, for example. Or perhaps with some pretty awful inkjet prints from your home printer. Ctrl+P, hail Mary, and hope for the best....

Thus for most folks beginning with photography, even today, the introduction to printing their photographs usually just involves choosing 'matte' (which is not matte in any meaningful, or classic art paper sense, at all - its actually semi-gloss), or gloss. And the 'paper' used was in fact more than likely actually mostly plastic in its construction.

It's only as photographers grow and explore photography, and the visual arts, in greater depth, that they learn that there is in fact a world of other paper and options. Naturally as their photographic skills and artistic expressions skills increase, they desire to be able to use and express themselves with a wider range of options - options having the breadth, depth and beauty available to all those other traditional visual arts.

Analogue Era Photography

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Of course dropping off your roll of Kodak at the local chemist only to get back those little bits of 6 by 4 plastic with over-saturated, grainy, red faces is of course not the whole history of photographic printing. Indeed, all that came quite late, and was of course just the easy, cheap and ubiquitous option - rather than the best.

Here is not the place for a thorough history of photographic printing, but of course there were other options.

Darkrooms were a place of equal parts joy and frustration for many of us. Within their murky environs we could make prints on significantly more beautiful materials But consistency and repeatability were massive issues - slight fluctuations in temperatures, timing, or the state of chemicals results in significantly different visual results. One only has to look at the printing notes from darkroom masters like Adams or Weston to see just how complex and thorough one had to be in the darkroom to produce excellent results repeatedly. Still, it's a rare photographer of my age that doesn't think back wistfully of those latent images mysteriously emerging from the chemical depths, with their rich and inky blacks on lovely creamy toned papers, complete with their 'fibre gloss' radiance. But for many, the darkroom depths held nothing but thalassaphobia (not least because many of the chemicals involved are deemed carcinogenic!). And again, paper options and surfaces were really quite limited.

There were other options, of course, for printing photographs on traditional fine art materials. All sorts of 'alternative techniques', as they're now known - Cyanotypes, Albumen, Salt, and Van Dyke Brown and so on (still practised today of course, and if you're doing this here's a reminder that we're now stocking this wonderful traditional print-making paper). These alternative techniques, often quite laborious and complex in nature, did at least allow photographic printing on more traditional art materials. But consistency and quality were often difficult and elusive. However, at the highest levels of practise, and there are still artisans working this way today, spectacular prints on a wide range of materials were possible, albeit mostly only in some form of monochrome.

(Indeed even with these alternative processes, there is usually now some digital element along the way to greatly improve the print quality (i.e. a digital negative or plate is printed). Some of these hybrid techniques can be quite stunning and Australia is blessed with truly excellent practitioners in this area - see e.g. The Baldessin Press and Gold Street Studios).

In summary, though, for the greater history of photography, paper (and thus expressive) options were mostly quite limited, and the processes involved messy, difficult, and prone to failure.

Enter digital.

Digital Era Photography

Right around the birth of the new millennium, an obvious watershed revolution in photography was occurring. Photography was going digital. Perhaps less immediately obviously, but at just this same time, photographic (and art) printing was also going digital too.

These revolutions were driven by two main things - the first and most obvious is of course the use of digital sensors which brought the pace Moore's Law to the capture end of imaging. Whilst there were undeniable teething troubles in the early noughties, overall this change has been, and continues to be, quite remarkable.

There was a lot of reluctance with digital, at first, from many, and on many fronts - neither digital capture nor printing were much respected initially, and many folks failed even to see the potential. Looking back now, this seems a little quaint and ridiculous - after all, the quality that most were holding on to was just not that great, really. 35mm film was easily surpassed in every way before the first decade of the new millennium was done, and only Luddites would now argue that film has not been well and truly eclipsed by the quality of digital in just about all ways at this point.  In turn this has driven the need for remarkable developments in optics simply to keep pace with the sensors.   But the result is we can now capture so much more of the world, at such higher fidelity, that this positively begs for greater expressiveness when it comes time to print these remarkable captured vignettes.

The second development was the emergence of affordable, high quality inkjet heads. These little miracles are teeny tiny assembly systems, capable of very precisely placing microscopic particles of material on to a substrate. In the relevant case here, tiny drops of pigmented ink onto archival materials, but this is just one of a great many uses, and we're only just at the very beginning of this revolution. This tiny placement to build a bigger thing is of course the key to modern high quality printing - but not just of photos and art. 3D printing is really just layered inkjet, and we're seeing inkjets used in all sorts of ways - from printing food through to tissue engineering.

Digital photographic sensors and inkjets - these are the two faces of the revolution.

Following early experiments with digital printers and traditional materials as early as 1990 (see Graham Nash et al, and the IRIS), Hahnemuehle, in the late 1990s, invented the modern digital fine art paper as we now know it, in form of the eminent Photo Rag 308. A paper which today remains the most popular of all fine art inkjet materials. I can still remember seeing my first Hahnemühle sample packs before I even started my formal studies in photography and experiencing thrill - there's no other word for it - at the potential of being finally able to make superb quality, repeatable prints on traditional fine art materials, in both monochrome and full colour.

At the same time as these papers appeared, inkjet was reaching a stage of maturity and we saw the development of the first relatively affordable inkjet printers with pigment ink, starting with the Epson 2000. There were undoubtedly some rough edges at the beginning, but new models quickly followed, and by 2002 it was already very clear to some that a well controlled pigment inkjet printer, using coated fine art materials, was the very rosy future of photographic printing. I literally built a business, and ultimately most of my working life thus far, on being one of the early experts in this area.

At last, photographers had access to the papers beloved by other artists for centuries.

The earliest examples were all classics of the European tradition - cotton, satisfyingly thick, and completely, truly matte - with no optical flare characteristics to come between then between the print and the viewer. From smooth to heavily textured, there was suddenly a massively increased range of options for expression from photographers. Some, of course, looked down on these papers - mostly, I think, because they didn't understand them, and didn't know how to use them well. So used to in-your-face gloss and egg shell textures, they decried matte papers as 'not photographic'. Time, however, left this ignorant attitude quickly in the dust and it's not uncommon at all, now, to see well more than half of all prints at major photographic awards being on matte, fine art papers. Anyone who loves and understands images, and the printing of them, knows that their is beauty in the quiet expression of matte materials. Of course, contrast and gloss have their place too - the important thing is really that all these choices be available as expressive tools.

Thus, over time the initial rush of properly matte fine art papers was supplemented by 'digital darkroom' style papers - essentially bringing back the look and feel of classic photographic materials from those wonderful darkroom days - but with all the control, repeatability, and more comfortable work-flow of the modern light-room. To this day, we've probably never sold or printed more of a single paper in one go than we did of the first really excellent digital darkroom style semi gloss paper - Museo Silver Rag, which emerged around 2005 as I recall. These days barely a week goes by without some new paper emerging and claiming to be the best example of a darkroom paper (...as if that was just one thing).

No, as photographers, the problem now is in fact too much choice. We're positively spoilt for choice, with literally hundreds of excellent papers now available, covering everything from heavyweight heavily textured European style fine art papers to light-as-silk translucent Washi materials from Japan. There are classic darkroom style papers offering just a little gloss right up to dazzling brilliance, and ranging from creamy warm to icy cold whites. You can print on resin coated or fibre based. Materials include Cotton, Bamboo, Kozo, Hemp and...just about everything you can get fibre from. And of course plastic, always plastic.

Paper Choice

So now that everything is available to us, how do we make our choice?

The are several factors to consider.

  • What makes a 'good paper'
  • Necessary Physical and Handling Characteristics
  • ...(including Archival requirements and considerations)
  • The Print's Environment
  • Aesthetic Considerations
  • Environmental Considerations
  • Cost / Quality / Availability

Good Papers

In one sense, paper is simply a medium for the expression of the image. One could argue, and indeed some do, that the best thing a paper can do is express an image as well as possible and be in all other ways visually anonymous. They would argue that paper is like the foundations of a building - necessary, but ideally not seen, and only there to offer support to the important thing.

I think this is a very simplistic way of looking at printing. Prints are physical objects, and our experience of those objects is much more than just the image printed on them. Good Printmakers make beautiful Art Objects - objects that do more than just 'look good' - objects that are experienced by all of the senses (well, perhaps not your hearing!). Whilst the visual appearance, and in the context of photography, the ability to produce the desired expression of your image, is obviously the thing of most importance - one should never discount the paper itself. It's look, it's feel, even it's smell - all play a part in how the viewer receives the print.

From the narrow perspective of image expression, though, it's a good idea to define the desirable characteristics of a paper used for photographic print work:

Potential Contrast Range - that is, the difference between black and white. How black are your blacks, how white are your whites? There's much more to contrast than this, but these boundaries are fundamental to all prints, and thus very important

Paper Tone - what is the colour of the blank paper, and how does this affect your printing of a particular image? In general, the a good clean bright white is desired, as this increases potential contrast.

Sharpness - we want our papers to hold even the finest details and be pin sharp. This ties in with...

Surface Appearance - as a rule, smoother papers are better at expressing fine details.  Texture can make it more difficult to visually 'read' fine details.

Gamut - what potential range of colours can the paper express in combination with the inkjet in use? Wider is better, albeit not at the expense of smoothness. (This is more a factor of ink-set, of course).


...But of course all those things are interrelated and tell only one small, simplistic part of the story.

Physical Characteristics

Quick Definitions

Let's quickly define a few terms:

Inkjet paper - a paper specifically made for inkjet printing, i.e. one that has been coated with an ink receptive layer. This layer helps it absorb more ink (thus offering greater saturation and deeper tones), and offer pin sharp results.

Fibre based - a paper made of some form of fibre. Fibre means there are at times more natural defects (e.g. the odd seed or bark in the pulp), and fibre based papers tend to be less smooth generally.

Resin coated - paper where there may be some fibre, but there is also resin, i.e. plastic. Or the substrate may in fact be entirely plastic. Papers tend to be more resistant to tearing, more consistent, have less flaws, and distinctly smoother.

Matte - this means really matte. No gloss or semi-gloss at all. People often call these papers watercolour papers, or simply fine art papers. Looked at from any angle will never show optical flare. Show the lowest contrast range under direct light, but under diffuse light perhaps the darkest with a velvetty, black hole appearance to their blacks. Tends to have an easily damageable surface, so prints must be handled with care.

Pearl/lustre/photo-matt/semi-matte/semi-gloss - these are all the variances on the same thing. The surface is shiny, but is stippled. The stippled surface achieves two main things - resistance to marks and fingerprints, and diffusion of the gloss appearance. When looked at on angle, these papers will not show specular highlights to such a degree as gloss materials. Medium levels of contrast under all light sources. Tends to be the most forgiving of papers when it comes to handling.

Gloss - a shiny, smooth surfaced paper. Angle of incidence equals angle of reflection - you will very quickly see objectionable highlight flares if you're at the wrong angle with these papers with respect to your lights. However when not seeing the flares, have the highest contrast range under many light sources.

High gloss - a separate category of gloss papers with a very glossy, mirror like surface. For the most glossy, fibre is too rough, so most of these tend to be partially or wholly resin (plastic) - typically polyester.

Optical Brightening Agents AKA OBAs - chemicals put in paper to make the paper appear brighter.  More here, and below as well:

Physical Use of the Paper

When choosing a paper personally, or with a client, this is usually where things start. It's important to know what the prints intended uses are.

At a minimum one should know:

  • Will the print be regularly handled?
  • Will the print be mounted?
  • Will the print be framed, and if so behind what (glass, Perspex) and how (glass basically flush with print, or print box mounted at rear of frame, for example)?
  • What lighting will the print be viewed under? Is this permanent or variable?

Armed with these answers, sensible choices can be made. For example, if prints are likely to be handled extensively, and particularly if that's by 'the general public', then I would always lean towards a semi-gloss paper. Even if one hopes people will be careful about handling things, humans will stick their fingers just about everywhere, given a chance. This means a paper that tends not to mark easily, or show fingerprints, is a huge advantage.

Many folks would lean towards resin coated materials here as well, because they tend to be significantly tougher, much more resistant to wear and tear/tearing. Certainly the semi-gloss resin coated paper is the bread and butter material for just about every wedding and portrait photographer because the reality is that folks tend to be rough with those prints. But see below for some thoughts on moving away from plastic if possible, and over time we have seen even this market move towards fibre based and interesting materials, which is great. Indeed, use of these materials can be a real point of difference and present opportunities for better margins...always handy in this competitive space.

Framing and lighting are two complex topics, worthy of articles in their own right. But here are some quick thoughts:

* In general, gloss materials (and to a lesser extent semi gloss materials) behind glass or Perspex tends to mean you will experience a LOT of optical flare / reflectivity issues. You'll really have two layers of them to deal with, so many folks prefer to use completely matte materials for all prints that are going to be framed.

* Consider also lighting - in Australia, galleries have an unfortunate tendency to choose point light sources hung just over the works on little stalks. (These are just about the worst possible lights for artworks, quite frankly, if I ruled the world, these would be banned). This almost guarantees issues with reflections with gloss and even semi-gloss materials. Another argument in favour of matte.

* Merciless direct lighting, of naked prints at least, tends to create a low contrast appearance with matte papers, so whilst the specular highlight reflections can be a major issue, gloss materials can really come into their own, expressing a massive range of contrast. But once you're behind glass, unless the lighting is truly savage, matte materials tend to hold their own and very often look better.

* If you are using matte materials, how can you then let folks best see the gorgeous, natural finish of these are materials and/or show off their physical attributes like their texture? There are two good approaches here - deep box frames where the paper sits well back from the glass, allowing the eye to really look through the glass and see the paper as a separate things. Combined with e.g. a float mount and possible even a deckled (torn) edge, this can really shows the print as artefact. Alternatively, a matte paper placed close behind museum quality non reflective glass can, especially under complimentary lighting, look spectacular - really as if the glass isn't even there at all.

Archival Requirements

A fair question is - do you actually really need an archival print? And if so, just how archival? In many cases the quest for archival prints is sheer vanity - most of what is printed simply isn't good enough to really warrant the archival life these things are now given. A crappy photograph is still a crappy photograph, no matter how long the print of it lasts.

That said, given development of high end dye based inkjet printers stopped some time ago, we're almost at the point we're prints are now archival by default. Personally, I think this is a shame - dye inks can produce spectacular prints and are relatively cheap to make and thus buy. Dye printers are smoother to run with far less clogging and head issues. For proofing and for prints that don't genuinely need epic archival lives, dye printers make perfect sense. But, here we are.

Currently, pretty much all the significant home and studio photo printers use pigment inks (i.e. the printers specifically designed for the very best print quality), and pretty much all the 'proper' papers are acid free, UV stable, and use essentially the same coatings. So without much effort - although the initial set-up cost is not insignificant, generally being well over $1000 for even the smallest models - prints made with these systems are really all archival, by default

Indeed these prints are vastly more archival than the vast bulk of 'traditional' photo prints ever were. Certainly colour chemistry prints from the last half of the 20th century do not come anywhere close in terms of archival integrity - even the much vaunted but oh-so-carcinogenic-and-difficult-to-make Ilfochrome/Cibachrome processes had a realistic lifespan of around 25 to 50 years before equivalent distinctly visible colour shift occurred.

Most inkjet prints (stored and handled properly) will last a century, or much more. Indeed, many paper and ink combinations are hitting the several centuries mark under accelerated testing protocols, and (as ever) black and white prints tend to be the most stable - inkjet black and whites are now predicted to last in excess of 300 or 400 years before visible shift occurs. Some of this is perhaps a little smoke and mirror is hiding in how you define 'visible shift'...but in simple terms modern pigment inkjet printing is just about the most stable colour printing process on the planet today and compares favourably with things like oil paintings.

More on OBAs...

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Hahnemühle Photo Rag 308gsm
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One issue that continues to be controversial and much debated is optical brightening agents - OBAs for short. These are chemicals placed in paper (and used daily in things like detergent, toothpaste etc.) - to make the paper appear brighter. It's a trick, of course - these fluorescing agents convert light just outside of the visible spectrum into blue light. This cools down the whites of the paper, and human eyes interpret cool whites as brighter whites, even if the paper is not actually reflecting any more light than, say, a non OBA paper. Smoke and mirrors once again.

The questions is, are OBAs really that bad? They've been used in photographic printing for most of the 20th century, and even the greatest photographic printers have used papers with OBAs in them. These OBAs fade and leave behind a distinct ivory tone - and this has become prized as part of the appearance of classic photographic prints.

The problems really lie in the change. The paper starts off appearing brighter, but the rate of change with an OBA paper is much quicker than one without OBAs, and ultimately OBA prints can end up actually warmer than prints on non OBA papers. It's really up to you and your circumstances whether this is an issue - e.g. if you're printing just for yourself or your local camera club awards night, then this probably doesn't matter much. But if you're an artist selling works, and you expect and desire to have a long, decades spanning career - OBA papers might come back to haunt you, with customers complaining about the yellowed whites some years in the future.

Many papers (like e.g Hahnemühle Photo Rag and German Etching) - contain OBAs only in very small amounts, and only in the base stock and not in the coating. This minimal use of OBA is probably then of no real practical concern at all - it's really just done as a process to even out the grades of different batches of fibre, and brings a desired level of consistency, year in and year out, to the product. So don't necessarily regard all OBA papers as evil...it's very often a mountain out of a molehill issue. There's an obsession with having OBA free papers but the price you pay for this is a reduced white level, meaning reduced contrast, so this is a compromise in sheer print quality terms (and particularly if you're working in black and white and therefore ONLY have tone/contrast to work with).

Resin Coated vs. Fibre Based

Another big schism in paper is Resin Coated or Fibre Based. Resin coated means your paper is, or predominantly is, made out of plastic. Whilst bad for the environment, this has some benefits - these papers can be machine made very cheaply and to crazily high levels of quality and consistency. They are physically robust, being resistant to tearing. Combine with semi gloss coating the are perfect for prints that are going to be regularly handled.

Resin coated papers are seen as less archival generally - over time the resin may become brittle, so in theory the papers are more prone to issues like cracking and splitting - especially if the prints have been mounted to board during framing - as they have less flexibility to them than a more forgiving knot of fibres as in fibre based materials.

Especially given the state of the world (see the next section) - fibre based papers are otherwise a better choice than resin coated papers in pretty much every way - with the exception of high gloss scenarios. Fibre based papers have a higher ink load capacity, are typically more beautiful visually, and are much nicer to physically touch and hold. Generally speaking, fibre based papers bring a look and feel of quality to prints that resin coated papers can't match.

For very glossy printing, the smoothness that comes from plastic is a real benefit.

It's simply a fact that pigment inks on a fibre based paper will never result in a truly smooth result. This can be improved by using a resin coated paper, but even then, high gloss printing remains a real area of weakness for inkjet printing - as the ink will always sit on top of the page, a true mirror like appearance is not achieved. With chemistry prints, the photo receptive layer is beneath the gloss surface, and high gloss papers are in fact usually made from extremely smooth, pure polyester plastic - thus the end result is truly smooth. Thus high gloss and metallic printing are the one area where there is still an argument to be made the traditional chemistry based photographic printing still holds an edge.

(And of course the other area chemistry printing excels in is cost - it's much cheaper than running an inkjet...but given inkjet quality is now so far ahead (when you know what you're doing!) - this is one of those cases where you get what you pay for...).

Environmental Considerations

The world is in pain, and even if you're a little crazy and you don't believe in man made climate change, the odds are you still don't want to live in a polluted cesspit of a planet. So paper's impact on the environment, which as a general thing is not insubstantial, should be factored in to your choices.

If you don't need plastic, then don't use plastic. It's become pretty clear that plastic is a MAJOR problem in many ways. And 'resin' coated just means there is plastic in the mix. Avoid it if you possibly can. Of course sometimes it IS just the right material, but I'd say there's almost always a better alternative. And the world just won't stop using plastic until people stop choosing it.

Fortunately, fine art papers tend to be made by forward thinking companies, and there is an increasing push towards renewable resources generally. In general, fibre based materials are inherently re-usable and re-recyclable. What was once pulped can be re-pulped and re-formed.

Where you can, use your 'green dollar' and check out the environmental credentials of the paper makers. In this area, no news is generally bad news - those companies that are paying attention, and doing what they can in these areas, will publicise make this information available. Where are they getting their fibres? What sort of fibres are they using?

Whilst cotton is a lovely material for paper, it's a resource heavy fibre - it uses a LOT of land and water. If it is sustainably grown, then it's by no means the worst of materials, but we're seeing an increasing array of environmentally friendly fibres coming from Bamboo, Hemp, Agave and Sugar Cane. These papers do cost a little more (see below for some thoughts on cost!) - but as people start to use them more this cost will come down. And they're better for the world, and just as beautiful. So spend those green dollars wisely and support companies doing the right thing.

Hahnemühle are the leaders in green papers - see their listings with us for excellent Bamboo, Hemp and Agave options:

This of course also ties back to the archival characteristics - if we're making something to last, then by extension, it won't need to replaced. Thus more energy won't be pored into it. And also ties to your technique and colour management - using good equipment like Eizo and BenQ monitors, with calibration, means you won't be wasting inks and paper nearly as much as those who persist with ad-hoc and by eye techniques. So use the right tools, develop your technique, and really understand what you are doing.

Good technique saves money AND saves the planet.

Aesthetics

Notwithstanding required physical characteristics as meandered through above, aesthetic considerations for paper choice include such things as:

  • Desired surface appearance
  • Paper tone
  • ...(together these first two really define the contrast range)
  • Sympathy with subject
  • Texture

Surface Appearance

The surface appearance side of things is of course a very subjective and personal thing - some folks simply love gloss and want everything to be glossy. And that's fine - it's your art and your choice (even if its arguably a boring one!). But we can generalise a bit about strengths and weaknesses of each of the main surface types, and perhaps try and avoid common mistakes.

It's fair to say that matte papers are more 'arty', traditional, and subtle in their appearance and expressive capabilities. No paper is better at getting out of the way of an image than a smooth, matte fine art paper. Contrary to many people's intuition, these papers, used properly, are as sharp and precise as printing gets. With no reflectivity to worry about, your image is at its most pure on this type of paper. The price you pay is a narrower contrast range (particularly when viewed under direct light, see above) and I think most folks would agree that therefore more care is needed in image preparation with these papers.

A common but natural mistake with matte papers is to choose them only, or mostly, for low contrast subjects - think, say, mountains in the haze of Himalayan evening, or foggy street shots. But its easy for a low contrast image, printed on a low contrast material, to end up looking muddy and insipid. Low contrast times low contrast can soon equal mush. It's the photographic equivalent of serving mashed potato with mushy peas.

In fact, because the matte papers are more limited in contrast, it is good practise to choose inherently higher contrast images for these papers, and/or to boost the contrast of your images slightly when printing on these papers.

Semi gloss is often the happy medium - it tends to look pretty good with everything, and is historically by far the most popular surface type for photographic printing. Hiding a multitude of sticky fingered sins, it's a practical choice. For many here the holy grail is a 'quiet gloss' - which in the old days was known as F-type, or 'fibre gloss' - that is, something with a lustrous, almost glowing appearance but with as little of the negative qualities of true gloss as possible. If you want your prints to just look 'classically photographic' or 'just feel like a regular photo', then resin coated semi-gloss is what you're after. For the last 50 years or so, this is what the vast bulk of people think of when they think 'photo paper' and no one except for artists will really be put off by the vanilla, plasticy quality.

Gloss is glossy in every way - slick and commercial. It's all about high impact and in your face contrast. Like a mirror, it is unforgiving of flaws - any dents or blemishes, and lack of smoothness, stands out very quickly. Gloss prints attract fingerprints like Nutella attracts toddlers...and the result is always a big mess.

Paper Tone

When it comes to paper tone, you can broadly break down the choices to three - warm white, natural white, and bright white.

Bright white papers typically have lots of OBAs, and are thus not necessarily to be relied on long term, but are the choice for maximum initial impact. Contrast is the distance between black and white - the depth of blacks is largely fixed by the printers inks, but if you want to really create the maximal tonal range, then a crispy white paper can bring significant impact to the table. This can be very effective for e.g. awards prints, as the human eye almost always rewards contrast. And if those OBAs fade and your paper later yellows - well, the trophy is already on the shelf so what does it matter?

Warm whites bring a positivity and approachability to prints, particularly portraits. We're all trained by society to love a warm, tanned skin tone - and this effect is not racist - warm tones look good with every skin colour. However, warm toned papers make it hard to express higher contrast (we perceive warm whites as less bright, even if technically they are not), and they can interfere with the expression of cool tones generally.

Natural white papers lie in the middle and are often the right choice. Good contrast, the ability to express all tones well, and no negative aspects when it comes to the archival side of things.

Sympathy With Subject

It helps, in some cases, and particularly with landscape and nature shots, if your subject has some sympathy with the materials you're reproducing it on to.

For example, if you've a shot of some icy glaciers in the French Alps, topped with the dazzling azure sky only a polarising filter can deliver - I would not normally suggest a warm toned, textured paper as the obvious paper choice. Your subject is hard edged, glistening, and your image is full of cool tones. Printing this on a gentle, soft material with a pronounced warm tone is going to be an uphill battle. No, an image like this wants a glistening, cool surface.  

Likewise a shot of rolling surf might work best on a really high gloss paper, or perhaps a metallic. There is a natural harmony between water and gloss, of course.

In contrast, a plaintive portrait of tribal elder might want the quiet expressiveness and warm tones of Hahnemuehle Bamboo.

Think about the physicality of your subject - because there's often a natural analogue in the world of paper.

Texture

Textured papers are to be used with some caution. Whilst they can bring an immediate and obviously arty appearance to your work, they can also quickly overwhelm your images. A basic rule is, the smaller your printing, the less texture you want. So save the heavily textured papers (Torchons, Aquarelle etc), for larger prints.

Slight to moderate texture in your paper can be a great mechanism to bring visual interest to large areas of similar tones in your image - texture tends to get lost in highly detailed areas, but in areas where you have smooth tonality, and particularly if these areas are large, then paper texture can add that extra something that makes these areas really work.

A good practise with textured papers is to leave generous white space around your print - this lets the eye see and interpret the texture independently to the printed image, and helps the viewer appreciate the paper as a thing of beauty in its own right and visually 'read' the texture as their eye wanders through the print.

Indeed, generous white-space is a good idea for a multitude of reasons with printing generally. For one, it greatly decreases the chances of damage to the print and marks on the print from occurring. It gives you many more options in presentation and framing the print, should that ever be important. And it helps enhance the feeling of 'print as art object' rather than just 'image on a page'. Borderless printing just reeks of those nasty chemist prints we were talking about earlier. Make it a habit to give your prints some breathing room and you will instantly see how this improves the perception of quality in your prints.

Cost / Quality / Availability

Quality

I'll get rid of one of these fairly quickly.

Quality - if you stick to the digital photo and art papers from the major brands - that is Hahnemuehle, Ilford, Canson, and so on, then in a broad sense the papers are all super quality. With proper processes and colour management, there is very little objective print quality difference between these options. There may well be a difference in the availability and quality of stock profiles from these paper makers, of course, but stock profiles should only be used for testing really anyway. True fine art printing (still) requires custom profiles for best results.

Cost

Cost of paper is a concern folks tend to worry far too much about. Put simply - if you're doing things right (high quality equipment, properly and completely colour managed) - then your success rate with printing should be VERY high indeed. Thus you will need to do very little test or re-printing. The cost of papers is thus pretty much all the same in the big scheme of things - this is why we at Image Science, for example, don't charge different prices for printing on different papers.

In short, and assuming you're not living on the bread line (in which case, photography probably isn't the right hobby for you in a more general sense!) - then if your paper is $1.50 a sheet or $2 a sheet makes such little difference in the end that the cost of the paper should simply not enter your considerations - as it's just not a significant concern when set against all the other factors.

Good paper costs a bit, and it's worth it. Get the right paper, not the cheap paper.

Availability

Availability, however, IS important. You may have noticed we have a general tendency to favour Hahnemuehle and Ilford papers over other brands. This is not because those brands don't have some good and beautiful options - it's more about practicalities.

Some of those brands have had, over the years, inconsistency of supply issues that mean we're a bit wary of them. For example, Epson papers are just so up and down in terms of supply, and Epson just such a frustrating company to deal with, that we've pretty much given up on them.

Canson we regard as a little 'iffy' - when they lost access to the Arches paper mill (which they've only recently regained at time of writing, after several years) - ALL their papers changed, and quite significantly, because their base stocks changed. And they tried to shove this under the carpet by not letting customers know or changing the names of the papers - instead, for many months we received endless calls from folks wanting to know why, e.g., one box of Aquarelle was completely different to another. I consider that just fundamentally shifty business practise, personally, and it just doesn't inspire confidence. These issues are greater for us, of course, as a print service - but consistency is a key thing with paper.

Whilst Ilford continue to struggle at times with consistency of supply, they have shown an honesty and a genuine desire to help where they can, and they now have a very broad range of gorgeous materials. But (issues with a local importer, now replaced, not withstanding) - Hahnemühle are, and have been for some 20 years now, the absolute kings of consistency when it comes to production and availability.

Hahnemühle are estimated to be about 70% of the fine art digital market, world wide, on their own. They own both the paper mill AND the coating machines, thus they (unusually in the paper world) have nearly complete control over their entire supply chain. Thus our tendency to lean their way - because they and their products are there when we need them and we can trust them. Thus our investment in process development is not wasted by unexpected changes in materials over time, of the sudden absence of a product from market.

Put simply Hahnemühle are good people, and we love and trust their stuff after decades of using it.

Fini

Hopefully by now your interest in paper has been piqued, and you've found some useful tips along the way for choosing your next paper.

If you do have an interest in paper, generally, there is a great book on the subject called Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky that is well worth your time. 

It does not cover a lot specifically about the photographic side of things, but then the point of this article has perhaps been to convince you that 'photo papers' are really just one tiny (and not so interesting) part of the greater story of paper!

Video Version

If you prefer to listen & watch rather than read, here is the presentation as it was given originally.

It's a recording of a Zoom meeting, and only SD quality therefore I am afraid.  I have trimmed off the introduction, Q & A, and camera club chat bits, leaving essentially just the talk itself.  Hopefully it makes at least some sense!


Choosing Paper For Your Next Print - Webinar Recording