Uploading photos here or to other sites like Flickr and Facebook is fun and easy, but there's nothing quite like having a photo you can hold in your hands. Physical photos are our most valued possessions. When our homes are destroyed by fire or flood, the objects we always want to recover are our photos. This demonstrates the power of photos and how important they can be to our lives. We live in a great age, where printing photos can be done quickly and cheaply at home.
Inkjet printers are pretty simple to understand. They use very small drops of ink to create an image. Much like pixels on a computer screen, an inkjet print is comprised of very small dots laid down in a pattern. The drops of ink are so close together that they can actually mix together a little bit, creating a more smooth appearance, a process called dithering. These two principles lead to two measurements that are important to consider while shopping for a printer: minimum ink droplet size and maximum print resolution.
Droplet size is measured in picoliters. A good quality printer usually has a minimum droplet size of 3 picoliters. Print resolution is a bit trickier to quantify because, unlike a computer screen whose pixels can be many different colors, a printer dot can only be one color. That being said, most modern printers are capable of a resolution that would please all but the most picky printers.
Ink Colors, Dithering and Half-Toning
Because printers can only produce one single color per dot, in order to create mixed colors they use dithering (which I mentioned earlier) or half-toning. Dithering is when the dots are placed close enough together that the mix slightly. Half-toning is when different colors are placed tightly together so they appear to be a different color. If your printer uses red, blue and yellow ink, it could alternate placing red and blue dots in an array to create purple.
The other way that inkjet printers have attempted to overcome this problem is to have their printers hold more colors of ink. In theory, the more colors the printer has to choose from, the more accurately it can reproduce colors. You’ll find some printers can use seven different ink colors. This may lead to better quality, but often also results in higher costs.
Analog to Digital
Think about what’s happening when you take a picture. If you’re reading this, you’re probably shooting film. So light is being focused on what is basically a sheet of chemicals. Your lens and the composition of that sheet affect how the color and brightness of the light are recorded. Then you have to throw some more chemicals in the mix that further affect how the colors may look. The chemically-treated chemical sheet is then scanned.
Every scanner interprets what it sees a bit different. That data is transferred to your monitor. Every monitor also interprets color data a bit differently. After making your adjustments, RGB pixel data is then translated into an array of small drops of ink. Needless to say, this is a complicated process. If you change one thing, the results will be different.
Calibrating Your Monitor
The one single tool that can make the most difference to this process is a calibrated monitor. A monitor’s color and brightness can be modified to match the output of a printer. You can have this done professionally for a fee, or attempt to do it yourself using software and along with a calibration tool. Prices for professional services will vary greatly, but calibration packages are relatively affordable. Low end calibration tools can be purchased for as low as $75 USD. But the average, good-quality tools usually cost between $150 and $250 USD. The package usually includes software and a device that detects the colors coming off your screen. If you decided to make this investment, think about sharing the cost amongst several people. You will most likely only use the device once, at which point someone else could use it.
Ink costs are the biggest drawback to inkjet printing. Typically one color ink cartridge can cost $15 USD. But there are ways to save money. Some common printer cartridges have been reproduced by third-party commons that sell them at a discount. Epson, and others, have developed bulk ink systems for some of their nicer models. This allows you to buy ink in larger qualities at a lower cost per unit. There are also ink cartridge refilling services that vary widely in quality.
One of the most important aspects to printing is the type of paper you choose to print on. There are literally thousands of types of photo paper available for inkjet printers. There are three things commonly stated on the package: the weight, the brightness and the finish. Paper weight relates to the thickness of the paper and density of the fibers in the paper. Typically, higher weight papers are better and more durable. Occasionally super thick papers will cause problems for a printer’s feeding mechanism, but this is a very rare issue.
The paper’s brightness refers to how white the paper is. Again, in most cases, the higher the brightness, the better the paper. Brightness is typically measured as a percentage. 100% is perfectly white, but often the paper’s finish factors into the brightness too. The finish relates to the texture of the coating on the paper, which I’ll get further into later.
Some other qualities of paper will not be listed on the package. The most important of these is absorption. All papers absorb some ink, and this probably plays the most important role in the look of your final image. When you look at your printer settings, it will often want to know what type of paper you’ll be printing on. This doesn’t have anything to do with color, and has everything to do with absorption. Thick glossy paper absorbs very little ink, while normal printer paper absorbs a lot. When you tell your printer what paper you’re using, you’re really telling it how much ink to put out due to the absorbing properties of the paper.
The most common paper finish is glossy. Most photo paper you find in big box stores will have a shiny reflective sheen to it. This paper is great, but once you start experimenting with other finishes, you may find something you like more. The three traditional paper finishes are glossy, matte and semi-matte. Matte paper has a rougher texture to the finish giving it a softer, more muted look.
Semi-matte paper has a finer texture than matte, but still isn’t glossy. There are varying degrees of semi-matte and it goes by many different names including luster, pearl and satin. With inkjet printing, you find even more varieties of paper than in darkroom printers due to the process’ flexibility and the popularity of the printers.
Cotton and rag papers are typically unfinished papers. They have a rough texture that isn’t shiny. Because they don’t have a coating and they usually have a heavy weight, rag papers can absorb a lot of ink without bleeding through. This is a tricky idea for some printers to handle. You’ll probably want to mess with your printer settings while making small test prints until you find the right one.
There are other specialty papers that are interesting to play with. There are metallic papers that have a deep reflective property to them. There is also watercolor paper, which has a smoother quality than most rag papers, but is also unfinished. You can also find different types of canvas that can be used with inkjet printers. Canvas can often combine the look of rag paper and finished paper due to its coatings and rough texture. With all of these, be sure to experiment with small prints until you get your printer settings dialed in.
Inkjet Paper Index
Pro Platinum is a unique archival paper offered by Canon. While it’s color reproduction is fine, the amazing thing about this paper is how long it can last. When used with Chromalife100+ inks, Canon claims that prints on this paper will last 200 years when properly stored in an album. It’s commonly available in a glossy finish in a variety of sizes. It’s also relatively affordable, but keep in mind that you’ll need to use Canon inks (and most likely in a Canon printer) to achieve the maximum archival effects.
Plus Glossy II is the high end line of glossy papers offered by Canon. It has a very heavy weight, coming in at 69.2 lbs. Canon papers are known for their excellent color reproduction, but Plus Glossy II takes this to the next level. This paper is the standard for professions in many fields that require a lot of printing due to its above-average quality and great value.
While Canon is known for reproducing bold colors, Epson leans more toward subtlety. Epson’s Matte Heavyweight paper is a favorite for black and white printing, which means it’s also perfect for washed out retro effects. Weighing in at 167 gsm, it’s the Mike Tyson of consumer grade papers. The texture of this paper competes well with “fine art” grade papers from brands like Ilford, but it’s cost keeps in the “always stocked” range rather than the “special occasion” range.
I still like to send prints via snail mail and give prints as gifts. For these purposes, I like to use a medium grade paper. I love to use Epson’s Ultra Premium Glossy paper for this. It’s above average quality, but I won’t feel like I wasted my money if the print ends up in someone’s drawer or gets damaged in the mail. And people still feel like they’re getting something special rather than a cheap inkjet print. I keep this paper in stock all the time.
Epson also produces some traditional papers like their Hot Press Bright Smooth Matte Paper. Hot Press papers have been made for a long time. Favored by painters, they offer an extremely smooth surface. It also has great archival qualities so your grandkids can check out your 2010 fashions and make fun of them. The color saturation on this paper is also outstanding, while also reproducing subtle highlights and shadows.
Fujifilm paper is most commonly purchased in huge rolls and used by commercial printers, but they do produce sheet paper for consumers. And a few their offerings are pretty spectacular. For example, their Talbot Museum Fine Art Semi-Gloss is one of the top three semi-gloss papers I’ve ever seen. It’s 300 gsm, which makes it about as strong as a bulletproof vest. But you do have to pay for this kind of quality, so don’t be shocked by the sticker price.
Fujifilm also produces a Satin paper that is a bit more reasonably priced. It’s still 270 gsm, which definitely makes it a commercial grade paper. I’ve found that Fuji papers resemble Canon papers in their bold color reproduction and ability to hold up to to high contrast situations. There high-end product line outperforms Canon (for a price), but if you do stumble across their consumer grade papers, I’d avoid them.
Hahnermuhle makes a huge variety of different papers, mainly for the fine art market. One of their coolest products is their Gallerie Wraps. They’re printable canvases that come with their own stretcher bars in kits. They’re relatively inexpensive compared the having your prints professional printed in this manner. You simply load the canvas into printer like paper, make your print, then stretch the canvas with the bars for a thick, oil painting-style presentation. The image will continue around to the sides of the frame.
Hahnermuhle also produces paper made from bamboo and sugar cane. These papers have a warm tone and a matte-like finish to them. Due to the light sepia effect this paper renders, many people prefer to print black and white images on it. Color images will work, but it produces a very specific effect. You might really like it, but just keep that in mind.
HP produces a large range of consumer grade printers and inkjet paper. While “serious” photographers often lean toward Canon, Epson and Ilford, over the years, HP has made huge leaps in this arena. Their Everyday Glossy paper is extremely affordable. A lot of us Lomographers have a photo clothesline or photo wall that has a lot of small prints that change frequently. This paper is perfect for this application. It won’t even put a scratch in your wallet.
They also offer an interesting Premium Presentation paper that allows you to print on both sides. It has a “matte” finish, but it’s more of heavyweight card stock. In line with the photo clothesline and wall, this paper allows for some great applications. Imagine printing your own holiday cards or mobiles. This opens up a lot of possibilities that regular glossy paper can’t match.
I don’t think there are many people out there who have been disappointed with any Ilford paper. They ruled the darkroom and they’ve continued their dominance in the inkjet world. Their most famous darkroom paper finish, Pearl, is also available in an inkjet paper as Galerie Classic Pearl. This finish is a perfect meld of glossy and matte. The finish cuts down on the glare caused by glossy finishes, but doesn’t go so far as to cut down on the sharpness of the image that matte papers suffer from. It also dries extra fast.
For those of us who long for the old darkroom days, Ilford offers their Galerie Gold Fibre Silk Paper. It’s structured to look, feel and act like traditional fiber paper by unitizing a layer of barium sulphate. If you’ve been handling regular, old inkjet prints, picking up some of this paper will change your outlook on photography. While this paper is great for all types of images, it really shines when printing black and white. And just like working in the darkroom, this paper can be a little tricky to use. You may have to make some serious adjustments to your printing/color settings.
Inkpress produces dozens of different types of pro-sumer level papers, allowing you to experiment with different types of paper for a relatively low cost. There Metallic Satin Printing Paper falls nicely into the experimental category. This paper has an underlayer that looks like chrome or silver. The result is a a glowing print that offers very dark blacks and an added layer of depth. Don’t think of it as ultra-glossy, it more like printing on shined pewter. It’s a very distinctive look.
At the other end of the spectrum, Inkpress Rag papers yield rustic prints that can resemble vivid watercolors more than photographic prints. Rag is a term used to describe 100% cotton papers. Inkpress Rag is available in two weights (200 and 300 gsm), and two tones (warm tone and cooltone). The warmtone can produce some especially stunning prints with a slight sepia look. The cooltone with a subtle blue cast seems to bring out the details, and yield strikingly contrasty shadows.
Inkpress also makes Adhesive Vinyl sheets for inkjet printers. This product is more about it’s possible applications than it’s great print quality, although the prints look fine for this type of product. The vinyl is water resistant, and can be used outdoors and still look good. Use sheet of this for mailbox decoration, car decals or posters for the revolution you’ve been meaning to start.
Innova papers are mainly for fine applications. Although I’m no painter, I believe their Cold Press Rough Textured Natural White Paper could easily be used for actual painting. And traditionally, cold pressed papers are a favorite watercolorists and colored pencil artists. Due to the texture of this paper, photos with a lot detail may lose some of their appeal. But for more impressionistic images with soft lines, this paper is perfect.
Innova draws from another artistic tradition for their Soft Textured Natural White Paper. It was modeled after the paper preferred by etchers. It is a matte finish paper, but it’s “soft” texture is very consistent and even allowing it to accurately render fine lines and details. It’s also known for it’s consistency in printing as well, make it predictable and easy to use. Innova also produces a huge, well-respected line of fiber paper for inkjet printers call FibaPrint.
Moab is the inkjet printer paper line produced by Legion Paper. For those you looking for a traditional glossy finish, look no further than Moab’s Lasal Photo Gloss Paper. A lot of low-end glossy paper seems artificially shiny and can be described as waxy or tacky. Non-fiber darkroom papers achieve their gloss with a resin coating, which is actually a form a plastic, but the coating is less flashy and more substantial. This is was Moab has replicated in their Lasal paper. It’s a standard paper paper that’s gotten just enough extra attention from its makers to stand out from the pack.
Moab also likes to take a few risks. One of those risks was their Somerset Enhanced Velvet Paper. When you hear “velvet” you probably think of velvet paintings, and while this paper isn’t quite that intense, you’re not far off. This paper is a matte/semi-matte type paper with a velvet-like finish, making it very soft. But embracing this paper, means embracing it’s quirks. With many inks, it’s slow to dry. And even once your prints have dried, you should handle them with care and avoid touching the surface.
If traditional fine art is more your speed, than check out Moab’s Anasazi Canvas Premium Matte. This printable canvas isn’t quiet as convenient as Hahnermuhle’s version with it’s included stretcher bars, but Moab’s canvas is known for it’s exceptional smoothness. Canvas is often rougher than the roughest matte finish, which can really kill fine details. Moab over comes this with their coating, but still produces a product that can be stretched around a frame like tradition canvas.
Museo focuses on creating archival quality papers and other inkjet products. Their Inkjet Artist Cards are one of these inkjet products. They’re double-sided pieces of thick paper that are pre-scored for folding. They come pre-packaged with envelopes. The cards come in a velina finish, which is rare, but basically means a very flat smooth, non-glossy finish. The final results can look very professional making it impossible for your clients to resist hiring you. The cards are also manufactured to the U.S. Library of Congress’s archival standards.
Museo also produces a standard printing sheet paper in the form of their MAX Archival Fine Art Paper. This paper is acid-free and has other archival precautions built into it. It’s also available in the velina finish, which will give you the chance to experiment a finish your friends have never seen. Another advantage of this finish is that it makes all colors really pop yielding that great saturation we all love in cross-processed images.
Pictorico specializes in fine art paper. They have a unique paper offering called ART Kenaf Paper. It come in two different weights and two different finishes. All Kenaf papers are styled after Japanese Washi paper, which is the traditional paper used in Origami made from the bark of a few specific trees or shrubs. This results in a specific texture. The finishes are a regular matte finish and special Unryu matte finish that allows some of the pattern of the fibers in the paper to show through.
Pictorico also produces a less expensive line of papers called Gekko. My favorite of which is the Green Paper variety. It’s a heavyweight luster finish paper that specifically designed for black and white printing. While it’s modeled after traditional fiber paper, it’s much easier to work with. It has a very subtle warm tone, so subtle in fact that I would not necessarily call it a “warm tone” paper. It’s also very stiff for it’s weight, so it’s suitable for non-display applications that might require durability like postcards.