What Paper is Best for Your Photo

Avid photographers often study the printer and ink before purchasing a machine entrusted with recreating their favorite snaps, but what about the material that image will live on?

Although inkjet printers are designed to work with a variety of different paper types, choosing the right grade and finish for each print job is essential if you want to get the best results.

The Photo Paper I’ll be discussing is: plain, Gloss, Semi-gloss (Lustre), and Matte. But firstly… a quick side note!

Most print manufacturers produce their own paper, though this often attracts a premium price. For comparing image prints though, these extra few pence are highly recommended. Third party papers can give very good results, but they are designed to work with as wide a variety of printers and ink-types as possible, so they’re more likely to be a compromise between versatility and quality.

Also consider to choose a company that has a good printing services which will allow you to fully entrust your memorable photos.

That’s that, now for learning!

Plain paper:

The clue is in the name, plain paper has no special coating or final finish. However, many photographers use plain paper for image proofing, or even as a pre-purchase comparison between printers, and even at this comparatively utilitarian end of the market things are not simple!

Specially made ‘Inkjet’ paper is usually a higher grade plain paper with much shorter fibre length. This gives it a smoother surface so the ink sits more evenly across it. Purchasing cheaper grade paper, with longer fibres, encourages feathering in the image and will provide a far poorer final print than the printer is capable of.

In addition to this concern, the same paper can show very different results in different makes of printer. Ink-bleed, which makes text and graphics look fuzzy, is often worse with very low-viscosity (liquid) inks, as ink drops tend to run along the fibres in the paper, rather than staying put where they landed.

Photo paper:

Now here’s where it gets interesting for photographers, the paper MEANT for photos! The 3 most common are Gloss, Semi-gloss and Matte, so lets look into the differences.

Glossy and Semi-Glossy Photo Paper

The most common type of photo paper is gloss, with a special coated surface helping to give images a clarity and sharpness many people are used to from conventional photographic prints.

Generally offering the highest contract, colour gamut and brightness for your prints, this paper also offers the highest detail of all of the photo papers. The difference is surprising, and if you don’t believe me then take a magnifying glass to a photo printed on gloss, semi-gloss and matte to see the astounding difference in the micro-details.

What’s even more attractive about gloss is its durability. Once it’s dried, that image is difficult to remove, and can resist even the most enthusiastic of rubs and marks.

Glossy paper generally comes as High-Gloss, Standard-Gloss or Semi-Gloss (also known as Lustre), which is basically a descending scale of reflectiveness. Some printer manufacturers, such as Canon, produce several different Glossy papers, with varying amounts of shine, even before you get down to Semi-gloss. Not all types are designed to work with all printer models, so you should consult your printer’s manual (which may be a file on your PC, rather than a printed document).

This leads nicely onto the one downside of glossy prints for your photographs: Light.

The downside of Glossy Paper

If you’re planning on making a cherished photograph the focal point of a room, or even advanced enough with your skill for it to be showcased in a gallery, then gloss finishes may be your downfall. The trade-off for vivid colours and bright prints is a terrible susceptibility to reflecting light, which is of huge detriment to the appreciation of an image.

Matte Paper – Light’s best friend

After soft, delicate finishes which are shine-free? Matte’s your best bet. Trading the touchable nature of gloss (Matte is incredibly sensitive to abrasions) and vivid prints, you will receive back a glare-free paper which can happily sit under the harshest of lights.

Perfect for presentation and display, the one downside of Matte paper is the impact on your final print. The image to the side illustrates this perfectly. The solid surface is the attainable Colour Gamut on Matte photo paper (on an Epson 2200). The wireframe around it is the colour gamut of glossy paper in the same printer, significantly larger.

The dulling effect this can have on your images is disheartening if you don’t expect it, so be careful when you start to experiment with any form of matte paper.

 So which photo paper is for me?

Semi-gloss photo paper is often the go-to paper for the amateur photographer, with a significant reduction in glare being experienced for a small reduction in your photo quality. After all, a small loss in your overall colour gamut and crispness is surely worth the trade of being able to see the actual picture!

Matte paper will be great for your presentational images, and will be perfect for any photographs you have requested for shows and events, but the loss in colour and vividity is too sharp to stomach for photographers looking for personal enjoyment.

The best advice I can give is to nail down where your images will be displayed, and either experiment with varying types of gloss, or different lighting set-ups. Once you’ve found that balance, photo printing will be incredibly rewarding.

Think that’s it? Think again

Once you’re decided on type, it’s down to the weight of photo paper, measured in gsm (grams-per-square-metre).

Going for the most expensive, heaviest, gsm photo paper won’t necessarily give you the best results, since some papers are designed for specific types of ink. The two main formulations of paper are swellable and porous, though few manufacturers use these terms on the packets.

If you don’t use the right type of paper for your printer’s ink, you may notice problems. Ranging from longer drying times (swellable’s downfall) to smearing and ink run (raise your hand porous). Most printer makers have compatibility charts of printers and papers on their websites.

What, you didn’t think Photo Printing was easy did you?

By Michael Derges. Michael is a writer and researcher for Stinkyink.com, an internet retailer that specialises in ink cartridges. When not helping people with their Epson ink cartridges Michael can be found enjoying bike rides and taking amateur photographs across Shropshire, England.


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