In every universe, there are titans, the Greeks might say; great giants that are pictures of strength and pillars of their cosmos. If that’s true, then in the world of inkjet pigment printing, two paper titans are Canson Infinity and Hahnemühle, and to battle they often send two classic printing media gods, Rag Photographique and Photo Rag Bright White.
This article compares these two media, looking at texture, brightness, color cast, detail, and contrast performance. Both Canson Infinity Rag Photographique 310gsm and Hahnemühle Photo Rag Bright White 310gsm are stellar performers, but each paper has its respective strengths. If you’ve ever wanted to know which paper to pick for printing your masterpiece, this is the post to read.
Before I continue, I’ll say this up front: When you choose to purchase printing papers such as Hanhemühle, Red River, Epson, Canson or Moab, please do so using the links on this blog. Dick Blick Art Materials provides all the papers listed except for Red River, which provides its paper direct. Whenever you purchase by clicking through from this blog to these sites, it helps pay for all the materials, ink, time and technology I need in order to provide you with these posts. Thanks in advance.
Also, I prefer to disclose that I’m a brand agnostic; if I choose to use a company’s materials or equipment, it’s because I’ve found them to be up to my own high standards (just ask my students), and I don’t stick to just one brand. I think that’s important for my readers, too, as it’s never any help to read someone’s work that is a parrot voice. If there’s a problem with something I’m reviewing, you’ll know about it. As one writing professor in my undergrad said about all life, perfection is something for which we strive, but seldom attain. The same is true for any product.
In Figure 01, you can see the packaging for each of the papers, and as I’ve stated above, I’m brand-neutral. My images are what matter to me, nothing more, nothing less, and I pick papers based on how well they perform for my photographs. Both papers in this comparison have been gallery stock for me, and frankly, you can’t go wrong with either. In the end, you’ll need to judge the image you’re printing, the expressiveness or neutrality you desire for it, and the relative whiteness you prefer.
Here’s how this test will unfold:
- I’ll explain the method of how I printed, shot, processed and evaluated each paper;
- I’ll examine four separate evaluation images, two for each paper (one black and white, one color), so that you can make an overall visual comparison;
- I’ll evaluate the characteristics of each paper using detail images;
- I’ll conclude with summaries of the strengths and weaknesses of each competitor.
As always, if you have questions, comments, or ideas, please feel free to leave respectful contributions using the comments form at the end of this article.
In this test, I chose the two papers based on their rag base, and their position in each company’s lineup as the whitest of the matte papers. As subjects, I used two of my images, one color, one black and white: a) Young Cowboys, Elwood Rodeo (2015), and b) Tribute to Andrew Wyeth (2012). I followed the following procedure:
- Printing: I prepared each test image on an Epson Stylus Pro 3880, using Epson’s UltraChrome K3 inks (matte black), the manual front feed tray, and the Standard custom paper setting. Images were printed at 2880 dpi (SuperPhoto) with High Speed turned off, and .7 seconds drying time between head passes. For the black and white images, Epson’s Advanced Black and White Photo mode was used, with its flattest rendering setting (dark). For the color images, the corresponding ICC profile for each paper was used.
- Test Files: I followed the printing by shooting comparison digital files with a Sony A7R and Canon FD 100mm macro lens, using a Beseler CS-14 copy stand with EIKO CFL 5300 Kelvin bulbs.
- Mastering: I imported the comparison shots into Lightroom 5, setting the white balance to 5300 Kelvin, adjusting the shots to +.33 exposure, +10 contrast, +10 clarity, +70 sharpening, 1.2 radius, 10 detail, and 20 masking. Luminance and color noise reduction were set to 30/50/0 and 25/50/50, respectively.
- Evaluation: Finally, I exported each test file in .PSD format, opened each in Photoshop, and prepared the side-by-side comparison shots, using red circles to highlight the different areas under evaluation.
Comparing the Papers: Basics
Let’s begin by comparing the statistics of these two papers in the table below.
|Canson Infinity Rag Photographique v. Hahnemühle Photo Rag Bright White|
|Weights||Thickness||Surface||Material||Acid Free||Optical Brighteners||Buffered||Whiteness|
|Canson Infinity Rag Photographique||210gsm, 310gsm||.32/.47 mm||Ultra Smooth||100% Cotton||Yes||No||Unknown*||90/91|
|Hahnemühle Photo Rag Bright White||310gsm||.50 mm||Medium Smooth||100% Cotton||Yes||Yes||Yes||99|
|*Canson Infinity does not specify whether Rag Photographique papers are buffered.|
From the table, you’ll notice both papers are smooth-surface, 100 percent cotton, acid-free papers. Moreover, we can also deduce a number of differences between the two papers.
Most obvious is that Canson Infinity offers two weights of Rag Photographique, 210gsm and 310gsm, while Hahnemühle offers only a 310gsm weight in Photo Rag Bright White. If you’re wondering why two weights is necessary, here’s the advantage: Lighter-weight papers can be sheet fed in an inkjet printer, while the heavier 310gsm varieties require using the manual rear or manual front trays on the Epsons. Thus, if you’re hoping to print 4 x 6″ photos, you can’t use the Hahnemühle paper in your Epson, or the heavier-weight Canson Infinity.
Another key difference is the presence of optical brighteners. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know brighteners are usually not good things if you’re printing for a museum permanent collection, since the print life can be diminished by brighteners (this varies between papers). However, in this case I have assurances from Hahnemühle’s scientists in Germany that Photo Rag Bright White’s permanence is not affected by these brighteners, and Wilhelm Research data seems to support their claim that Hahnemühle brighteners have no negative impacts on the paper’s museum life. And since they’re lab folks who are geniuses, I’m inclined to believe them.
A positive effect of Hahnemühle’s inclusion of the brighteners, though, is the better whiteness of Photo Rag Bright White (see Figure 02). It’s about 10 percent brighter than the Rag Photographique, and thus has an advantage of appealing to photographers needing every bit of brightness for an image. Moreover, Rag Photographique is not available in a bright white version.
Finally, in Figure 02, it’s also apparent that the Canson Infinity paper is monumentally smoother than the Hahnemühle. This isn’t a criticism of either, but rather an observation; among photographers and printers, relative smoothness is not a mark of better paper, but a lower degree of expressiveness. Not all images are best served by a single surface, so when deciding on papers using smoothness as a criterion, you should consider how texture enhances or subtracts from the power of the image. I’ll explain more later.
Comparing the Papers: Full Images
I’ve written before that I use Ansel Adams’ and Fred Archer’s Zone System to evaluate visualization and printing, but rely most on Zones I, V and IX to determine the quality of a print. I’ll do the same here.
In the first image (Figure 03), Young Cowboys, Elwood Rodeo, the Hahnemühle’s additional brightness is very apparent, and under uniform light, the ultra-smooth Canson Infinity doesn’t look much different from the Hahnemühle in terms of surface texture. In fact, other than surface texture, it takes a very trained eye and close examination to find any discernible differences.
Shadows and blacks are strong in both images, with powerful density. Zone 0 (pure black) and Zone I (near-black with texture) should be heavy, rather than kinda-sorta-black like inkjet papers often tend to be, but we should also be able to differentiate between the two zones, and not block them indeterminably together. Yet, textures in Zone I are still strong and defined, a tough act for any inkjet printer paper.
Whites were also impressive. The bright white Zone IX (white, with texture) of the Resistol hats of the boys is subtly brighter than the Zone VIII of the hazy summer sky, and there is strong differentiation between these high zones.
I’m also impressed with the mid-tones in both images. They have definition and strong texture, especially in the difficult-to-print areas where grays butt up against dark areas where poorer papers will display bleed-in.
I found the Canson to be a bit blue in tone, but in the case of this image, it’s not a problem, as it feels a bit like a selenium paper from years ago (and I liked these a lot when I used them in the darkroom long ago). However, that blue isn’t our friend when printing color (see below).
In the second image (Figure 04), Tribute to Andrew Wyeth, some differences between the two papers emerge more clearly. First, the brightness of the Hahnemühle gives it a distinct advantage in the bright sunlight area of the wall, while still maintaining textures of the plaster and flaking paint; while the Canson also does this well, the light doesn’t have quite the “pop” of the Hahnemühle.
Shadows are well rendered in both prints, especially near the tan hat on the right hand side of the image. The tin cups in shadow also display good detail and texture,
Third, both images show wonderful color density and texture. The two colored hats have strong presence without being oversaturated, and the suede blue hat shows good gradations in color and texture. Walls, wood, metals and ceramics are all accurate and compelling.
But there’s a problem. If you look closely, the Canson has a blue cast, and it shows itself strongly in the shadows near the tan hat, and if an image isn’t well-suited to such a tone addition, this can ruin an image, since color correction doesn’t remedy such a problem very well. This is a characteristic of the paper that is very different from the Hahnemühle, which tends to run warmer in tone.
Thus, to sum up this phase of the testing:
- Both papers show powerful ability in rendering tones accurately, including strong density and good high zones.
- Both papers render textures, colors and shadows well.
- The Hahnemühle has an advantage in expressive highlights, especially highlights needing texture.
- The Canson shows a slight blue cast reminiscent of selenium, which is less of a concern for black and white images than color prints, which may suffer.
Comparing the Papers: Detail Images
Now we’ll look at details, two from each test. In the black and white Young Cowboys image, we’ll examine the shirt and hat detail, and the jeans detail. In the color Wyeth, we’ll scrutinize the highlight and hat details specifically. Young Cowboys is first.
These two images were very, very close in quality when rendering Young Cowboys, but the Canson showed a bit of an advantage in terms of detail and subtle tonal gradations (see Figure 05). In the boy’s hat, the perforations are sharper, and more defined against the white of the rest of the hat. This is a trade-off, however, as the shadows of the boy’s shirt are a bit dense in the Canson, and we lose some of the shirt details, which the Hahnemühle renders better. Both characteristics are nearly unnoticeable without a loupe or digital enlargement.
In the second detail, we can see the Canson against renders a bit sharper in the stripes of the boy’s shirt (see Figure 06). Again, this is nearly outside the range of human vision when viewing the print, but at bigger print sizes, this can be more important due to the general loss of sharpness when printing at 30 inches wide and larger. However, even in that case, the difference is minor at best.
Now for the color image, Tribute to Andrew Wyeth, and its troublesome detailed sunny wall (see Figure 07). Unlike the black and white detail test, this investigation showed more pronounced differences between the papers. While the Canson did well with black and white details in Young Cowboys, the Hahnemühle clearly renders highlight details of the paint on the plaster wall more sharply and with more variation in the tonality.
The same sharp details emerge in the knitted hats, and moreover, their colors (see Figure 08). This is the strongest difference between the two papers, as the Canson seems to bleed a bit here, sacrificing details to vibrance. Specifically, the yarns, knitted rows and button are more accurately rendered by the Hahnemühle, while on the Canson, discerning those details is much more difficult.
Conclusions & Discussion
Both the Canson Infinity Rag Photographique and Hahnemühle Photo Rag Bright White are some of the best papers on the market, and each demonstrated why in this test: strong details, wide range and good color. While each paper has some shortcomings, overall, I think these are minor (though I discuss the blue cast of the Canson below).
In the case of black and white printing, I was very impressed with both papers. I would be very confident in using either for an exhibition or museum print, and with the Young Cowboys print, I felt there to be so little difference between the two brands, I would make my choice wholly on the basis of what surface I preferred for the print itself. The exceptionally smooth texture of the Canson is amazing; the texture of the Hahnemühle is expressive.
There was a greater difference in the color printing, both in terms of the color details, but also the highlight details. However, because color printing requires the use of an ICC profile, we can’t be sure that the advantage shown by the Hahnemühle in the color realm is due to the paper or their excellent ICC profile (I have found their profiles to be some of the most visually pleasing among those I’ve used). Nonetheless, the Hahnemühle provided a superior print in the color section of this test.
Finally, I mentioned the blue, selenium-like cast in the Canson paper that appeared across both tests. This is perhaps the most frustrating outcome of the test, since it is not an issue that can be solved by “tweaking” an ICC profile: clearly, Rag Photographique is just plain blue (and I don’t mean in the jazz sense). While that’s fine for black and white printing, where a selenium cast can be very expressive, it’s just a problem for color printing, unless your image is without warmer colors.
I hope this comparison will help you work through choosing one of these excellent papers. Neither is perfect, but both are perfectly suited to the right applications. More importantly, I hope the article has also helped you see the critical need for testing every paper you use in each application for which you’ll use it–knowledge is a photographer’s best friend.
And as always, I hope your best print, is your next print.
Comments? Questions? Please leave them below so everyone can benefit from the conversation.