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So, you are a photographer looking to finally immortalize your work in print, or your parents have been bugging you for some nice family portraits since you picked up a new camera. Either way, one of the most critical components is the paper or media on which you choose to print, since each has its own unique look and feeling, which it imparts onto your images. If you are new to the whole process, just looking at the vast library of media available can be intimidating, so here is a quick overview of some of the more important terms and specifications that will help you pick a perfect paper.
Probably the easiest-to-understand aspect of any paper is the surface finish. Papers range from extremely textured matte to exceptionally smooth and brilliant gloss, and also have specialized options, such as metallic and baryta. At its core, however, you have just three basic types of paper: Glossy, Luster, or Matte.
Instantly recognizable by its reflectivity and smooth appearance, a glossy finish is most commonly seen as the paper for photographs. This is due to the paper’s ability to display deep blacks with saturated, vibrant colors that make images pop. And, along with these benefits, glossy paper can generally provide a sharp, crisp image that will benefit photographs and graphics with fine details.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, matte papers offer an appearance that more closely resembles that of traditional art papers. Many matte papers feature a texture that can add another layer of artistry to your final print. This texture can also be reminiscent of classic papers, such as watercolor. Additionally, a plus for matte surfaces is that the paper is far less susceptible to showing fingerprints and marks during handling.
Known by names such as satin, semi-matte/gloss, silk, pearl, and more, luster offers a surface in between glossy and matte, usually with slight texture and reflectivity. This grants a paper with an excellent range from white to black, excellent colors, and can have a tooth or texture to accentuate the image’s content. It has the ability to create amazing images without the glare of glossy or the lack of contrast from matte surfaces. This balance makes it a very popular option for many photographers.
Along with surface finish you will hear terms like metallic, baryta, cotton rag, and alpha cellulose that can make paper choice a little more difficult. These terms refer to specific coatings or materials. They can have a large impact on your final print and can help add some character and personality to your images.
Materials should be considered, since they constitute the substance of the paper. The two most common are cotton rag and alpha cellulose, which have differences in surfaces and finishes that can be very difficult to spot. Cotton rag is considered to be of a higher grade, due to its legacy in traditional paper stocks and higher cost, but alpha cellulose, which is a high-grade wood-pulp paper, can produce similar results at a much more affordable price. This choice depends highly on the purpose of your prints. If you want to make an 8 x 10" for your parents’ living room, alpha cellulose is just fine. But, if you are selling prints in a gallery exhibition, cotton fiber is considered more appropriate. You can choose other options if you have a particular look in mind, such as canvas or rice papers. Canvas is a classic, with a history in fine art and a unique final look, while rice and other papers have distinct appearances that can bring to mind specific locations or time periods.
Critical to inkjet workflows is the coating, which makes these papers receptive to inks. Every manufacturer has its own unique blend, but there are some common options out there. Baryta is one such coating that uses barium sulphate to mimic the look, feel, and even smell of traditional darkroom papers. Metallic is another option that—you guessed it—creates a very metallic sheen on the paper. This makes it great for certain subject matter and it is also extremely vivid. These can add a unique look to your work or bring out details that amplify the impact of your images.
Now we are getting into the nitty gritty of paper choice, where the numbers live. This includes weight, thickness, brightness, whiteness, tone, opacity, and more.
"The ICC profile allows the computer and printer to map the colors from your image into the printer’s language to match your digital file to your print."
When looking for paper, weight and thickness tie into a paper’s overall feel and quality. Weight refers to the heft or grammage of a paper, and is often expressed in grams per square meter (gsm). A heavier paper is less prone to buckling when hung for long periods of time. Thickness is simply the thickness of a sheet of paper, which is commonly expressed in mils (or thousandths of an inch). Thicker papers are generally more rigid, though you have to be careful, since not all printers can accept the thickest fine art papers. If you are looking for a printer that can handle your photographic needs, here is a great list of recommended printers.
Brightness, whiteness, and tone indicate the overall appearance of the paper. The brightest part of your image is limited by the brightness of the paper itself, which also affects the overall dynamic range. The color is determined by the whiteness, with lower percentages signifying a warmer (or more natural) paper and a higher percentage meaning colder (or bluer) tones. These can give a great indication of how a certain paper will look, especially in comparison to another.
One interesting trick is the use of OBA (optical brightening agents) to reach greater than 100 percent with regard to brightness and whiteness. These react to UV light and make papers appear whiter than white. However, since OBA content requires UV light, if you use a glazing that rejects UV light then you won’t see the effect. Also, OBA content will fade over time. Both of these factors mean that your image will not look as vivid or bright over time—and many papers with OBAs are not considered as archival as their OBA-free brethren.
Opacity is a spec that is important for display purposes, as it tells users how much light will pass through a sheet of paper or banner material. Individuals creating backlit or long-term displays will be most curious about this but, for most cases, standard photo paper is just fine, especially if it will be mounted or framed.
It is possible to print double-sided images for a book or pamphlet while at home, but make sure you get paper specifically designed for this, because they feature an ink-receptive layer on both sides. They also tend to be slightly lighter weight for use in albums or books.
Finally, if you are brand new to printing, it is advisable to stick with a paper that matches the brand of your printer. This is because most manufacturers have built-in profiles to ensure that the images on your screen look just like what pops out of the printer. Paper makers do have a solution if you want a specific type that your brand doesn’t make: the ICC profile. These allow the computer and printer to map the colors from your image into the printer’s language to match your digital file to your print.
This has been an introduction to print media and, hopefully, will get you on your way. You can check out B&H’s vast selection of inkjet paper and likely find exactly what you need. However, if you are still unsure, or simply want to try a selection of different papers, there are many sample packs that will provide a variety of different media types for you to test.
For more information on everything photography, check out B&H’s Learn Photography portal. You’ll find video tutorials, tips, inspirational articles, and gear reviews. B&H is “The Professional’s Source” for learning about photography.