It's a Fine Art

With so many choices, knowing which paper to print on can be an overwhelming task, especially when it comes to fine-art prints in the wide-format market. While artists and photographers will spend hour upon hour creating the perfect image, the whole effect can be ruined with a poor choice of paper. A warm, moody image should not be displayed on slick, glossy paper, and vice versa.

But, how do you choose the right paper? While all agree that the right paper is a matter of personal choice, they all offer basic guidelines to follow to ensure that the final product is indeed a fine work of art.

Q. How do you pick the right inkjet papers for photographic and fine-art applications?

Christina Clayton, marketing and technical support, Hahnemuhle, USA: For me, as a photographer, the paper choice is the first element of getting the final image I want. I try to take the most important factor in the image and go with it. There may be more than one right paper for a project, but the paper sets the mood! For a nostalgic feel, I use a warm-based paper. If clean, modern lines are integral, I use a smooth paper over a textured one. For color saturation, a whiter-based paper. For a traditional silver gelatin feel, fiber-based pearl or baryta. For a painterly feel, a texture that does not compete or overwhelm the image texture.

Lenny Eiger, master photographer, fine artist and master printer (courtesy Roland DGA Corp.): The quality of a print is directly related to the quality of the media used and the skill of the printer. Look for a product that feels good in your hand and prints with a great degree of richness. Paper varies wildly, so we look for a good D-Max, which is the darkest black that a particular paper can produce. This gives us an indication of the quality of the coating and how ink will be applied to the paper across the entire spectrum. We also do all our own profiling and retest papers with every new advancement in software, media and ink.

Nicholas M. Friend, president, Breathing Color, Inc.: The image dictates its substrate. Some images have a soft, moody quality, others a sharp, slick look. Ultimately, the final decision is one of personal taste. Many of today’s finest photographers prefer a heavy, high-quality art paper or canvas. One reason they love canvas is its quality with the added advantage of low-cost framing. If you take a 20x24-inch print and do an archival frame with UV plexiglass and a nice 8-ply matte and frame, your costs would certainly be over $400. On the other hand, the same image with a canvas wrap is only about $65.

Tony Johnson, product marketing manager, Ilford Professional: There are now two types of fine-art media for inkjet applications. The first is what became known as Giclée media as in effect it was existing artists paper (watercolor) that was found to take inks well. The only downside was that the paper allowed the ink to penetrate with resulting loss of D-max and color gamut. Hence, the results were “artistic” rather than “photographic.” In the past couple of years, as the inkjet media market has matured, various manufacturers have looked at coating ink receiving layers onto fine-art papers. The big impact of this approach is to get back a full color gamut and good D-max giving photographic results. To complete the picture, a couple of manufacturers went back in history and produced “baryta” papers with an ink receiving layer. Baryta (barium sulphate) is the material used for coating base papers to get both a neutral white and a smooth surface for adding the receiving layer (either for traditional silver halide or now ink).

There are many different surfaces available in a variety of weights. Many photographers like to use a day-to-day media that gives good results and most manufacturers have an RC (resin coated) offering. These are analogous to the traditional silver image RC papers and offer ease of use and rapid drying at a good price. It is worth checking that the media manufacturer provides ICC profiles for its media and the chosen printer. To get the best out of the media, one needs to use profiles that allow the best balance between controlling inkloads and provide optimum quality reproducibly.

Alex Ried, product manager, LexJet Corp.: First, understand the image and how you would like your work to be portrayed. In photography, and fine-art context especially, emotional context is very important. A lot of photographers are taking advantage of the wide range of media now available to provide their customers with something unique that is also appropriate to the image. Selecting the right weight and finish based on the image adds depth and meaning to it. Though the overall effect might be subtle and not readily apparent to the end user, the material chosen will have an impact on the viewer’s reaction to the print. Even though the print will be framed under glass, the feel of the paper, or “hand,” is also very important to photographers and artists. The lighting, frame, choice of glass, etc., all have an impact on the choice of paper.

For this reason, experimentation with different media, both papers and films, is an important aspect of photographic and fine-art reproduction.

Q. Technically speaking, what makes a good inkjet paper for photographic prints?

Clayton: The basics of a technically good paper are subjective. For the fine-art category, the first thing would be a lignin-free product. The next thing would be the ability of the coating to retain the ink in the designated spot—no bleeding or pooling. Coating consistency and retaining 100 percent reproduction color saturation is important as well. The longevity of an image on paper is based on the inks used. We haven’t actually figured out the maximum life of our paper because the testing can only go so far with today’s ink technology. I am confident that the ink market will catch up though. I have an etching that is 250 years old with absolutely no sign of degradation or ink loss. I personally like paper that is more than just visually pleasing. For example, a paper that is very tactile, engages more senses and, therefore, is more effective.

Friend: From an objective standpoint, all inkjet papers can be evaluated using ISO 13660, which is a print-quality evaluation. Objective print quality analysis uses instruments to assess the characteristics and attributes that make up a print and impact the perception of print quality, as opposed to a visual assessment, which is inherently subjective. The attributes measured are Visual Optical Density, Tone Reproduction (Graininess), Tonal Range, Mottling, Brightness, Line Quality (Blurriness), and Line Optical Density. According to the ISO, an inkjet paper that dominates in these categories objectively delivers the highest quality print. Aside from print quality, longevity is a critical factor when selecting an inkjet paper or canvas. A large component of the value of a photographic print is how long it is going to last. For many years, the industry has been plagued with inkjet papers marketed as “archival” that turned out to be the opposite. Therefore, prior to selecting an inkjet paper or canvas, consumers should make sure that the product has been independently archival certified.

Johnson: High D-max, wide gamut, good sharpness, good whites. The media needs to control both diffusion (lateral movement of ink in the layer lowering sharpness and resolution) and light scatter (reflected light scattering to reduce observed clarity and density). Inks and media also need to have a high level of longevity, but the ink plays a much larger part in this.

Ried: Primarily, the ability to reproduce color. Just as a printer has an achievable color gamut, the material being printed to has its own achievable color gamut. There is an objective way to measure this using a program like Monaco GamutWorks to provide a three-dimensional color map of the material after the material has been profiled. How the print will be displayed is an important factor as well. The ultimate answer is…it depends on personal preference, which is why experimentation with different types of materials is so important.

Q. How does fine-art paper differ from paper used for commercial photography?

Eiger: Fine-art paper generally features a matte surface, and commercial art typically emulates the shine or luster of magazine printing. Fine and commercial art have very different intents. The fine artist offers you the opportunity to experience the art. A matte paper allows one to “fall into the image,” or in technical terms, “break the ground.” It offers a participatory experience, when done well, and that means that the viewer will get the message.

The intent of commercial art is to catch the eye, to amaze, or to shock the audience into seeing the message the advertisement is trying to project. Luster and gloss papers do this well by producing very dark blacks and high-impact images. The luster surface has snap, but will not allow the viewer to “fall into it” in the same way a matte paper will.

The great thing about today’s fine-art papers is that we can choose from papers previously available only to painters and printmakers. Many of these papers are produced by mills that are 600 to 800 years old and that have been developing papers for many centuries. New coatings make these papers responsive to the inks, and the prints feel fabulous.

Ried: Fine art typically refers to watercolor-type matte papers that have varying degrees of texture, whereas commercial photography has historically lent itself toward glossy or luster alternatives. Today, the line has blurred significantly since photographers are routinely printing their work on canvas and fine-art papers, while fine-art reproduction companies are using papers traditionally used in photography, such as fiber-based papers. This development, driven by inkjet printing as the preferred output method, has effectively elevated and diversified both photographic and fine-art reproduction to the great benefit of both producers and end users.

Q. What advice would you give to photographers who want to print fine-art images?

Clayton: Purchase sample packs. You can research and have fun with sample packs before settling into your favorites. Digital fine-art paper coatings are fragile. Simply because digital papers are not soaked in water does not mean they have any hardier of a coating. Treat it like it just came out of the water bath. Don’t wipe the surface with your hands, don’t put the emulsion face down on something that you would not have with a (fiber) silver gelatin. Lastly, play, play, play.

Eiger: I recommend that every photographer study historic photographers, especially those who were outstanding printers. This education is critical. Refine the process of photographing, printing and reviewing your results. Do this with the best materials available. Repeated enough times, this process will allow you to discover the extra tones and details that are possible. Finally, find someone who is a truly fine printer and take the time to understand how this artist works. Learn about the types of decisions they make and the materials and processes they employ in their art form. Successful fine-art printing requires an investment in time and materials, attention to detail, and the expertise that comes from years of experience.

Friend: Printing your images on fine-art papers elevates your image. It showcases you as a real artist. It allows you to speak passionately about your print and explain the care taken to make it. These subtleties will help in raising the awareness of new customers and gain you a reputation. This will translate into more money.

Johnson: Experiment. Get a good printer. Get some media you like the look of and check compatibility with your printer. Download the profile from the media manufacturer. Set up the editing software and press go. I believe that there are a lot of hang-ups around the quality that can be achieved with inkjet. Shed the inhibitions and you will surprise yourself at the quality you can get. Having said all that I must come back to the often expressed statement “rubbish in—rubbish out.” So, make sure the original image is worth the effort you are going to exert in getting that prize-winning print.

Ried: Don’t be fooled into the “must be 100 percent Rag to be fine art” mantra, or that optical brighteners are all bad. “Rag” (actually cotton linters), alpha cellulose, and the combination of the two are archival when produced to international specifications. A characteristic of these “natural” paper materials is that there are color variances between batches. Bleaching, titanium dioxide, and optical brightening agents (OBAs) are used to assure consistency from lot to lot. The major concern is that OBAs can “evaporate” out of a product over time, thus bringing out the true color of the base paper, which is sometimes referred to using the somewhat mythological term “yellowing.” Low-cost brighteners that are added to coatings can turn the paper to its natural color very quickly. This is generally true for commodity-grade papers with very high white points. A much more stable procedure is to add the OBAs to the base paper. This is the most expensive and stable method of adding brighteners. Many fine-art papers on the market utilize optical brighteners to create consistent color base materials. These papers have been tested by various organizations, such as the Rochester Institute of Technology, Wilhelm Imaging Research, and others. Ultimately, it’s best to view your own work on the varying types of materials in the marketplace and decide what you and your clients like best.