Paper Essentials in Digital Printing | Print Mastery

Explore how the right paper choice enhances digital prints, balancing colour, texture, and longevity for impactful art.

Selecting the right paper is a pivotal and nuanced decision in photographic printing, significantly influencing a photograph's artistic and visual impact.

This guide delves into the multifaceted aspects of paper choice, highlighting its role in the evolution of print paper and the details of modern digital printing. We explore the unique characteristics of each paper type, considering their aesthetic effects—like surface, texture, and weight—and their importance in image longevity and environmental sustainability. Our goal is to empower photographers and artists with the knowledge to choose paper that enhances their images' beauty and depth while aligning with their environmental values. Understanding the complexities of photographic paper is a challenging yet essential aspect of mastering print artistry.

Words Jake Hopking
18 Dec 2023
Printed photo of a giang polished chrome pumpkin covered in circular spots of colour, and reflected in the polished surface people and a photographer can be seen. Print is placed on a coloured purple background.

The Evolution of Photographic Print Paper

Photographic print paper has journeyed through a remarkable evolution, mirroring the advancements and shifts in photographic technology and artistic expression. Its origins trace back to the early days of photography, where paper played a crucial role in pioneering processes like the daguerreotype and calotype. These early papers, though primitive by today’s standards, were the canvases upon which the first photographers captured and shared their view of the world.

As photography evolved, so too did the papers. The transition from black-and-white to colour, and then to digital printing, brought about significant changes in paper composition, texture, and finish. Today, a vast array of paper types cater to an equally diverse range of photographic styles and needs, from archival quality prints for exhibitions to vibrant, high-gloss options for contemporary works. This evolution reflects not just technological advancements but also a deeper understanding of how paper influences the perception and emotion conveyed by a photograph.

The Importance of Paper in Photography

The significance of paper in photography cannot be overstated. It is the physical medium that transforms a digital capture or a film negative into a tangible piece of art. This transformation is not just a process of rendering an image onto a surface; it is an act of bringing a vision to life. The choice of paper can enhance the depth, contrast, and texture of an image, profoundly affecting how it is experienced by the viewer.

Each photograph tells a story, and the paper it is printed on contributes to how that story is told. Whether it's the luxurious feel of a heavyweight matte paper or the vibrant sheen of a glossy finish, the paper becomes a part of the narrative. This is why understanding the characteristics and nuances of different papers is essential for photographers who strive to create prints that not only capture moments but also evoke emotions and create connections.

Completing the Photographic Journey

At Elkli & Hart, we view the act of printing as an integral part of the photographic process. The journey from capturing a fleeting moment through the lens to its manifestation as a print is a transformative one. In our perspective, a photograph's journey reaches its fulfilment when it transcends its digital form and is reborn as a physical entity. This belief is rooted in our commitment to not just capturing images, but to crafting enduring pieces of art that resonate with the viewer on a deeper level.

Printed black and white photo of close-up of the undulating glass extension panaels on The Port House by Zaha Hadid. Print is placed on a coloured yellow background.

One of our prints on our preferred choice of paper: Hahnemühle FineArt Photo Rag® Baryta 315gsm. Note the beautiful sheen and subtle texture.

Types of Paper

Let's begin our deep exploration of paper here — it’s as good as any.

The type of paper selected can dramatically alter the final presentation of an image. This choice is not merely a technical consideration but an artistic one, where the characteristics of the paper must align with the vision of the photographer and the essence of the photograph itself. Below, we explore the most common types of paper used in photographic printing, each with its unique attributes and potential impact on the printed image.

Cotton Rag

Cotton rag paper, often referred to as cotton fibre, is esteemed for its high quality and durability. Made from cotton linters, which are the short fibres left after extracting the longer threads from cotton seeds, this type of paper is renowned for its strength and longevity. Its natural white colour and lack of acidity make it an excellent choice for archival prints and gallery exhibitions. The fibrous nature of the paper lends a unique texture that can add depth and a sense of luxury to the printed image.

Alpha Cellulose

Alpha cellulose paper is crafted from wood fibres that have undergone a purification process to remove acids and lignins, ensuring stability and preventing yellowing over time. This type of paper is a popular choice among photographers seeking a balance between quality and affordability. While offering a high standard of print, it comes at a more accessible price point compared to cotton rag. Alpha cellulose papers are versatile, suitable for a wide range of photographic styles, and provide a consistent, reliable medium for fine art prints.

Resin Coated

Resin-coated (RC) paper is distinguished by its unique construction, where the base paper is sealed between two layers of polyethylene, imbuing it with durability and moisture resistance. This coating process results in a paper that is not only tough but also capable of rendering sharp, vibrant images. RC papers are favoured for their quick-drying properties and flatness, making them particularly useful for prints that require handling soon after printing. Their robust nature makes them a preferred choice for prints that need to withstand more rigorous conditions.

Fibre-Based (FB) Paper

Fibre-based papers are traditional photographic papers used primarily in darkroom printing. They are known for their superior archival quality and are favoured for exhibition prints. FB papers have a higher weight and offer a greater depth of tone compared to resin-coated papers.

Canvas Paper

Canvas paper replicates the look and feel of traditional painted canvas. It’s a popular choice for photographers looking to present their work as canvas art. This type of paper adds a textural, artistic quality to the print, making it suitable for large prints and gallery displays.

The Impact of Acidity

The acidity of the paper is a critical factor in determining the longevity of a print. Acidic papers, over time, can become yellow and brittle, leading to deterioration of both the paper and the image. This is why acid-free papers are essential for prints intended to last for decades or even a lifetime. Acid-free archival photo papers, tested and certified by the Fine Art Trade Guild, promise a lifespan extending beyond a century, preserving the integrity and vibrancy of the print for future generations.

Close-up of Hahnemuhle paper showing its beautiful texture.

The Role of Lignin

Lignin, an organic compound in plant cells, significantly impacts the longevity and quality of photographic paper. Its presence in paper can lead to yellowing and brittleness over time, as lignin breaks down when exposed to light and air. This degradation weakens the paper and can cause a loss of image clarity and colour fidelity. Lignin-free papers, therefore, are preferred for their enhanced durability and ability to preserve the integrity and vibrancy of photographs for extended periods, making them an ideal choice for archival and fine art photography.

Example of one of our prints, printed on hemp paper

Paper Characteristics & Terminology

When delving into the world of photographic paper, one encounters a variety of terms and characteristics that can significantly influence the outcome of a print. Understanding these terms is crucial for making informed decisions about paper choice, ensuring that the final print aligns with the photographer's artistic vision and the demands of the image itself.

Paper Sizes
  • ISO Standard Sizes: Most photographic papers adhere to the ISO 216 standard, which defines sizes using an 'A' series system. For instance, A2 (420x594mm) is a common size for large prints, while A6 (105x148mm) is suitable for smaller, more intimate works. These standardised sizes provide a universal language for discussing and purchasing paper, facilitating compatibility with a wide range of printers.

  • Rolls: In addition to cut sheets, photographic paper is also available in rolls. This format offers greater flexibility in terms of print size and is particularly advantageous for large format printing. Rolls allow for custom-sized prints, such as panoramas (210mm x 594mm), providing photographers with the opportunity to print images that defy standard dimensions.

Paper Weight and Thickness
  • GSM (Grams per Square Meter): Paper weight is typically measured in GSM, indicating the weight of the paper per square metre. This measurement helps determine the feel and sturdiness of the paper, with higher GSM values indicating thicker, heavier paper. It's important to note that weight is not always directly correlated to thickness, as the density of the paper also plays a role.

  • Calliper (Thickness): The thickness of paper, often measured in mils (thousandths of an inch) or millimetres, is another crucial factor. Thickness can influence not only the feel of the print but also its suitability for certain frames or display methods. Thicker papers tend to offer a more luxurious and substantial feel, enhancing the perceived value of the print.

A Guide to GSM Levels
  • 60-100gsm: Typically used for everyday printing needs, this weight range is common for household copier paper. It's generally too thin for high-quality photographic prints but suitable for draft prints or less formal applications.

  • 110-160gsm: This is a standard weight for poster papers, offering enough sturdiness for minimal handling. While it can be used for casual photo prints, it lacks the substantial feel of finer art papers.

  • 170-200gsm: Representing a middle ground, this weight range is suitable for fine art and photo quality prints that require a balance between heft and flexibility.

  • 210-300gsm: Papers in this range are often chosen for premium photographic prints. They provide a high-quality feel without being overly rigid, suitable for a variety of framing and mounting options.

  • 310-400gsm: At the upper end of the scale, these papers are akin to card stock, offering a high degree of rigidity and weight. Ideal for luxury prints, gallery displays, and where a substantial feel is desired.

Image Longevity & Sustainability

In the world of photographic printing, the concept of image longevity is pivotal. It refers to the durability and stability of a print over time. Various factors contribute to the longevity of a photographic print, including the quality of the inks used, the type of paper, and the environmental conditions in which the print is stored or displayed. For photographers and collectors alike, ensuring that prints maintain their original colour, contrast, and clarity for as long as possible is of utmost importance.

  • Factors Affecting Longevity: Exposure to light, humidity, and pollutants can significantly impact the lifespan of a print. UV light, in particular, can cause fading and colour shifts. Similarly, high humidity can lead to paper degradation and mould growth, while pollutants in the air can react chemically with the inks and papers.

  • Archival Quality: When discussing longevity, the term 'archival quality' often surfaces. This refers to materials that are designed to resist these degrading factors for an extended period. Archival quality papers are typically acid-free and lignin-free, reducing the risk of yellowing and brittleness over time.

  • The Role of pH: The pH level of paper also influences its longevity. Acid-free papers, with a neutral or slightly alkaline pH, are less likely to degrade and discolour over time compared to acidic papers.

Emphasising Sustainability

As a business deeply invested in the arts and the future of our planet, Elkli & Hart prioritises sustainability in every aspect of our operations, including the choice of printing materials.

  • Eco-Friendly Paper Choices: In an industry often characterised by high resource consumption and waste, choosing environmentally responsible paper is a crucial aspect of sustainable practice. This includes papers sourced from responsibly managed forests, those made with recycled materials, and those manufactured through processes that minimise environmental impact.
  • Our Commitment to the Environment: At Elkli & Hart, we choose paper suppliers who align with our environmental ethos. Our preferred supplier, Hahnemühle, exemplifies this commitment. Their papers are not only of exceptional quality but are also produced in a way that respects and preserves our natural world. While these papers might come at a premium, their combination of quality, environmental sustainability, and longevity make them a worthy investment for our prints.
  • The Broader Impact: By choosing sustainable papers, we aim to contribute positively to the broader conversation about environmental responsibility in the art world. We believe that art should not only inspire but also respect and protect the natural beauty it often seeks to capture.
Printed photo of a cherry tree in full bloom, with blue sky and snow capped mountains in the distance. Print is placed on a coloured pink background.

Deciding on the right texture and finish to render the delicate hues of blue and pink, along with the importance of the correct paper 'white' for the snow capped mountains in this photo from Japan is an incredibly important and nuanced procedure to get right.

Paper Whiteness

The whiteness of photographic paper is a nuanced characteristic that can significantly influence the aesthetic of a print. Paper whiteness affects how the colours and tones in a photograph are perceived, playing a critical role in the overall impact of the image. Understanding the variations in paper whiteness and their implications is essential for photographers seeking to achieve specific visual outcomes in their prints.

The Role of Paper Whiteness in Image Presentation
  • Influence on Colour and Tone: The base tone of the paper can subtly alter the appearance of colours and tones in the printed image. A cooler, brighter white can make colours appear more vibrant and contrasted, while a warmer, natural white can lend a softer and more muted feel to the image.

  • Impact on Perceived Image Quality: The whiteness of the paper can also affect the perceived sharpness and clarity of a print. Papers with a higher brightness can enhance the dynamic range of the image, making darks appear deeper and lights more luminous.

DMax: Deep Black Rendering
  • Definition and Importance: DMax refers to the maximum density of black that a paper can reproduce, a crucial factor, especially in black and white photography. A higher DMax value indicates deeper and more intense blacks, contributing to the overall depth and tonal richness of the image.
Guidelines for DMax Values
  • DMax = 1.7: Suitable for matte papers, offering a good depth of black without overly intense contrast.

  • DMax = 2.0: Ideal for glossy, semi-gloss, and lower spectrum lustre papers. These values are excellent for images requiring sharper contrast and vividness.

  • DMax > 2: Typically found in higher-quality lustre papers, best suited for black and white prints where maximum depth and detail are desired.

Guide to Levels of Paper Whiteness
  • Higher or ‘Bright’ White: These papers reflect more blue light, giving a cooler appearance. They are ideal for images that require high contrast and vibrancy.
  • Lower or ‘Natural’ White: Offering a yellow or creamy tone, these papers absorb blue light and are better suited for images with warmer tones or where a more natural colour rendition is desired.
OBAs (Optical Brightening Agents)

Optical Brightening Agents (OBAs) are chemical compounds commonly used in photographic papers to enhance their whiteness and brightness. These agents absorb ultraviolet light and re-emit it as visible blue light, thereby creating the perception of a brighter and cooler white. While OBAs can significantly improve the vibrancy and contrast of a print, they also bring considerations regarding the longevity and colour stability of the image.

Impact on Longevity and Colour Stability
  • Longevity Concerns: Over time, OBAs can break down, especially under exposure to UV light. This degradation can lead to a change in the paper's white point, potentially altering the appearance of the print. The presence of OBAs is a crucial consideration for photographers and collectors who prioritise the archival quality and longevity of their prints.

  • Influence on Colour Accuracy: The use of OBAs can also affect colour accuracy. In some cases, the blue light emitted by OBAs can interact with the colours in the image, potentially shifting hues subtly. This is particularly relevant for works where colour fidelity is paramount.

Identifying Papers with OBAs
  • Paper Descriptions: Typically, papers labelled as "Bright White" contain OBAs, offering higher brightness and a cooler tone. In contrast, papers described as "Natural" or "Warm" are usually OBA-free, providing a more subdued and authentic white. When choosing paper, it's essential to consider the presence of OBAs in relation to the intended display conditions and the longevity requirements of the print.

For readers interested in a more in-depth exploration of OBAs and their implications in photographic printing, our dedicated article "Optical Brightening Agents | Print Mastery" offers comprehensive insights. This separate piece delves into the science behind OBAs, their impact over time, and considerations for their use in different types of photographic work.

Exploring the Influence of Surface Texture & Finish

The texture of photographic paper is an element that can subtly or significantly alter the viewer's experience of a print. Surface texture interacts with light, shadow, and colour, adding a dimensional quality to photographs. This characteristic is especially important in fine art printing, where the tactile sensation of the print contributes to its overall impact.

The Spectrum of Textures

Photographic paper textures range from ultra-smooth to highly textured, each offering a different aesthetic appeal:

  • Ultra-Smooth Surfaces: Ideal for images that require crisp details and vibrant colours. This type of texture is often preferred for modern, high-resolution photographs where the emphasis is on clarity and precision.

  • Moderately Textured Papers: Provide a balance between detail and artistic flair. These textures are versatile and suitable for a wide range of photographic styles, particularly where a subtle enhancement of the image’s character is desired.

  • Heavily Textured Surfaces: Convey a sense of depth and artistry. They are often used for prints that seek to emulate traditional artistic media, such as watercolour paintings. This texture adds a tactile dimension to the print, making it not just a visual but also a physical experience.

Choosing the Right Texture

The choice of texture should be guided by both the content of the image and the intended display context:

  • Consider the Subject Matter: Some subjects, such as portraits or detailed landscapes, may benefit from a smoother texture to preserve fine details. Other subjects, like abstract or expressive photography, might be enhanced by a more pronounced texture.
  • Think About the Final Display: The lighting and framing of a print can interact with its texture. In brightly lit spaces or under direct lighting, heavily textured papers can create interesting shadows and highlights, adding to the visual drama of the image.
Exploring Various Paper Finishes

The finish of photographic paper is a critical element that influences the final appearance of a print. It affects not only the visual aspects, such as colour saturation and contrast, but also the tactile experience of handling the print. Understanding the variety of finishes available and their respective characteristics helps photographers select the paper that best aligns with their artistic intentions.

Matte Finish
  • Qualities: Matte papers offer a smooth, non-reflective finish. They are characterised by their soft, subtle appearance, making them a preferred choice for artwork where glare reduction is essential.

  • Applications: Ideal for framing behind glass, as they minimise reflections and do not stick to the glass surface. Matte papers are often selected for their classic, elegant look and are excellent for prints where a more understated, artistic feel is desired.

Glossy Finish
  • Qualities: Glossy papers are known for their bright, shiny surface, offering high colour saturation and contrast. They bring out the vibrancy and richness of colours, making images appear more dynamic.

  • Applications: Best suited for photographs that require high detail and sharpness, such as vibrant landscapes or detailed portraits. However, they are more prone to fingerprints and scratches and can exhibit glare under certain lighting conditions.

Semi-Gloss Finish (Lustre, Satin, & Pearl)
  • Qualities: Semi-gloss papers, including lustre, satin, and pearl finishes, provide a middle ground between matte and glossy. They offer some sheen and enhanced colour saturation but with less glare than pure glossy papers.

  • Applications: Versatile and well-suited for a wide range of photographic styles, semi-gloss finishes are particularly popular in portrait and wedding photography due to their ability to produce rich colours and decent contrast while minimising glare and fingerprint marks.

Metallic Finish
  • Qualities: Metallic papers have a unique, high-gloss finish with a metallic sheen, giving images a three-dimensional feel. They are particularly effective at enhancing the luminosity and depth of images.

  • Applications: Ideal for photographs with vibrant colours, high contrast, or metallic elements. They are also popular for landscape photography, where the metallic quality can add a sense of depth and realism.

Baryta Finish
  • Qualities: Baryta papers are thick and offer a semi-gloss finish. They are coated with barium sulphate, providing a smooth surface that enhances detail and tonal range.

  • Applications: Favoured in fine art photography and black and white prints, Baryta papers are known for their high-quality reproduction of detail and depth of tone.

Understanding Barium Sulphate in Baryta Photographic Papers

Barium sulphate plays a significant role in the world of photographic paper, particularly in high-quality fine art and black and white prints. Its inclusion in the paper coating process imparts several critical qualities to the paper, enhancing both its aesthetic appeal and functional attributes.

Key Qualities of Barium Sulphate Coated Papers
  • Enhanced Image Sharpness and Detail: Barium sulphate provides a smooth, bright white surface that is ideal for reproducing sharp details and fine textures. This quality is particularly beneficial in black and white photography, where the nuances of tone and detail are pivotal.

  • Improved Colour Depth and Tonal Range: The bright white base of barium sulphate coated papers enhances the depth of colour and the tonal range in prints. It allows for richer blacks and more vibrant colours, contributing to a more dynamic and visually striking image.

  • Archival Properties: One of the reasons barium sulphate is favoured in fine art photography is its archival quality. It contributes to the longevity of prints by providing a stable, non-reactive base that resists yellowing over time. This ensures that prints retain their original quality for longer periods, making them suitable for collections, galleries, and exhibitions.

  • Mimicking Traditional Photographic Papers: For those with a background in traditional darkroom photography, barium sulphate coated papers offer a familiar feel and finish. They closely resemble the look and texture of the papers historically used in darkroom printing, bridging the gap between traditional and digital photographic practices.

Why Barium Sulphate is Used

The use of barium sulphate in photographic paper is a choice driven by the pursuit of quality. Its ability to enhance image sharpness, colour depth, and archival properties makes it a preferred component in the production of high-end photographic papers. For photographers and printmakers who demand the utmost in image quality and longevity, barium sulphate coated papers are often the go-to option.

Printed photo of a wind turbine and metal port structures create striking silhouette against a beautiful orange gradient sunset sky — Port area, Antwerp, Belgium. Print is placed on a coloured peach background.

The deep blacks thanks to the high DMax value of this paper, along with the subtle textured sheen create a stunning visual effect on the final image. This is one of the reasons why Hahnemühle FineArt Photo Rag® Baryta is our paper of choice in most printing situations.

Elkli & Hart's Preferred Paper: Hahnemühle FineArt Photo Rag® Baryta

At Elkli & Hart, we have a distinct preference for Hahnemühle FineArt Photo Rag® Baryta 315gsm, a paper that has become our signature choice due to its exceptional qualities. This premium paper is especially chosen for its ability to beautifully showcase the full spectrum of tones in our images, from the deepest blacks to the brightest whites, and every hue in between.

  • High Impact and Appeal: The Hahnemühle FineArt Photo Rag® Baryta enhances the visual impact of our prints, rendering sharpness with exquisite detail. Its robust quality ensures prints are resistant to scratches and scuffs, maintaining their integrity over time.

  • Versatility in Colour and Texture: Whether we are working with vibrant, saturated colours or softer, more subtle tones, this paper brings each colour to life with remarkable clarity. Its gloss finish is particularly effective for a variety of subjects, including seascapes, whether in monochrome or colour.

  • Closest to Traditional Darkroom Qualities: I have a background rooted in analogue printing — having spent many years in darkrooms, and watching images come to life. Therefore we find that this paper resonates with the traditional qualities and feel of darkroom photographic paper. Its texture and finish provide a tactile experience reminiscent of classic photography, yet it excels in the digital realm.

  • Ideal for a Range of Subjects: The paper's texture, coupled with its ability to render sharpness and colour with precision, makes it an ideal choice for a wide range of photographic subjects. From nature and landscape to illustrative and travel photography, the Hahnemühle FineArt Photo Rag® Baryta consistently delivers prints of outstanding quality.

In our pursuit of excellence in photographic printing, the Hahnemühle FineArt Photo Rag® Baryta stands out as a paper that not only meets but exceeds our expectations, aligning perfectly with our commitment to creating prints that are both visually stunning and enduring.

Concluding Reflections on Paper Choice

Mastering the Nuances of Paper Choice in Photographic Printing

In the pursuit of print mastery, the selection and understanding of photographic paper stand out as one of the most nuanced and challenging aspects to master. It's a journey that requires not only technical knowledge but also a deep appreciation for the subtle interplay between paper and image. This complexity is what makes paper choice both a formidable challenge and an opportunity for artistic expression.

Emphasising the Subjectivity in Paper Selection

The art of choosing the right paper for a photograph is profoundly subjective, reflecting the unique vision and intent of the photographer. Each type of paper, with its distinct characteristics of texture, finish, and colour rendition, offers a different path to realising this vision. Whether it's the depth and richness brought about by barium sulphate coatings or the delicate nuances captured on matte surfaces, the choice profoundly influences the aesthetic and emotional impact of the print.

The Role of Paper in Elevating Photographic Art

In recognizing the critical role of paper, we understand that it does more than just convey an image; it transforms a photograph into a tactile and visual experience. This transformation is central to the philosophy of Elkli & Hart, where our commitment to creating exceptional prints is matched by our dedication to environmental responsibility. By selecting premium papers like the Hahnemühle FineArt Photo Rag® Baryta, we strive to achieve a harmony of artistic excellence and sustainability.

The Responsibility and Reward of Paper Choice

The decision to choose environmentally responsible papers is not just about producing stunning prints; it's also a reflection of our commitment to preserving the natural beauty that often inspires our work. As photographers and artists, every paper choice becomes a part of our legacy, a testament to our dedication to both the art and the environment.

Concluding Thoughts: The Journey to Brilliant Prints

In conclusion, mastering the art of paper selection is a critical step on the road to creating brilliant prints. It's a journey filled with challenges and choices, each offering the potential to bring out the best in our photographs. As we navigate this path, our choices not only define our work but also reflect our values. In this pursuit, the paper becomes more than a medium; it becomes an integral part of the story we tell through our art.

Print Mastery Series

Continue your education with more guides on the print process.

  1. Optical Brightening Agents
  2. The Art of Giclée Printing
  3. Dye vs. Pigment Inks
  4. The Art of Sharpening
  5. The Science of Colour Accuracy
  6. Paper Essentials in Digital Printing
  7. Dynamic Range in Print
  8. About — Our Materials and Process