Tips & Techniques » Choosing Fine Art Inkjet Photo Paper
When you come down to it, art photography is essentially all about making art on paper. Compared to the costly and complex electronics and technology of our digital cameras, computers and printers, paper is so simple that I think we overlook its importance. Paper is the ultimate showcase for the images we print. The paper we put our images on is part of our signature, our personality and aesthetic sense. The perfect harmony between image and paper is the last link in the long process of creative visual expression. There are dozens of superb inkjet papers to print on, from traditional glossy fiber papers to rough textured etching media. There are wonderful blends of cottons and cellulose and some new fibers in a variety of surface textures and coatings. I’m old to photography, but new to serious digital printing. I’ve found some great papers to enhance my work, and the results are exhilarating.
|The print on the left is on a matte, fine art paper. The print on the right is made on a glossy, Baryta fiber paper. The glossier the paper, the more reflections you’ll have. Matte surfaces won’t reflect light but, if you frame your work, the glass more than likely will.|
The Paper Process
The Chinese made paper 200 years B.C.E., and the process is still basically the same. My wife and I made it with our children when they were young. Put a flat piece of window screen on the bottom of a tray and pour in a slurpy fibrous pulp of old paper, rags and wood fragments (the kitchen blender is a nice modern touch). When the pulp is sloshed about and settled evenly over the screen, you gently lift it out to drain, set in the sun to dry, and peel it off. It’s fun. It’s paper. But you won’t want to run it through your inkjet printer. Archival quality photo papers are made with precision to support the best work your inkjet printer can output. A few decades ago the word Giclee (from the French word for squirt – like from a nozzle or jet) was given to a process for making fine art inkjet prints. It was very high-end at the time. Now, current technology allows us to have affordable inkjet printers right at home.
|I found this old portrait of my parents recently, broken into brittle, faded pieces. I patched it together as best I could, digitized it and worked on it in Photoshop. Prints on traditional photo papers would only look like a badly damaged picture of a picture. The small prints I made on textured rag paper felt just right. The old portrait looked at home on the warm paper, and the rougher surface softened the appearance of the blemishes.|
What To Look For
Recently my 10-year-old Canon printer finally quit. I was able to get a wireless Epson R 2000, on sale and with rebates, for $340 – and that included a $170 set of inks. For printers, it seems every six months or so quality goes up and prices come down, and these fine tools become more affordable. Having a new printer inspired me to get serious about making fine prints and to check out available media. My new Epson prints up to 13”x19” sheets and roll paper, but most prints I make are on 8.5” x 11” paper. You don’t need a high-end printer to make great looking 8.5” x 11” prints. Get the most out of whatever printer you have by using the best quality archival inks and papers and the correct printer settings.
I’m writing this with the printer humming behind me and I can see the forsythia blooming just outside the window. The darkroom was never like this new lightroom we work in. Now that I’m really engaged in printing, and not just making prints, my personal connections to these earthy, organic papers and inks satisfy some soulful dimension that I’ve always had with darkroom printing, but was absent in my digital work.
Brands of Paper
There are tons of inkjet papers, but I’m only concerned with fine archival papers that are acid- and lignin-free, pH buffered and without optical brighteners. Lignin is the solid material in wood cells and chemical brighteners affect UV light to make paper appear whiter. Both break down quickly, leaving the paper yellowed and susceptible to deterioration. Hahnemuehle is a European paper company that began in 1584. Their papers radiate tradition and substance. They cost more but I think they’re worth the expense. Epson, Ilford and Canon make traditional glossy photo papers that feel and look very much like my old darkroom papers. Check out Moab, Red River Paper, Harman, Museo, Verona, HP and Innova Art, to name a few more paper producers. Online sites like InkjetArt, Adorama and B&H Photo are great for comparison shopping. If you’re lucky enough to have a real photo store nearby, go see their photo paper samples.
Paper Features and Cost
Check prices but also look at the specs of different brands. Not every bright white lustre or cotton matte is exactly the same. There are many qualities that you can compare:
What’s the cost of a fine print? Most fine papers cost between one to two dollars per 8.5” x 11” sheet, larger sizes cost proportionately more. Then you must add in the cost of printer ink. An 8.5” x 11” print can cost roughly 60 to 80 cents or more for dye or pigment ink (depending on different factors like paper absorption, color density, etc.). The content of the image even makes a difference in cost - snow is cheaper to print than a night sky as it requires less ink.
|The print on the left was made on glossy fine art paper with a pearl finish. The print on the right was made on a satin surface, smooth cotton, photo rag paper. The pearl finish is moderately textured and reflective, whereas the smooth rag surface is deep matte. Both prints made my clients happy.|
Types of Inkjet Papers
Glossy, exhibition-quality fiber-based photo papers are a classic, traditional standard. Glossy surfaces make for an apparent increase in contrast and detail. A matte surface is flat, velvety-smooth and unreflective. Matte prints have lower brightness and detail, but also possess a great depth and a quality of still beauty. In between glossy and matte are lustre, pearl and satin surfaces. Satin has a soft sheen. Pearl has a smooth, fine, pearl-like feel. Lustre can be almost glossy with a slight texture that breaks up the light a bit. Baryta papers are glossy exhibition paper with the addition of an added substrate of barium sulphate (a claylike mineral) just below the paper’s surface. This layer supports the inks similar to the way silver gelatin is supported on traditional darkroom papers. For old guys, it feels like home. I’m sure there are others too, but Ilford’s Gallerie Gold Fibre Silk (warm tone) and Hahnemuehle’s FineArt and Baryta FB are as good as any exhibition darkroom papers I’ve ever used. Maybe better.
|This rough, textured, German etching paper seemed the perfect match for this simple image of ancient columns. The first print was impressive. The rough texture has a wonderful tactile, handmade-paper vibe, along with great shadow depth and an amazing three-dimensionality. The inkjet image on this paper is a digital synthesis of photography, watercolor and printmaking. I’m still a traditionalist, but that’s not kept me from loving this new technology.|
Specially coated art papers, such as those associated with etching, monoprints, lithography, watercolor and drawing, are also available for inkjet photo printing. These are usually mold-made on large screened drums (a modification of handmade tray papermaking), and have a tactile, Old World feel about them. Hot press rag papers are very smooth and satiny soft. Textured papers run from fine to pebbly, coarse, and rough. These papers often have natural warmth and absorb colors and blacks deeply. The first print I made was a very simple photograph of ancient columns in Italy. I was amazed at the dimensional depth in the print. The alchemy of ancient paper and pigment with modern digital photography, a unique way to paint with light, makes me happy. But you really have to see and feel for yourself.
Art papers are often heavier than photo papers. At 300 to 500 gsm (grams per square meter), they give off a feeling of weight and substance. Watercolor papers are highly textured, as are some etching papers. Hahnemuehle’s Torchon FineArt paper has a coarse, richly tactile texture that makes some prints look almost three dimensional. You can even get great papers made from novel materials such as bamboo (with 10% cotton rag) and sugarcane (with 25% cotton.) These are natural, warm papers that are also eco-friendly and sustainable.
Experimenting with Different Papers
Many manufacturers have sample packets (for instance, $20 for two sheets each of six to eight different photo papers); these packs are a great way to start experimenting. Test these or other new papers with a familiar image that has a good range of colors and deep blacks. See how your images look on different surfaces, warm or cool, smooth or textured, soft or firm. Look at contrast differences, see how well colors translate, and inspect highlight and shadow details. You have to see for yourself. When the perfect medium pairs with your perfect image, you’ll know it. Remember to set your printer on best quality/photo(this is usually the highest number of dots per inch or DPI). Make sure to use the right inks, and set the ICC profile for your printer and specific paper. This is one case where it’s important to follow manufacturers’ instructions.
A few cautions when printing your images. Dirt and oils from your fingers can affect dye absorption onto the paper surface, so only handle photo paper from the edges. Avoid dragging one sheet across another, as this can cause surface abrasions. Heavier papers can jam your printer, so you may have to put one sheet at a time into the printer feeder. Spread prints out to dry, and don’t stack them until they’ve cured overnight. Prints look a bit different after they dry, so wait 10-20 minutes after your first print comes out before you start to make corrections. Matte art papers are boxed with the coated side up, but it’s easy to confuse which side is which. One trick is to slightly wet a fingertip and touch it to a corner of the paper. If it sticks a bit, it’s the coated side.
I hope you take this information and go make a great print, cut a mat, frame it and give it to yourself as a present. Enjoy the journey.