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Finishing Your Photographs: Choosing Printers, Paper, and Ink

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This post is part of a series called Printing.
Finishing Your Photographs: Picking Your Medium

In the first article in this series, Finishing Your Photographs: Picking Your Medium, we considered the end use of photographs in order to choose the medium best suited to finishing each photograph. In this article, we look closer at the details for finishing photographs as prints. Specifically, we'll consider the technical specifications of paper and how to mate paper, ink, and printers (home and lab) for the best outcome.


Goal of Archival Permanence

It has not been all that long since we embraced digital photo printing, especially printing on home equipment. While each succeeding generation of printers produced finer quality images than the generation before it, even as late as 2000, photographers lamented the lack of archival permanence with inkjet prints. If it wasn't the paper, it was the ink that lacked archival qualities. Early inkjet photos faded within months, some within weeks.


From "Inkjet Fading," posted on Nifty Stuff on January 12, 2006.

Currently, prints made on non-archival paper or printed with non-archival ink will have a normal life span of about 10 years. After this time, colours fade, paper dries out and cracks, or the ink and paper react with each other to produce colour shifts. That's a better performance than 10 years ago, but prints need to last much longer if printed as fine art or to share with future generations.

With the right choice of paper, ink and printer, inkjet prints - more formally known as giclée prints* - can last up to 100 years. Additionally, the range of combinations allows a photographer almost limitless control over the final look of a print.


Choose the Printer

Your first consideration is whether you intend to print the photograph on your own photographic printer or send your image to an outside lab for printing. If you intend to use a professional lab or custom printer, visit or speak to the lab before sending in your image. Collect information about the printer they use and which inks and paper. Also determine the format the lab prefers for the digital file. Most high-end labs will ask for a .tif file.

If printing on your own photographic printer, work with the brand of your printer in mind. Collect information about the inks your printer uses, the maximum size of paper your printer will take, and the maximum paper tolerance limits of your printer, expressed in weight (usually g/m2) or thickness (mil). Your instruction manual or the manufacturer's website will provide you with the needed information.


Detail showing relevant information for a photographic printer.

Choose the Paper

The simplest and most effective way to get a high quality giclée print is to use the best paper. If you are sending your print to a lab, your choices are usually limited to the papers the lab carries. The lab will have profiled their printers to work with their selection of papers and ink. They'll have a sample book of their selection for you to look at. A lab may be open to working with a premium paper that you provide, but if so, be prepared for significantly higher costs to reflect the amount of work the lab will have to undertake to produce a custom print.


Brand

If printing on your own photo printer, start with paper made by your printer manufacturer. The well-established companies who make photographic printers - Canon, Epson, and Hewlett-Packard - all make their own complete line of inks and papers. Because photo printers are usually designed to work best with the same company's paper and ink, mating paper and printer is usually a good place to start.

You are not, however, limited to paper produced by the printer manufacturer. If you are adventurous, experienced, or seeking a paper finish that your printer manufacturer doesn't offer, explore the wide range of digital photographic papers made by photo and fine art paper manufacturers. The choice is almost endless. Exploring your options will require a few hours at your favourite photography store to review sample books. (Take a cup of coffee, grab a stool, and enjoy the experience!)

Beware though that even these paper manufacturers prepare their paper with certain brands of printers in mind. If your printer is different than the one anticipated by the manufacturer, you may struggle to get high quality output. For example, Hahnemühle - a centuries old paper company who produce some of my favourite papers - prepares their photo paper with Canon printers in mind. I have an Epson printer and despite my best efforts, have not been able to mate Hahnemühle paper with my printer for the quality output I seek. Your best sources for this kind of information are salespersons who are truly knowledgeable about photo papers and reputable photography blogs.


Just a few of many brands of paper available.

Paper Finish

Paper finishes fall into three loosely organized groups: glossy, semi-gloss, and matte.

High gloss, soft gloss and subtle gloss or satin are variations of paper with a highly reflective coating. Glossy papers produce deep, vibrant colours. Because photos printed on glossy papers have a crisp look, glossy papers are usually the best choice when looking to print bold, colourful images with a lot of important detail.

The reflective coating on glossy paper is plastic-based so it protects the paper somewhat against minor ravages of handling. However, the reflective coating also shows fingerprints and attracts and shows dust. Glossy paper also reflects more light than other papers. The glare can be distracting to viewers; the double glare of putting glossy paper behind glass can render a print barely visible. Glossy paper works best for family albums, scrapbooks, photo greeting cards, and other prints that won't be displayed near windows or bright light.

Semi-gloss papers include those identified as semi-gloss, satin, pearl, and lustre. These are widely serviceable papers. They produce rich colours, resist fingerprints but are durable enough to withstand careful handling, and give off little enough glare that the prints can be mounted behind glass. These papers have the widest appeal for viewing, likely because we are accustomed to viewing photographs on semi-gloss papers.

Matte papers range from hot-pressed fibre paper with a smooth, velvet finish to cold-pressed and woven papers with a distinct textured surface. Matte paper does not reflect light and so is ideal if the photograph will be displayed behind glass in a bright setting. In fact, matte paper is the easiest to view in all lighting conditions.

Depending upon the texture in the paper, a photograph on matte paper may not read as a photograph and may appear more as a cross between a photograph and a painting or water colour. The softer but deep colours produced on matte papers reinforce a mixed media type of look. Photographs on matte paper may also appear older. The result is a certain distinguishable look desired by some and avoided by others.

Matte paper does not attract fingerprints or dust but is subject to easy damage from handling. Matte paper will absorb oils from our fingers and the ink is easily "chipped" off the surface or the surface texture scratched with rough flexing. Because the printing surface is difficult to discern, manufacturers will indicate on the box which side of the paper is for printing. Wearing cotton gloves when handling the paper and limiting your handling to the paper edges help to avoid surface damage.

Blacks print richer on matte paper and the image will show more detail. Therefore, black and white photos usually look best on matte paper.


"Glossy versus matte finishes. From Mason Inman, "Brain takes statistical approach to gauging glossiness," posted at Boston Blog on April 20, 2007.

Brightness

Even though all photo paper appears white, brightness can be expressed as a number anywhere from 1 to 100. Photo papers are typically rated in the 90s, but even within that range, there is a great variance in brightness. If you want the whites in your photo to pop, choose a paper rated in the high 90s for brightness.

The brighter the paper, the brighter the photograph. Colours will appear either more vibrant or if the colours are light, then they may appear washed out on bright papers. Less bright paper will produce darker, richer images. Paper brightness will make a greater difference with matte papers than it will with semi-gloss or gloss.

The best way to determine a paper's brightness and choose which is best for your photograph is to compare two or more papers side-by-side. Have a draft copy of your photograph near by so you can consider the colours in your photograph against the various papers. Some colours will look best on a creamy white paper with low brightness while the same paper can drain the life out of another set of colours.

Be cautious if purchasing paper that uses artificial optical brighteners. These chemicals will provide a brilliant, clear white paper but they also degrade over time, meaning that the papers will lose their whiteness. The result is a dulled print with colour shifts. Testing has also revealed that artificial optical brighteners interfere with the archival properties of photo paper.


Not all whites are the same.

Thickness or Weight

Manufacturers will show paper thickness (also referred to as "caliper") in mils and paper weight in g/m2. Photo paper tends to be between 7 and 15 mils thick with weights up to 500 g/m2 and more. Thinner papers are ideal if the prints are being placed in a portfolio book, for example. The thinner paper will allow the portfolio pages to be turned easily, will preserve the spine of the book, and will avoid any appearance of cramming. Thicker papers are less likely to tear or crinkle and will withstand hanging and framing better. A general rule of thumb for prints that you plan to hang is to increase the paper weight as you increase the size of the paper. This will prevent sagging of the paper over time.

It is important that you choose a paper thickness and weight within the limits of your printer. Using a thicker or heavier paper will result in a scratched surface and paper jams, as well as lead to fibres being shredded against the ink nozzles. Clogged ink nozzles are expensive to resolve, usually requiring a purge of the nozzles (which uses a great deal of ink) or tossing out the ink cartridges, cleaning the nozzles, and reinstalling new ink cartridges.

Remember that on a humid day, even a paper within your printer's limits may still jam and shred fibres.


Both stacks of paper contain 50 sheets.

Archival Quality

All paper will be marked by the manufacturer with an expected life span. Of course the paper does not come with any guarantees, but the stated life span will at least allow you to compare the archival quality of papers and make the best choice for your purpose. For photos that are for anything but short-term sharing of snapshots, look for acid-free papers with a lightfast rating of at least 15 years and ideally with a rating of 75 years or more.

Manufacturers will post this information on their websites, but for an objective evaluation of the archival quality of papers, look for lightfast or permanence ratings from Wilhelm Imaging Research. Wilhelm Research is an independent organization that assesses the quality of photo papers among many other items.


An example of archival ratings.

Choosing Ink

It's a given, even with so-called colour-fast materials: colour fades. Heat, light, moisture (humidity), and air-born contaminants (such as ozone), and the type of colour dyes or pigments used. But we've come a long way since those early inkjet materials.

To some extent, your choice of inks will be limited by the printer you plan to use. Given a choice, here are the main options.


Dye-Based Inks

Dye-based inks are made of coloration dissolved in a liquid. The liquid can be made more of water (e.g., Canon inks) or glycol (e.g., Epson inks). Being a liquid, the ink flows easily onto the paper and dries quickly. Dye-based inks have a wide colour gamut with vibrant colours and are compatible with a wide variety of photo papers. They are also relatively inexpensive. But dye-based inks are usually not waterproof and fade much faster than other inks. Even with careful display or storage, a quality paper printed with dye-based ink will last only 5 to 25 years.

While dye-based inks have limitations, they remain a cost-effective and simple ink system for printing sharp text and vibrant colour, especially on plain paper and glossy photo paper.


Pigment-Based Inks

Epson changed the world of digital photo printing when they introduced pigment-based inks in 2000. Unlike the coloured liquid of dye-based inks. pigment inks have an insoluble powder pigment suspended - not dissolved - in liquid. The powdered pigments are more stable and thus resist fading much longer than dye-based inks. Testing indicates that a properly stored or displayed pigment-based print on quality paper can last 150 years or more.

Pigment-based inks are more viscous than dye-based inks and so have been incompatible with some papers that are unable to absorb the inks well. Matte papers have always worked best with pigment-based ink. Initially, pigment-based colours were not as vibrant as dye-based, but over the years, manufacturers have improved the formulation, resulting in rich, vibrant colours that last. Similarly, paper manufacturers have improved the absorbent nature of photo papers so that almost all of the high-end photo papers work well with pigment-based ink.

Most recently, manufacturers have taken advantage of nanotechnology to develop pigment-based inks that not only deliver a wide colour range and print permanence, but also correct colour casts and improve the variance in grayscale for black and white printing. These advanced inks are also blended with resin to make the ink more resistant to scratches, running, and flaking.

Given the now common availability of pigment-based inks, their improved characteristics, and extensive paper compatibility, there really is no reason to choose another ink for high quality photographs.


Epson's UltraChrome ink is a high quality pigment-based ink with a wide colour range and the inclusion of resin to enhance the durability of the ink.

Hybrid Inks

Hybrid - or pigmented - ink combines the longevity of pigment-based ink with the vibrancy of dye-based ink. The trade-off for a wide colour range is a shorter life span, although at 75 years, still a much longer life span than dye-based ink.


Other Considerations

In addition to choosing the right printer, paper, and ink combination, cost is a factor to consider. Some superior fine art photo papers can cost dollars per sheet in comparison to pennies per sheet for average quality, non-archival photo paper. The cost of ink also ranges widely from tens of dollars for dye-based inks to $150 and more for a set of quality pigment-based inks.

Pigment-based inks are also known to have a short cartridge life once the cartridge is open and in use. Some photographers advise that pigment-based inks should be replaced every six months or so to ensure optimum colour and longevity. As well, if a week or more passes between episodes of printing, the inkjet nozzles should be flushed before next use. Flushing the nozzles uses a good amount of ink.


Conclusion

The selection of printers, papers, and inks might seem overwhelming and unnavigable at first. But with some thought to what you intend for your final print - black and white, large fine art hanging, collection of small prints for framing - the selection can be narrowed.

Knowledgeable salespeople can be of immense help. Those who sell photographic paper usually are passionate about the variations in papers and inks and love to have an opportunity to introduce another photographer to that world. And if still unsure of which paper you'd like to use, almost all paper manufacturers offer inexpensive sample packages of paper for you to try.

In the end, it is your vision of your final print that will guide your selections. And who knows? You, too, might become an aficionado of photo papers!

For information about the technical aspects of printing - colour calibration and using paper profiles, for example - see Daniel Sone's From Camera to Print.)

* The word "giclée" is used for inkjet prints made with fade-resistant, archival inks on archival paper. Giclée is descriptive of inkjet technology: it derives from the French word "le gicleur" meaning "nozzle," which is a derivative of the French verb "gicler" meaning "to squirt, spurt, or spray."

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