I love to print my own photos but when I started printing I was overwhelmed by the incredible number of papers available. There are hundreds of options on the market and I was paralyzed by having too many choices. So I took the easy way out. There were a few sheets of luster paper included with my first printer, so I tried them, liked the result, and I just stuck with that paper for many years.
As I got more into fine art printing, I started branching out into other paper types. While there are many different papers, they generally vary on only a few different dimensions or characteristics. Once you are aware of these, it becomes much easier to understand the choices and to pick a paper that will work for you.
Glossy vs Matt
Glossy papers are generally more vibrant and have richer and darker blacks. Sometimes this is referred to as the paper having a higher black density or Dmax. The drawback of glossy papers is that they can show reflections, glare, and fingerprints which detract from the viewing experience.
In contrast, matt papers look good from any angle but often have more muted colors and typically worse black levels. But you don’t always need the most saturated colors and matt papers can have a charm of their own. Also our eyes adapt to the environment so that even though the black on a matt paper is measurably lighter than a glossy paper, perceptually it can seem as dark or even darker. Matt papers are a favorite of portrait photographers as well as landscape photographers who shoot more intimate and softer scenes.
One of the advantages of matt paper is the lack of reflections if lighting is less than optimal. Shown is Epson Hot Press Bright (a matt paper) on the left vs Moab Juniper Baryta (a glossy paper) on the right.
Smooth vs Textured Surface
Some papers are smooth and have a completely flat surface while others will have a noticeable surface texture. The texture impacts the appearance of the image and for glossy papers can have a big effect on how stray light reflects off the face of the print.
Papers have different types of textures. They can vary in size from a very fine stipple to larger patterns that you could even feel with your fingers. The texture might have a grain or direction which means you’ll get slightly different results depending on the paper orientation when loaded. Finally the texture could be very regular, as if imparted by a machine stamp, or it could be more irregular as if made by an organic process.
The surface texture of Hahnemuhle Torchon paper. The print is in a black matt and I photographed it with sunlight coming in from the right side to emphasize the texture. The print is roughly 12x18" in size.
Warm vs Cool Paper White
Is there a tint to the paper? Some papers will appear a bit warm with yellow tones whereas others will appear cool with blue tones.
The difference in the paper white can be substantial. On the left is Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Baryta and the right is Hahnemuhle Baryta FB. White balance is set to the foam core behind both prints (the foam core is probably on the cool side making Photo Rag Baryta seem a bit warmer than actual).
Paper Brightness & use of OBAs
How bright is the paper white? A brighter paper will appear more vibrant and make the image standout a bit more from the surroundings. But in order to get a whiter and brighter paper, manufacturers will often add optical brightening agents (OBA). These are chemicals added to the paper, either in the surface coating or the paper base, that provide a higher whiteness to the paper. In some cases OBAs will absorb UV light and fluoresce.
While a brighter paper would normally be a good thing there are some drawbacks caused by using OBAs. OBAs can make the paper bluish, they also have a tendency to be unstable and break down over time. This will cause the paper to discolor and yellow. The general thought is if you are concerned about print longevity, one should seek out a paper with little or no OBAs. However there are some exceptions, for example, Epson Hot Press Bright with OBAs generally scores as well as it’s sister paper Hot Press Natural (no OBAs) on light fading tests.
It can be difficult to tell if a paper contains OBAs. Sometimes the name gives a clue as papers with “Bright” generally have whitening agents whereas a “natural” paper will not have these. You can also look at the manufacturers description and see if they make an explicit statement about no OBAs. If there is no such statement, I would assume the paper does contain OBAs.
On the left is Epson Hot Press Bright which has optical brightening agents (OBAs) vs Hot Press Natural on the right. White balance set to the foam core behind both prints. Epson states that Hot Press Bright has an ISO brightness of 96 vs 90 for Hot Press Natural.
This is the range of colors that can be printed on the paper. It depends both on the paper surface and the particular printer and inkset that you use. In general you want as wide a gamut as possible as because attempting to print out of gamut colors can result in a dull color on the print, posterization, and loss of detail within patches of out-of-gamut colors.
The solid red areas indicate out-of-gamut colors on the specific combination of paper and printer: (a) Epson Premium Glossy on an Epson P800 printer, (b) Moab Metallic Pearl also on a P800 printer, and (c) Moab Metallic Pearl on an Epson P20000 printer. All three paper/printer combinations have problems reproducing the red colors in the aloe flowers and to a lesser extent, the greens and yellows in the vegetation. The Moab paper is worse in this regard, but changing the printer from the P800 to P20000 helps tremendously due to an improved inkset. You can view out-of-gamut colors in Lightroom by entering soft-proofing mode and clicking the top right triangle in the histogram.
Cotton Rag vs Alpha Cellulose
This is the base material used in the paper. Cotton rag refers to paper made from cotton fibers whereas alpha-cellulose is wood pulp. Cotton and alpha cellulose papers feel different to the touch although I personally don’t have a preference for one or the other. Both types of paper are sometimes referred to as fiber based.
Some papers are resin-coated which means that the base (usually alpha cellulose) has been covered by two layers of polyethylene plastic. RC papers tend to be thinner, more water proof, and scuff resistant but they are basically plastic and don’t feel as nice.
Paper Curl and Handling
Some papers lie completely flat and are very easy to work with. Other papers may have strong curl even when you purchase a box of precut sheets. This could cause problems when loading the paper and potentially cause headstrikes while printing. Papers may also curl a bit or become wavy after laying down ink.
Fade Resistance and Longevity
How long can the print be displayed before fading and color shifts becomes noticeable? Longevity depends on many factors including the paper, the printer and inkset, and the display environment. But generally a paper that performs well with Epson printers, will perform well with Canon and HP printers.
Some papers tend to exhibit fading after short time periods. For example, in longevity tests a paper like Epson Exhibition Fiber might exhibit noticeable fading in as little as 10 years in average home conditions wheras the same photo printed on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag might survive 60 years without fading (these results are from aardenburg-imaging.com with an Epson 3800 printer).
This is the price of the paper. Some of the fine art papers can get pretty expensive. For example, taking a quick look at the prices online, the price of a sheet of 17x22" paper could range anywhere from $2 to $12. Yes that’s right $12 for a single sheet of paper. Better hope you don’t make any mistakes or need to reprint. Usually cotton is more expensive than alpha cellulose which in turn is more expensive than resin-coated papers. Due to paper costs some people will proof on a cheaper paper before printing the final version.
When choosing a paper, I think it’s important to keep in mind the intended use. For example,
- If I want to make a print for a competition, I’ll pick a paper with vibrant colors and deep blacks. I won’t care about OBAs or whether the colors are going to fade in a few years.
- If the photo is going to be framed behind glass, I may choose an RC paper because it will typically stay flatter than fiber papers (i.e. cotton rag or alpha cellulose) and the feel of the paper doesn’t matter.
- If the prints are going to be shared as a loose portfolio, then I want a paper that is scuff resistant and doesn’t have a delicate surface. I may want a thicker cotton rag paper as that feels nicer in the hand.
- If I’m going to have the paper facemounted to acrylic, I will need to pick a paper with a smooth front surface. This usually means a resin coated paper.
Some papers I like
I use a variety of papers in my own printing and they all have different pros and cons. What’s important to you for a given picture will lead you to different papers, but here are a few that I like (in no particular order):
Epson Exhibition Fiber – a very bright glossy/satin paper with amazing gamut, great for highly saturated epic shots. I use this for short-term exhibitions/competition prints. The downside is this paper is chock full of OBAs and has poor fade resistance.
Canson Platine – a luster cotton rag paper with good gamut and a nice texture. I really like the way it looks. Downside is paper curl and it’s on the expensive side. I have a lot of problems feeding this paper in my epson P800.
Ilford Gold Fiber Silk/Canson Baryta (original) – a baryta paper with amazing gamut and Dmax and very little surface texture (just a very fine stipple) on the paper. Little OBA content. The downside is this paper is discontinued.
Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Baryta – I just started printing with this and I like it very much. The paper has no OBAs and has great fade resistance. The main con of this paper is cost, this is one of the most expensive papers you can buy.
Moab Juniper Baryta – A warm toned baryta paper with a nice surface texture. It has a bit more muted colors than the Canson baryta (maybe about the same as Canson platine) and is relatively inexpensive.
Epson Hot Press Bright – a smooth and bright white paper matt paper with good blacks and color gamut. The paper has no texture/smooth surface. I like this for muted scenes and some B&W images.
Hahnemuhle Torchon – a heavily textured matt paper that lends itself to certain pictures.
Epson Premium Glossy – This is a cheap RC paper that is good for proofing. It has a smooth flat surface so it can be face mounted (in which case it looks stunning).
Moab Metallic Pearl – I don’t have a lot of experience with different metallic papers but this one works well for me. Gives the image a “shimmery” feel that goes with certain pictures. Downside is a low white point, the paper is noticeably dimmer than other papers, although this is a characteristic of all metallic papers.
How to get Started
Some things need to be experienced and no matter how much you read about a paper, it’s not the same as making a print on it and being able to hold and view it in person. So expect some trial and error when seeking out printing papers.
Some photographers recommend buying a sample pack to test out various different papers. Usually the pack will run about $20 and have 2 sheets of 5-10 different papers from a manufacturer.
I’ve gone the sample pack route but I now prefer just buying a small box of 25 sheets of the paper I want to try. I find two sheets isn’t anywhere near enough to get a good feel for the paper. Also sample packs are restricted to papers from one manufacturer and usually have a lot of papers that I’m not interested in at all.