What paper should I use?

Choosing papers for print – what works for you?

Large format printer

What papers are best?

Quite regularly I get asked about my own paper choices for prints, particularly for Black and White.

Over the years I’ve written up a few paper reviews, covering aspects of how I use different papers for our print work. However, unlike many paper reviews I don’t fill them up with big tables of paper data and measurements of gamut and colour.

Why this fairly imprecise approach?

I’ve a strong feeling that paper choices are an integral part of how you want to present your image.

The particular type of paper and inks used can give a very different feel to a print. If you add to that, print size, different styles of mounting and framing, and even the intensity of viewing lighting, there are a lot of intangible factors that work with the subject of the print to convey a very different feel to your work.

Given all of this, what should you do?

One size does not fit all

Many people have an intuitive feeling that their prints are not looking their best, and look around for ways out of the problem.

This often manifests itself as continually trying new papers, with more and more sample packs ordered and an ongoing frustration with this aspect of their photography.

There are, to my mind, two different aspects to printmaking: technical and aesthetic.

Technicalities – making a good print

Black and white test image for printing

Black and white test image for printing

I love playing the piano – I’m not much good, but I enjoy it. As part of that I have piano lessons, but equally well, I practice the technical side.

Scales, theory and fingering exercises (Hanon) may not be much fun, but they are an important aspect of advancing my skills (and enjoyment of music).

Similarly in printing your photos, test images may be dull, but picking one paper and mastering colour (or B&W) printing of a test image is an essential step in understanding the creative possibilities that different papers might offer.

colour test image for printing

Colour test image for printing

I’ll go so far as to say that if you can’t produce a good print of one of these test images, then producing a good print of one of your own images is pure chance.

The test images here are available for download from our Test Images page, and have full details of what it is you are supposed to see, and any obvious faults they will show up.

A note of warning though – if you are printing without colour management (ICC profiles) and from a general purpose ‘photo application’ then be prepared to be disappointed, These test images are deliberately designed to be a harsh test.

Spend time carefully looking at the prints. See how they look different under different lighting. If you initially work with just two papers, such as a bright white lustre finish and a white matte  ‘art’ paper, the differences will show quite clearly.

I know some won’t want to hear this, but starting off with papers from the printer manufacturer is a good idea – they are designed to work well with the printers.

Next up, try one or two of your own images – if the prints look too dark, then that’s another issue you need to sort out (See Why are my prints too dark) Don’t forget the importance of print sharpening either (see my review of Nik Sharpener Pro 3 for more about this often neglected aspect of printing)

Aesthetic considerations

The important part about perfecting your printing of the test images is that they are devoid of any personal attachment to you. You are evaluating the technical quality of the printing.

When it comes to printing your own work, you are introducing the uncertainties of how you’ve edited the image and what it is you are trying to show through your image.

The editing is partly a technical matter, but is also dependent on how you want to show your photo.

Remember that what you see on the screen is just an intermediate step. Try and think of the print as the final result, and realise why the statement “my prints don’t match my screen” is at one level fundamentally wrong.

Keith Cooper with Canon iPF8300

Our printer – shelves full of different papers

We’re now in the area where my opinions count for even less -for your work-

I’ve a great collection of papers available to try out, mostly as a result of years of printer testing and reviews.

In fact I’m sometimes spoilt for choice, and recently had a clear-out, giving many boxes of paper away at a talk at a local camera club.

When printing, I’ve a choice that ranges from rough textured natural white cotton rag papers through to glossy bright white photo papers (I’m ignoring canvas here, since I’m not that keen on it for my own work)

In between, I have bright white matte rag papers and lustre finish papers that range from a warm white, to a brilliant blue-white.

The matte papers have less deep blacks and show less saturation in colours.  This isn’t better or worse than lustre ‘Baryta’ type papers, it’s just different. Remember that the same paper is often available under different names in different parts of the world.

Expand your range of papers slowly – try an image on several different ones and see if you prefer one of them. Just as importantly, ask other people what they like best.

One thing to note though, is to keep the prints apart when comparing. A bright glossy print can easily emphasise the flatness of a matte one in direct comparison, even though when apart, you may prefer the mood of the matte version (of note if you are showing a print in amongst a variety of others).

The night-time HDR image below works much better on a bright lustre paper than on a cotton rag paper.

From a review of Nik HDR Efex

Leicester guildhall

The Guildhall, Leicester

The Suffolk beach photo below works best on a cotton rag paper.
Shingle Street, Suffolk, England

Shingle Street, Suffolk

You need to experiment and get a feel for what works for you.  Mastering the technical side of things first makes for consistency and a lot less scrap paper.

Just one other thing to consider – how many times have you heard a paper described as ‘feeling nice’ or ‘good and heavy’ – how many of such comments are applicable to a mounted print, and how many towards selling you the paper?

Taking a bit more care over your printing allows you to spend more time thinking about what your prints mean, what they say, and other artsy stuff.  Or as I prefer to think, it makes for more great prints that people want to look at!

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  • http://mathilde.mupe.nl Mathilde

    One way to avoid frustrations of too much paper samples is to create a paper sample ‘book’.

    Create 1 test image that shows skin tones, color graduations, black and white photo, color photo with problem shadows and highlight. Regard the test image as holy calibration point being exact the same for each and every print. Download the icc for each paper sample and print it the test image with care. Write down the paper brand and type and important print notes. Archive the prints in a dark place (book/box or so).

    An index is also handy for comments on paper (and archiving which paper was used with which photo)

    Also note; When using Photoshop (or so) as color manager; details in black will differ with rendering Intent “Relative Colormetric Perceptual”.

    Also note; A color graduation may look different if printed at 360 print resolution or high speed versus a 720 ‘slow’ print. Higher print resolutions have hardly any visual impact (except for more moist on paper).

  • Daniel Pozner

    What about printer ink Is seems that the ink would also somewhat dictate what paper is used. I think matching paper and ink will produce the best results?

    • http://www.northlight-images.co.uk Keith

      To some extent, but I’m assuming using the OEM inks for this.

      Once you go to third party inks all bets are off without considerable testing.