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Choosing the best paper for your photo prints

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What paper is best for your photo prints

How to navigate the choices

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In all our articles and reviews, we make a point of never directly comparing competing products.

Of course that doesn’t stop people asking what is ‘best”?

Keith doesn’t really mind, since we specifically welcome comments and direct questions about what’s here.

This short note covers some of Keith’s considerations when deciding what paper to use for a print. It also looks at his own personal ‘core set’ of papers.

batch of test prints

Where to start? – so many papers

I’ve enjoyed printing my photos, both for personal pleasure and as part of our business at Northlight for many years. During that time I’ve been able to test a lot of papers and a lot of printers.

In general, printers have steadily progressed in print quality and usability over the years and if you can’t make a great print with modern printers/papers then the issues are likely yours not the printer’s. I’ve written several articles looking at the whole process, from photography to papers which address different aspects. Here, I’m just looking at the ‘which paper’ question.

The tyranny of choice

Let’s say you’ve just got yourself a new printer. It’s natural to wonder what paper will be best for it. If I go into the room where my printer lives, there are boxes/rolls of almost every paper I’ve ever tested. There are some I prefer, but I’m not listing them here*. I will however show what types of paper I prefer to use.

There are two ways people tend to acquire a new photo printer. First up, is the photographer with some experience of printing who has decided that their old printer needs replacing/updating. Secondly, there are photographers genuinely new to printing their work, who see it as a way of getting more from their photography.

delivery of p5000

A printer arrives for a review – I will start from scratch.

Which papers do I recommend to each category?

A paper from the company that made the printer.

So, that’s maybe a matte art paper, a lustre photo paper and maybe a glossy photo paper. I say ‘maybe’ here since you may already know that you like glossy or matte prints.

The key here is to use a paper from the manufacturer (original equipment manufacturer or OEM)
Of course they usually have them made for them, but that’s another story.

There are several reasons for this:

  • Printer settings optimised for the papers, such as B&W print modes
  • Availability of ICC printer profiles
  • The paper has been tested with the printer during development

This is absolutely not saying that OEM papers are ‘better’, just that they introduce less variables into your printing when trying out a new printer.

This rule applies to someone who tests printers and papers, as much as it does the experienced photo printer or novice. As you’d expect, the people who probably most need to be reminded of this are the experienced photo print makers…

Third party inks – just say no

Don’t even go there unless you know exactly why you want to use third party inks and have good reasons to do so. My three reasons for using OEM paper apply here too. I’d also quote Mark from the excellent Aardenburg Imaging web site:

Use OEM pigmented inks if you want to guarantee best overall initial image quality and highest degree of print permanence (plenty of test results on the Aardenburg website to draw that conclusion, exception to this conclusion being pure carbon monochrome ink sets which account for a minuscule fraction of the third party ink market).
Use third party pigment inks if you don’t put a price tag on your labor time, (i.e., you hope to save some money on material but not labor costs) and don’t mind (or perhaps even enjoy) tinkering a lot with refill carts, chip resetters, are willing to risk potential printer reliability issues, and have the philosophy “I can always reprint if my prints fade”.
The OEM versus third party ink proposition is really as simple as that.

So, good if you know what you’re doing and why…

Using test images

Start with some known test images. These will show up problems, such as incorrect colour management during printing. They will not be influenced by mistakes in your photography/editing.

I speak from experience – we can all get settings wrong and spend ages looking for what’s amiss.

test print images

These two are from the assortment of test images on this site.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on OEM paper – a pack of A4 will do at a pinch, although I prefer A3 at least for testing (or A3+/A2 if I’m doing a review).

The hard part – looking at prints

The hardest skill to master when printing your own work is actually learning to look at your prints as works in their own right, not as just a paper copy of what you’ve perfected on the screen.

I’ve looked at that in some of the longer articles mentioned earlier. My point is that once you can start thinking about prints right from when considering taking a photograph, the whole of your photography improves.

Until you can perfect printing a few test images on OEM paper, how can you reliably say that paper X from manufacturer Y is ‘better’?

batch of test prints

Prints from one of my printer reviews

Choosing your ‘better’ papers

I’ve had a lot of papers to test and in general I (initially) ignore most of the specifications – that goes for premium OEM papers too.

Colour management is to me a vital tool, not an end in itself (unless I’m writing a review…) so I’ll assume you’ve got a calibrated/profiled screen and an ICC profile for the paper.

In looking around, be wary of forum discussions or reviews that give importance to details such as to gamut volumes or Dmax.

Take Dmax for example. It might tell me that one paper has a slightly darker black than another, but it tells me nothing about how the black ink sits on the paper. It doesn’t tell me about crunched shadow detail. Nor does it tell me how the sheen of the black ink shows up in dark shadow areas compared with lighter ones. To know that you need to see prints, ideally of test images you’re familiar with.

Make good use of test packs from paper suppliers – you only need a few sheets if you use your favourite test image. Swatch book and sample image booklets are helpful, but once again don’t equate a superb looking photo printed on a paper as in any way meaning your photos will magically improve.

Remember that paper specs and sample materials are marketing materials…

But Keith, you’ve not answered the question

Well spotted – there is no simple answer.

I can say that I like many of my large colour photo prints on a good white lustre finish paper. For colour and many B&W prints I like a less brilliant white smooth baryta style paper. For some B&W I prefer a smooth natural white cotton rag matte art paper, except when I feel the image needs the crisper look of a smooth bright white cotton rag paper. In general I don’t like textured art papers. The strongly textured ones give me a feel of trying to hide/obscure defects in the image. There are relatively few colour images I like on matte papers – they tend to  be ones with more muted colours and a limited contrast range.

OBAs?

As to optical brightening agents (OBAs) I don’t have a strong opinion on them. For my commercial prints (offices and the like) I’m generally looking for prints that stand out, and a bit of OBA can help. Note that I say a ‘bit’. I don’t want the blue glow of copier paper. For my direct ‘art’ print sales I’m more likely to use a baryta style paper or a cotton rag paper which even if they do have some OBA present it isn’t much. Of course if clients value OBA free media then that’s what they can have. We do archival on request…

Canvas

I will supply prints on canvas and have a 10 foot long one in the corridor outside of my office. I get custom stretchers made and have the stretching/mount done for me. However, canvas is not my first choice. Where I do use it, I pick a glossy canvas that prints (and profiles) like a photo paper. Matte canvases ideally need varnishing and that’s messy.

keith cooper and very large print

Keith and a 14 metre print on glossy canvas.

Is that it – just 4 papers?

Yes, I’m afraid so. These are my core choices:

  • Bright white lustre
  • White smooth baryta (not gloss)
  • Natural white smooth cotton/rag matte art paper
  • Bright white smooth cotton/rag matte art paper

There are many others I’ve got in stock that might appeal for certain images. An example would be a glossy photo paper for prints of a family event. I’ve several different matte papers and canvases, but those four are my starting points.

Finding your own core set

Start with mastering your printing of test images with a few OEM papers.

Then try one or two of your favourite images on OEM papers – learn to see how they differ from what you see on screen under your normal print lighting. Look at shadow detail and handling of highlights. By all means make use of soft proofing, but also look at what it doesn’t show in the texture and feel of the print. It’s a useful tool, but I find that using it sparingly reinforces the key message that the screen is not the print.

Since you’ve perfected the test images, one of your own photos not looking quite right is more likely not the fault of the printer/paper – look at your whole photography workflow.

Now you should be in a better position to evaluate a new paper, whether it’s another OEM one or a third party supplier.

Trust your judgement and don’t give up if you feel it’s your photography that’s the issue – learning to print has been one of the most significant ways I’ve advanced my own photo skills. Endless searching for a new better paper is rarely a search looking in the right direction.

I’ve written a much longer look at the whole process of what goes into a print that may be of interest.

When looking at my paper reviews, do remember that I’m in the UK, so papers may not be available where you are. That’s when the specifications matter – since the label on the box doesn’t always tell you where the paper was made or by whom.

As ever, comments and direct questions are welcome…

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Site Notice: Like many working photographers, our work has completely dried up in these challenging times, so I'll be at home a lot. The silver lining is that I've lots of articles and reviews to write - if you've any suggestions or questions, please do let me know - Keith ...Why not sign up for our (ad free) Newsletter to keep informed about new articles.


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