Advice on selecting the best inkjet printing media.
Specialist manufacturers make a wide range of papers in different sizes with surfaces and base colours to suit all types of photography. (Source: Ilford.)
As explained in our previous magazine (Issue 71) printing feature, your choice of printer influences the media you can print on and the control you have over the printing process. In this feature, we’ll look at the different types of inkjet media and how to choose between them.
All inkjet media have coated surfaces that accept the ink. Coatings give papers certain qualities, such as flatness, surface texture and ink absorbency. You should also consider the base colour and the degree to which it could affect the image and whether the medium could change colour over time (which could also affect the image colours).
If we start with the paper base, there are a number of factors to consider.
1. What is it made from?
Most papers are made from wood pulp, with the ‘best’ of these papers comprised of 100% alpha cellulose ““ the most stable form ““ which is acid and lignin free. If the acids used in the production of wood pulp aren’t eliminated, the paper will break down over time. Lignin is a component in cell walls that helps to make wood fibres rigid. If it’s not removed when the paper is made it will cause the paper to turn yellow and become brittle.
Acid and lignin free papers can have life expectancies of over 1,000 years for the best paper and 500 years for average grades. So if you want your prints to last, these are the papers you should seek out, both for printing on and in the albums and boxes in which your prints are stored.
Many photo printing papers and made from (or contain substantial proportions of) cotton rag, most of which comes from processed cotton waste. Cotton rag papers are generally acid and lignin free. Some manufacturers add alkaline buffers for increased protection from atmospheric contaminants.
Bamboo fibre can also be used as a component in some papers, although few are 100% bamboo. Japanese ‘Washi’ papers often contain bamboo, as well as fibres from various trees and shrubs (particularly mulberry) and hemp, rice and wheat fibres. Washi papers were originally made by hand and are characterised by their deckle edges and surface textures. They tend to be thicker than most inkjet media and lend a softer tonality and subdued colour rendition to images.
Canvas has become popular in recent times because of its ‘artistic’ appearance. Canvas media are made from either pure cotton, 100% polyester or a polyester/cotton blend. The 100% cotton canvas media tend to have the most ‘character’. But being natural fibres, they can vary in whiteness and texture from run to run.
The poly/cotton blends provide improved consistency from run to run and are usually easier to handle. Canvases made entirely from polyester are often used to give an art-like look to signs and displays, although some synthetic canvas media are suitable for photo printing. They tend to be faster-drying and more water-resistant than cotton canvases and have higher white points.
Because inkjet canvas is relatively heavy, it can’t be used with some printers. The feed rate through the printer may differ from paper feeding so you should adjust the printer before switching over to canvas media.
Different surface textures for canvas ““ such as Glossy, Satin, Matte or Oil Paint Texture ““ are often achieved by applying different surface coatings or varnishes. Prints on canvas should be allowed a 24-hour drying time and then coated to protect them from airborne contaminants, which will cause them to yellow, crack and peel over time.
Awagami’s ‘Washi’ papers are made from traditional fibres but coated for printing with inkjet printers. Their textured surfaces add a distinctive look and feel.
2. What colour is it?
The ‘natural’ colour of paper varies between creamy and beige. While this will suit some images, most photos will look best on bright white papers, which allow the maximum colour gamut and black density of the printed image to be reproduced.
The illustration above shows the difference between a ‘white’ paper (on the left) and one that retains the natural creamy colour of the original wood fibre.
Manufacturers of photo printing papers usually label their products according to their whiteness. You may need to look into the details section of the marketing materials and will often come across terms like ‘white tone’ which don’t mean much from a practical viewpoint.
Papers listed as ‘bright white’ usually include optical brightening agents (OBAs). These substances are added because they fluoresce when exposed to light and boost the light reflected from the paper. This gives the impression of brighter whiteness.
Unfortunately, OBAs are inherently unstable and their ability to fluoresce deteriorates until, eventually, the paper will revert to its normal creamy or yellowish hue. How long this process takes will depend on how much exposure the paper has to UV light and the conditions the prints are displayed in. You can tell whether a paper contains OBAs by putting it under a UV (‘black’) light, which will cause them to glow.
If you like the look of your images on a bright white paper, there’s no reason to avoid papers with optical brighteners. Just take care with how the prints are displayed and stored and avoid exposure to fluorescent lighting or direct daylight (both of which have high UV levels). UV-blocking glass can slow down the degradation of optical brighteners but will also reduce the brightening effect.
Baryta papers are designed to simulate the look and feel of a traditional silver gelatin print. The paper base is coated with barium sulphate, which is a natural optical brightening agent that is highly reflective ““ but doesn’t fluoresce. Barium sulphate enhances detail and extends the reproducible tonal range of the paper, while improving its archival properties. These papers have a look and feel that suits fine-art printing.
3. How is it produced?
Aside from the Washi papers mentioned above (some of which are still handmade) all inkjet printing papers are mechanically produced, which means they are passed through rollers to make them flat and determine how thick they will be. This can also influence the surface texture of the paper.
Resin-coated (RC) papers have a smooth, reflective surface that replicates the look and feel of traditional glossy (Kodak F surface) silver photo papers. The paper base is sealed between two polyethylene layers, making it impenetrable to liquids. These layers conceal the natural characteristics of the paper base and tend to give prints a very commercial and artificial appearance. RC papers tend to be cheaper than papers without resin coating.
Mould-made papers usually have a smooth and velvety texture that is softer than photo rag papers. This makes them ideal for fine art prints and photographs. Hot press papers are super- smooth, whereas cold press papers are textured with tiny bumps and grooves which trap the ink. Best suited to pigment printers, they tend to be thicker than regular papers and can only be printed one sheet as a time.
Metallic papers have a metallic layer between the paper base and the coating, which is almost always glossy. This helps to add sparkle to highlights and provides more realistic representations of metallic subject matter.
4. How thick is it?
Paper thickness is important for a number of reasons: it influences how the paper feels in the hands and what the paper can be used for. The ‘weight’ of a paper is usually expressed in grams per square metre (gsm), although thickness can also be expressed in thousands of an inch (‘mil’).
Both metrics provide a good indication of the thickness of the paper, although for some highly-textured papers, the paper can be thicker than the weight measurement suggests. In such cases, the mil measurement should be used to assess whether the paper can be used in your printer.
Photo printing papers should be at least 170 gsm in weight; preferably 190-250 gsm. Lighter-weight papers, especially if they are very cheap, may not be totally opaque.
Fine art papers are usually around 300gsm in weight, although some can be even thicker. Canvas is typically between about 340 gsm and 400 gsm. Thicker papers must be fed into the printer through a special chute, one sheet at a time.
Always match the paper thickness to the application. Greeting cards are best printed on papers of 220 gsm to 250 gsm, which will be rigid enough to keep its shape when displayed.
Photo books are generally printed on double-sided paper, although portfolio books are often printed only on the right hand side page. If you’re printing on both sides of each sheet, books can be printed on papers as thin as 170 gsm, provided you can’t see the image on the other side.
Prints for traditional albums can be printed on regular papers with weights in the 190-250 gsm range. Opaque papers are recommended because they prevent backing colours from influencing the appearance of the print. Enlargements that will be framed work best on papers that are at least 220 gsm weight, with heavier papers recommended for prints larger than A3+ size.
Leading manufacturers of inkjet media offer both cut sheets for desktop printers or short printing runs and long rolls for large-format printers with roll paper handling, which are generally used for professional production work. Roll paper can also be useful when you want to print large panoramic shots that won’t fit onto standard cut sheet sizes.
5. Surface texture
Most inkjet paper comes with one of three surfaces: glossy, semi-gloss/lustre or matte. If you frame prints behind glass, the differences between them are minimised and the end results usually look very similar.
The glossy and semi-gloss surfaces mimic print paper surfaces available from traditional photo labs. In many cases these papers are resin coated. The choice between them is subjective and depends upon the look you prefer.
Glossy photo paper is smooth and highly reflective and gives prints a rich appearance with sharp definition, deep blacks and vivid colours. High-gloss (or super-gloss) is even shinier to emphasise these characteristics. Unfortunately, prints on glossy media can show fingermarking and may produce specular reflections (glare) under directional lighting.
Semi-gloss (also known as ‘lustre’, ‘silk’, ‘velvet’, ‘satin’ or ‘soft gloss’) is less shiny than glossy but not as flat as matte. Many papers in this category have a slightly textured (dimpled) surface that makes them less prone to glare and easier to handle.
Matte papers have a flat surface texture that is immune to specular reflections and fingermarking. Some matte papers have slightly textured surfaces, while others are ultra-smooth. Images printed on these papers can appear a little ‘flat’ until placed under glass.
Glossy and semi-gloss papers are more suitable for use with dye ink printers because the dyes will be absorbed into the surface coating. Matte papers work best with pigment ink printers because the surface has tiny irregularities that can trap the pigment particles.
Gloss differential can occur when printing with pigment inks on glossy and semi-gloss papers. It’s visible in highlights where the printer fails to lay down any ink. This creates a patch with much higher reflectivity than the areas around it. The problem has been reduced (although not totally eliminated) in the latest pigment printers. Spraying prints with a preservative resin may eliminate gloss differential.
One of the most important factors in choosing an inkjet paper is how it looks and feels in your hands. Holding the paper lets you gauge its weight and thickness and you can compare its base colour with other colours in your surroundings, including (if you have an example) pure white. You can’t do that while shopping online.
Fortunately, some paper manufacturers produce sample packs containing one or two sheets of each type of paper in their range (or part of the range). Sample packs are usually reasonably priced and they allow you to see how different papers work with your images.
Three popular sample packs from Epson and Hahnemø¼hle, showing the range of ‘fine art’ media photographers can try.
The following manufacturers produce sample packs, which can be ordered online or purchased through specialist retail outlets.
Awagami sells an A4 sample pack containing 18 sheets of machine-made inkjet papers and two sheets of handmade inkjet papers. It’s priced at less than $18, with GST included. Individual samples are also available on request from the local distributor.
Canson offers two A4 size ‘Discovery’ packs, one of which contains nine different papers designed specifically for fine art photo printing. Each pack sells for less than $30. [Click here for 10% off special offer for Photo Review readers]
Epson’s Signature Worthy sample pack contains two sheets each of seven popular fine art papers designed to work with pigment inks. It also sells for less than $30.
Hahnemø¼hle offers three sample packs, covering glossy, smooth matte and textured matte papers. Each pack contains two sheets of each paper, with the glossy pack covering eight papers, the smooth matte pack covering seven papers and the textured matte pack with six. Hahnemø¼hle also produces a sample pack for its Harman fine art papers, which includes a canvas sample.
Image Science makes up sample packs to cover the Ilford Galerie and Museo paper ranges. The Ilford pack contains samples of 11 different papers, while the Museo pack covers a more limited range but also includes samples of Museo’s Artists Cards. Each pack sells for $15.
Canon USA lists a Pro Paper Sampler pack containing five sheets each of four professional photo papers in its online store but it’s not listed on the Canon Australia website.
By Margaret Brown