Mike McNamee
Mike McNamee

How to Choose a Paper

This is an agonisingly difficult choice to make. The reason for the pain is simple; we are blessed with an array of top-class papers and every photographer will have their favourite, although very few will have the time, opportunity, or inclination to test more than a handful. Confusion surrounds the situation because of the availability of specific papers in a number of different liveries - 'same product different packaging'.

As far as we can ascertain there are less than a dozen mould-making mills in the world - two in Germany, one in the UK, two in France, and one in Italy; the remainder are either in the USA or the Far East. Between them they provide all of the world's mould-made paper, so the sums lead to the inevitable conclusion that many papers share the same provenance! Even this is subject to caveats. Epson, for example, must have their branded papers 'made out', as they do not own a mill! However they impose different quality control standards on the mill so their version of PaperX may not quite be the same as that provided by another supplier. When trying to decide upon a paper (but to some extent a printer also) you have to work your way through a number of options and find your way down through a family tree of the characteristics, cross-checking your choice against the capabilities of your selected printer.

Epson Paper Samples

Critical Questions about Printing

1. First you have to decide upon the print size you wish to make. This always limits your choice of printers, depending upon the throat size, but may also limit your paper choices.
2. Decide how many prints you wish to make so that you can assess whether you need a roll-feed workflow or can cope with a sheet feed or even a single-sheet system.
3. Depending upon the choice of printer, decide between matt or non-matt surfaces - hence perhaps a matt black or photo black ink set.
4. Decide if you are prepared to tolerate OBAs in your media.
5. Decide upon the surface texture: glossy, ultra-glossy, smooth, lustre, satin, semimatt, watercolour, canvas and so on.
6. Decide if you want 100% cotton rag or an alpha cellulose base and check to ensure that it is acid free if you require archival properties.
7. Decide upon the paper caliper and cross reference the printer capabilities, some have a smaller thickness limit than others.
8. Decide upon the paper weight. Fine Art Trade Guild for example, demand 250gsm minimum for limited edition print production.
9. Double check upon sheet, roll or board stock and that it is available in your chosen surface and size. At this stage you might allow cost to come into the equation.

When making your paper choice, the one thing you should not do is be seduced by examples of other photographer's prints before you, and allow the 'content' of the image to determine your choice. Just because you are looking at a magnificent print does not mean that this other photographer's paper/printer/workflow choice is right for you. Your work might be fundamentally different and fundamentally unsuited to their approach. On the other hand the quality of the print may show you just how much depth you can invoke in an inkjet print!

The other thing you should avoid is making side-by-side comparisons of matt and gloss/lustre prints. The two types are so intrinsically different that matt will always look a little 'flat' alongside its flashy, high-Dmax cousin. However, if you allow the matt image to stand alone it can import wonderful subtlety to the viewer. It is highly unlikely that an image file prepared for a gloss paper will print perfectly to a matt paper, especially in the deeper tones. The slightest tendency to over-saturate the matt paper with too much ink can bring unexpected and unpleasant surprises; a light touch may be needed. If you imagine that such finesse can always be achieved with profiling and instruments you may be in for a shock. It is far more likely that you will have to make occasional proof copies and experiment.

Epson Paper Samples

So far we have avoided answering the question about which is the best paper! Any of the baryta-type papers will create an excellent mimic of an air-dried silver halide fibre-based paper. Our favourites amongst these are Epson Traditional Photo Paper (TPP), Canson Photographique, Innova Ultra Smooth and almost any of the Hahnemuhle baryta papers. Epson TPP is particularly flat and well behaved in the printer and, for the Epson 4900 at least, holds the record for colour fidelity. Some of the Hahnemuhle products also carry the well-respected Photo Rag tag. Their Fine Art Pearl 285 is one paper that stands out in our minds. Ilford Galerie has a strong following and performed well in our tests as well as being most competitive on price. Outside of the baryta papers our favourite is Epson Premium Luster for it achieves high brightness without the use of OBAs, is quite resistant to marking and has a delightful silk sheen.

The matt papers present even wider choices and even greater problems in making a selection. Hahnemuhle Photo Rag is a recognised standard, against which others are judged and is available as a re-boxed variant from a number of suppliers. It has few vices in use, although there are some brighteners in the mix and we have noted some yellowing with age. It is also available in Ultra Smooth and Bright White guises. The Ultra Smooth we are fond of, along with the weighty 350gsm Museum Etching. Museum has a little texture but held detail well and is impressive to hold as an un-mounted print. Hahnemuhle Bamboo also performed very well for the ecologically conscious. Epson have most recently introduced a group of four papers under the banner Signature Worthy. These are the hot and cold pressed, brightened and natural finishes. They performed spectacularly well in our audit tests and between them they cover the needs of many fine art and exhibition requirements.

This concludes our series on Understanding Media.

© Mike McNamee