A Practical Guide To Inkjet Printing: Choosing the Right Paper

By Peter Nagainis

For most serious photographers, creating an image ends with the final print. Photography has long been an art where the final product ends up hanging in a gallery or at home . Photographers spend time researching what camera and lenses to purchase. Exposure, shutter speed, depth of field, and lighting are carefully chosen, then each image is post-processed to achieve a certain look. Selecting the paper that the image will be printed is equally important. With the ever-growing number of papers and surfaces available, selecting one or two can become a confusing and overwhelming task. For the dedicated photographer, the rewards of producing the perfect print are well worth the journey. I have put together this guide to help your selection process.

There are already a number of good summaries on paper selection on the web, and it would be a waste of your time and mine to rephrase and reword what has been already published. Links to some comprehensive online articles are listed at the end of this article. So I have put together this abbreviated guide directed at the photographer who wants to expand control of the print making process so that you don’t have to settle for the printer manufacturer’s paper or prints from a commercial printing lab. More importantly, you should try to understand why your print is not exactly as you imagined, and what options you have available to improve it.

That said, there is no one “perfect” paper for that special image. Disappointed after all that buildup? It really comes down to how you want your printed image to look, then narrowing down your choice, and trying a couple to see which give the best impression. So where do you start your search?

Many photographers have invested in a good photo printer. And I’m not referring to one that you got free when you bought your computer at Best Buy which by now has cost you more in ink cartridges than the original computer. You want to get the very best out of your investment. While the manufacturer’s brand of paper is an easy option, sometimes using other Photo and Fine Art papers can significantly improve print quality over the manufacturer’s paper. Try the offerings of one of the reputed manufactures: Hahnemuehle, Red River, Moab, Canson, Ilford, Inkpress, Museo, and Innova all offer some great products.

Only a couple of years ago, if you wanted to try a new paper, you also had to develop a new printer profile to use with that paper to get a predictable result. That required buying or borrowing expensive equipment, or contracting the whole process out …way more trouble than it was worth for a simple test.

Paper manufacturers wised up in a hurry, and now do the work for you. If you want to try out practically any paper, you simply go online and download the matching color profile specific for your printer model and paper and start printing. It’s just that easy. The printer profiles are uncannily accurate for the most part. Since the paper manufacturers want you to purchase their products, it makes sense to make evaluation and use as seamless as possible.

Before you go out and buy a truckload of different papers to try, here are two suggestions. To actually see and feel a variety of papers, head on down to your local camera store. In the paper section there will be one or two dog-eared booklets containing printed example images on a variety of papers. That is the best way to see, touch and evaluate what you are buying beforehand. Why each producer doesn’t make these booklets easier to come by is beyond me. It is in fact the best selling tool but manufacturers are very stingy with these sample books. They apparently are worth their weight in gold.

Your second option is to buy a “Sampler Pack”. What a concept. With one single purchase you can experiment with half a dozen or so papers to see what you like. Every paper maker makes these available, often grouped by application, say Black and White papers, or Fine Art Rag papers.

Surface and Texture. Papers come in a variety of surfaces, from a shiny gloss to a completely unreflective matte and everything in between. Since there are no defined standards for gloss, semi-gloss and matte don’t be surprised if you see other descriptions that describe sheen and texture. Descriptions like Hi-Gloss, luster, pearl, satin, silk or velvet are relatively unhelpful if you can’t see the final result. It’s best to refer to an example print for guidance. Here are some broad descriptions.

Gloss is often a good choice for an image that has deep blacks and vibrant colors. Gloss paper gives the sharpest detail, has a high dMax, a number which describes how deep the blacks are, and a high gamut, which describes the color range and brilliance. Together, these elements impart the WOW! to the right image. So why not use Gloss for all your images? Depending on your lighting setup, a glossy surface can cause some unwanted reflections that might interfere with seeing the print’s detail. Here your framing and display setup may be critical. If for example your print will be going into a frame behind glass, be aware of reflections bouncing between the paper and the two glass surfaces.

In the past, Matte papers were traditionally selected for prints with muted colors. They had slightly less detail and in general less POP! Today, Matte papers have similar dMax and color characteristics that produce astounding deep, rich prints when viewed under even the most difficult lighting conditions.

Traditional silver papers had a lower dMax than many of today’s inkjet papers. Ansel Adams and many of his contemporaries used selenium toning or other methods to improve black tone depth. Even the best selenium toned prints had a dMax of 1.6, compared to 2.5 or greater for some of today’s papers.

With the advent o f the digital camera and improvements in inkjet technology have blossomed into a thriving industry. The traditional silver halide papers have been replaced by digital papers but still retain much of the same basic structure.

Almost all paper is fiber based, consisting of a core of compressed fiber. Alpha cellulose, comes from the pulp and paper industry and is highly refined to remove lignins and pH balanced so it will not yellow like newspaper. Cotton fibers form the base of Rag papers, which are used more in Fine Art papers, although the definition of a “Fine Art Paper” is a wide gray area.

RC papers are coated with a thin layer of polyester to insulate the fiber base from the ink receptive layer. The term RC (Resin Coated) is a holdover from traditional silver paper manufacture, and prevents the ink droplets from penetrating and wicking into the fiber (see the diagram below) . Printer development engineers have taken great pains to continuously reduce ink droplet size to a few picoliters. One picoliter is one billionth of a milliliter. RC papers help to keep those small drops from spreading and improve the overall print sharpness. The polyester coating also gives the paper more rigidity.

The top layer is an ink receptive layer to trap the ink. It is composed of silica, alumina or most recently baryta has become very popular. Baryta is a compound also left over from traditional silver paper manufacture, and has been exploding in popularity because it creates a super white print surface without adding any fluorescent brighteners. Fluorescent Optical Brightening Agents or OBAs give paper brightness but apparently fade with time. The jury is still out on their use in archival imaging. Smoothness is something you can feel by running your fingers over the surface. Many of the so called Fine Art Rag papers have a rough texture characteristic of hand-made paper. I prefer smoother textures, but that is a personal preference.

Thickness and Density. Larger prints require a more substantial paper, and that is evaluated two different ways. Paper density or GSM, is measured in grams per square meter and is usually published in the paper specs. Thicker papers have a GSM in the range of 250 to315. Less than that, and large prints become floppy and harder to work with. GSM has become the evaluation standard, and it is uncommon to see thickness or caliper measurements in the specs for inkjet paper.

Paper Color and Whiteness is often another consideration for paper selection. Just as you would adjust color temperature when taking a photo with your camera, paper color can affect the final print. Cool toned papers, such as Canson Photo Gloss Premium RC give a slight blue shift to the overall print. Warm toned papers like Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk shift the print a slight pleasing yellow tone.

Whiteness is a measure of how close the paper comes to being “pure white” and while I don’t know exactly what the gold standard for “pure white” is, papers can be compared in relative terms. This is where Baryta and OBAs play a big part paper appearance. Fluorescent OBAs brighten the appearance of paper. If the evaluation light source has a lot of ultraviolet content the whites appear brighter. Baryta on the other hand, is simply very white, and tends not to fade with time, so print appearance is more stable over time.

And speaking of stability or Longevity, inkjet papers now are at least as stable as their silver chemistry predecessors. Standard testing methods established by Wilhelm Imaging Research predict that your inkjet prints will remain unchanged for many decades to come.

With so many choices and variables, you would think that there would be lots of websites where the printing characteristics of the most popular papers have been independently tested. Not so. After a long search I found only one such list, last updated 6/2010. My thanks go out to the people at Dane Creek Photography for these evaluations. I you run across others, please contact me, and I’ll post them here.

Here are a couple of recommendations to someone starting out experimenting with different papers.

Ilford Galerie Prestige Smooth Pearl is an excellent all round paper and a good starting point for your evaluation. It has an excellent dMax and vivid colors for both Black and White and Color printing. With a GSM of 310, it is a fairly rugged paper, and the pearl surface, which is best described as finely pebbled, is shiny yet not glossy, and resists fingerprints and scuffs.

For running test prints, Costco’s Kirkland Professional Glossy Inkjet paper gives surprisingly good results. Although thinner than one would use for final prints, it has a dMax and color gamut that rivals many good papers. And did I mention cheap? Always a consideration.

Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk has gained an excellent reputation as a semi-gloss paper. It is a warm toned Baryta based paper, with deep blacks and great gamut and is probably the best all around paper made by Ilford.

Recently I have tried Canson Photo HighGloss Premium RC, which has very deep blacks and high color gamut and produces wonderfully sharp, vivid color prints. It is the glossiest of any of the papers I have seen.

References for further reading:

Peter Nagainis is a self-taught photographer residing in Oceanside. Born in Canada, he earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and continues to take an avid interest in Science and Technology. As a student, he acquired an avid interest in traditional methods of Photography and Image Making. Working primarily in black and white, he learned methods to improve film and prints, which he now carries over into his digital workflow and constantly works to create new and unique images.

“For me, a fine print is the ultimate goal. I find my science background is invaluable in understanding how to improve the way I capture and create an image.”

He insists that digital post-processing is an absolute necessity to produce great images; a photographer who doesn’t understand what can be gained by applying tools such as Photoshop to images does himself a great disservice.

“The Grand Master of the printed image, Ansel Adams worked tirelessly with darkroom chemistry to improve negatives and the final quality of the print. If he were alive today, he would embrace digital photo methods to replace those traditional processes in a heartbeat.”

Refining digital capture and printmaking techniques is not a goal in itself. Applying what we learn simply expands the toolkit with which we capture and create fresh new photographic art. The entire process becomes a meditative and therapeutic experience, which like any other creative journey requires quiet contemplation, and an unwavering dedication to improvement. One must be disciplined to take the time to remain focused and remain immersed in the moment to allow new ideas to emerge. That’s often a rare experience in our fast-paced lives, but ultimately one that is the most rewarding.

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