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Finishing Your Photographs: Picking Your Medium

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This post is part of a series called Printing.
10 Top Terrific Tips on Creating Your First Photobook
Finishing Your Photographs: Choosing Printers, Paper, and Ink

Photographers spend a great deal of energy capturing the best image possible and ensuring the image or print is faithfully reproduced. We may not, however, spend as much energy thinking about how to finish a photograph - print, frame or store it - and archive the image.

It’s Not Just Paper

If you have made photographs in a wet lab (darkroom), then you likely already appreciate the differences between various photographic papers. But, did you know that there now is as great a variety - if not more variety - in digital photographic papers?

With the popularity of digital media, both photographic paper and art paper manufacturers experienced declining sales. In a clever, synergistic move, the two manufacturers collaborated, giving birth to a burgeoning range of photographic papers for digital printing.

Think beyond matte, satin and glossy papers and, instead, consider the realm of premium photographic papers, some with brighteners to enhance the clarity and contrast of the photograph, most available in varying weights (thickness), and almost all made for optimal printing when used with certain ink types or colour ranges. In addition, manufacturers are developing an increasing range of digital photographic papers identified as “fine art papers." These include fibre-based papers, cold- and hot-press watercolour papers, textured and velvet cotton rag papers, and canvas sheets.


Various papers from Ilford

There are also many types of other media that can be used for digital printing. If printing on paper seems too limiting, then consider printing on metal sheets, cotton canvas, plastic and other fabrics. Your photographs need not even be displayed as flat images on a wall. Improved techniques for digital printing on fabrics mean that your images can now be affordably displayed on umbrellas or shopping bags, just to name a few ideas.

Another increasingly popular choice is to print a collection of images as a book, small leaflet or calendar. Again, there is a diverse range of quality, type and styles to choose from.

Consider the Photograph’s End Use

Is your photo a fun way to brag about your grandchildren or pet? Then fabric or plastic made into an item you would use every day would be a choice. Popping open an umbrella covered with pictures of your dog wearing doggie boots is sure to attract attention and many appreciative glances. Most large commercial photography shops can either do this kind of printing or direct you to a lab that can do it for you.


Photography for umbrella and of umbrella by Sue Bird, Urban Dog Photography

If you are looking to tell a wedding or travel story in pictures shared with families and friends, or wanting to preserve your story so you can share it with children and grandchildren down the road, a self-published book or folio might be the ideal choice. There are multiple options and price points for publishing your photographs this way.

Some photo management programs, such as iPhoto and Aperture, come with templates already installed for books, calendars, and folios. A quick Internet search will also provide you with several online companies that do this kind of printing and offer templates to organize your photographs for print. Blurb is one of the well-known online printers and offers several affordable options for printing books, including using photographs to create an illustrated notebook or journal.

I like to use superior online printers when I want a luxurious album, folio, or packaging such as a DVD cover. Printers in this category are more expensive but they usually offer higher-grade binding, a selection of papers, and archival materials as a standard. This helps to ensure that your publication lasts many years. White House Custom Colour is my favourite printer to use. Their products are beautiful quality and their online service is easy to use.

Higher end photo book publishers like these often offer offset printing as well - a lower cost alternative to digital printing when a large number of copies is required. Some of these printers offer templates to help you organize your photographs for printing, but the best results usually require that someone with a designer’s eye do the layout.


Photo books from Picaboo

A basic photo paper of any brand will suffice if you’re printing photos for passing around at a party or pinning up on a bulletin board. Photo papers of this type can be purchased at many business supply stores, computer stores, and photography shops. Basic photo paper is also what will be used if you take your images to a chain or large photography printer.

Your choices here are usually limited to glossy, satin or lustre, or matte. Glossy paper gives photographs a crisp, bright look, with rich colours but will show fingerprints. The glare off of the paper may also interfere with viewing. Matte paper will disguise small errors or blemishes in your photograph (particularly those that result from a dirty sensor) and is easy to view. However, matte paper tends not to stand up well to frequent handling and doesn’t show an image with the same clarity and saturation as glossy. Satin paper is, of course, between the two extremes and is often the easiest and best choice.

Many images dictate what finish should be used. For example, if glossy paper were used to print this image, the reflection and shine from the paper would compete with the soft, foggy nature of the photograph.

If you are seeking quality prints that you intend to display in frames for the next two to ten years or to put into a portfolio, consider using one of the premium photographic papers. While they are not as affordable as basic photo paper, premium papers will give you the results you typically see on display at the computer or photography store.

If you are considering your image as fine art, for sale, or to be displayed in your office or home over a long period of time, then fine art papers will be worth your time and investment.

Evaluate Home versus Lab Printing

All media but paper are likely to require that your photograph be printed at a lab. Some home hobby printers will print on DVDs and sheets of fabric as well as on paper. The quality, however, is likely to be low. Additionally, if running fabric through your home printer, you may find that fibres from the fabric collect and dull your printer’s print head. If printing on DVDs, you should be aware that the printing will shorten the life and limit the reliability of the DVD.

Using your own photographic printer to print paper lets you manage the outcome. You are your own quality control officer with only your budget and time limiting the options and variables you might want to try.

Evaluate your printer to determine if it is up to printing the quality you need for your intended purpose. Of primary consideration is the size of paper you wish to use. Most home printers are limited to papers 13 or 17" wide. While the quality of printing – dots per inch – also matters, most photographic printers are now capable of fine enough quality to produce a good looking image if the right paper is chosen.


A home printer from HP

While many premium photographic papers can be successfully used in home printers, some of the premium papers and many of the fine art papers may be too thick to run through the same printer. Your instruction manual or a quick search on the manufacturers’ website will reveal the limits of your printer. Look for information about paper tolerance expressed in weight (usually g/m2) or thickness (mil).

A tip: even when working with papers that are within your printer’s tolerance, avoid working on humid days. Moderate to high humidity can fatten all but the smoothest and glossiest fine art paper, resulting in jams and paper or fabric deposits on your printer’s printing heads.

If you are having your image printed by a professional lab or custom printer, choose a good quality lab familiar with fine art photographic printing. These labs aren’t as common as they once were, so you may have to do some research to find one in your city. Ask for recommendations at a good quality camera store or from a fellow professional photographer.

The lab will have samples of the papers they use for printing and a good lab will be able to assist you in making a selection based on the image you want printed. Some labs are open to you providing your own paper if they don’t stock the one you are wanting. However, choosing a paper must be considered within the context of the printer and ink being used. It is possible that the paper you want will not provide the outcome you’re hoping for if the lab’s printer or ink is not an ideal combination with the paper.

Consider the Final Look

As paper manufacturers refine their techniques for making photographic papers, they’ve been able to customize the way papers will respond and look. For example, some papers are better for black and white printing while others are formulated to enhance colours. Even among those papers best suited to colour printing, papers will vary in how they respond to different hues. This will be relevant, for example, if printing a landscape instead of a portrait. Some papers profile greens and blues best while others will excel in capturing the subtle shading in skin.

A paper that profiles brilliant, saturated colours would be a good choice to print a boldly coloured image such as this one.

Papers will vary, as well, in how warm or cool they are. Some papers mimic the warm, rich tones found in light sensitive fibre paper. Others contain brightening agents in the printing surface to make the highlighters appear whiter and bright, and the printed image appear cooler and sharp, enhancing fine detail.

Some papers have noticeable texture. Cold press papers, for example, reveal the random texture of fibres that have been pressed to form paper. These papers work well with landscapes, for example, where the random texture adds depth and movement to trees, grass, and plants. In contrast, hot press papers appear smooth, some with a velvet look.


Cold press papers and canvas add texture to a photograph, creating depth and movement in landscapes

Finally, there are special purpose papers, canvas and metals. Some papers, for example, are formulated especially to enhance small metal details such as you’d see in a photograph of an all metal watch. On the other hand, fine art metal has one side coated with an optically clear inkjet surface designed to take water-based inks. Fine art metal can be used either because the metal suits the end purpose of the image (a sign, for example) or because it enhances the image (a photograph of a engineering project, for example). Finally, canvas has become increasingly popular for photographs that are displayed with a casual air. A roughened surface lends an air of imprecision to the image and when mounted on a stretching frame, a canvas-printed photograph can be hung without a frame.

Conclusion

Printing digital photographs is a different experience than exposing and developing paper in a darkroom. There are more media types to choose from and almost infinite control to be exercised over the process and outcome. But even with an ability to tweak printing for an outstanding image, the best print outcome can still be elusive.

Considering the purpose and overall look you want for your finished image is the start. In the next article, we’ll consider the technical specifications of paper and how to mate paper, ink, and printers (home and lab) for the best outcome.

For information about preparing your digital negative for printing, see: From Camera to Print, Preparing Images for Print by Daniel Sone.