From the earliest days of photography, the preferred form of expression of a photograph has most often been a print. Some of the earliest photographic processes were direct-positive, with the final image being the plate from the camera (after development). Instant cameras are another direct-positive process, where all the creative control has to be exercised in camera, since the object removed from the camera is the final representation of the image.
Transparency (reversal or slide) films produce a positive image that is often shown by shining a light through it, focusing through a lens – a slide projector. Slides, too, are a case where there is often no print stage, although there are processes to print from a slide. Perhaps surprisingly, Hollywood movies are not a series of slides – a movie is a specialized form of a print! A cinema camera uses negative film, which is printed to another negative to return to the correct colors – and there is quite a bit of creative control in printing a movie! Home movies on film WERE generally slide film.
“The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.” – Ansel Adams
With this relatively small number of exceptions, there are two stages where the photographer exerts creative control over the image. First, we compose and expose the image in camera – choosing composition, focus, focal length, aperture, shutter speed and white balance. Later, on the computer or in the darkroom, we have the opportunity to adjust the exposure of the image if we didn’t like the camera exposure. Even if the overall exposure is what the photographer visualized, the processing stage allows for adjustment of tonal relationships within the image. Exposing a shadow on a tree trunk more in camera could very well blow out a highlight in the sky, but a modern digital sensor has enough dynamic range to capture both, and the photographer has the choice to burn in the tree trunk while holding back the sky at the printing step… Just as we could burn and dodge in the darkroom, we can now exercise the same expressive control at the computer. Photographers used to choose paper, developer and toner for their preferred effect – now, a little bit of saturation here, vibrance there and a touch more orange in the leaves serve in much the same way.
We can also adjust colors and tones individually in processing – camera white balance isn’t even technically perfect, and a technically perfect image is not generally the artistically expressive image each of us aims for. The process of editing our images, whether under a dim safelight in a room that smells of vinegar or in front of an LCD screen with keyboard, mouse, graphics tablet and perhaps a Loupedeck bristling with dials, is the second important stage of creative control. An in-camera JPEG that takes away all of that control is a Polaroid picture – a great way of remembering the day, but rarely a work of art.
When most photographic printing took place in the darkroom, the highest expression of the photographer’s art was generally in black and white. No color printing process with the control of the great black and white processes was ever widespread prior to the development of really good inkjet printing. Dye transfer printing was a beautiful and subtle process, but it always barely existed as an art form – maybe a few hundred people at most produced artistic dye-transfer prints. Ilfochrome could be beautiful for a certain type of image – but its contrast worked well only for images where high contrast and high gloss was a part of the photographer’s vision.
RA-4 prints from negatives were always subject to the demands of the minilab industry. Artists got the paper choices that snapshooters and the drugstores that served them demanded, since that was where the big market was. Kodak and Fujifilm produced large sheets of paper and modest-sized bottles of chemistry almost as a favor – the money that drove development was in billions of 4×6” prints made on automated machines. The papers were all resin-coated – relatively unappealing plastic bases that served the needs of high-speed processing machines.
While the state of color chemical processes was always a bit disappointing, black and white flourished. Without the huge volume requirements to make color papers (which had to be coated in giant factories), it was profitable for manufacturers to turn out a fantastic variety of black and white printing papers. From the blue-blacks of Oriental Seagull, especially hit with a bit of selenium toner, to the rich browns of Portriga Rapid, silver gelatin printing papers were an essential part of an expressive image. You could get a textured matte paper, a high gloss or anything in between. Whether by using a particular contrast grade of paper or by employing variable contrast filtration, paper contrast was another essential part of the expressive image. In addition to paper, different developers gave different results, and toners added another source of control. If you didn’t like any paper you could buy, you could even buy liquid emulsion and coat some yourself. Beyond silver gelatin, certain images worked well in a platinum/palladium print, or even with another alternative process (everything back to the daguerreotype is possible).
“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” – Ansel Adams
Until about ten years ago, there was one thing nobody could do with all this expressiveness – you couldn’t print color. As soon as a photographer wanted to work in color, it meant resin-coated paper in a couple of surfaces and contrast grades. There was some control in printing exposure, and some in overall color balance by using filtration in the enlarger – but nothing like the expression possible in black and white. Development was pretty much one set of solutions for a standard time, and usually by machine – it was possible to develop color prints in trays, but there was no advantage, because there was no safelight and no development by inspection.
“I am sure the next step will be the electronic image, and I hope I shall live to see it. I trust that the creative eye will continue to function, whatever technological innovations may develop.” – Ansel Adams
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a few photographers started to experiment with scanning film and printing digitally. Photographer and musician Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills and Nash) was one of the very few able to afford an IRIS printer – a $100,000 machine used in the prepress industry. The IRIS produced beautiful colors, and it could be modified to accept watercolor paper – finally, a color print medium with some personality. Unfortunately, its inks were not terribly permanent…
Through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, we began to see inkjet printers that could at least arguably print a photograph appear at prices that individual photographers could afford. There was still a problem with print permanence – to put it mildly (some printers that received artistic interest in the mid and late 1990s produced prints that faded badly in a matter of months). The first consumer inkjets with a claim to print photographs were four-color models from HP and Epson in the early 1990s. Four colors, combined with the relatively large ink drop sizes of the time, really weren’t sufficient to print photographs – there weren’t any specialized photo papers either. My first experiments with inkjet photo printing were around this time (on office paper on an early HP DeskJet Color of some model or another).
1997s Epson Stylus Photo was the first widely sold 6-color inkjet, adding light magenta and light cyan to the existing cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks. The machine was poorly built (to put it nicely – it was actually a piece of junk that made gear-gnashing noises every time you printed on it, and it stripped its many plastic gears with alarming frequency). Its inks were not very permanent – but it had a decent-looking glossy paper. In 1997, it seemed like a miracle to have a device you could hook up to your computer that produced something that looked like a minilab print. Ilfochrome was still quite a bit better, but it wasn’t easy – I was experimenting with Ilfochrome and early inkjet printing at around the same time, in college – and my best results were Ilfochrome, but a majority of my printing was inkjet, simply because it was much easier. Around 2000, Epson started claiming they were dealing with the longevity issues – their Stylus Photo 1270 claimed 30 year lifespans on a few specific papers. Nope, not really! They had an orange fading issue that was evident within months. It wasn’t conventional light-based fading (they HAD made significant progress there), but a reaction between the ink, the paper and the air.
By late 2000, they had the Stylus Photo 2000P on the market – the first pigment-ink color printer available at a reasonable cost. Pigment inks had none of the longevity problems associated with dye-based inks – they were, in fact, closely related to extremely complex carbon-pigment printing processes with longevities of hundreds of years. Unfortunately, those early pigment inks were an absolute bear to manage in other ways. They clogged if you so much as looked at the (very slow) printer the wrong way. Their color gamut was much weaker than any reasonable dye-based printer, either Epson’s own or Canon and HP competitors that were appearing. Most importantly, they suffered from metamerism. They could produce a reasonable print viewed under warm room light – but bring that same print into a room with any outdoor light, and a strong green cast affected all of the neutral tones. Since most artists display their work in rooms other than bathrooms, closets and darkrooms (and just about every other room has windows), the green cast was unacceptable. We all tried to work around it – we tried different papers (matte worked far better than glossy), framing prints under different glass, and everything else. The green cast of The Green Metamerism Machine could be reduced, but not eliminated! As if that wasn’t enough, the glossiness if the ink was different from that of the papers – highlights and shadows looked noticeably different because dense ink wasn’t as shiny as the paper surface . Around this time, ImagePrint first appeared as an alternative to standard printer drivers – and it also worked around some of the metamerism. Combining ImagePrint, matte paper and judicious image selection, it was possible to get a decent image out of the 2000P (and its big brothers the 24” Stylus Pro 7500 and 44” Stylus Pro 9500) – but it certainly wasn’t easy.
The next two generations of Epson printers were really when fine-art inkjet printing came into its own. A seventh ink was added to the UltraChrome series of printers (2200,4000,7600, 9600) – a light black ink that radically improved neutral tones. UltraChrome K3 around the mid 2000s added a third black ink, and eighth ink overall, as well as encapsulating the pigments to reduce bronzing. By the K3 generation, an inkjet print was by far the highest quality color print an individual photographer could hope to produce – and was superior to all but a very few high-end processes that might have been available from printmaking professionals (dye transfer printing still held an advantage, as did a really good Ilfochrome for certain images).
A short while after the K3 Epsons reached the market, Canon shipped the TWELVE ink iPF 5000. The standard four inks are cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Six ink printers add light cyan and light magenta (almost without exception, although sometimes called photo cyan and photo magenta). The next couple of inks to be added are additional neutral tones, which Canon calls grays, while Epson prefers the term light black. At this point, we’ve reached a standard set of eight inks, nine if you count photo black (used only on glossy papers) and matte black (used on matte papers) separately. On all Canon printers and some Epsons, they both stay in the printer, and the switch happens in software. On many Epsons, they have to be switched manually, wasting some amount of ink (modest on recent machines, but significant enough on older models that larger studios kept one printer for matte and one for glossy). The iPF 5000 added three entirely new colors – red, green and blue. The current models from both Canon and Epson use twelve inks – Canon has ditched the green from the earlier iPF models in favor of a gloss optimizer that has pretty much eliminated bronzing, while Epson uses a similar system with orange and violet inks replacing Canon’s red and blue (are they just different names?).
A modern 12 ink printer is an astonishing tool for making color (and black and white) prints. It can far exceed the capacities of any color chemical process, including exotica like dye transfer. In the hands of an experienced printmaker who knows how to handle their tools, we finally have a true fine-art color printing process. A 24” 12 ink printer from Canon or Epson weighs a couple of hundred pounds, costs a couple of thousand dollars, sits on a stand that rolls into the corner of a room and will easily fit in any home or apartment that could have accommodated even the simplest darkroom, and many that never could. 13” and 17” printers are smaller and lighter, large desktop machines, and they fit into more cramped spaces. The advantage to the 24” and 44” models for photographers who are serious about printing is that they use larger ink cartridges that are much cheaper per milliliter of ink, and that they use roll paper.
Large sheet paper can be somewhat tricky to find, depending on the size and paper type you want, and it may not be the right size. For example, 16×24” is a standard print size from cameras with a 3:2 aspect ratio, which include essentially all DSLRs and mirrorless cameras except Micro 4/3 and medium format models. Unfortunately, most 17” wide sheet paper is 17×22”, not 17×25” – a 16×24” print won’t fit. On a roll, no problem – but the largest standard size you can print on a sheet-fed 17” printer on most papers is 12×18”. Yes, you can make a 14×21” print, but that’s not a size that fits in any precut mat or frame.
Around the same time the Epson K3 and Canon iPF printers came out, offering exceptional quality, there was a revolution on the paper side of the equation. From the IRIS printers in the early 1990s onward, matte surface watercolor papers had been the standard for photographic art. They reduced the issues with bronzing and metamerism compared to glossy papers, and they are simply beautiful papers. Resin-coated photographic paper feels like plastic, or like a photo printed at a drugstore, while a watercolor paper gives the look and feel of a piece of art. When watercolor paper was the only truly beautiful choice, however, something important was missing. Watercolor papers work well for more subtle images, and many of them have gorgeous midtones. They are not capable of the same kind of contrast as a glossy photo paper, and they don’t have the same crispness. Certain images were well served by texture and subtlety, while others wanted the dynamism of a really good gloss or luster paper.
Color photography had never had widely available glossy or semi-gloss art papers – Dye transfer used a fiber-base paper, but essentially every other color process used resin-coated papers. In 2006, Crane Museo Silver Rag and, shortly thereafter, Hahnemuhle Fine Art Pearl became available. These expensive papers were similar to fine black and white fiber base photo papers, except with an inkjet receptive coating in place of the silver halide layer. Over the past decade, we have seen a wide variety of fiber-based glossy and luster papers become available for inkjet printing, including everything from soft gloss surfaces with modest contrast to incredibly sharp, contrasty high gloss surfaces. These papers are a great deal like the finest of double-weight fiber-based enlarging papers – but they permit color as well as black and while (they excel for black and white digital printing, of course).
While the fiber-based glossy papers with names like Baryta and Platine that harken back to the black and white darkroom have proliferated, other types of paper have not been idle. There are more matte surface watercolor papers available than ever, and they keep improving. While you’ll never get the black levels or contrast out of a watercolor paper that you can out of a really good gloss or luster paper, they’re better than they were a few years ago, and the beauty of their textured surfaces is magical with the right image. There are also an increasing number of exotic papers ranging from metallic surfaces to Japanese Washi.
There are a few terms to look for when choosing a paper. The first is whether it uses Photo Black or Matte Black ink. Papers with no gloss sheen use Matte Black, a range that goes from plain office paper all the way to the thickest and most luxurious of watercolor papers. Matte Black is also used on a wide range of exotic-fiber papers ranging from Japanese Washi papers made from mulberry fibers to bamboo, sugarcane, hemp, agave and even weirder things like banana leaves. Matte Black papers range from very smooth to highly textured, and a smooth paper tends to get out of the way and let the image speak, while the more textured the paper, the greater its contribution to the final image. Most canvas printing also uses Matte Black ink, although there are an increasing number of semigloss canvases that use Photo Black.
Any glossy paper, ranging from the softest fiber-based semigloss to the shiniest plastic sheet, uses Photo Black ink. The two standard types of paper that use Photo Black are resin- coated papers that resemble drugstore prints and semigloss to glossy fiber-based fine art papers. More exotic Photo Black surfaces include metallic and semi-metallic papers, entirely plastic ultra-gloss media and transparent plastic media intended to be lit from behind.
In general, a Photo Black paper, especially a high-quality fiber-based paper, will have the deepest blacks, greatest contrast and crispest detail. A Matte Black paper will add warmth and texture to the image, and the beauty of the paper itself will complement the beauty of the image. Both are lovely when used correctly, and some photographers will graduate to one or the other for the vast majority of their work, while others will keep both in stock and choose between them to complement specific images.
Any high quality paper (with a few specialty exceptions) is acid-free or archival, although not all papers sold by printer manufacturers are. If you care about images for the long-term, an acid-free paper is a minimum. Among papers reviewed in Part II, all are acid-free and archival (it took more work to trace this down about the Moab Moenkopi Washi, because Moab doesn’t mention it – but Awagami, Moab’s supplier, does).
A second characteristic of a paper for images you care about is no or low levels of optical brightening agents (OBAs). OBAs are chemical additives that make paper look whiter than it actually is by fluorescing under ultraviolet light. They are not in themselves harmful, but they fade over several years – causing the unprinted or very bright areas of the paper to look yellower than they do when the print is first made. They also require UV light to activate, so a print framed behind UV-blocking glass will not show the brightening effect. This is not the same as acid-induced yellowing of the paper – the paper retains its natural color, but loses the “trick” whitening caused by the OBAs. Most high-quality papers are naturally fairly white anyway, and use at most low levels of OBAs, so any effect is very subtle. Of the papers in Part II, Canson Infinity Platine, Aquarelle and PrintMaKing Rag plus the two Moab Moenkopi Washi papers are entirely OBA-free. Both Canson Infinity Baryta Photographique II and Baryta Prestige use low levels of OBAs that should be of little or no concern in most applications.
The two Moab Slickrock Metallic Papers use higher levels of OBAs as a part of their unique look, and are perhaps more concerning in this regard. Among mainstream (non special effect) photographic papers, the two places to be concerned about OBAs are in less expensive, often resin-coated papers and the special case of Epson Exhibition Fiber. Many photo papers sold by printer manufacturers like Epson and Canon, especially luster, semi-gloss and glossy papers, but matte papers as well, have high levels of OBAs (some are also not acid-free). Some printer manufacturer papers are excellent, especially at the higher end. One printer manufacturer paper that is a special case is Epson Exhibition Fiber. It is a unique high-end fiber based glossy paper that is much whiter than any of its competitors – it looks almost blue-white. The way it gets that color is very high levels of optical brighteners – much higher than almost any other high-quality paper.
Most inexpensive photo papers sold in office supply or discount stores under store brand names (Staples, etc.), or as “Kodak”, “Polaroid” or the like are not acid-free and have very high levels of OBAs. Kodak inkjet paper has nothing to do with the old Eastman Kodak company – the name is licensed to makers of very low-end photographic supplies (Kodak film is still made by a successor company to Eastman Kodak). Polaroid, Vivitar and a number of other old photo brands are in the same situation.
A third important characteristic is the base material of the paper. Many of the highest quality papers use a pure cotton rag base. Cotton rag paper is made from cotton fibers, as the name implies, is relatively flexible in the hand, even on a thick paper, and it is naturally close to neutral in pH. Other papers use an alpha-cellulose base. Alpha-cellulose simply means wood pulp, the material most paper is made from (cotton is technically alpha-cellulose as well, but a paper labeled as alpha-cellulose probably uses wood, a less expensive material). Alpha-cellulose papers tend to be stiffer than an equivalent cotton rag paper, and they are naturally more acidic, requiring buffering to be acid-free. Both cotton rag and alpha-cellulose papers can be acid-free and highly archival, and both can make beautiful photo papers. I don’t really discriminate between the two on prints intended for framing, while I prefer a cotton rag paper for applications that will be handled (very high-end photo greeting cards, for example). Cotton rag, alpha-cellulose and exotic fiber (mulberry, bamboo, sugarcane and occasionally others) are collectively referred to as fiber-base papers.
Two other terms that you will hear surrounding glossy photographic papers are baryta and resin-coated. They are almost, but not quite opposites. Baryta refers to barium sulfate, a natural, very smooth non-fading whitener used as a coating on high-quality photo papers below the emulsion or ink receiving layer. Fiber-based black and white enlarging papers in non-matte surfaces were almost all baryta papers. The beautiful look of Oriental Seagull, Kodak Polyfiber, Ilford Galerie or whatever else you might have used for fine-art printing in the darkroom is the look of baryta. Many of the finest semi-gloss and glossy inkjet papers are also baryta coated, although there are other possibilities. One of my favorites, Canson Infinity Platine, is not technically a baryta paper, although it has a similar look, and is in the same general class of papers – there are several other “baryta-type” fiber-base papers that are not technically barytas.
Another, much cheaper option to make a smooth, glossy paper is to use a layer of plastic between the paper base and the ink receiving layer (or in some cases, to use no paper at all, just a sheet of coated plastic). This is called a resin-coated (RC) paper. Resin-coated papers can get much glossier than fiber-base papers, although many surfaces are available, and they are much less expensive. They can have extremely deep blacks, but they lack the look and feel of a fiber-based print. A resin-coated inkjet print looks much like a color print from a traditional photofinisher, because essentially all color darkroom papers were resin-coated (the exceptions were exotic processes like dye-transfer).
The availability of a wide range of fiber-based inkjet papers is what gives us as photographers the ability to print creatively, on a wide variety of matte and glossy surfaces. We are freed from the two or three plasticky surfaces available in the color darkroom and given back the paper choice of the black and white darkroom.
Part II of this article reviews nine papers from Canson Infinity and Moab. These range from semi-gloss baryta type papers that will work beautifully for most images, through matte papers with beautiful character to trade for their less deep blacks, to exotic papers that require careful image selection, but are really special in limited circumstances.