Printing your photos is an exciting step to take as a photographer. Whether you are sharing your work with loved ones, preparing for a critique, or supplementing your income, printing invariably adds dimension to the artistic process that will shape and improve your craft. Like photography, a lot of photo printing boils down to having the right tools and knowing how to use them. Today we are focusing on photo paper, a component which strongly impacts the look, feel, and overall effect of your prints. So, without further delay, let’s get into it.
A paper’s surface finish is one of its most distinguishing characteristics, ranging from textured matte to high gloss with many degrees in between. We are going to start with the most basic types: glossy, luster, and matte.
Glossy finish is a popular and common choice, favored by those looking to make their images pop with striking contrast and saturated, vibrant colors. This surface finish also provides incredible resolution that benefits imagery with fine details. It does have its drawbacks, chiefly being susceptible to glare that can make viewing the print itself difficult. You might opt for a glossy finish if you want to showcase the details and colors of your imagery, especially if your print will be viewed without a glass frame or cover. Just be sure to handle your work with care, because glossy prints smudge easily!
A matte finish uses fewer coatings than a glossy finish, allowing varying degrees of the underlying paper’s texture to come through. Matte finish is ideal for framing and viewing because it doesn’t reflect light, making it a popular choice for displayed works among professional photographers. It tends to be a bit understated with slightly muted tones and lower contrast. If coloring and detail aren’t your primary focus, a matte finish is a great way to elevate the artistry of your final print.
Lastly, we have luster, which is often referred as satin, semi-matte/gloss, silk, and pearl. Luster offers a finish between glossy and matte with slight texture and reflectivity. It produces great color and detail while allowing texture to accentuate your work. A luster finish is great for photographers looking to avoid the glare of a glossy finish or the flatness of a matte finish. Because it is well-balanced, this finish is a popular option for many photographers.
Materials and Textures
A paper’s material and texture can help contextualize and deepen the impact of your print. They are worth considering if you’re looking to curate an experience or make an impression.
Material refers to the makeup of the paper, with the most common kinds being cotton rag and alpha cellulose. Cotton rag is the older and more expensive of the two―partly because of its cotton fiber composition. Alpha cellulose is a less expensive alternative made of a high-grade wood-pulp paper that can produce similar results to cotton rag.
Ultimately, choosing between these two materials comes down to personal preference, budget, and intent. In all likelihood, your parents won’t notice if you use alpha cellulose for an 8 x 10" in the living room, but if you are selling prints in a gallery exhibition, cotton fiber might be the more appropriate choice. Cotton fiber is also more archivally stable than alpha cellulose if you intend to preserve and store your work.
Of course, there are plenty of other materials that can be used to create more distinct looks. You might use canvas for a fine art look, or washi-style paper to produce prints with a delicate, historic effect. The possibilities are endless, so we recommend taking some time to browse.
Texture is another important consideration, with options ranging from subtle velvet to matte-textured patterns that you can feel and see. While it is most noticeable in tactile projects like cards or handmade books, texture can also be used to establish tone or highlight certain qualities of your image. If you are printing a serene landscape, for example, you might use a grainy texture to complement the earthy, organic motifs in your image. Texture often varies in directionality and regularity, so you can expect a range of results when experimenting with it. But that’s part of what makes the process fun!
Coatings are important because they determine whether your paper will work with your printer. Before the surface finishes and other treatments, photo paper receives an initial chemical base coating that allows it to receive ink properly. Because laser and inkjet printers have their own printing process, using the wrong paper can result in sticky, runny ink or worse―a total malfunction. To avoid wasting resources or having to buy a new printer, we suggest double-checking your paper’s compatibility before using it.
Base coatings are used not only to improve ink receptivity. Baryta is a popular photo paper that uses a barium sulphate base coating to mimic the look, feel, and smell of traditional darkroom papers. Metallic is another kind of paper that uses a metallic base to complement imagery containing jewelry, metalwork, and glass. Like material, texture, and surface finish, these kinds of coatings can be used to enhance qualities within your image or to give your final print a unique look.
Weight and Thickness
When looking for paper, weight and thickness will help determine a paper’s overall feel and quality. Weight refers to the heft or grammage of a paper, often expressed in grams per square meter (gsm). A heavier paper is less prone to buckling when hung for long periods of time, which can be helpful if you are printing in a humid or hot climate.
Thickness is simply the thickness of a sheet of paper, which is commonly expressed in mils (or thousandths of an inch). Thicker papers can be too rigid for some printers, so you will want to make sure your printer is rated for your job before purchasing the thickest fine art paper.
Read More: How to Pick a Photo Printer
Brightness, Whiteness, and Tone
Brightness, whiteness, and tone are different ways to describe the true appearance of your photo paper. White photo paper can vary substantially, with yellow or bluish tints that will impact your image’s vibrancy, dynamic range, and overall appearance. On paper (ha ha) the brightest, whitest option would ordinarily be the best, but bright white papers have their own drawbacks to consider.
Bright white paper is achieved with optical brightening agents (OBAs), a series of chemicals added to either the surface or base coatings of a paper. This treatment reacts to UV light, producing a blue that counteracts the natural yellows found in paper. This is why some OBA-treated papers are noticeably cool-toned.
The main drawback of OBA-treated paper is that it tends to fade and discolor over time, especially when left in day-lit areas. If longevity is your goal, especially for archival purposes, you will want to avoid OBAs entirely. You will also want to use OBA-free paper if you plan to apply a UV-rejecting glaze, as the glaze will negate the effects of any OBA treatment.
With this in mind, OBA-treated paper has plenty of useful applications, and is worth considering if you are looking to produce vibrant imagery with great dynamic range. While the speed of degradation depends on environmental factors, most OBA-treated paper can withstand fading and discoloration for at least 5 years, making it a great option for short-term projects.
Now, it can be difficult to determine a paper’s brightness and tone just from looking at it, which is why the brightness percentage exists. Refer to this spec to determine how bright, warm, and cool a paper is, with lower percentages indicating warmer, less bright papers, and higher percentages indicating cooler, brighter papers.
Opacity indicates how much light will pass through a sheet of paper or banner material. It is most relevant for unique displays or displays with unique lighting conditions. For most cases, standard photo paper is just fine, especially if it will be mounted or framed.
Double Sided Printing
If you are interested in double-sided printing, you will want to make sure you get paper specifically designed for it. This specialized paper features an ink-receptive layer on both sides, and tends to be slightly lighter for use in albums or books.
Where to Start
If you are brand new to printing, all this information might feel like a lot. If you’re not sure where to start, you can’t go wrong with paper from the same brand as your printer. Most manufacturers have built-in profiles to ensure that the images on your screen look just like what pops out of the printer, so you can reliably get the result you want. You might also grab a few samplers from different brands to test and compare paper types before you commit to a full pack. Finally, you can check out our recommended inkjet papers if you are looking for more photo paper inspiration.
We hope that this introduction has made choosing the right paper for your photo prints a little easier. Printing requires experimentation, practice, and patience, but the process is worth the results. Once you have the right paper, you will be well on your way to making the perfect print.
Do you have any tips for photo printing newbies? What products have you been using lately for your prints? Let us know in the Comments section, below.