Beginner’s guide to printing photographs – part 3

In part 1 of this series, we gave a first introduction to the complexities, costs and basic fundamentals involved in printing your own photographs. In part 2, we introduced you to the complications of colour management for printer-paper profiles and tried to help you decide whether to choose an Epson or Canon printer. In part 3 now, we will discuss different photographic paper types. The information in this part may have a slight effect on your choice of printers, or not. 😛

For a start, just pick Resin Coated papers

If you look into the range of paper types available, you are going to be confused:
– Resin coated papers
– Metallic papers
– Fiber-based Baryta papers
– Cotton fiber papers
– Alpha-cellulose papers
– Hot and cold press papers
– Canvas papers
– Others (exotic stuff such as papers made from bamboo)

As a beginner, just go with RC-coated papers. These are the cheapest and most readily available. The others are all expensive, special-purpose, premium papers. 4R-sized papers do not exist outside of the RC paper range. If you are not using RC photo papers, you are expected to be printing bigger and willing to pay more for premium results. You will get to experience these other range of papers eventually when you become an expert printer and start experimenting with higher-end papers. To learn more about the different paper types, take a look at this excellent article by Breathing Color.

Not all paper sizes are available from everyone

My advice from part 2 of this guide is still applicable – if you use a Canon printer, Canon already has a good range of paper options and sizes available for you. But when you want to work with photo papers from other companies, an unexpected complication arises from the issue of paper sizes.

If all you want to do is to print 4R-sized (10×15 cm) pictures, there isn’t much of a problem as every RC based paper company provides that paper size. An unexpected complication surfaces when you want to print at a size larger than 4R. North-American based manufacturers usually only provide letter-sized (8.5×11 inches) papers, instead of A4-sized (
8.27×11.69 inches) papers. Europe-based manufacturers do just the opposite. There are also various in-between paper sizes which one paper manufacturer provides that another paper manufacturer does not.

This is going to affect you depending on how you want to file and arrange your printed photos. If you are careless, you could find that you have performed printer-paper colour calibrations for a paper from a company that does not sell papers in a specific size that you are looking for. Then you will have to buy papers from another company and perform another round of printer-paper colour calibrations again.

In other words, your should also check the available sizes for a paper you are researching and thinking of purchasing.

Archival quality is not required for many uses

Archival quality papers are certified to last 100+ years under normal indoor viewing conditions. Oh, and they should be used with pigment-based printers to maintain that archival quality. This is expensive stuff. For a beginner in printing, don’t bother too much about this and keep using your RC papers.

Characteristics such as being acid-free, OBA-free, etc. probably does help to improve the longevity of the paper. But a true archival quality paper needs to be certified to to qualify as archival. If you don’t see that certification explicitly stated in the description of the paper, then it is probably not certified archival. To learn more, check out another great article by Breathing Color on this topic.

It goes without saying that archival quality papers are expensive. You probably won’t print everything on archival paper. You can use non-archival prints for the occasional photography show and the hundreds-and-thousands of 4R family photos. Just minimise their exposure to light by keeping them in an album or keeping larger prints rolled up in a tube. If a print is framed up, make sure to keep it away from direct sunlight.

Note that archival quality should be mandatory if you are selling fine art prints.

OBAs and white ambitions

OBAs are “Optical Brightening Agents”. These chemicals absorb light from the invisible spectrum and re-emit the energy as light in the visible spectrum. These are almost always added to paper to make them whiter and brighter. Most people probably have never laid eyes on paper without added OBAs. You may notice papers from a book, or a stack of old printer papers, or papers from a notepad being more yellowish compared to newer papers. That is a sign of OBAs burning out.

That is essentially the problem with OBAs – they eventually burn out. So a photograph printed on non OBA-free paper eventually turns warmer in its colour tones as it ages. This is why being OBA-free is an essential condition for archival quality paper. OBA-free papers are obviously expensive. If a paper has no OBAs, it will be explicitly printed on its packaging as that is a premium characteristic.

The amount of OBAs applied to paper varies among different manufacturers. Lower quality photo papers may use a higher amount of OBAs. More expensive photo papers can achieve good levels of brightness with less or no OBAs. Some paper manufacturers provide information about the levels of OBAs in their paper specifications, but most do not.
Papers advertised as “super-white”, “very bright”, etc. probably have a good amount of OBAs applied to them.

The artist has to make a creative decision. How white does the artist want the prints to look? If the artist prefers a bright-white presentation and does not have archival requirements, it is perfectly fine to pick such a paper. From cold to warm tones, we have papers described as “super white” or “super bright”, then “natural white”, then “warm”. There is no absolute correct decision for picking a particular tone. It all depends on the image, the artist’s creative vision, and any other requirements.

Gloss, semi-gloss, matte

There are also different options for the surface of an RC photo paper. These variations may carry over into the more expensive FB photo papers as well. These options are divided into the broad categories of gloss, semi-gloss and matte.

A gloss surface reflects the most light, making a print brighter and the colours more vivid. But this could also make the print difficult to view because of too much white reflection on the surface. To some people, it looks too flashy and tacky. A matte surface has the least reflection, but is also less bright and the colours may look muted. Semi-gloss (or semi-matte) lies in the middle between both extremes, and is generally preferred for wedding prints because it takes a safe middle-ground. They are just bright enough to be attractive, but not too bright to have too many painful reflections or look tacky. There are also multiple variations of semi-gloss manufactured and sold under under different naming conventions such as silk, pearl, lustre, etc.

The artist’s decision weighs heavily in deciding on the type of paper to use. The artist may decide that one image is better on gloss, another is better on matte, or another is better on semi-gloss.

An element which is important to consider in the decision of picking a paper surface is the lighting conditions under which the image will be displayed. If a print is going to be framed and hanged with spotlights pointing at it directly in an exhibition, a matte surface may be a better choice than a glossy surface. But if a picture is going to be hanged in a dark corner without direct light, a gloss or semi-gloss surface may be a better choice to make it pop.

The paper manufacturers

Now that we have spent so much time talking about all the different variations that photo papers can come in, let’s take a look at the list of paper manufacturers you can choose from. Some of these are not actual manufacturers – they get their papers from different paper mills. This list is also by no means comprehensive, but it gives you an idea on where to start when you want to look for photographic papers. I have excluded some names such as Kodak and HP because I feel the range of photo papers they provide are not comprehensive enough. This list is also not listed in any particular order.

– Epson
– Canon
– Red River Paper
– Breathing Color
– Moab
– Permajet
– Fotospeed
– Canson Infinity
– Ilford
– Ilford Photo (yes these are two different companies now.)
– Hahnemühle
– HARMAN by Hahnemühle
– Innova
– Inkpress

Finally, getting to print

This pretty much summarises most paper fundamentals for the printing beginner to consider. In the next part of this series, we will go through the steps of making a photo print based on the information we have discussed in parts 1-3 and come to the final steps of soft-proofing and sending the print to the printer.