There are so many considerations when it comes to choosing the right printing paper for your digital images. Eleanor Scott explains some of the basics in part one of our printing paper series with some hot tips from Thirds Fine Art Printer, Tim Ainsworth.
Texts by Eleanor Scott
The resurgence of film photography has brought with it many things and one of the most exciting developments has been an increased interest from non-professional photographers in printing their images. But the process of getting the perfect print can be highly technical. There are plenty of things photographers need to pay attention to right from the beginning, including choosing the right lens, the colour profile of your camera settings, the quality of your scan if you’re converting film images, the file type preferences of your print lab if you’re not printing at home, and so much more. However, one of the most important considerations is choosing the right printing paper.
When it comes to printing papers, for many people the first thing that comes to mind is choosing a surface finish, but making the ‘right’ selection really comes down to what you’re trying to achieve. Lots of people tend to gravitate towards glossy paper and for good reason – it can be very cheap and the colour range is exceptional, offering brilliant whites and high saturation. But the shine also comes with a certain amount of glare and reflection that can obscureyour photo, so it can be difficult to work with for exhibitions or display. On the other side of the spectrum, matte papers have a subtle and smooth texture that can make them fantastic for fine art printing, yet they can struggle with heavy blacks and dense shadows. Of course, gloss and matte aren’t the only options. There are an incredible variety of paper surface finishes available. From pearl and luster to wood and canvas, each option has its own pros and cons and the only way to really discover which one is right for you is to start testing them for yourself.
“First and foremost you want people to engage with your image, [you] don’t want papers that contradict the … photographers vision.”
—Tim Ainsworth, THIRDS
For Tim Ainsworth of THIRDS Fine Art Printing it really comes down to finding the type of paper that will best suit the content and the idea of the image. “First and foremost you want people to engage with your image, [you] don’t want papers that contradict the … photographers vision. Gloss or matte, warm or cool tone, smooth or textured – think about how these qualities relate to your image and how [they] might support or hinder it’s visual success,” says Tim. “Semi-glossy baryta- and fibre-based papers will give you that ‘traditional’ darkroom-like print. There are beautiful papers available now that mimic many of the qualities of the black and white darkroom process. And one of the best parts of the digital printing process is we can now print colour images on these papers that were once only able to be used in a black and white darkroom process.”
Even seasoned professionals are constantly trying out new labs and papers, which is exactly how David Hobby of the Strobist found one of his favourites, the Fujicolor Crystal Archive Deep Matte. Describing it on the Strobist as “beautiful and painterly; somehow muted and saturated at the same time”, according to Hobby the paper itself is “quite substantial and the surface is beautifully non-reflective”, somehow managing to accentuate detail while masking noise at the same time. Hobby even goes as far as to say he’d marry the paper if he could, but he never would have found it if he had remained complacent. So no matter what your skill level, it’s important to keep experimenting with paper finishes because you never know what you might discover.
“Once you’ve decided what look and feel your image should have it’s time to move on to paper quality. This really comes down to the photo papers receiving layer … This is a particularly important consideration if you want your images to remain high quality over time.”
Once you’ve decided what look and feel your image should have it’s time to move on to paper quality. This really comes down to the photo papers receiving layer – a chemical coating that essentially determines how the paper takes on ink. There are two main types of receiving layers. The first is cast coated, which is considered to be a more budget, everyday option. While generally inexpensive, cast coated papers don’t include a barrier between the ink and the paper so over time they can experience colour loss and, although they are mostly instant drying, highly pigmented inks like black can easily smear. Conversely, the second type of receiving layer, micro and nano pores, can accommodate all types of pigments and inks without smearing, and they also offer significantly better longevity and colour definition. This is a particularly important consideration if you want your images to remain high quality over time. (Pro tip: if you’re interested in understanding more about the stability and permanence of photo papers there is no greater resource than Wilhelm Imaging Research).
Characteristics like thickness and weight are also significant, though the two are often confused. Weight is measured in grams per square metre (GSM) and many people are under the impression that the higher the GSM the higher the quality of the paper. That isn’t necessarily true, however it’s a good rule of thumb that if you want your prints to last the GSM should be at least 200. On the other hand, thickness, a.k.a calliper, is specified in mils or mm and can make a difference in both durability and display – for instance, it’s important to keep on eye on opacity levels or when it comes time to mount your images you’ll find that the base of your photo frame is more visible than the actual photo.
“Well-known brands like Epson, Hahnemühle, Canon, Red River, Moab and Canson are all good places to start and plenty of them offer sample packs that provide great opportunities for experimentation.”
Again, this all comes down to your intentions for your photographs. If you’re serious about printing the best thing you can do is start exploring your options. If you’re printing at home, just because you own a certain brand of printer doesn’t mean you’re limited to their paper range, as you can change your printer settings when necessary. Well-known brands like Epson, Hahnemühle, Canon, Red River, Moab and Canson are all good places to start and plenty of them offer sample packs that provide great opportunities for experimentation. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Professional labs are staffed by people with an unbelievable wealth of knowledge and experience. And whether you intend to print at home or with a lab, there are always people who you can show and discuss your images with that will happily talk you through some of the more technical details.