Printing one’s own pictures is something unique and indescribable. When I print, I don’t do it just for the enjoyment of restoring the three-dimensional nature and substance of the places I’ve photographed, but also for the enjoyment the entire process gives me. To me, printing is a little bit like drinking a coffee made in a traditional moka coffee pot, or like listening to music from an old-fashioned record player.
That is exactly why I’m adamant that photographic paper serves a fundamental role in the whole process. I’m often asked which paper I use, but giving a universal answer is absolutely impossible. Indeed, depending on the picture that you intend to print, there are more and less suitable types of photographic paper, and among the most suitable ones (there is almost always going to be more than one) there are going to be some you prefer over others for different reasons that we’re going to consider together shortly.
This, I think, is because the photographic paper is like an article of clothing: you wouldn’t go running at the gym in a suit and tie, just as you wouldn’t wear a heavy coat in summer while sunbathing at the beach.
Each situation needs specific clothing… and specific paper.
The characteristics of Fine Art photographic paper
The photographic paper to be used when operating an inkjet printer, as you probably have guessed, has some characteristics that make it unique and particularly different from the so-called “copier paper”. As usual, we’re going to try to discuss what’s needed in concrete and practical terms, without going into the specific, technical, in-depth analysis (which you’re always welcome to ask for via e-mail), but it is important to keep in mind that, when choosing a type of paper, implicitly or explicitly, we choose the:
- Base material: this is the real parameter that defines if a type of paper can be called “Fine Art” or not. Fine Art paper is usually made of natural fibres (cotton or alpha-cellulose, usually) and it isn’t artificially bleached with chlorine or other whiteners. This makes it possible to obtain prints that last from 60 years to a few centuries if properly treated.
- Surface finish: it effectively denotes the paper’s appearance when looking at it. There are, by now, dozens of finishes, and I think that is the area that makes choosing the best kind of paper complicated, and which inspired me to write this article. Usually, photographic paper is grouped in types, the main ones of which, to me, are: Matte, Semi-Glossy, Glossy and Special. Unfortunately, there isn’t a proper standard classification, therefore each person calls them more or less as they please depending on how difficult they wish to make their own life. We would like to make it as simple as possible, and that, I believe, is for the best.
- Texture: although it is often lumped with the point above, I think it possesses its own dignity as well. We could (reductively) state that texture means “when the sheet of paper feels smooth or coarse”. Actually, texture influences the rendering of details, the capability of paper to reflect light and the tonal range, and it also grants particular aesthetic effects to pictures.
- Grammage and Caliper: all paper has a weight, which is measured in grams per square meter, and that is what we call “grammage”. The higher the grammage, the more substantial the paper. It ranges from the 100 g/m2 of rice paper to the 500 g/m2 of cotton paper. As usual, there isn’t a “right” and “wrong” choice: it depends on the effect you wish to obtain. Be careful, as grammage goes hand in hand with the so-called “caliper”, which represents nothing more than the paper’s height. It could be perfectly inconsequential to you, but not to your printer: each printer has caliper limits, so be sure to check them out before buying particularly high-grammage paper.
- White point: I would like to speak (write) about this point for hours, but I decided not to make you loathe me entirely. So let’s just say that, if we were to take five different sheets of paper and put them under the same light source, they would all return different perceptions of their whiteness (and brightness): some types of paper will look warmer than others, or brighter. There isn’t a “correct” and “incorrect” white balance, there only exists the one we like best, and that perhaps works best with our specific picture.
- Gamut: the last item on the list, but not by importance, gamut, represents a parameter that is all too often underestimated. Actually, right now, you should be scolding me, as gamut ISN’T a parameter of paper, but one created for the paper/ink/printer combination. That said, if we give as fixed the printer and inks used, changing the paper will also change the quantity of colours (intended as a combination of chromaticity and luminance) that we are able to represent on it (yes, just like a monitor). In the field of printing, the one most often referred to is a parameter called “Dmax”, which represents the value of the deepest black that is measured after printing (to put it simply, therefore, how “deep” the blacks are). So, essentially, different paper used by the same printer will allow for different depths of the blacks, as well as different chromaticity.
Indeed, from the combination of these parameters are created almost infinite photographic paper catalogues, as well as possibilities that, depending on our needs and taste, we are able to take advantage of. Thus, it would be absolutely impossible, and useless, to list all the types of paper currently on the market, so I’m only going to outline the ones I use the most and explain why that is.
Hahnemühle Photo Rag Ultra Smooth
For those who know me, it isn’t a secret that Hahnemühle Photo Rag Ultra Smooth is my favorite photographic paper by far, and that if I had to only choose one type of paper, I would definitely pick this one.
It is a lovely cotton paper (so, made up of 100% cotton fibre), belonging to the matte category. It feels simply lovely to the touch, because it almost offers a silky effect, and I believe it fits perfectly with my long exposure images. As the name suggests, the paper has an ultra-smooth finish, that is to say one practically devoid of texture, which is quite rare in the world of cotton paper.
It has quite a significant grammage (350 g/m2) but a caliper easily handled by any modern printer. It has a very neutral white balance, which is why I prefer it over the regular Hahnemühle Photo Rag (which, it should be noted, also presents a slightly more pronounced texture).
As every cotton photographic paper, it has a more contained gamut (specifying the concept of paper/ink/printer gamut cited above) than other types of paper which we’ll have a look at later, but unlike other kinds of cotton paper, it offers a high Dmax, which makes it great to obtain deeper blacks too.
That said, it is indisputable that it isn’t easy to make the most of this paper since, if the print isn’t properly set up, it is possible that the blacks might not come out as deep as one might want, and the colors might lack brightness. Once you familiarise yourself with it, however, I’m almost certain you won’t give it up again!
To summarise, it remains, as I’ve mentioned above, my main and preferred option, thanks to its neutral white balance, its matte finish without texture, and the depths of the blacks that it’s possible to achieve.
Hahnemühle Photo Rag Bright White
When you need to give the picture’s brightness a little push without needing to switch to a glossy paper, I find solace in the arms of Hahnemühle Photo Rag Bright White.
Like the Ultra Smooth version seen before, it is part of the Rag family, and therefore that of matte cotton paper with high grammage. This paper is characterized by a bright white point, which makes it possible to obtain an even stronger three-dimensional effect, thanks to a very good Dmax, as well.
On the other hand, the texture is more marked, when confronted with the Ultra Smooth, and it is in fact comparable to the Hahnemühle Photo Rag.
I believe this to be one of the few kinds of cotton paper (certainly the only one I know of) that behaves wonderfully in the context of night shoots of starry skies. Normally those shots end up on glossy paper, but I can guarantee that the results on this paper really are superb: try it for yourself!
Hahnemühle Museum Etching
The absence of texture isn’t always the best solution, and there are shots that can be better enhanced when printed on paper with more substantial texture. When I find myself needing something like that, my choice is always Hahnemühle Museum Etching.
Hahnemühle Museum Etching is a cotton paper belonging to the matte category, but a textured one, this time. It also has a grammage of 350 g/m2 and, as for all the other types of paper analyzed thus far (and the ones I’m about to describe as well, actually), it can be found in A4 and A2 sheet format, as well as in rolls with coils from 17’’ to 44’’. It has a natural white point (so relatively “warmer” than the Hahnemühle Photo Rag Bright White’s, for example) and it is available in the “deckle edge” version, meaning with irregular edges, too. This kind of paper is great when subjects with a texture that we wish to highlight are present, for example a steep sea cliff, a beautiful mountain, or perhaps some trees in a forest. The three-dimensional feel is, in fact, pushed to the maximum level without affecting visual perception.
This paper is quite similar to the Hahnemühle German Etching which, however, as well as being made up of 100% α-cellulose instead of cotton, has a slightly lower grammage (310 g/m2) and a more marked texture (a little too much for my personal taste).
Hahnemühle has recently introduced a new paper line called Natural Line. As the name suggests, it is a special Fine Art photographic paper line optimized for inkjet printing, realized with unique raw materials, coming from sustainable cultivation processes.
The Natural Line is, indeed, comprised of paper whole cellulose was extracted from plants that are easy to work with without the need for pesticides, and that grow quickly, and thus demand less water intake to obtain the same quantity of raw material.
At the moment, Hahnemühle’s Natural Line includes three types of paper, but among them my favorite is Hahnemühle Hemp. It is a 290 g/m2 paper, created with 60% hemp fibre and 40% cotton fibre. This gives it a really delicate texture, and a white balance in line with many Rag paper types which I like a lot, and that I find particularly apt when I wish to enhance the three-dimensional nature of my pictures.
A more in-depth analysis of this particular paper type is present in the review for the Hahnemühle Portfolio Box Hemp that you can find HERE.
Hahnemühle FineArt Pearl
Although I clearly am a fan of matte paper, I must admit that glossy Fine Art paper is really appealing. In general, this type of paper has an advantage given to it by its reproductible gamut, which is usually much wider. This usually results in a stronger depth of the blacks, and literally more reproductible colors. Moreover, thanks to the glossy finish, the images seem more vibrant, and the colors more intense.
However, I feel compelled to point out that printing on matte paper does not mean giving up on colors: as previously mentioned, one type of paper may be best over another, depending on the picture, and therefore this can be true not just in terms of white balance or texture, but of reproductible colors too. To put it another way, in most cases you might encounter pictures with colors that can be perfectly reproduced on matte paper, and the choice of glossy paper can occur based on aesthetic choice linked to the surface effect.
When one of these situations occurs (either matte paper’s gamut isn’t enough for me, or I want a smooth surface effect), my choice almost always falls on the fantastic Hahnemühle FineArt Pearl.
Hahnemühle FineArt Pearl is a cellulose-based paper, belonging to the glossy paper group with, as the name suggests, a pearl surface finish. It definitely has a light white balance and makes it possible to obtain a really unique rendition of colors and details. It has a 285 g/m2 grammage, easily manageable by any printer.
Watch out for light reflection, though: as a glossy paper, if you use it for a print that is going to be framed and hung, please be aware of the light situation of the environment in which it is going to be displayed.
Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta
The last type of paper I would like to discuss is the Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta. I’m not leaving it for last because it’s the one I like the least, but exactly because it’s the last one I’ve discovered… and literally fallen in love with.
As the name suggests, it’s a baryta paper, i.e. a type of paper coated with a surface layer of barium sulfate. It’s a type of paper well-loved by those who have moved from analogue to digital, and by B&W photographers, as it makes it possible to recreate the texture effect and the depth of the blacks that it used to be possible to obtain in a darkroom with gelatine silver print.
What I adore about this paper is that it is able to reach a very high Dmax (equivalent to that of glossy paper) and a particularly wide gamut while maintaining an excellent balance between texture, glossy surface finish, and white balance typical of Rag paper. This is mostly due to the fact that, unlike nearly all other baryta paper types on the market, Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta is made of 100% cotton instead of cellulose.
How to choose the best photographic paper according to your needs
As mentioned above, the choice of photographic paper for one’s own prints remains something that is deeply personal, exactly like an article of clothing, and what is great for me can be unsuitable for you. So, how to choose which is the best solution for you without spending a fortune?
To answer this question, I recommend two invaluable tools:
- Sample Packs
- Catalogues (Media Samplers/Sampler Photo Books)
Sample Packs are packages containing photographic paper sheets (usually in the A4 and A3 formats) of different kinds. Usually grouped by type (so, for example, non-textured matte, textured matte, glossy, and so on), they make it possible to try all the kinds of paper of a particular type, and then actually buy the paper we like the most. They really are reasonably priced, and every time I wish to experiment with a new kind of paper, they undoubtedly are the best choice.
Here is a list of the main Sample Packs that Hahnemühle produces, and that I use:
- Matt FineArt Smooth: low-texture matte paper sheets
- Matt FineArt Textured: matte paper sheets with a more marked texture
- Glossy FineArt: glossy paper sheets, semi-smooth, and baryta
- Natural Line: Natural Line paper sheets, therefore made with bamboo, hemp, and agave fibres
- Hahnemühle Photo: Photo series paper sheets, matte, glossy and semi-glossy, meant for everyday printing
Catalogues are, on the other hand small “books” containing small cut-outs of paper that make it possible for us to have the entire Hahnemühle range on hand. They are available in the 5 x 11 cm (paper only) and A5 (paper with photographic print) formats, and they are endlessly useful to get an immediate idea of all the types of paper in terms of finish, texture, white balance, and Dmax (in the A5 version).
Matte, glossy, smooth, bright, warm… there really are a lot of photographic paper types on the market, thanks to the mix of characteristics that distinguish them. This shouldn’t be daunting, but rather it should reassure us that, no matter what kind of picture we wish to print, there are going to be one or more types of paper suited for that situation.
My favorite photographic paper types may not necessarily be yours too, but I hope that this article could help you better understand which characteristics to look out for in a photographic paper, and how to evaluate the result obtained with it.
Thanks to Sample Packs and Catalogues it has never been easier and more convenient to compare the different options, and I urge you to really experiment to be able to find out which photographic paper is your favorite, too, and thus to be able to enjoy printing pictures to the highest standards.
If you would like to further explore the amazing world of photographic printing, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me for an individual course on this theme!