For most serious photographers, creating an image ends with the final print. Photography has long been an art where the final product ends up hanging in a gallery or at home . Photographers spend time researching what camera and lenses to purchase. Exposure, shutter speed, depth of field, and lighting are carefully chosen, then each image is post-processed to achieve a certain look. Selecting the paper that the image will be printed is equally important. With the ever-growing number of papers and surfaces available, selecting one or two can become a confusing and overwhelming task. For the dedicated photographer, the rewards of producing the perfect print are well worth the journey. I have put together this guide to help your selection process.
There are already a number of good summaries on paper selection on the web, and it would be a waste of your time and mine to rephrase and reword what has been already published. Links to some comprehensive online articles are listed at the end of this article. So I have put together this abbreviated guide directed at the photographer who wants to expand control of the print making process so that you don’t have to settle for the printer manufacturer’s paper or prints from a commercial printing lab. More importantly, you should try to understand why your print is not exactly as you imagined, and what options you have available to improve it.
That said, there is no one “perfect” paper for that special image. Disappointed after all that buildup? It really comes down to how you want your printed image to look, then narrowing down your choice, and trying a couple to see which give the best impression. So where do you start your search?
Many photographers have invested in a good photo printer. And I’m not referring to one that you got free when you bought your computer at Best Buy which by now has cost you more in ink cartridges than the original computer. You want to get the very best out of your investment. While the manufacturer’s brand of paper is an easy option, sometimes using other Photo and Fine Art papers can significantly improve print quality over the manufacturer’s paper. Try the offerings of one of the reputed manufactures: Hahnemuehle, Red River, Moab, Canson, Ilford, Inkpress, Museo, and Innova all offer some great products.
Only a couple of years ago, if you wanted to try a new paper, you also had to develop a new printer profile to use with that paper to get a predictable result. That required buying or borrowing expensive equipment, or contracting the whole process out …way more trouble than it was worth for a simple test.
Paper manufacturers wised up in a hurry, and now do the work for you. If you want to try out practically any paper, you simply go online and download the matching color profile specific for your printer model and paper and start printing. It’s just that easy. The printer profiles are uncannily accurate for the most part. Since the paper manufacturers want you to purchase their products, it makes sense to make evaluation and use as seamless as possible.
Before you go out and buy a truckload of different papers to try, here are two suggestions. To actually see and feel a variety of papers, head on down to your local camera store. In the paper section there will be one or two dog-eared booklets containing printed example images on a variety of papers. That is the best way to see, touch and evaluate what you are buying beforehand. Why each producer doesn’t make these booklets easier to come by is beyond me. It is in fact the best selling tool but manufacturers are very stingy with these sample books. They apparently are worth their weight in gold.
Your second option is to buy a “Sampler Pack”. What a concept. With one single purchase you can experiment with half a dozen or so papers to see what you like. Every paper maker makes these available, often grouped by application, say Black and White papers, or Fine Art Rag papers.
Surface and Texture. Papers come in a variety of surfaces, from a shiny gloss to a completely unreflective matte and everything in between. Since there are no defined standards for gloss, semi-gloss and matte don’t be surprised if you see other descriptions that describe sheen and texture. Descriptions like Hi-Gloss, luster, pearl, satin, silk or velvet are relatively unhelpful if you can’t see the final result. It’s best to refer to an example print for guidance. Here are some broad descriptions.
Gloss is often a good choice for an image that has deep blacks and vibrant colors. Gloss paper gives the sharpest detail, has a high dMax, a number which describes how deep the blacks are, and a high gamut, which describes the color range and brilliance. Together, these elements impart the WOW! to the right image. So why not use Gloss for all your images? Depending on your lighting setup, a glossy surface can cause some unwanted reflections that might interfere with seeing the print’s detail. Here your framing and display setup may be critical. If for example your print will be going into a frame behind glass, be aware of reflections bouncing between the paper and the two glass surfaces.
In the past, Matte papers were traditionally selected for prints with muted colors. They had slightly less detail and in general less POP! Today, Matte papers have similar dMax and color characteristics that produce astounding deep, rich prints when viewed under even the most difficult lighting conditions.
Traditional silver papers had a lower dMax than many of today’s inkjet papers. Ansel Adams and many of his contemporaries used selenium toning or other methods to improve black tone depth. Even the best selenium toned prints had a dMax of 1.6, compared to 2.5 or greater for some of today’s papers.
With the advent o f the digital camera and improvements in inkjet technology have blossomed into a thriving industry. The traditional silver halide papers have been replaced by digital papers but still retain much of the same basic structure.
Almost all paper is fiber based, consisting of a core of compressed fiber. Alpha cellulose, comes from the pulp and paper industry and is highly refined to remove lignins and pH balanced so it will not yellow like newspaper. Cotton fibers form the base of Rag papers, which are used more in Fine Art papers, although the definition of a “Fine Art Paper” is a wide gray area.
RC papers are coated with a thin layer of polyester to insulate the fiber base from the ink receptive layer. The term RC (Resin Coated) is a holdover from traditional silver paper manufacture, and prevents the ink droplets from penetrating and wicking into the fiber (see the diagram below) . Printer development engineers have taken great pains to continuously reduce ink droplet size to a few picoliters. One picoliter is one billionth of a milliliter. RC papers help to keep those small drops from spreading and improve the overall print sharpness. The polyester coating also gives the paper more rigidity.
The top layer is an ink receptive layer to trap the ink. It is composed of silica, alumina or most recently baryta has become very popular. Baryta is a compound also left over from traditional silver paper manufacture, and has been exploding in popularity because it creates a super white print surface without adding any fluorescent brighteners. Fluorescent Optical Brightening Agents or OBAs give paper brightness but apparently fade with time. The jury is still out on their use in archival imaging. Smoothness is something you can feel by running your fingers over the surface. Many of the so called Fine Art Rag papers have a rough texture characteristic of hand-made paper. I prefer smoother textures, but that is a personal preference.
Thickness and Density. Larger prints require a more substantial paper, and that is evaluated two different ways. Paper density or GSM, is measured in grams per square meter and is usually published in the paper specs. Thicker papers have a GSM in the range of 250 to315. Less than that, and large prints become floppy and harder to work with. GSM has become the evaluation standard, and it is uncommon to see thickness or caliper measurements in the specs for inkjet paper.
Paper Color and Whiteness is often another consideration for paper selection. Just as you would adjust color temperature when taking a photo with your camera, paper color can affect the final print. Cool toned papers, such as Canson Photo Gloss Premium RC give a slight blue shift to the overall print. Warm toned papers like Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk shift the print a slight pleasing yellow tone.
Whiteness is a measure of how close the paper comes to being “pure white” and while I don’t know exactly what the gold standard for “pure white” is, papers can be compared in relative terms. This is where Baryta and OBAs play a big part paper appearance. Fluorescent OBAs brighten the appearance of paper. If the evaluation light source has a lot of ultraviolet content the whites appear brighter. Baryta on the other hand, is simply very white, and tends not to fade with time, so print appearance is more stable over time.
And speaking of stability or Longevity, inkjet papers now are at least as stable as their silver chemistry predecessors. Standard testing methods established by Wilhelm Imaging Research predict that your inkjet prints will remain unchanged for many decades to come.
With so many choices and variables, you would think that there would be lots of websites where the printing characteristics of the most popular papers have been independently tested. Not so. After a long search I found only one such list, last updated 6/2010. My thanks go out to the people at Dane Creek Photography for these evaluations. I you run across others, please contact me, and I’ll post them here.
Here are a couple of recommendations to someone starting out experimenting with different papers.
Ilford Galerie Prestige Smooth Pearl is an excellent all round paper and a good starting point for your evaluation. It has an excellent dMax and vivid colors for both Black and White and Color printing. With a GSM of 310, it is a fairly rugged paper, and the pearl surface, which is best described as finely pebbled, is shiny yet not glossy, and resists fingerprints and scuffs.
For running test prints, Costco’s Kirkland Professional Glossy Inkjet paper gives surprisingly good results. Although thinner than one would use for final prints, it has a dMax and color gamut that rivals many good papers. And did I mention cheap? Always a consideration.
Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk has gained an excellent reputation as a semi-gloss paper. It is a warm toned Baryta based paper, with deep blacks and great gamut and is probably the best all around paper made by Ilford.
Recently I have tried Canson Photo HighGloss Premium RC, which has very deep blacks and high color gamut and produces wonderfully sharp, vivid color prints. It is the glossiest of any of the papers I have seen.
By Bob Younger
In fact, that may be the least of it. What I’ve been discovering this last year is that it’s far more about being present, about observing, about being a part of something much bigger than just me and my camera and my skills.
If you don’t make a substantive part of your living doing photography, then make photographs for a different reason. If you have customers, and they want something in particular, then you’re going to bring all that you have to providing that. But if you make photographs because it enables you to leave all the other things in life behind then don’t worry about what someone might think of your photographs.
Part of the discovery is that it’s not about the technical processes and practices or studied lessons in composition; it’s critical that the photographer know these things so that they are no longer something he or she thinks about. In Zen and the Art of Archery, which Minor White made all his students read (and which I highly recommend), the students practiced shooting until the mechanical aspects of archery ceased to be a subject of thought. It was only then that they could move into a space, a state of mind and spirit that made them one with the bow, the arrow, the target, and the world. “Bow, arrow, goal and ego, all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate has gone. For as soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and so ridiculously simple. . . . ” And that is how it should be when you go out with your camera. Hitting the target was not the objective. . The objective is the experience; all that went into finding the subject (or having it find me if we’re to believe Minor White), getting myself, my ego, concerns about what others will think out of the way; then getting to understand, to know the subject, and finally using the camera to photograph it.
“Be still with yourself Until the object of your attention Affirms your presence” Minor White
Admittedly, if you’re to experience this then it presupposes that all things have life and all things are a part of a larger place, or spirit.
There are some principles to practicing photography as something more than taking a picture. Depending upon who you read or following there can be anywhere from 3 to 10. I’m just going to talk about 5 of them today; and we’ll look at some pictures while we do.
The first is that it’s not about you. You have to get free of yourself and become a part of where you are, of what you’re photographing. “Let the subject generate its own photograph. Become a camera.” Minor White
Sebastiao Salgado writes, “There comes a moment when it is no longer you who takes the photograph, but receives the way to do it quite naturally and fully.”
He expanded on that with,
2. You have to be receptive. Kathryn Marx writes,
“No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen.” Minor White
And, realizing that for a photographer, life and photography are inseparable, if not one in the same. “Throughout my life I’ve never pursued anything. I just let things pursue me….they just who up….. This is the way I’ve led my life, not just in photography, but in life.” Manuel Alvarez Bravo
I also thought Ruth Bernhard said it very well, “I never look for a photograph. The photograph finds me and says, “I’m here!” and I say, “Yes I see you. I hear you.””
Quote from Zen in the Art of Archery, pg 23 in Tao of…..
Not forcing the photograph, or life for that matter also implies that you’re open and aware, you’re present to what’s going on, to where you are. This enables you to see, to be spontaneous. It also means you don’t try to control the environment, but are a part of it; you become as the Chinese sage wrote, an “echo to a sound or shadow to a shape.”
“Most of us take things too literally. I want to see beyond the image, behind appearance. Taking things too literally stands in the way of this – like a veil.” Paul Caponigro
This also means that you have to continuously let go of habitual ways of seeing; you have to adapt to the subject; you have to be aware of changes. They are what make photography interesting for our whole life. The photographer is always open to opportunity, and because he’s present to where he is, he’s far more likely to see it when it occurs. There’s a subtle implication here that I want to point out. The photographer has to accept what is. If I’m upset or frustrated that the weather isn’t what I wanted today, then I’m not going to see the opportunities that present themselves, because I’m looking for something else, something that’s not going to be there, at least today.
And finally, sometimes what you think is going to be a photograph, just isn’t. It’s then that you pack up and continue on your journey. Many times I’ve spent an hour or more trying to make a photograph. I’ve set up the camera; and moved it dozens of times. Changed lenses. And often just sat looking.
One thing that I learned from Zen in the Art of Archery was that before the archer became a master, he fired countless thousands of arrows. He became one with the bow and arrows and target. It was as if the bow was nothing more than another arm or hand; and it was as natural to use as his own appendage. If the photographer is going to be open to opportunities, then you must know how to take advantage of those opportunities.
“Photography is a medium of formidable contradictions. It is both ridiculously easy and almost impossibly difficult. It is easy because its technical rudiments can readily be mastered by anyone with a few simple instructions. It is difficult because, while the artist working in any other medium begins with a blank surface and gradually brings his conception into being, the photographer is the only imagemaker who begins with the picture completed. His emotions, his knowledge, and his native talent are brought into focus and fixed beyond recall the moment the shutter of his camera has closed”. – Edward Steichen
“One does not think during creative work any more than one thinks while driving a car. But one has a background of years – learning, unlearning – success, failure – dreaming, thinking – experience, all this – then the moment of creation, the focusing of all into the moment.” Edward Weston
This is particularly true today with the apparent ease of digital cameras.
Cartier-Bresson, talking about a street photographer, says this best for me. “Alone, the Surrealist wanders the streets without destination but with a premeditated alertness for the unexpected detail that will release a marvelous and compelling reality just beneath the banal surface of the ordinary experience.”
And Emerson probably did the best job of generalizing it for life, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.”
By Steve Cirone
On my image above, and on all my bird action images, I use Manual Exposure Mode, F 5.6, 400 ISO, 1/1600th sec. as a starter. Check your camera’s LCD and adjust the shutter only to get desired exposure. Point your shadow at, but not on the subject. No flash. Auto Focus, AI Servo/ Continuous, center point only, high speed drive/ frame advance. Focus limiter on far only if your lens has one. The above shot I took with a Canon 400mm f 5.6 lens ($1300), and a Canon Mark IV, but a used $800 Canon 1D Mark 2 will do nearly as well.
For photographing micro subjects like my above dragonfly, I use Manual Exposure Mode, F 11, 200 ISO, 1/200th sec. as a starter. Use FLASH!! Check your camera’s LCD and adjust the f stop only to set your background brightness, and adjust your flash intensity only to dial in your subject brightness. Manual Focus (auto if you can get away with it), single focus (not servo/ continuous), center point only, one at a time frame advance. Count to 3 in between each shot to give your batteries time to recycle.
Typical micro gear is a bit more complicated than gear for birds in sun.
Canon 100mm IS, 180mm micro lens, Canon ring light/ flash or twin light/ flash, monopod (Manfrotto 685 B is trick) Neotec Monopod with Safety Lock, 234 manfrotto tilt head.
Nikon 105 or 200mm micro lens, Nikon R1C1 flash. You can get away with only one R1 head if on a budget, and you can also delete the Nikon C1 commander, but output adjustment is more tricky.
Lakesides are good spots for dragonflies in hot mid day weather in the summer.
Skipper moths are in every garden in San Diego in the spring and summer,
as are a million other interesting bugs like the one below I got in Balboa Park.
Happy Image Making!
Steve’s childhood was the epitome of the Southern California dream. Under the tutelage of his sportsman father, he spent my days surfing, skateboarding, diving, exploring, and otherwise enjoying the incredible recreational opportunities afforded by his environment.
In an attempt to capture and share his personal vision and enthusiasm for life, he picked up a camera and began to document his world. Photography soon became as much a passion as surfing the perfect wave, diving the reefs, or exploring the dynamic California coastline.
After graduating from SDSU with a Master’s Degree in 1977, he wrote and produced educational audio/video programs for American Honda. In 1978, he went into business for himself in the bottled water industry and still own that enterprise.
As his photographic interests evolved, Steve extended his photographic vision into studio work. Now he photographs only that which feeds his soul. Who could ask for more?
In recent years he has turned the experience gained from decades behind the camera to capturing the beauty of the birds of my native California. Meanwhile, he took on galvanizing like-minded photographers, both professional and amateur, by assuming the position of President of the Sierra Club Photography Section for four years.
His style is influenced by my early training as a student of Art Morris whom he still greatly admires. Art is the grandfather of the wonderful hobby of modern avian photography.
Steve’s award-winning work has been exhibited at the International Exhibition of Photography Del Mar, the Larry Dumlao Gallery, Balboa Park, and the North County Photographers’ Gallery.
He is a judge of photographic competitions in southern California including the International Exhibition of Photography at the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar.
His work has been published in various magazines including Wahine Magazine, Pacific Longboarder, and the May, 2012 issue of Pacific San Diego Magazine.
Steve’s current passion is to showcase animal behavior which cannot be seen with the naked eye: “Decisive Moments in Spectacular Light.”