What photo paper do I use?

Having gotten the printer back online and cleaned up the next step is to sort through my pile of papers and get the important ones profiled and calibrated. It might seem like overkill, but I not only calibrate my monitor, but I calibrate the printer — and it gets calibrated to each paper that I have. This is a bit of a problem because I’ve had a tendency to pick up supplies of papers that look interesting to me along the way as well as my stalwart reliable papers.

I’ve decided I need a twelve step for my printer paper habit.

Printer calibration

Few photographers these days seem to  do much printing and few photographers that print calibrate their printer. The good news is that color management with most printers has evolved into the “pretty darn good” category and you can get even closer using ICC profiles released by paper manufacturers for their papers. Those do a good job of calibrating your printer/paper combo to a reference standard that works well in many cases.

Every printer is a bit different, though, and so if you want to take it further than that, you need to calibrate your printer and paper, because every printer is a bit off from that reference standard. Maybe it’s the geek in me, but I’ve found I can see subtle improvements between the same print printed with the generic ICC and a custom calibrated one. For me, that difference is worth a bit of hassle.

For calibration I use the X-Rite Colormunki Photo. It’s somewhat pricey, but it handles both monitors and printer calibrarion. The way it handles printer calibration is by printing out a standard color chart and then reading the colors back. It will then print a second sheet of color blocks to fine tune that, and will generate an ICC file specific to that printer and paper that you can use for color management when printing to that paper. If your goal is to have your prints represent the colors in the image then managing the color management of both the monitor (so what you do in processing properly represents how those colors are stored in the image data) and the printer (so the printer uses colors that properly represent the colors you chose in processing). It takes about 30 minutes per paper to do the calibrations for each printer/ink/paper combination because you need to wait a bit between printing and calibration to let the inks dry a bit.

When you’re done, you have the ICC files installed on the computer and you select them as part of the printer configuration when you go to print an image, and it adjusts the colors sent to the printer so what you get properly represents the colors you saw on your (calibrated) monitor.

And to be completely serious for a moment, are you calibrating your monitor? If you aren’t, then the chances that your colors are accurate are about the same as if you smeared your eyepiece with Vaseline and then tried to manually focus every image. Good luck with that.  That said, computers and monitors are getting a lot better at being closer to accurate without help — I’ve found the IPS-based LED monitors to be both quite close and quite stable, which is nice. But is 80% close enough? Not for me, not for images I care about.

My preferred papers

When I started getting serious about printing one piece of advice I was given was to choose a few key papers and learn to use them and understand which images work best on each type of paper. I have two papers that are my “go to” set, a third I use rarely, and eight other papers that I bought in moments of weakness (hence the 12 step intervention).

My basic paper is the Epson Premium Photo Paper Glossy. It’s a good, solid, basic paper similar to what you’d get if you sent your images off to a lab. I use it like I’d use a lab paper — I do all of my initial prints on it, and I use it for day to day image printing. It’s a nice paper to do the initial printing on because it’s inexpensive (about $.40 a sheet at 8.5×11, $1.85 at 13×19) so it’s a paper I don’t mind doing a number of prints on while I’m debugging an image or to make copies of things for people.

Every image I print starts out being printed on this paper, and I typically print at 8.5×11 to start out. Once I feel the image looks good at that size on this paper, I may decide to continue on and either print it bigger (up to 13×19), or to print it on a higher quality art paper (or both). If I’m going to print large I’m going to print on this paper at a larger size until I’m happy before switching to the more expensive papers. As you might imagine, most of the paper that goes through my printer is this paper, and I like the reliability and consistent quality as well as the value.

If this is a print I really like and that I plan to put on my wall or give to someone as a gift, I’ll do the final print on a better paper. 90% of the time, that better paper is Epson Exhibition Fiber. It is a paper with a wonderful touch to it, much thicker and stiffer — you can roll this for shipping but it’ll fight back, and it needs to go through the single-sheet feeder and can’t be stacked into the standard paper feed on most printers. It’s heavy and it’s not a glossy paper; it’s more of a semi-gloss, and the surface of the paper has a bit of texture that can really enhance an image. It’s not glossy, more of a semi-gloss or a luster surface. This is the paper I use when printing for my walls, and I absolutely love it for almost any image. It’s a lot more expensive than the Epson Premium, starting at about $1.10 for 8.5×11 and $2.50 for 13×19, but once you start using it, you’ll find it addicting. It’s not the sort of difference I can show you online, but when you start looking at images printed on this paper, you’ll see and feel the difference. The thickness and stiffness of the paper also gives a print you’re giving as  a gift or selling a more “professional” sense to it. It’s an incredibly nice paper.

The third paper I use rarely is Epson Premium Photo Paper Luster. It has a look similar to the Exhibition Fiber but the paper is the same weight and thickness as the Premium Glossy. It’s a nice paper when you have an image that doesn’t look as good on fully glossy paper but I don’t want to print on the more expensive Exhibition Fiber. It’ll run you about $.45 a sheet at 8.5×11 and only about $1.50 at 13×19.

I will in general keep two or three sizes of paper: 8.5×11 (which can be trimmed to 8×10), 11×14 or 11×17, and 13×19. Because the cost of the larger sizes can stack up quickly if you’re doing half a dozen (or more) test prints, I try to do as much image tweaking at smaller sizes on less expensive papers to minimize the number of copies I have to print on the expensive large paper to get an image right. Once I’m sure I’ve got the image the way I want, I’ll save that instance of the print as a TIFF tagged to the printer/size/paper so when I want to print it again I can without having to tweak it again.

For those that haven’t done much printing, it’s worth reminding you that the processing you do to put an image online or to print on that $100 photo printer is a good starting point but rarely good enough to use on a larger format printer at larger sizes. There will be tweaking, and you’ll want to sharpen the image differently for print than for online use. The details of that are it’s own long and complicated discussion so I’ll defer that for now, but once you start doing it, you’ll see the difference, and you’ll want to get it right.

Other papers

There are a couple of other papers I’ve experimented with a bit — enough to suggest in case you’re interested — but don’t use very often.  One is Red River Paper 66lb Polar Pearl Metallic. This paper has a sheen on it that almost makes the inks in an image luminescent. It’s one of the papers that attempts to simulate the results you get when you lab print with metallic inks, and it works pretty well. It’s one I really need to experiment with more: some images will really benefit from this papers, and some images will be destroyed by it. Still, if you’re someone who lab prints with metallic inks, it’s worth experimenting with.

Another paper I’ve used a little but want to spend more time with is Ilford’s Gold Mono Silk. This is a paper built for printing in black and white, and it can give a monochrome image a really gorgeous look. I simply haven’t time to explore this style of printing much, but it’s definitely on my list, and in my limited explorations, I think I’m really going to like this paper.

There is life beyond glossy!

This should give you some starting points if you’re looking to push your printing forward (or get started on it!). Remember there’s more to life than glossy paper, and once you start to explore it you’ll find the paper can impact the final image in many positive ways — so can the size you print it because larger prints can show off detail that gets lost at 8×10 and is absolutely missing at online sizes. That’s why I recommend spending a bit more on an 11×14 or wide format printer, because one you start experimenting, there’s a good chance you’ll fall in love with larger prints and want the capability.

If you are going to get started, get yourself a good, basic glossy for general day to day usage, and then look for a higher quality luster paper. Get yourself a box of the Epson exhibition fiber and try it out if your printer can handle it (cheaper ones often can’t), and you may find yourself a new and interesting aspect to your photography hobby.