Choosing a fine art paper for digital prints can be confusing if you’re not already familiar with the papers, and vague marketing descriptions like sensual, velvety or prestigious don’t help very much. So this page aims to provide an overview of the most important properties and why you may choose one paper over another.
Describing papers and showing them two different things. Unlike images displayed on a screen, papers in the hand become real, the surfaces come alive and they take on weight. Prints may be a two dimensional representation, but they are a multi dimensional experience.
So what is a fine art paper?
Quite honestly, ‘fine art paper’ is probably just another marketing term, but it’s a useful one. It provides a way to distinguish ‘commercial’ papers which are built to a price, from ‘fine art’ papers which place quality, longevity and aesthetics at the forefront.
Many of today’s fine art papers are variations of art papers used by artists for hundreds of years, while others were born more recently in the darkroom era.
Types of paper
Lets consider 4 paper categories.
Most of the examples below are made by Canson, but only because I have them on hand.
Resin Coated (RC) commercial papers
Digital prints are commonly made on resin coated (RC) photo papers, they’re durable and can look okay at times, but they’re chock full of plastic and would rarely present an image at its best. They may fade or change in appearance over weeks, months or years as opposed to a lifetime, and don’t have the aesthetic quality many artists want.
They usually contain OBA’s to help produce a brighter white, which contributes to their cooler white point.
Canson Photo Satin: Note the blue tint, many resin coated photo papers have a cool white point. RC papers are not as bright as Fine Art Papers, which inevitably gives images a duller appearance.
Note the satin finish, as seen in the reflected light. RC papers may also have a gloss finish.
Matte papers or Rags
Matte papers resemble the old art & watercolour papers, they are fibre based and when made of cotton they’re known as ‘rags’. They have a true matte surface which can be smooth or textured.
I find matte papers are often most suitable for portraits or natural subjects which don’t have natural surface reflections and for low contrast subjects where colour subtlety is more important than tonal contrast or deep blacks. They’re also work well behind glass by avoiding additional reflections.
Canson PrintMaKing Rag has a textured surface, notice it is a much warmer white than the RC paper.
Notice how there are no reflections from the surface of the matte paper, and the blacks aren’t quite as deep as the other coated papers.
Coated fibre based ‘darkroom’ papers
Coated fibre based papers resemble darkroom photographic papers, the fibre base can be simlar to matte papers, only these have a satin like coating for more vibrant colours and deeper blacks. The coating also provides some protection from stains and smudges if prints are being handled.
These ‘darkroom’ like papers have plenty of punch and will work well with many images.
Platine Fibre Rag is a versatile fine art paper with quite a neutral white point. A neutral white means it won’t influence the tint of the image and keeps it suitable for a range of images. Other ‘darkroom’ papers will have warmer or cooler white points, depending on the make.
Like RC papers, the coated fibre papers often have a satin like finish, but they have a little more character in the texture. A paper like Platine has a wide colour gamut and strong blacks, which helps with contrast and vibrancy.
Baryta’s are similar to the coated fibre based papers, except they include a barium sulphate layer to produce a strong clean white, usually with a smooth satin like finish. The Baryta papers can produce deep blacks, bright whites, and have excellent colour reproduction. The difference between Baryta’s and the other ‘darkroom’ papers can be quite subtle.
Canson Baryta Photographique is also very neutral, like other fine art papers, Baryta’s come in different ‘flavours’, with different white tints, substrates or surface finish.
Baryta’s typically have a satin like finish.
The four examples above are just scraping the surface. Some fine art papers are extremely versatile, and well suited to a range of images, while others, like highly textured papers, or papers with strong white points are more appropriate for a specific type of image. At times paper choice is simply a personal preference, and at others, the paper chooses the image.
A print can only be as bright as the paper it’s printed on. A dull paper can’t make bright and vibrant prints, so a brighter white is generally better.
Paper white’s differ significantly in their ‘warmth’. An Icelandic landscape is unlikely to present its best on a warm toned paper, while portraits won’t look their best on cool toned papers, though it’s something I often see.
Cotton ‘rags’ often have a warmish white, while commercial RC ‘photo’ papers are usually cooler, though this can vary significantly by paper brand. Each manufacturer tends to have a ‘DNA’ or feel associated with their brand.
Canson Baryta Photographique
Baryta Photographique has a very neutral tone, it’s neither warm or cool.
Canson PhotoSatin RC
PhotoSatin uses optical brighteners (OBA’s) which produce a bluish white.
Canson PrintMaKing Rag
PMK is a warm toned cotton rag. The warm tone becomes particularly obvious when compared with the cooler toned ‘photo’ papers.
OBA’s are sometimes used to brighten whites. They absorb UV light which we can’t see and re-emit it visibly to brighten the paper with a slightly cooler tone.
One catch is that not all light contains UV, so prints can change appearance under different lighting conditions, making them quite unpredictable if you don’t know where the print will be displayed. Personally I can’t stand papers with high OBA content, they’re like a bipolar personality and you don’t know what mood they’ll be in next. OBA’s are also susceptible to fading over time as the OBA’s deteriorate, causing the paper to yellow. This can happen quite rapidly in cheaper papers, with change occurring within days & weeks of being exposed to daylight. I’ve personally tested this.
OBA’s are often used in cheaper papers in an effort to brighten their naturally dull appearance, which contributes to their cooler whites. Some fine art papers also use OBA’s, but I generally avoid using them and haven’t yet compared their longevity.
Just like coated papers can be ‘glossy’ or ‘lustre’, matte papers are available with different textures. Textures can add a tactile and genuine feel to a print, but they don’t suit every image.
It’s difficult to make a general recommendation on when textures should be used, they’re an artistic choice, and it’s probably easier to point out some drawbacks. On busy images I’ve found textures can become lost or interfere with image detail and become a distraction, and darker colours can hide them all together. Heavy textures on a portrait may not be a great idea either, but don’t take my word for it, all ideas are on the table. Perhaps they’re best left in the back pocket, consider them when you’re after tactile quality.
If you’re getting really fussy, you might also consider the lighting, textures disappear in flat lighting, and show under steeper lighting.
Canson Aquarelle Rag
Aquarelle is a heavily textured paper, made from cotton fibres, it has a slightly warm tone.
Hahnemuhle German Etching Rag
German Etching Rag is moderately textured, and made from wood based fibres, it has an organic feel and uses some OBA’s to help achieve it’s bright white appearance.
Canson PrintMaKing Rag
PMK Rag has a light to moderate texture, it’s cotton based and has a warm tone.
Canson Edition Etching Rag
Edition Etch is a lightly textured cotton rag with a near neutral white point, the texture is subtle and almost smooth. I often prefer to use a paper like Edition Etch over a perfectly smooth paper.
Canson Rag Photographique
A smooth cotton rag, without texture, otherwise very similar to Edition etch.
Comparison with printed images
Coated papers could be categorised into three groups (and possibly more):
- Resin Coated (commercial photo papers)
- Fibre based ‘darkroom’ papers
Resin coated papers are usually available with a satin or glossy finish and are commonly used by photographers for their price and availability. They have a plasticy feel and are not fine art papers. They’re incapable of producing the colour, brightness, longevity and aesthetics of fine art papers although they can often look quite good. They usually contain OBA’s to help produce a brighter white, and this contributes to their cooler white point.
Ilford Smooth Pearl
ISP is a resin coated photo paper with a satin finish. Other ‘RC’ papers include Canson HighGloss or Canson PhotoSatin. I prefer Ilford Smooth Pearl to the Canson equivalents because it uses less OBA’s and isn’t as cool toned.
Canson Rag Photographique (matte)
Similar in construction to Platine but without the coating, note the absence of visible surface reflection from the light positioned above the print.
Also notice the softer shadows. Uncoated papers have a weaker black, which may or may not work for your image.
Canson Platine Fibre Rag
Platine is one of my ‘go to’ papers, and always produces great looking prints. It’s built on a cotton rag, is fairly neutral, and the satin surface texture looks natural.
Ilford’s Gold Fibre gloss is a similar option.
Epson’s Traditional Photo paper could be considered similar as well, it uses wood based fibres instead of cotton fibres but contains OBA’s giving a bright but cooler appearance.
Canson Baryta Photographique
Baryta Photographique is has a very neutral but bright white point, and is similar to Ilford’s Gold Fibre Silk.
Ilford Gold Mono Silk
Gold Mono silk is now out of production. It’s a coated, fibre based paper with a semi gloss surface.
It’s included here to show the surface reflection from a glossy paper compared to the others.
Tips for matching prints to papers:
- Match the image with a paper white. Don’t use cool toned papers for warm toned images and vice-versa, portraits can look dead when printed on cooler toned papers.
- Papers with near neutral white points, or smoother surfaces tend to suit a wider range of images.
- Coated papers are more vibrant and contrasty than matte papers and may be the best choice for high contrast images, or images needing depth in the blacks. They may also be chosen for their surface sheen, for example a glossy surface may be chosen for an image containing water, or hard steel.
- Matte papers have a softer natural look with less contrast in the blacks. I find this can make them suitable for natural scenes or portraits where high contrast isn’t needed, or where colour is most important.
- Textured papers should be selected carefully to complement the print and bring about a tactile feel, they won’t suit every print and can get in the way of image details.
I hope this article helps, it will be updated occasionally. If you find anything that should be added or changed please let me know!