A friend recently asked me about one of my new photographs, “what kind of paper do you use?” When I told her the brand and the finish (I recall it was a matte paper) her next question was, “why did you use that paper?”
My answer was, because that was the only matte paper I had on hand. Of course that response only begs the question, how does one settle upon one's choice of photograph printing papers. My friend describes herself as a beginning printer, so with that in mind I reflected on how I came to only have one matte paper choice in my digital darkroom arsenal. The following are my thoughts on the complicated subject of photo printing paper selection.
A search using the term "8x10 photo paper" at the website B&H Photo results in 147 hits. The same search on Amazon results in 56,700 hits. And the same search on the website of a local photo equipment retailer, Looking Glass Photo in Berkeley, Ca. results in over 100 hits.
So, it is clear that a photographer new to home printing will be immediately overwhelmed by the choices of photo papers on the market. When one combines the choices of manufacturers or brands with the varieties of paper coatings (matte, luster, or glossy), paper thicknesses (gsm weight), finishes (cold tone, warm tone), substrates made using cotton, fiber, plastic or metal, optical brightness (OBA), no OBAs; well the point is made that the variety of choices is overwhelming. There are for all practical purposes, more photo papers on the market than a single photographer can reasonably become familiar with.
In early 2009 I began using the Epson 3800 which was, at the time, the so-called gamer-changer in home printing because it allowed printers to change between matte and glossy inks without having to physically remove and replace ink cartridges. Michael Reichmann aptly described the problem the Epson 3800 solved in his January 2009 review for the photography website Luminous Landscape. " As users of [the prior iteration of Epson printers] can well attest, simply having to swap cartridges when switching paper types isn’t in and of itself the issue. The problem is that it requires standing in front of the machine flipping levers for about half an hour while the printer purges the ink lines, and it also entails a loss of about $75 in ink each time this is done; as much as $150 for a round-trip."
After getting my PC and my Epson 3800 to play well together, the next natural step was to start choosing the "right" paper. As many printers do, I started using Epson papers, under the assumption that the best paper for an Epson printer would be an Epson paper. So for several years I used a variety of Epson glossy, then luster, then matte papers. My go-to paper was Epson Premium Luster Photo Paper. Since I didn't know any better, the paper was fine.
The problem though was that my prints never looked as good as prints by other photographers I'd see. Of course, at first I thought it was me. I'm insecure about my photographs. One day, attending a photo critique session, I saw a print that just blew me away. I asked the printer, "what kind of paper did you use." She said something about ICC profiles, heavy matte paper, but she also said "Velvet Fine Art paper." That I remembered, and I thought to myself, "time to try some different Epson papers.
I have a test image that I use every time I try a new photo paper, so I can have some constant in addition to the printer and inks. I want to sole variable to be the new photo paper with which I'm experimenting. So, I purchased a packet of Epson Sample Pack papers that consisted of Hot Press Bright, Hot Press Natural, Exhibition Fiber, Cold Press Bright, Cold Press Natural, Velvet Fine Art, and my then go-to paper, for which the name, and price, had been changed to Ultra Premium Photo Paper Luster. After some testing, playing around, and ultimately some success, I settled on Epson Velvet Fine Art paper as my go-to matte paper. I continued with the Epson Luster paper as my go-to glossy/luster choice.
This combination worked for me for a time. I also started to make it my practice to (1) frequently attend a variety of photo critiques and (2) always ask in those sessions, "what kind of paper did you use?" Epson was a frequent response, but I also started to hear manufacturer names like Canson, Moab, Ilford, Hanamuhele and Museo, among others. I started experimenting with several of these manufacturers' products. In addition, I began reading online reviews of photo papers. In many cases, the review alone was sufficient for me to decide that actually testing a particular paper was not necessary. One of the reviewers I've come to enjoy is the above-mentioned Michael Reichmann, who passed away last year. His reviews live on at the Luminous Landscape website. I also like Imaging Resource for its photo paper reviews.
Along the way, I've learned that for me there are other issues that come into play when choosing photo papers. I tend to like thicker papers. Every quality photo paper I've ever used includes a reference to its GSM (grams per square metre g/m²) to describe how heavy and how thick the paper is to touch. Heavier papers remind me of the papers we used back in the day in our wet darkrooms. I've also come to prefer cotton based papers for the same reason: Nostalgia. And there is one important thing I've learned while experimenting with papers of a variety of GSM ratings. The quality of the paper has little relationship to its weight. Just because a paper is heavy and thick in hand, does not necessarily mean it will provide quality photographs.
There is another photo paper quality that surprised me when I discovered it, but that simply makes me happy when I experience it: the paper's aroma. I'm certain this is a matter of taste, but I find the aroma of the Hahnemuhle papers, and in particular the Hahnumuhle FineArt Baryta, very appealing. It reminds me of the papers from the wet darkroom days. Again, nostalgia.
When considering and testing photo paper, no doubt the appearance of the finished print is perhaps the most important factor to consider. But other senses come into play when we experience a photograph: the sense of touch; how the print feels in hand, and the sense of smell: does the paper have an appealing aroma, none at all, or does it smell bad out of the printer and in hand. All of these factors are worthy of consideration when deciding on a photo paper.
After all is said and done, I like to have only three papers choices on hand. My go-to luster paper, my -go-to matte paper and one specialty paper or experimental paper. These days my favorites are Hahnemuhle Fine Art Baryta for photo-black (luster) prints; Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Satin for matte prints, and Epson Metallic Photo paper for specialty prints.
After you've settled on your preferred luster paper and matte papers, give yourself permission to experiment with new papers that come along from time-to-time.
In my case, I'm experimenting with Museo Silver Rag glossy paper with good results. I happened upon Museo Silver Rag at a store closing sale. I picked it only because it was on sale for 50% off!
© 2017 Gene Dominique • GeneDominiquePhotography.com
December 13, 2017