Inkjet Paper for Photographers: What It Is and How to Choose.

With the advent of desktop publishing, desktop printers have become incredibly advanced, to the point where desktop printers can handle many tasks formerly reserved for specialty printing shops. One area in particular – photo printing – has advanced to the point where it is possible to print museum or heirloom quality photo prints from an inkjet printer.

When choosing print paper for your inkjet printer, photographers need to understand the differences between photo-capable printers, and how the various types of printer paper work with them. After the technical considerations like what printer you already have or need to purchase the aesthetic preference, cost, print fidelity, and how the print will be used can be all factor into the decision of which paper is right for your project.

A short review of the types of photo printer and the papers that have been specially formulated for them will help first-time buyers navigate the complex world of inkjet photo printers and paper.

What is the Difference Between Laser and Inkjet Printers?

There are two significant technologies when it comes to desktop printers – laser printing and inkjet printing. Both technologies have the same goal – that of creating letters and images on the printed page.

But both technologies use very different strategies to accomplish that goal. And based on how both machines work, there is a strong likelihood that one will be more likely to meet your needs than the other.  (tomsguide.com)

Inkjet Printers

Inkjet printers rely on the process of applying liquid ink directly onto the printed page through a print head that is equipped with dozens of micro-nozzles. The printer sprays microscopic drops of ink onto the page and depending on whether the ink is dye or pigment-based, the ink may either change the color of the paper itself or form deposits on the surface of the paper.

Laser Printers

Laser printers use the medium of ‘toner,’ which is a dry powder made up of micro polymers. The laser printer uses a laser to generate an electrostatic charge, which is used to attract the toner powder to the print surface. Then heat is used to bond the toner to the surface of the paper permanently.

General Takeaways for Inkjet and Laser Printers

  • Inkjet printers tend to be smaller than laser printers. 
  • Inkjet printers are better at printing images or photos.
  • Inkjet printers tend to be cheaper to purchase upfront, but are more costly to operate over time. If you only need to make occasional prints, inkjet printers may be the more affordable option.
  • Inkjet printers print in higher resolution for images and on more archival (meaning it lasts longer) and, therefore, better printer paper
  • Laser printers tend to be better for printing documents.
  • Laser printers tend to have higher upfront purchase costs, but their long-term operational costs are lower, mostly because their supplies tend to last longer.
  • If you need to keep your cost-per-page as low as possible, a laser printer may be the better choice for you.

What is the Difference Between Laser Printer Photo Paper and Inkjet Photo Paper?

Laser and inkjet printing technologies use similar principles when generating color images on paper. Both laser printers and inkjet printers apply a delivery medium to the print surface using a mix of four base colors – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black.

Using pure colors and combining the various amount of each color medium creates mid-tones, which makes it possible to print a broad spectrum of colors. Still, both types of printers have very different techniques for applying color to the printed page.

Laser printers use micro polymer powder (toner) as the color medium. They lay the material onto the print surface in consecutive layers and then bond the toner to the page by running the paper through a series of the heated roller at the end of the print cycle.

Inkjet printers spray their color medium (colored ink) directly onto the print surface. To help ensure sharp, colorful results, the paper that has been explicitly formulated for inkjet printing has a layer of receiving chemicals on the paper itself, which helps to control the wet ink and keep it from spreading on smudging.

The differences in the two print technologies mean that paper, which has been specially formulated for either type of printer, will not work very well with printers of the other type.

So-called ‘normal’ printer paper is rated by its weight. Most standard paper for office use is rated at either 80gsm (grams per square meter), 90gsm, or 100gsm. Regular printer paper will work fine for printing simple text documents in either type of printer. Still, it generally does not fare very well when used for printing images that are heavily saturated with color on an inkjet printer.

What Happens If You Use Inkjet Photo Paper in a Laser Printer, or Vice-Versa?

Paper that has been specially designed for laser printing has a special coating on it that is designed to melt the colored toner and fuse it in place on the print surface. Using this type of paper in an inkjet printer can result in the liquid ink failing to be absorbed into the paper surface. Instead, the ink can pool on the surface of the paper, running off or adhering to anything that happens to touch it while it is wet.  

The paper specifically formulated for inkjet printers has a special chemical coating designed to trap and hold liquid ink in place. Using this paper in laser printers exposes the chemical coating to heat during the printing process, which can cause it to melt, damaging the print mechanisms inside the printer.

One other factor to be aware of is that generally, the path of paper through inkjet printers is more straightforward than the print path of paper through a laser printer. This means that often paper formulated especially for use in inkjet printers tends to be of a heavier weight and may not pass easily through the internal mechanisms of a laser printer.

What Type of Printer is Better for Color Photographs?

It is well accepted that inkjet technology produces better print quality for high resolution, photographic images, especially when using paper that is specially formulated for inkjet printing when compared to color laser printing.

However, the best printer for color prints is a digital Chromogenic print. A digital Chromogenic (digital c-type or c-print) is also known as a Lambda print or LightJet print and is a traditional photographic print, made from a digital file rather than a negative, and is a combination of the digital printing process and traditional analog color darkroom process. It uses lasers or LED lights to “paint” and expose the digital image onto light-sensitive paper instead of a film negative and enlarger. Once the image is exposed onto the color paper it uses the traditional analog color darkroom process to develop the print. Since this method uses the traditional analog color process in combination with digital printing, this type of print is more color accurate, has a sharper image, as well as has a higher color saturation than inkjet printing.

There is also a similar technology that allows you to obtain a black and white print from a digital negative rather than a film negative. This method produces a traditional black and white silver gelatin print.

Giclée Vs InkJet Printing

A type of inkjet printing that is more suited for fine art is called a Giclée print. This method of printing is similar to the desktop inkjet printing process in that it uses a spray of color drops on paper to create the images but better in every way. There are many ways that giclée is superior to desktop inkjet prints. The inks and paper involved in the process are archival (meaning they will last a long time if kept properly), much better color accuracy and saturation due to the wider color gamut used in this printing process, and the image is sharper.

Source 1, Source 2

Recapturing the Lost Art of Photo Printing

In the past, the art of photography used to consist of three discrete steps: shooting the photos, developing the film, and making a print from the film negatives in a darkroom. 

Each of the steps consisted of its skills and offered distinct experiences and emotional rewards to the photographer. For example, the experience of shooting the photos in the field might be calm, contemplative, or even thrilling, depending on the subject and situation. 

The second step of developing and printing the shot film was one of discovery and revelation. A photographer could not help but develop an intimate relationship with their work as the artist undertook the deliberate steps of the photo development process.

The third step of printing the image in a darkroom is of discovery, experimentation, and producing.

Today, photography is almost entirely digital. Photographers shoot their subjects, and then manipulate their photo data on a computer and finally share the final image on an online platform – losing much of the second stage of the traditional process.

Printing your photos can replace the intimate, tactile pleasure of turning your images into physical works of art. The act of creation, coupled with the fact that printing yields a physical art object, can be intensely satisfying.

Printing your photos can also help to present your work in a speedy way to anyone who happens to see your photos in a way that they might never experience if they stumbled across your hard-drive, your memory cards, or even your raw photo data.

Why Would You Want to Print Your Photos?

  • There are several excellent practical reasons for you to print your photos. (jenellebotts.com)
  • Printing your photos gives you an excellent reason to curate your photo collection. Stepping through series and finding the best shots to preserve while culling less desirable photos can help to familiarize you with your collection and eliminate sub-standard images.
  • All technology can fail. Even in the age of digital photography and cloud storage, it is possible to lose beloved photographs to hardware or software failure. A printed and curated collection of your most beloved photos can serve as an archive against technical failure.
  • JPEG data can deteriorate over time. When a JPEG image is opened, edited, saved, and closed again, raw data in the image can be lost. While merely moving files or copying them does not result in degradation, repeated edits can damage valuable photo data.
  • Printed photos are tangible reminders of the art and craft of photography. They can make excellent inspirational pieces for you as a photographer, and they can also make thoughtful gifts for others. People buy decorative photos every day – imagine how much more meaningful it might be to receive a photo that had been shot and printed by the artist themselves.
  • There are archival benefits. A complete and carefully documented photo collection is often the best way to enjoy your art and your memories fully.

How Can Printing Your Photos Make You a Better Photographer?

Beyond enhancing the pleasure of the art form, printing your photographs can also help to make you a better photographer. Printed photos take on a very different character to photos seen on a digital screen. They can reveal a lot about your photography gear, your photographic technique, and your abilities as a photographer.

One massive difference between a printed photo and a digital representation is the simple fact that the print is not backlit on a display screen. 

Another big difference is in the resolution of the printed image. Seeing an image printed out in a non-luminous format will often reveal a great deal about the ‘truth’ of the details – precisely what is visible and what is not.

Seeing the printed images of your photos might also bring out details about your technique as an artist and editor – framing, composition, timing, texture, and detail – these all are magnified when viewing a printed image as compared to a digital version of the data.

How Do You Organize Your Printed Photos?

Many photographers struggle with the issue of how to organize their printed photos. According to diynetwork.com, there are a few simple steps that can significantly aid in that process.

  • Print statement pieces, intended to work as decor in the home or office. Pick the work that you are most proud of and print it at a size that makes a bold statement, such as 36″ by 48″. Then frame the piece or pieces.
  • Always label your photos with ink. Pencil markings can fade or rub off over time. Be sure to sign your pieces, and include the dates when they were shot and printed.
  • Invest in simple photo storage solutions. Many hobby and craft stores offer simple boxes designed to store photos. Many of those same stores offer simple binders with insert sleeves that can hold photos.
  • Once you settle on a storage solution, a simple filing system – for example, one based on years and months – can ensure that you or anyone will have convenient access to your photos in the future.
  • Reserve a safe space for your photos. Making room for your most treasured photos in a fireproof safe or storage box can help to ensure that they survive any unforeseen disasters that might befall them. Storage that can withstand fire, flood, or pests can be a wise investment.

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What is the Difference Between Black Ink and Photo Black Ink?

Many inkjet printers require two types of ink – a black ink cartridge, and also a photo black ink cartridge. The black ink cartridge is filled with pigment-based ink, ideal for printing black and white documents.

The photo black ink cartridge is formulated with a dye-based ink with enables the printer to create deeper, richer spot blacks, and also to print the much more comprehensive range of grays and off-black tones needed for photographic subjects.

One frequently asked the question is – can an inkjet printer work if only one type of black ink is installed and not the other? The short answer to that question is – no. If a printer can take both types of ink cartridges, it will require both types to work correctly.

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What Is Inkjet Photo Paper?

Just as inkjet printers may be equipped to render a more fantastic range of colors or black tones for photographic prints, the paper selection for photo prints can also yield very different results in the final image. (photopaperdirect.com)

There are a wide variety of sheens and textures available for paper designed for use in inkjet printers. Many of the types of paper are designed explicitly for particular formulations of photo black ink, as described above.

The following types of paper are designed for use with printers that utilize photo (or glossy) black ink:  

  • Glossy
  • Luster
  • Pearl
  • Satin
  • Metallic

Other papers are designed to utilize matte black printer ink, including:

  • Cotton
  • Alpha-cellulose
  • Canvas

Photo papers such as glossy, luster, pearl, satin, and metallic utilize photo (or glossy) black ink while matte papers such as cotton, alpha-cellulose, and canvas utilize matte black ink.

How Do I Choose Inkjet Paper for Photo Prints?

Choosing the right paper for your inkjet photo prints is a very subjective process. The subject of the photo and the overall tone of the piece can factor heavily into which type of photo paper to use. (breathingcolor.com)

Ultimately it is up to each artist to decide which photo paper is ‘right’ for their photographs, but there are some general tips that can help artists pick the right paper for their work.

  • Start With Small Orders. Don’t over-commit to any paper right away. Small numbers of sheets will help to ensure that you’re not tied to any particular brand or set of visual characteristics for your work.
  • Try Sample Packs. Many paper manufacturers offer sample packs that include a few sheets of a number of their most popular types of paper. A sample pack can give you access to a wide variety of paper compositions and sheens for test prints, better enabling you to decide on the right final print medium for your work. 

What Is RC Inkjet Photo Paper?

The most common type of darkroom photo paper on the market is the RC paper. The RC stands for ‘resin-coated,’ which is a callback to the old darkroom photo papers, which were coated with resins that allowed for quick processing and drying times. Resin-coated photo-prints also tended to be scuff and curl resistant.

The term RC has carried over into the inkjet printing market. Today’s RC papers are produced from refined wood pulp, which is encased in two layers of plastic polyethylene and then coated with a microporous inkjet receptive emulsion.

RC paper surfaces range from glossy to semi-glossy, luster, pearl, satin, and more. They are the least expensive and most widely used inkjet papers on the market and are used by a majority of consumers. Current RC papers are more waterproof and scuff and scratch-resistant than other matte papers on the market, but they tend to come in thinner weights of paper.

RC papers deliver deep blacks and white whites and offer excellent contrast and sharpness. They are certainly appropriate for a variety of subject matter and are often the go-to paper for wedding photo prints and portraits.

What is Metallic Inkjet Photo Paper?

Metallic photo paper is a relatively new invention and a prevalent innovation. Metallic Photo Paper was based on Kodak Endura Premier Metallic paper, which was a professional negative paper designed for wet chemical processing.

Metallic inkjet photo papers have a slightly warm base tone and feature a high degree of luminance and reflectivity. Prints on metallic photo paper exhibit rich, dense blacks, a broad range of color and contrast, and lend an almost three-dimensional look to images.

Metallic photo paper is a popular choice for a wide range of subject matter, most especially images that feature high-sheen metals such as machinery, cars, trucks, trains, planes, etc. 

What is Baryta Inkjet Photo Paper?

Back when photos were processed in the darkroom, the gold-standard of silver halide papers (or papers used in the darkroom for black and white images) were fiber-based, air-dried, double weight papers with a smooth, reflective surface.

The term baryta comes from the chemical compound barite – a naturally occurring, clay-like combination of barium and sulfate – which was added to the fiber paper base to whiten the paper, provide reflectivity, and to serve as a base for light-sensitive emulsion.

Today’s baryta inkjet photo papers are widely considered to the gold standard for fine photographic prints with a large dynamic range, rich blacks, a wide range of colors, excellent contrast, and incredible sharpness. 

There is also a newer crossover category of baryta papers created over a fiber base – either cotton fiber or cellulose. These new papers vary widely in how they absorb and spread ink as well as in their specific coatings and surface textures. 

When choosing a fiber-based baryta paper, it’s critical to match the print surface with the correct black ink formulated to compensate for the differences between matte and photo paper.

What is Cotton Fiber Inkjet Photo Print Paper?

Cotton fiber photo print papers are the highest grade of fine art matte printer paper. Cotton fiber photo print paper is the ‘Cadillac’ of paper types, used by artists wanting the ultimate in fine art quality prints.

Note that the term ‘rag’ paper (cotton rag or photo rag) is sometimes used colloquially to describe these papers – a holdover from days past when cloth rags were used to make paper. But this moniker is inaccurate – cloth rags are no longer used to create cotton fiber photo print paper.

What is Alpha Cellulose Inkjet Photo Paper?

Alpha Cellulose Photo Papers are made of high-grade wood pulp from trees, which is refined to remove unwanted compounds such as acid and lignin. 

Lignins are organic polymers present in plant cells and serve as glue to hold cellulose fibers together. However, if lignins are not removed during the papermaking process, the paper may break down or yellow over time. 

Alpha-cellulose papers are a less expensive option than cotton fiber photo papers. They offer good ink retention and black highlights but have a less substantial feel than their cotton rag counterparts.

What Are Hot and Cold Press Papers?

Hot press or cold press describe subcategories of cotton fiber or alpha-cellulose paper and describe surface characteristics of the print surface.

Hot press papers have a smooth, velvety surface while cold press papers feature rougher surfaces with more ‘tooth.’

Cold press variants offer a greater range of textures than hot press, ranging from slightly textured to highly textured.

What is Canvas Inkjet Paper?

Canvas photo print papers are formulated with a combination of polyester and cotton fibers. These papers can be varnished and displayed without glass or frames, making them a popular choice with artists who work in traditional mediums like watercolor and favor so-called giclée reproductions of their original works. 

What Are Specialty Inkjet Papers?

Specialty or exotic inkjet photo papers include substrates such as Bamboo, Sugar Cane, Kozo (or Japanese Mulberry), and even Hemp.

Common Technical Terms Used in Photo Printing

Several technical terms are used to define the characteristics of print paper. Some of the stats listed below can be found on the data provided by paper manufacturers, while others may make little or no mention of them.

A complete compendium is too numerous to list, and industry terminology changes rapidly, but the following definitions should provide a stable grounding as an introduction to the topic.

Paper Weight and Thickness

Paperweight is specified as grams per square meter (gsm). A paper’s thickness is specified in mils, or mm. Art buyers, fine art photographers, and collectors tend to prefer thicker paperweights for their substantial, tactile feel and surface texture. Weight and thickness set high-end art print paper from their plastic counterparts such as RC glossy, luster, satin, or pearl papers.

OPAs and Paper Brightness

OPAs (optical brightening agents) are fluorescent additives included in the paper creation process to increase paper whiteness and overall brightness. OPAs trick the viewer’s eyes into perceiving a brighter white by reflecting more blue light off the page.

Photographers have always favored brighter white papers because they offered rich, deep blacks, and a wide dynamic range of colors and OBAs can enhance the quality of printed photographs. 

But their use is highly controversial because these agents break down over time, causing paper using them to degrade to its native white point, which changes the appearance of the print.

If a paper is described as Bright White or Natural – Bright indicates that the paper was created using OBAs, while Natural papers were not. 

Paper White Points

There are many variations of white, including snow white, eggshell, creamy, off-white, etc. Warmer or cooler tones suit different subjects. Most photographers tend to avoid very bright white papers for portraits or color landscapes, while black and white or neutral images tend to pop on brighter backgrounds.

DMax

DMax refers to the deepest shade of black that a paper is capable of rendering. Black density is one of the most important considerations when choosing paper type. Papers specifically formulated for photo printing have DMX values greater than 2 (>2), while matte papers tend to have a DMax value of less than 2 (<2).

Surface Texture

As discussed above, there are a wide variety of surface textures available on the market today. Textures range from highly glossy to rough and textured.

Print Permanence

One of the critical characteristics of paper selection is print permanence. Print permanence refers to the longevity of a print made by a specific combination of printer, ink, and paper, and under given display conditions.

Preservation of the print is of paramount importance for any printer, primarily if the art is intended for sale to collectors or museums.

Several factors contribute to the degradation of print permanence. Direct sunlight, high humidity, or extreme temperatures can degrade even a high-quality print on premium paper.

If not coated with a protective varnish, prints should be matted and displayed behind conservation (or archival) glass that limits exposure to UV light. (keithdotson.com)

Conclusion

As we have seen, there are many excellent reasons to print your photos, and some factors to consider with selecting paper for use when printing.

Start with the printer, subject, and display conditions and then choose an appropriate paper for price and ink compatibility.

Lee

My name is Lee and I love photography and learning. I received a Master of Fine Arts in Photography in 2010 and have worked as a university professor for the last 10 years in addition to being a working photographer. I started this website to learn more about digital and film-based photography and to provide a resource for all of my students.

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