How to choose digital photo paper: top 3 things you should know

Found in: Photo Tips
Oct 30 2013
by Joseph Eitan

In today's digital photography landscape, information, techniques, tips and tricks often revolve around image capturing. When photographers seek digital photo paper to print their work, on occasion we witness a profound lack of knowledge as to what makes a certain photo paper more suitable over another. There are a number of factors that can help you determine the most suitable paper for your printing needs.

The Myth Of GSM - Grams Per Square Meter

A common misconception is to associate heavier photo paper weights (measured in GSM) with quality of print. Digital photo papers will typically vary in weight from 120gsm to 300gsm. So, if GSM was an indication of quality, why do manufacturers offer the lighter weights? Quality of print, which is measured in colour palette, sharpness, and true representation of the photographed object, is down to finish and chemical coating. Higher weights of 240gsm onwards will often make the paper heavier to touch, so prints that have a keepsake value, such as those that are presented or sold to someone, will suit heavier weights; otherwise, you run the risk of the recipient feeling cheated. Lighter weights from 120gsm onwards are suited when the print might be discarded, such as in brochure or calendar making. Prior to purchasing heavier papers, consult your printer manual to ensure it can accommodate the weight. Most printers can successfully negotiate weights up to 300gsm. Older models, however, may struggle to accommodate the heavier weights.

How to choose digital photo paper: full bleed photos
Photo by Wesley Fryer. Image source

Digital Photo Paper Receiving Layer

The greatest indication of quality is the chemical coating that manufactures apply onto the paper. Also known as the receiving layer, it is a transparent coating that is responsible for receiving the ink on the digital photo paper. In the printing process, large amounts of ink are propelled via a jet onto the paper (hence Ink-Jet) and the coating acts to receive the ink, influencing speed of drying, water resistance, durability, and archival properties. Without the coating, the ink will penetrate to the other side of the paper and cause the paper to lose its structure and weave – as it would happen if you printed on ordinary copier paper.

How to choose digital photo paper: ink
Photo by Suicine. Image source

There are two common receiving layers:

Cast Coated – This receiving layer is often found on basic and budget digital photo papers. The chemical coating is only spread on one side of the paper, resulting in an image that is slightly duller. In most cases, cast coated paper is made to be used with dye based ink, and pigment inks (ones that contain tiny ink particles) are not supported. When pigmented inks are used, it takes a little longer to dry, and you risk smearing the image.

Porous Based – Microporous and nanoporous are superior receiving layers found in professional grade digital photo papers. In this case, the ink sits in microscopic pore in the chemical coating making the paper instant dry. The print can be handled as soon as it comes out of the printer. Microporous and nanoporous are suitable with both dye and pigment inks.

Digital Photo Paper Finish

The last area, in which some confusion is apparent, is the finish of the paper. Different manufacturers use different terminology, which adds to the confusion. The finish gives the desired effect to the print and it is measured in a scale of glossiness. The common options are matt, satin, and glossy finish.

Matt Finish – This option has zero level of sheen. It makes the paper more affordable, which is why you will often come across matt as the finish of brochures and calendars. Matt is rarely the choice when the print has keepsake value, unless the image will be printed in B&W, in which case matt has a more artistic look about it.

Satin Finish – You will come across satin as Pearl, Luster, and Semi-Gloss though these are all the same. Satin finish contributes to a low glare effect thereby helping view the image better in direct light conditions.

Glossy Finish – You will come across glossy as high-gloss, glossy plus and other variations depending on the brand. It is by far the choice of most photographers, though caution must be taken with the level of glare in strong lighting conditions and when prints are mounted behind glass due to reflection off the surface.

We hope this information has helped make sense of digital photo papers. If you have any questions, please leave your comments below.

Guest writer: Joseph Eitan

Written by Joseph Eitan. He is the founder and MD of Photo Paper Direct. Joseph has over 25 years experience in the small and large format printing industry and regularly maintains a blog on photography papers found here.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them below.