paper geek

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As some of you may know, I purchased an Epson Photo R2880 a few months ago when I decided after much deliberation to do all my printing in-house (at least anything 13 in wide or less).The Snow Leopard debacle notwithstanding, I haven't regretted my decision one bit. Sending my client's photos to the lab always made me feel like a cheat for some reason. More than that I'd be nervous right up until I had the prints in my hands, which were usually... ok. But I don't like ok. I like wow. Control issues you say? Damn right.

What I didn't anticipate was the side-effect: the paper geek syndrome.

the jungle

I started reading everything about high-end inkjet printing. I learned they were sometimes refered to as giclée prints. I learned about Epson's attempt at creating a new standard with Digigraphie, a very interesting idea that combines certified printers (all Epson of course), papers and certificates of authenticity, the aim being to provide a frame of reference for evaluating the value of fine art prints in the digital age ( it does seem to be taking off in Europe but it's going pretty much unnoticed in North America. An email I sent them regarding certification was never even answered).

I also fell head first into the obscure world of fine art papers. A jungle. The Mac vs PC debate has nothing on this, believe me. Discussions veer from highly technical issues regarding D-Max(shadow detail), gamut (colour spectrum) and coating to almost intimate subject matters like feel and tooth. At first I thought "these people are nuts". But then -slowly - I found myself lusting for... papers.
I was now a full-blown paper geek.

But above and beyond the sometimes mystical discussions regarding paper choice, the truth is that getting great looking prints is about much more than the printer. And as I found out, paper plays a very serious part in that equation.

watcha, watcha, watcha want?

Matte or Glossy? Lustre? Baryta or rag? Yep, choice is a bitch. But you have to face facts and dive into what's available, try different types of papers from different companies, print a range of images that will represent your output. It's really the only way. Reviews can be useful but in the end it comes down to nothing but personal preferences. So to give you an idea, here's a rundown of the process I went through.

the real thing
Before buying anything you need to see the real thing. My local photo store has printed sample books for all the papers they sell, a very nice way to get an idea of what each company has to offer. I looked and touched each one, roughly compared prices and settled on Ilford and Hahnemuhle (also taking into account what I had read on various sites).

pack rat
Sampler packs are your friend and most serious paper suppliers offer them. They usually provide a good range of media with 2 sheets of each paper type, allowing you to try both colour and black and white (if you plan on doing both). The store had packs for both Ilford and Hahnemuhle so I was all set.

printing a single sheet I visited the Ilford and Hahnemuhle websites and downloaded the printer specific ICC profiles for all the papers in the pack. I also took note of the printer settings for each one (Premium Glossy, Ultra-Luster etc). I then installed all the profiles in the ColorSync folder to make them available to my applications (in OS X you just drag them to Library/ColorSync/Profiles).

It's very important not to touch the surface to be printed with your bare fingers as the oils could affect the quality of the output. I already had cotton gloves to handle my client's photos (you can find them in photo stores) and used them to handle the papers. I made fun earlier of the sometimes sensual nature of discussions surrounding paper types but the fact is, the first impression is tactile. Papers have different weights (GSM) and textures that greatly affect how you'll perceive the final photograph. A paper might look good but feel flimsy and you have to take that into account if your clients will be handling them. It should be less of an issue if it's for personal use or intended to be sold already framed, but I found myself gravitating towards heavier, more solid stock regardless.

texture and colour
I was also surprised by the importance of texture. Whether matte, lustre or glossy, textures vary greatly between papers in each categories. Matte papers come with various degrees of grain and fibers. The same is true for lustre (or pearl) where the tooth varies in intensity as well as shape. There's also the composition of the paper which can affect the way colours are rendered (some papers are warmer or colder) but can also have an impact on longevity and archival qualities. There's a great debate right now about OBAs, compounds used to make papers whiter in order to add as much brilliance as possible. There are some who argue that the addition of OBAs reduces longevity and may cause premature yellowing of prints. As I said, it's a jungle.

When I started doing my research I built a Bento database
just for papers so I could easily get an overview of prices for different sizes and papers. My studio needs to be profitable so this is something that needed to be considered as well.

my thing

All this is all well and good but what's the verdict?

First, even though matte papers are the established norm for fine art prints they just don't do it for me. I was already partial to pearl or lustre and was instantly wowed by the so-called baryta papers that happen to be all the vogue right now. Baryta refers to barium-sulphate, a material that was used in traditional paper. It adds a smooth reflective coating that is very reminiscent of  f-type silver halide papers of old. To me, it just feels like a photo should. So here are my papers of choice:

  • Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Baryta : My absolute favourite bar-none. Hahnemuhle has many different baryta papers which makes for a pretty confusing scene. But this one to me has the best mix of brilliance, texture and weight. Colours pop and bw images look fabulous. But it's expensive so this is to be reserved for high-end prints.

  • Ilford Gallery Gold Fiber Silk: Long and confusing name but a great baryta paper and a lot cheaper than the Hahnemuhle. Don't be fooled by the gold monicker: I'm not seeing an overly warm effect at all.

  • Ilford Gallery Smooth Pearl: My main paper. This is what I've chosen for portrait sessions and my "normal" print needs. Colours render just as well as previous papers and the tooth is very close. I don't feel like I'm compromising at all.

gloss differential?

A word about gloss differential: it refers to the way lighter areas of a print might have varying gloss coefficients due to how pigment inks are applied to paper. You see gloss differential when looking at a print under light from various angles. It can be very distracting. If you prefer high-gloss prints this is something to keep in mind BEFORE choosing your printer and lookout for when testing papers. This week I  installed an Epson Photo R1400 next to my R2880 ( I won it in the Capture Canada photo contest) and ran a few tests just for fun. It uses Claria inks which are dye-based not pigment-based like the 2880.

Well, I printed the same photo using Colorado Gloss paper from Moab (also part of the prize) on both printers and the results were astounding: it looked as though I had used completely different papers! The R1400 print looked as expected, just like a glossy print from a lab. The R2880 looked... soggy and flat. Gloss differential was so intense it was unusable. This had also been my experience with other high gloss papers on this printer. So it's definitely something to keep in mind - although I wouldn't dream of selling Claria based prints so I'm not sure what the option is (apparently the the K3 based 1900 is better at glossy, but I'd heard the same about the 2880 when compared to the 2800. I can only imagine how bad that was...).

And by the way, even the lustre and satine Moab papers showed a lot of gloss differential on the 2880 which was disappointing. It just goes to show how important it is to do these tests.

enough already!

Ok, this has been a bit long-winded but hopefully I've given some of you a few useful tips. Admittedly I've now slowly begun to shed the paper geek haze I was living in these past months and have stopped getting the urge when reading paper descriptions (!). In fact, this week's Moab experiment has pretty much closed that chapter of my life. You see I'd been daydreaming about Moab papers for months - something about the packaging, the wording of the descriptions made it seem almost magical. Like some holy grail of paperness. I'd imagine the photograph floating out of the printer and framing itself on the wall in a halo of bright, perfect light.
Nope. Not at all.

This paper geek has now settled I guess.