The Paper Chase

With apologies to John Jay Osborn, this article is not about the law-school rat race; rather, it's about my chase to learn the craft of photo printing, and while doing so testing dozens of photo printing papers. I began making large prints in 2007, and that's when I began my own paper chase.

Snow raven, Yellowstone National Park

Printing is one of my favorite aspects of photography. For many years I photographed subjects which appealed to me, but rarely printed anything. Most of my work was posted to my Web site and went no further. When I did desire a print I'd have it made in the "traditional way", sending the slide to a lab, specifying a size and a paper finish (typically glossy or mat), and then waiting to see if the result met my expectations. The success rate wasn't bad, but giving up control of this significant aspect of the art was never satisfactory to me. I always felt there was more to the image which could be brought out in a well-made print. The answer was to bring that process in-house and print it myself.

Of course, by the time I did this in 2007, "that process" was fully digital — no darkroom or chemicals required. After some research (OK, a lot of research spanning months), many conversations with a couple of knowledgeable and experienced people, and some guess work, I bought one of Canon's then-new large-format printers. Although it didn't seem so at the time, that turned out to be the easy part; with the arrival of my new printer my education in the art of print making was just beginning.

This photo was made on a miserable snowy day in May in Yellowstone National Park's Hayden Valley. We'd been in the park for several days; it had rained and/or snowed on every one of them. We stopped along the road for lunch (in the rain, of course) and spotted this raven on the snow some 30 feet (9 M) away. Its complaining mirrored our feelings about the weather. The white background, which isn't really quite white, is the snow-field beyond the bird.

So Many Choices

Among the many things to learn: optimizing in Photoshop an image for printing; color management, primarily in the form of monitor and paper profiles; the sometimes annoying and often poorly documented idiosyncrasies (er, features) of the printer, the proper handling of prints, and of course, selecting an appropriate paper for a given image.

This can be a challenge, and it's not made easier by the vast array of papers now available for ink-jet printing. It's possible to buy sample packs of paper. Paper manufacturers make these, and some resellers put together their own, often with a selection of several papers in the pack. Generally you'll get several sheets of a given paper, or in some cases several sheets of several different papers, in a pack. These packs aren't cheap and the sheets are typically small, but they allow one to try the papers without purchasing larger quantities, so they probably result in some savings in the long run.

Some of the papers I've used

Just a few of the papers I sampled: Epson, Hahnemuhle, Moab, Canon, Ilford, Harman, Crane, Red River.

These papers have different weights, thicknesses, surfaces, and tones, or levels of "whiteness". Most are available in cut sheets in a variety of sizes and in rolls of various widths and lengths. For any given printer model, or more generally, any given printer technology, the same image can look quite different when printed on different papers. With glossy papers there are bronzing and gloss differential to deal with. Canon's iPF 5000 suffers from both, although I learned through testing both are minimized and acceptable results are achieved with the right paper choice. When displayed under glass neither is detectable.

Prints on mat-finished papers (often erroneously listed at "matte") don't exhibit bronzing, and of course have no gloss differential. Some papers are quite cool in tone, so white they can appear blue. Others are warm, while others are very warm, so much so they appear slightly yellow. Although nearly all papers for ink-jet printing are acid free, other factors determine whether a paper is truly archival. Typically the warmer papers are rag papers, often 100% cotton or other fiber, with no cellulose to break down over time. These warmer papers also generally have no optical brightening agents (OBAs) to make them whiter (which also break down with time).

More recent developments include the "baryta" papers, which contain a layer of barium sulfate or other metallic compound on a fiber base. These papers have a look and feel very like traditional wet-darkroom gloss papers and have become my favorites for printing on gloss materials. They are, however, quite fragile and must be handled with great care to avoid damaging the printed surface. Some of these papers use OBAs while the warmer ones don't.

Some people have strong opinions about a paper's "feel in the hand". Many papers feel like plastic or rubber, very unlike any real paper from the wet darkroom era (an era which has not ended for many). While its true that some papers have a great feel, I don't consider this a significant criterion when selecting papers. My prints are intended to be displayed matted and framed, under glass, so there's little opportunity for the feel of the paper to have an impact.

Color Management

There are hundreds of articles on the Web about color management. These define it, explain what's needed to do it right, and discuss how to set it up on your imaging systems (capture — camera or scanner; computer and printing software; printer), so I won't spend much time discussing it here. The equipment needed to produce good printing profiles is ridiculously expensive and beyond my means. For what I do and the way I do it, owning such a system makes no sense. When testing paper samples it's necessary to get the "generic" profiles, usually from the paper manufacturer. Many resellers have links on their sites to the paper-maker's profiles. You select a paper, find the profile for it and your printer, download and install the profile, and you're then equipped to make your test prints. These profiles are often far from optimum, but unless you can make your own profiles (in which case you've stopped reading by now anyway), you have little choice but to use them for trials.

profile test images on a variety of papers

A few of the many dozens of profile test images I printed on a variety of papers.

If you find a paper you like but have trouble getting good results, you can have a custom profile made. You'll find plenty of vendors offering this service at a wide variety of prices. How can you determine if a profile is good? Printing a standard test image can be a great help. Print the image and look at the result under appropriate lighting.

I use the profile test image from Digital Outback Photo. The page I've linked here includes a link to a nice article explaining how to interpret the resulting print. I've printed this image dozens of times on a variety of papers. My engineering background forces me to document my tests, so I've written copious notes in the margins of these prints and kept them, organized by paper manufacturer, in a binder. My notes list the paper name, the profile used, various printer settings (media type, driver version, and others), rendering intent, and any observations made during printing. It's difficult to see that in the small photo here, and it's also difficult to see the differences between the warmer vs. the cooler papers.

Getting it Right

I learned a great deal in my year of total immersion in the craft of printing. It was worth the time and money invested. Interestingly, after testing dozens of papers I find I stock fewer than half a dozen different papers, and I make most of my prints on only three of those. For one of those papers I have a custom profile made (for a fee) by a paper vendor with appropriate equipment. For the others I've found the manufacturers' profiles to be at least adequate, and sometimes quite good.

Large panoramic print emerging from the printer

And when things are right, the prints can be stunning. Shown here is a 40 inch (100 cm) long panorama emerging from the printer. This is being printed on a 17 inch wide roll of Moab Entrada Natural. Entrada Natural is a very warm paper, and I did not expect this image, with its expanses of blue sky and ice, to look good on it. A small test strip convinced me otherwise, and the finished print looks great. I should note here Moab does offer Entrada White, a brighter version of this paper containing OBAs.

In case you were wondering, the photo at the top of this article is there to illustrate the affect paper choice can have on an image. "Snow Raven, Yellowstone" is my best-selling photo. While here seeming monochromatic, at larger sizes it's easy to see subtle color variations in the bird's feathers and bill. The foreground ice has some blue tints, as is often the case with snow or ice in shadow. The background is white, but not bright white. Oddly enough, my favorite paper for this picture is Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk, which is quite warm. When I made my first print of this I used a bright white paper, but found the overall "feel" on that paper was wrong. I much prefer the warmer Ilford.

This article should not be taken as a tutorial. It is simply an account of my own experience, with my own images and equipment. As always, your mileage may vary, and your own paper chase may take you in a different direction. Happy printing!

September 2009

Update: We replaced the Canon printer in October, 2011; we have an article about the replacement.