Optical Brightening Agents in Photo Paper: Good or Bad?

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OBA content is an important consideration when deciding how to frame or archive photographs.

Optical brightening agents (OBAs) are chemical agents that are used in many kinds of paper to make them whiter. However, the question is: can they have a negative impact on the look of your photos? Depending on your printing needs, the issues could be numerous—or nonexistent.

"Do you want that bright white, or do you want to maintain perfect fidelity for the print’s entire lifetime and for generations to come?"

OBA content is fairly common today, and most consumer-grade paper contains a little, in order to make the paper brighter. The chemical agents absorb ultraviolet light and re-emit it in the blue-light spectrum. The blue combats the warmer yellow tone of paper, and creates the illusion of a whiter white. This illusion is used in other consumer items as well, including laundry detergent.

However, the fact that OBAs use ultraviolet light is one of their greatest faults, because these rays are damaging to papers over time. For archival purposes, OBAs present a very serious dilemma. First, if you protect the print from ultraviolet light with specialized glass, you won’t see the original brightness of the image, and you sacrifice its original fidelity and color. If you allow ultraviolet light to strike the print, it will eventually cause deterioration and potential color shifts.

On the other hand, if you compare paper with optical brighteners to paper without, the brightness of the OBA paper is noticeable. The only way to achieve such white whites is by using OBAs, and for some images and works of art, it’s preferable, regardless of the possible fading. The ability to achieve such a great-looking work of art, if only for a short period, is worth it for some.

Basically, you need to balance the good and the bad. Do you want that bright white, or do you want to maintain perfect fidelity for the print’s entire lifetime and for generations to come? Don’t forget, you can still archive paper with OBAs, it's just much more difficult, and in some cases, impossible to do perfectly.

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Fine Photography and Fine Art Photography has maintained its longevity thanks to the mastery of the photographers and the less manipulation of the media in which is presented and the image processing techniques. Today's image manipulation makes it  it impossible in many cases to distinguish a true photography masterwork or a very skill photomanipulation.

I would rather have a print that lasts without having to place it under special glass, etc. and that future generations can enjoy even if  accidentally found years later in an attic or basement.