DPP Home Gear Printers The Paper Chase - Selecting The Best Paper

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Paper Chase - Selecting The Best Paper

One of the least considered, yet most used materials in the photographer's arsenal, a paper's fundamental construction can have a profound impact on how images print

Paper Types

Inkjet papers need some type of receptive coating to absorb ink in a controlled fashion. You can print on uncoated papers as well, of course, but typically you'll see bleeding of color, particularly with dye inks (pigment inks are less susceptible to bleeding because of the basic differences between dyes and pigments). These coatings are either swellable or microporous.

Swellable surfaces are the more common variety with traditional-style photo papers, such as the gloss and luster finishes. A polymer such as gelatin is added to the paper, which swells and absorbs the ink when it touches the page. Compatible with all printer types, these papers are best used with dye-ink printers. Swellable-surface papers tend to dry much faster (some claim instant dry), but are more susceptible to water damage.

The microporous coated papers typically have a layer of silica or aluminum compounds, along with a binding agent. These materials combine to form pores in the surface of the paper that attracts the ink. Papers with a microporous surface are slower to dry than swellable-surface papers and work best with pigment-based printers. This surface is commonly seen with fine-art papers and photo rags.

In the fine-art category, there's a wide range of media types, from smooth photo rags to textured mould-made papers and canvas products. Dye-ink printers can be used with these papers, but extra care is necessary to limit ink levels; you'll see best results by sealing the prints with something like Premier Art Shield or a laminating process.

Photo rag papers are generally made of 100% cotton. They're excellent for many applications, color and black-and-white. Fairly new are the Silver Rag papers, which mimic traditional darkroom, fiber-based products. These papers have the advantage of producing excellent black-and-white prints using the photo black pigment inks (no need to switch to matte black on printers like the Epson Stylus Pro 7800). Crane's (Silver Rag), Hahnemühle (FineArt Pearl) and Premier (Platinum Rag) are the leading examples of this paper type, which is a favorite among black-and-white digital printers.

Mould-made papers, while typically very expensive, are excellent choices for limited-edition prints. Papers like Hahnemühle, William Turner or Torchon have a distinctive surface that helps your print stand out. These papers are suited to a variety of uses, especially landscape and soft portrait work.

Canvas surfaces are like their art counterparts. In fact, many of today's art pieces are reproductions done on inkjet printers (and often with the price-inflating term “giclee”). Ideal for portraits and fine art, canvas is meant to be stretched and mounted for best results.


Contrary to popular belief, running third-party papers through your printer won't break the printer. While the manufacturers would certainly prefer that you use only their paper and ink products, many of the better papers are available only from other companies like Crane's, Hahnemühle, Hawk Mountain and Moab. You must verify that the paper is compatible with your type of ink and that the thickness is within the range supported by your printer, however.

One advantage of using the manufacturer's paper is that you know compatibility isn't an issue and that the surface is optimized for the specific inks used by your printer, usually giving a longer archival life to the print.


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