Choosing a paper for using your inkjet printer to commit your most beloved image to a physical form can be a daunting task. Which brand do you choose: Canson Infinity, Hahnemüehle, Red River, Epson, Moab, Ilford, Canon? And then the paper type choice: luster, matte, satin, or fine art?
My very close friend and cinematographer James Chressanthis, ASC, says he’s an agnostic when it comes to camera brands: He uses what best fits the situation and the scene. I’m much the same way with all my equipment and materials, but Hahnemühle is one of my go-to brands for a fair few of my fine art prints. Frankly, many of their papers have emotional “oomph” (this is no surprise, considering they have experience making papers dating back nearly half a millennium). While offering a complete survey all papers of all companies’ possibilities is beyond the scope of this post, here I intend to offer some advice on how to choose papers by using one group of Hahnemühle’s paper types, their Digital FineArt Collection: Matte FineArt series, which includes fifteen different papers (see Table 01).
Those papers are also all available in Hahnemühle’s Digital FineArt Collection Sample Packs (smooth or textured versions), providing an economical way for inquisitive photo printers to test which work best for their various needs. First, I’ll explain a few of the key issues inkjet printing aficionados should consider when choosing paper, and then I’ll offer an overview of eleven of the thirteen variations available in the packs (two are canvas, Monet Canvas and Daguerre Canvas, so I’m not including them): Albrecht Dürer, German Etching, William Turner, Museum Etching, Torchon, Rice Paper, Photo Rag Book & Album, Bamboo, Photo Rag Ultra Smooth, Photo Rag, and Photo Rag Bright White.
I’ll get this out of the way early: If you appreciate these blog posts and the education they provide, when you decide to purchase either Hahnemühle or Red River papers, please do so using the links I provide to Blick Art Materials (where you can buy most types of Hahnemühle, Moab and Canson Infinity; in Blick’s Departments navigation bar, click D > Digital Art Papers ) or Red River, makers of their eponymous products. Doing so helps keep these posts coming by helping to pay for the blog, as well as the materials and equipment I need to use for crafting new content for you. Thanks, in advance.
Since choosing a paper is a very personal and highly subjective process, what I will do here is discuss factors you should consider when making a choice. Those points include thinking about how long the image should last, the weight and thickness of the paper, the surface quality of the stock, the type of image best suited to the paper, and the cost of the paper. Thus, I’ll begin by explaining the difference between a museum/archival paper and an acid-free paper. Second, I’ll help clarify what paper weight and thickness mean, followed by showing how surface textures differ across types. Fourth and finally, I’ll show how paper tone changes as we choose different papers, including natural whiteners versus artificial whiteners.
Remember: If you have any other questions or thoughts about making these choices, please comment on the post so that others can learn from the discussion.
The image I’ll be referencing in the post is my photograph “Vulnerability” from my Recollections series; it is seen above with my Peak Lupe 5x (I own two different Peak Lupe models, the 5x and the 15x). It is scheduled for a museum exhibition in the coming months, and I thought it an opportune time to discuss paper types as I prepared the image for its show.
Museum, Archival and Acid-Free Papers: What’s the Difference?
The grade of papers is based on the materials from which they are made: natural fiber, cellulose, or a combination of the two. If you want to decide on which to use, you’ll first need to decide into which group of photographic printers you fall: the pretty-permanent crowd, and the not-so-permanent crowd. Let me explain.
If you’re in the former group, you intend for your images to remain pure for a century or more. The other group: You intend for your images to be digitally prioritized, and a long, long, perfect print life isn’t that important.
Let’s be honest: A fair number people who are printing photographs usually intend to keep them around for ten or twenty years at most, and so there’s little reason to choose papers based on their status as museum-grade or archival (acid-free is always an important factor, though). That’s because if they’re not in the business of selling prints as collector’s pieces or watching images become part of permanent collections, it is inconsequential if the photograph’s base causes the paper to discolor after a few decades. If it’s not an heirloom, don’t worry about it.
But if you are in the first group, the base material of the paper matters a great deal. Here’s why. Natural fibers such as cotton rag don’t discolor over time as quickly as cellulose (α or g types) as the paper breaks down. Although a cellulose paper may be acid-free, it’s not necessarily museum-grade. Buffering is critical to long-term print life, and papers that are buffered are usually listed as museum-grade, archival, or acid-free. Since all the papers in this post are in the buffered category, we have no worries on deciding which to use based on that count. Nevertheless, you should always use buffered paper for your long-term prints to avoid early discoloration in the print. As the Wilhelm Institute notes, it’s often not the ink that destroys the print in dark storage, but rather problems with the paper itself.
Here’s what you should know:
- Museum-grade papers like Hahnemühle Photo Rag are 100 percent cotton fiber, and have been shown to last over 100 years under UV glass before any discoloration becomes evident (even some of Ansel Adams’ papers didn’t do that well, so that you know).
- Archival-grade is often used interchangeably with museum-grade (though here I call it Enhanced Acid-Free, since it is not 100 percent natural fiber).
- Acid-free papers are made mostly or completely of cellulose, and but still contain the buffering agent to keep the paper stable and pH-neutral.
- Buffering is the process of adding calcium carbonate to paper pulp during manufacturing in order to raise its pH to a non-acidic level (acid free)
Thus, your choice of paper is determined by where the print is destined to live. It’s that easy. As I print the “Vulnerability” image, museum-grade is the only choice.
Paper Weight and Thickness
The next element—weight and thickness—also pertains to where the print is headed, but to economic concerns as well. Before we discuss those points, however, let me explain how paper weights are measured.
Let’s pretend I have two 39-inch by 39-inch square pieces of two different types of generic photo paper: two one-square-meter pieces. How do I tell the difference between them if they’re the same whiteness? Easy: I compare their mass (hence the GSM acronym—Grams per Square Meter). Generally, GSM gives you a pretty good idea of how study the paper is, since as its mass increases, it often becomes thicker and sturdier. However, some materials that are used in paper manufacturing are heavy by nature, such as canvas. Thus, mass can’t be the only measure.
Enter paper thickness. Paper thickness also gives us insight into the relative bulk of a paper, and is usually measured in 10th of a millimeter (as an aside, this measurement also becomes critical when setting platen printing height) . However, just because a paper is thick doesn’t mean it has a lot of mass, since some papers have more air content inside the fibers or coatings than other types.
Here’s the rub: A thick and heavy paper, made of 100 percent natural fibers and buffered, is often a good museum paper, but it’s also more expensive. For example: a 25 sheet-pack of Hahnemühle Photo Rag 8.5 x 11″ paper in 308 GSM is about 33 percent more expensive than the same pack in 188 GSM. So which to choose?
Again, it comes down to where the print is heading.
If I’m sending a print off to a collection, I always choose a museum-grade paper with greater mass. For one that is staying home or is a low-cost sales print, lower mass and thinner.
So where is my museum “Vulnerability” print in the process right now? I’ve now narrowed my choices to papers over 275 GSM and .4 mm thick.
Surface Texture: What the Spec Sheets Can’t Tell You
I like paper specs sheets, to a point. They tell me a lot about a paper’s quality and structure, but the texture isn’t discernible from the specs sheet; that’s why paper companies sell sample packs. But even those packs are diverse (Hahnemühle sells more than 15 different types), so deciding on which to buy is a challenge. This section of the post should help clear things up—at least a bit.
As I wrote in the introduction, I’m focusing on Hahnemühle’s Digital FineArt Collection Sample Packs (both the smooth and textured versions). Each has two sheets each of several different types of paper:
Matte FineArt — textured Pack
- Albrecht Dürer, 210 GSM
- Torchon, 285 GSM
- German Etching, 310 GSM
- William Turner, 310 GSM
- Museum Etching, 350 GSM
- Money Canvas, 410 GSM
Matte FineArt — smooth Pack
- Rice Paper, 100 GSM
- Photo Rag Book & Album, 220 GSM
- Bamboo, 310 GSM
- Photo Rag Ultra Smooth, 305 GSM
- Photo Rag, 308 GSM
- Photo Rag Bright White, 310 GSM
- Daguerre Canvas, 400 GSM
If you’d like the general specifications of each type, I’ve included these (and the other Matte Fine Art collection papers) in a table at the end of this post—scroll down if you want to look. As I wrote earlier, though, those specifications don’t tell us everything, so the point of this section is to include detail images of each of the textured or smooth (but not canvas) papers for your examination. These were shot in the studio with a macro lens and cross lighting to highlight the varying textural details of each paper. See the gallery below for details.
Since we’re following “Vulnerability” through this process, I printed five different 6 x 9″ prints on the papers whose texture I liked best, using my Epson Stylus Pro at 2880 dpi in Advanced Black and White mode: Photo Rag, Albrecht Dürer, Torchon, William Turner and Museum Etching. I then disqualified any papers that were not museum grade, leaving the Photo Rag, William Turner and Museum Etching as my final candidates for the final print.
Note: Hahnemühle recommends 1440 dpi settings for their textured papers; however, under a 5x loupe, I still notice a decrease in effective resolution, so I recommend 2880 dpi with High Speed Printing and Finest Detail turned off, and Manual Feed (Front) for the paper feed setting.
Bary-what? Why does my paper have a tone? Does it sing? …Paper color and whiteners explained
There’s a lot of talk online about whiteners, paper tone, chemical stabilizers, and paper life; anyone who is outside the paper industry (myself included) can get a very strong migraine when trying to sort out the important details from the chaff. So, before I begin to explain anything, here are some definitions.
- Baryta: A term used for barium sulfate when it is used in a thin layer on glossy or luster/satin photographic papers to increase the reflectiveness of the surface
- Optical Brightener: Any number of agents used to make paper whiter; can decrease the longevity of the paper
- Tone: The general whiteness of a paper, ranging from a natural yellow tint to a bright white
So why does all of this matter?
Again, it depends on what you’re hoping to do with your print. In the case of this post, we’re using matte papers, so baryta isn’t a factor; it’s used for glossy and luster/satin papers. But whiteness does matter here, and in the case of the Photo Rag Ultra White, its very name hints that there are optical brighteners present. Optical brighteners can decrease the life of an inkjet print as the brighteners begin to break down over time. Translation: That’s not good in the case of a museum print, but no big deal over a few decades for a standard print.
How we determine the importance of the brighteners in shortening the life of a print is too much information for this post, but you can download the Wilhelm Research report on the permanence images of Hahnemühle papers here; it’s the gold standard of testing (and it shows how critical UV glass is to the longevity of a print, which is why I use it for my framed pieces when at all possible). What’s vital is this: When framed under basic glass, the Wilhelm Research tests show little difference between Photo Rag and Museum Etching (at or above 60 years of exposure to constant light, protected under glass), and five years better life for Museum Etching paper under constant light exposure and UV glass protection (120 years). Because they are matte papers, you’ll notice the effective print life under UV glass is more than 30 years less for matte paper than a pearl or glossy paper, which has to do with the ways resin is used when manufacturing the paper. Moreover, Photo Rag has some whiteners, while Museum Etching has none, and it costs the print five years of life under UV glass. Since Photo Rag Bright White infers the presence of even more brighteners, that suggests a shorter life than Photo Rag. That doesn’t mean I don’t like Photo Rag Bright White—I really, really do—but for pieces going in permanent curated collections, I need to eke out every year I can from the piece.
Important note: The Wilhelm Research results don’t mean the paper disintegrates after the time expires. Rather, the time shows how long before a print begins to discolor or fade.
Brighteners also change the tone of the paper. Museum etching has a natural (slightly yellow) tone, while Photo Rag Bright White is, well, bright white. See the photo to the left to see a comparison of just three papers and their comparative whiteness. The gist is if you’re printing a photo where bright, bright highlights matter, pick something that has a strong white base, and balance the tone with longevity.
Thus, considering the brightening agents, paper life and tone on which I’ve tested “Vulnerability,” Museum Etching seems to be the best choice. It has no optical brighteners; it is a natural white (slightly warm) tone; and it is buffered. In fact, since my stock was depleted in the studio, I ordered more (during a break from writing this post) just for the purpose of the “Vulnerability” museum print.
In summary, the next time you tackle inkjet printing, take into consideration the factors I’ve discussed. While Hahnemühle papers are not the only brand in my studio—I also use Canson Infinity, Red River, Moab and Epson—I find them to be some of the most expressive papers on the market for my black-and-white images. I hope this post has helped shed some light on the available choices in the company’s matte paper lineup. See below for the complete spread of the papers.
If you need ICC profiles for the papers when printing, get them on Hahnemühle’s website here; see one of my previous posts on using ICC profiles when printing.
And last, remember: If you have comments, question, or just want to share your experiences with printing or the products mentioned in this post, please keep it respectful and post them below so that others can benefit from the discussion.