Welcome to Lesson 6 — Beginner's Guide to Choosing Papers
I use and recommend papers by the French manufacturer Canson which has been making art papers for centuries. I use them for all of my prints because I think they offer the best quality and longevity of any paper on the market. However, the principles I share below can be applied to any paper supplier you decide to use. What matters most is that you use the materials creatively and intentionally.
Let’s start with the basics; paper characteristics. Fine art inkjet paper is composed of a base and a micro-porous coating. The base is what gives the paper its weight and feel, while the coating affects the texture, finish, and overall contrast level. A separate category of papers, called RC papers, are composed entirely of a plastic resin. Though they lack the feel and longevity of fine art papers, they are nonetheless excellent in many situations which I will share later.
The texture, or tooth, of a paper, can range from ultra-smooth to rough. The differences in texture, from none to pronounced, provide lots of creative options that you can explore and take advantage of when printing your work. This interaction can complement and enhance the interpretation of your images immensely.
The finish determines how reflective the surface is, from matte to high gloss. Generally, matte papers produce a softer, more subtle look (think painterly), whereas satin, semi-gloss and gloss finishes provide a shinier, reflective surface, which appears more aggressive and photographic.
Overall contrast levels are affected most directly by Dmax, a unit of measurement for black density. The higher the Dmax, the more black ink a paper can hold, and hence the greater the contrast and shadow definition.
To make selecting the right paper a bit easier, I want to state some basic principles you can use as a guide. These principles are not judgments about which papers are better or worse, but rather relate to the characteristics of the papers themselves and how to use them creatively.
Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each paper allows you to make creative decisions about which paper is best for your image.
This approach, which I call the image-centric approach to paper selection, lets you match a paper to an image to make a print that is more expressive and personal. It allows you to develop your vision as a photographer.
1. Density Levels (Dmax)
It’s useful to make a clear distinction between matte papers and all others, and this is the first principle of choosing a paper I want you to understand.
All matte papers can be considered "low-density" papers whereas all non-matte papers (fiber, luster, semi-gloss, gloss) can be considered "hi-density" papers. Low-density does not mean better or worse but simply means that matte papers cannot hold the same levels of black ink that high-density papers can.
A matte paper may not be the best choice for an image that needs to be aggressive and photographic, but may be perfect for an image that is painterly, abstract, or subtle.
2. Louder or Softer
This next principle concerns how Dmax relates to aesthetics, or how we perceive varying amounts of density, which visually translates to contrast. In general, a print can appear to be louder or softer based on its overall contrast level, or Dmax.
This is not to say that you can’t make loud prints with a matte paper, or softer looking prints with a luster paper. But generally speaking, if you want to convey a softer, more painterly look to an image, regardless of whether it’s black & white or has lots of darks, then a matte paper is ideal. Similarly, if you want to convey a more literal, photographic look that is more aggressive, then higher density is ideal.
This is the first decision I make when choosing a paper. Do I want a print to convey a louder, more aggressive look and feel? If so, then I start with papers that provide higher Dmax levels, like all non-matte papers.
If I want a print to convey a more subdued feel, one that is more painterly and suggestive, then I start with a matte paper.
To take this concept one step further, you can also think of detail in an image as being analogous to volume. The more detail you convey in a print, the louder it becomes. Lots of shadow detail, which comes from higher Dmax papers, will inherently be more photographic. Less detail in the shadows allows a print to be more nuanced and suggestive.
3. Texture for Dimension
This principle concerns texture, and how it can be used to complement your image compositionally.
In general, the smoother the paper, the less the surface of the paper impacts the image. The greater the texture, the more a paper’s surface affects the image, often adding dimension and complementing fine details.
If you have very smooth areas in your image, then a smoother paper will generally preserve those areas. If you have lots of textural details in your image, then a textured paper may enhance those details and add a bit of depth to the print. If you have areas of smoothness and detail, and you want to preserve those relationships as best as possible, then an ultra-smooth paper might be best.
In all of these cases, what’s important to consider is whether a textured paper will enhance or compromise the most important aspects of your image.
Less is More
The final principle is all about making this fun instead of intimidating.
The fewer papers you start with, the easier it is to understand these principles.
As you can see, most papers can be judged by these two basic categories: density level and texture. So starting with two papers from each category is ideal so that you don’t become overwhelmed with too many choices. I recommend the following papers:
Matte papers (low density)
• Rag Photographique 310gsm (medium Dmax, ultra-smooth)
• PrintMaKing Rag 310gsm (medium Dmax, fine texture)
Fibre papers (high density)
• Baryta Photographique 310gsm (high Dmax, ultra-smooth)
• Platine Fibre Rag 310gsm (high Dmax, slight texture)
This limited selection lets you explore all the possible scenarios that matter in the broadest sense with just four papers. From here you can fine-tune and expand your paper choices by adding papers that offer more texture, or perhaps a slightly different reflective surface.
But the basic look and feel of your prints will remain the same because you’ll get better at recognizing what the main differentiators are; Dmax and texture.
Note: If you are using a different paper manufacturer, you can translate my descriptions of the Canson papers to whatever paper is closest in character. For example, Epson Hot Press would be similar to Rag Photographique, Epson Cold Press to PrintMaKing Rag, Epson Legacy Baryta to Canson Baryta, etc. What matters most is understanding how the character of a paper can influence your image once printed.
(I also recommend the heavier weights—310gsm—for increased stability and tactile experience.)
Because RC papers are not available in a matte finish, they all have higher Dmax levels than matte papers. However, they are generally more budget-friendly than fine art papers, and for many purposes more than adequate.
They are great for proofing your images as well. Just remember that they are no substitute for the aesthetic experience of using a fine art paper.
Principals In Use
These principals are only a guide to help you navigate what can seem confusing and overwhelming. But once you understand these basic fundamentals, it does become easier to make decisions about papers.
What it does require however is looking thoughtfully at your images and asking, “what do I want to convey?” You must start there before you can become confident that you’ve chosen the right paper for your image.
What emotional response are you trying to elicit from the viewer? Does the paper complement what you are trying to convey? Would it benefit from a photographic look, aggressive look, or something less literal and more suggestive?
There’s a lot of information here, so I suggest you re-read the lesson to make sure you understand the concepts thoroughly. They form the foundation of paper selection you will use as you practice and develop your printing skills.
In the next lesson, I’ll share some actual prints and my thought process on selecting the best paper.