Understanding The Paper Your Work Gets Printed on

As an aspiring photographer there may come a time when you will want to print your work. You may decide to print and frame a picture as a keepsake, you may need a physical example for proofing, or a client may ask to view a hard copy. Choosing the wrong type of digital photo paper on which to print may hamper the efforts you spent in capturing the image and unwillingly distort the quality of your skills. In this guide we aim to talk you through the various options and considerations when evaluating photo paper.

Unlike bond, ream or copy paper, photo paper can successfully hold a large amount of ink (in the case of Inkjet) or fused powder (in the case of Laser). Depending on quality, inkjet photo papers can closely match the photographed object in terms of color and tone representation. How good (or bad) your chosen photo paper is at meeting these objectives will depend on a number of factors from printer technology to paper coating.

Printing Technology:

Printers are designed to use either liquid ink propelled by a strong jet called ‘Ink-Jet’ or Laser technology that turns colored powder fused into solid colors using hot fusion. If you own an Inkjet printer, you need to source Inkjet photo paper and the other way around, of course, as the two are not interchangeable. Most photographers whether amateur or commercial will use Inkjet due to the higher DPI (Dots Per Inch) of up to 2880 compared to 720 in laser printers. Higher DPI helps produce clearer and more detailed images, hence it is the choice of most users and therefore the focus of this post.

Photo Paper Weight:

You will often notice a weight figure associated with photo papers. It may appear as GSM or simply G, though the two are identical. GSM (stands for Grams per Square Meter) will commonly vary from 120 to 300 and, contrary to common belief, it has relatively little do to with quality. You may come across a lower weight 200g photo paper which may outperform and put to shame a heavier option due to its superior coating (we will get to coating soon).

So why note the GSM figure at all, you many ask? Well, GSM can make the paper thicker and therefore feel heavier to touch. When presenting a heavier print to someone, you may be creating a better impression especially when there’s a keepsake element to the print. Use this key as a reference in matching weight to the intended use of the print:

120g to 150g Photo Paper – These are used for prints that have little keepsake value. The paper will feel lighter but it can still accommodate high quality images. Used when printing brochures, chart, briefs and proofing work.

150g to 200g Photo Paper – These are often called ‘every day’ photo papers and used for a whole host of image reproduction from photo album to calendar making.

200g to 300g Photo Paper – Often linked with more premium lines, heavier weights will be used when there’s a keepsake element such as an invitation card, greeting card, image to be framed, etc.

Most Inkjet printer can handle photo papers of up to 260g with ease. If you intend to purchase heavier GSM, check the printer manual for maximum supported weight otherwise the heavy paper may cripple your printer.

Photo Paper Coating:

Printer manufactures such as HP, Canon, Epson and others offer their ‘own’ type of photo papers, but the coating is made by a specialist manufacturer. The coating is a transparent chemical layer that is applied onto the photo paper and acts to ensure that there is no spreading of the ink as it hits the paper, that ink does not bleed to the other side, and that the ink dries quickly. Regardless of your printer make, you CAN choose photo paper from a rival brand or from a third party provided that it meets your needs. The industry commonly uses two types of coating, one reserved for budget low cost photo papers and another used for higher quality lines. The two are ‘cast coated’ and ‘porous’ coatings.

Cast Coated – It is a budget option because it is cheaper to produce. While certain cast coated photo paper may yield sharp and true colour images, the print is susceptible to smearing with pigmented inks and the longevity measured in archival properties is limited.

Micro or Nano Porous Coated – Unlike the previous type, the ink ‘sits’ behind microscopic pores in the chemical thereby making the paper instantly dry and improves longevity. It is a more expensive coating to produce, which makes the photo paper slightly more costly to purchase.

Do not limit yourself to one or two options due to your printer, but evaluate various photo papers including from other brands. All you have to do is to ensure that you have set the printer correctly in terms of paper type, size and finish.

Photo Paper Finish

Photo papers are available in three finish options. They differ in the level of glare measured in a scale of shine from none (matte) to high (glossy) with three sub- finishes in between.

Glossy – Glossy is the most common option, particularly because many individuals are unaware of the difference between glossy and other finishes. When viewing directly, the high shine allows for the tiniest detail to become apparent, however when viewing from an angle and under certain lighting, viewing may become difficult. If an image is to be framed and placed behind glass, glossy photo paper is less suitable due to glare.

Satin – The difference between the two is the level of shine. Satin is also known as Semi-Gloss (Canon), Pearl (ILFORD) or Lustre (Epson). It is less shiny than glossy and often makes viewing angles better which can become important when images are hung on display and individuals may congregate around it such as in a gallery situation.

Matte – It is questionable to call Matte a finish, because technically there is no chemical finish applied. This makes the photo paper cheaper to make so will often be used when temporary print work is required such as printing for proofing.

If you have any questions, leave your comment below.

Written by Joseph Eitan M.D of Photo Paper Direct. Joseph has been working in the professional printing industry for over 25 years helping amateur and professional photographers alike.

Marius Troy