Advice on how to select inkjet printing media that will complement your images.

There’s no ‘right’ printing paper for every image and every situation, although you can make informed choices based on quantifiable data as well as unquantifiable ‘artistic’ qualities. Both play a role in the mastery of the craft of printing.

Navigating a path through the wide diversity of inkjet media can be difficult because the sheer breadth of options can be overwhelming. But once you understand the key criteria, matching a particular image to a specific paper will become much more straightforward.

‘Darkroom specialists’ like Ilford offer a wide range of high-quality inkjet media, of which a few examples are shown in the illustration above.

The most critical selection criteria are the thickness and surface of the paper and its inherent tonality. The surface and tonality have the greatest influence on the appearance of the printed image. But both are affected by the type of ink your printer uses, so that’s where we’ll begin.

Paper thickness

Paper weight is usually specified in grams per square metre (gsm) and thickness in millimeters (mm) – and there’s no accurate correlation between these measurements. Some manufacturers use gsm, while others use mm.

Heavier papers have a more substantial and tactile feel that implies higher quality, while lighter papers are more easily bound into books. At least 260 gsm is recommended for A3+ prints and 310 gsm for A2 prints.

The ideal paper weight for books that are printed double-sided is between 170 and 230 gsm, depending on page size. Watch out for “show through” where the image is visible on the reverse side of the sheet.

Many consumer-level printers can’t handle thicker, heavier papers and most photo printers provide alternative single-sheet slots for use when printing on ‘fine art’ media. Check your printer’s specifications to find out its limitations.

Ink choices

The type of printer you’re using determines whether you use dye or pigment inks. Printers that use dye-based inks deliver the maximum amount of detail and boldest colours on glossy and lustre (semi-gloss) papers. Dye-based prints are also more robust when handled because the dyes are absorbed into the paper’s surface coating.

Pigment ink printers work best with matte and lightly-textured papers but they can also be used with heavier ‘fine art’ media. Because pigment inks lie on top of the coating layer, these papers have enough surface roughening to hold the particles of pigment in place. Nevertheless, prints require careful handling to prevent the pigments from flaking. Spraying the surface of the print with a fine coat of preservation lacquer is recommended.

Being liquid rather than solids in suspension, dye-based inks will usually render finer details than pigment inks. But the difference is marginal and modern pigment inks are capable of reproducing fine details when used on the right paper.

Pigment inks offer superior fade-resistance and tend to be preferred when long-lasting prints are required. Interestingly, under optimal conditions the latest dye-based inks from Canon (Chromalife) and Epson (Claria) come close to the durability of their pigment-based counterparts and will often produce more vivid colours, which can be advantageous in some landscape prints.

Paper surfaces
Paper surfaces range from high gloss through semi-gloss, lustre, pearl and satin to smooth matte. Fine art papers are also available, along with ‘metallic’ papers that have a special surface that contains particles of mica to reflect light and produce an iridescent sheen.

Canson’s Baryta Photographique paper has a surface that looks and feels like traditional photographic paper. This paper has low levels of optical brightening agents.

You can also buy ‘baryta’ papers that simulate the surfaces of traditional silver halide papers and are ideal for B&W printing, as well as papers with textured surfaces like canvas, linen and silk. Recently, a few suppliers have offered papers that simulate the ‘hand-made’ look of traditional Japanese ‘washi’ paper and are made with fibres derived from bamboo, sugar cane, mulberry or hemp.

If you’re printing an image that contains a lot of detail, papers with smooth surfaces will enable details to be reproduced. Heavily-textured papers will work against such subtleties and distract the viewer’s attention from the image. But they can work well for images with broad tonal gradations and areas of high contrast.

Detailed subjects look best when printed on smooth surfaces (left). Even a lightly-textured surface (right) can counteract the impression you want to create.

Give some thought to the reflectance of the paper’s surface if the print won’t be displayed behind glass. When prints are behind glass, the paper’s surface is largely negated, especially when normal glass is used. Special low-reflectance (or non-reflective) glass is available but it tends to tone down the contrast and saturation in the printed image.

Pictures of landscapes normally look best on papers with smooth surfaces that have low reflectance. Under bright lighting, glossy surfaces can produce specular reflections that will be distracting. They are also vulnerable to picking up fingerprints if not carefully handled. Minimal or no reflection from a print will help the viewer to focus on the details in the image.

Landscape shots which rely on accurate reproduction of fine details and subtle tones look best when printed on papers with smooth surfaces.

Matte paper always has very low reflectance and high resistance to fingerprints. Semi-gloss and pearl papers have a smooth surface with less reflectance than glossy papers. Satin and lustre papers are a little more reflective with a light texture on the paper’s surface that helps hide fingerprints.

When used with high-end pigment-ink printers, ‘metallic’ papers can reproduce wider colour gamuts than matte and lustre papers and increase the viewer’s perception of contrast and edge sharpness, yielding prints that look almost three-dimensional. They are most suited to photos of snowy scenes and scenes containing sparkling water.

Snowy scenes can look almost three-dimensional when printed on metallic papers.

Paper tonality

The basic tone of printing papers reflects the materials from which they are made. In this respect, they share many characteristics with traditional watercolor, printmaking, and photographic papers. The cheapest papers are made from wood pulp (also known as alpha cellulose). Fine art papers are usually made of rag pulp (100% cotton being the most common) but may also have an alpha-cellulose base.

Inkjet papers are usually classified as warm or cool tone. Warm inkjet paper normally retains the subtle, pale buff colour of its source materials. Cool papers are brighter and as close as possible to pure white in colour, usually because they contain optical brighteners (see below).

Papers made from wood pulp can also be made whiter by bleaching or through the addition of pigments such as titanium dioxide or barium sulphate (‘bartya’), which adds a subtle sheen to the surface of the paper. Baryta photo papers tend to reproduce deeper blacks and more detail, particularly with pigment inks.

Differences in paper tonality can be quite subtle but with some subjects they can affect the ways in which viewers respond to a particular subject. We’ve emphasised the differences between the warm tone (left) and the cool tone (right) in this illustration.

The choice between warm and cool is subjective and depends on the overall look you want for the print. Most landscape photos look best on cooler toned papers because they allow the brightness of clouds and highlight areas to shine through. They also make colours appear more saturated and ‘punchy’ and provide the optimal perceived contrast.

Portraits often look best when printed on warm-toned papers, which bring out the natural colours of the subject’s skin.

However, some images of natural settings and objects work better on warmer paper, particularly those in which warmer hues and subtle tones predominate. Shots of autumn colours come to mind, although you may need to increase colour saturation when printing them if you want the colours to appear as strong and punchy as you remember them.

Paper ‘brightness’
Inkjet papers are often rated for ‘brightness’ by shining a beam of light from a source calibrated at a wavelength of 457 nanometers onto the paper at a 45 degree angle. The reflectance of the paper is gauged by a separate detector and rated on a scale of one to 100. Higher ratings indicate more light is reflected and this will intensify the vividness of colours and depth of black in printed images.

Brightness ratings are more relevant to the graphic arts industry and can be misleading to photo printers because many inkjet paper suppliers don’t provide them and different manufacturers’ figures don’t necessarily correlate. Paper surfaces also play a role in ‘brightness’ measurements, which means a paper with a rating of 92 can look brighter than one with a 95 rating.

Use brightness ratings as a guide, remembering that human vision can’t determine a specific level of brightness in normal viewing conditions, although it can compare brightness levels of two or more papers when viewed together. Papers with high brightness ratings are more likely to contain optical brighteners than those rated at 90 or lower.

Optical brighteners

Optical brightening agents (OBAs) are added to the coatings on inkjet media to make them appear bright white in tone. OBAs are chemicals that fluoresce under invisible ultraviolet light, emitting visible light at the blue/white end of the visible spectrum, which overpowers the paper’s natural buff tone.

Prints made on papers with OBAs will appear to have a wider colour gamut, increased saturation and denser blacks, although the full benefit of OBAs is best seen under light with high levels of UV, such as sunlight or fluorescent lighting. Viewed under lights with little or no UV, prints on these papers can appear creamy because fluorescence – if it occurs – is at a much lower level.

Fluorescence causes OBAs to decay over time, making the paper revert to its natural buff. As this takes place, the printed image will experience colour shifts and is likely to be affected by metamerism (when images appear different under different light sources).

Keeping prints in dark storage or only displaying them under lighting that has low UV levels will delay the reversion to the natural colours. But these conditions prevent viewers from seeing the benefits of the OBAs.

High quality papers with low levels of OBAs will produce beautiful images for medium-term displays and photographers can increase the longevity of their images by framing prints under UV protective glass or acrylic. Nonetheless, OBA-free paper is recommended for archival printing and any other applications where consistency must be maintained over time, regardless of the display lighting.

OBA-free paper is usually more expensive and these papers may not reproduce the original brilliance in printed images because they’re not quite as ‘white’. But many fine art photographers prefer them, not only because they maintain consistency of colour over time but also because their cream-coloured natural surfaces complement the printed images.

See more information and a list of OBA and OBA-free papers at

Article by Margaret Brown – see Margaret’s photography pocket guides  

Excerpt from  Photo Review Issue 80   

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