Archival paper prints
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Most photographers making the transition to digital inkjet printing choose gloss, semigloss or luster paper stocks that are common to traditional chemical printmaking. As proof of their popularity, inkjet manufacturers offer a variety of resin coated papers that look and feel virtually identical to their chemical cousins. However, one of the greatest advantages of inkjets, besides their low cost and stunning photographic output, is the ability to choose a wider variety of papers than with any other photographic printing process. No longer are you limited to three or four types of paper surfaces.
While the major inkjet manufacturers all offer their own name-brand papers, third-party papers are available in a wider variety of surfaces, colors and coatings. In addition, many offer better archival performance than inkjet manufacturers own papers. However, if youre considering exploring alternative papers, the options can be overwhelming. To help you narrow the list of choices, I set out to test a variety of the more popular matte and fine art papers available.
The papers were tested on an Epson Stylus Photo 2200, which uses pigment inks. The papers represented here should print equally well with dye inks, however the coatings on many of these papers are formulated for pigments and may actually reduce the longevity of dyes. If you are concerned with image permanence, contact the paper manufacturers for information on which type of ink their paper performs best (many have this information readily available on their web sites). Finally, paper choice is highly subjective. Most of the papers listed here are available in sample packs, so be sure to do your own tests before purchasing large quantities of paper.
Matte and Fine Art
Matte and fine art papers typically offer the greatest archival stability compared to glossier papers, with image permanence often approaching or even exceeding 100 years with pigment inks. In addition, I prefer matte papers because I dont like the reflective sheen of semigloss and luster papers which can easily be seen even when framed behind glass.
The term fine art seems to imply that only great works of art can be printed on these papers, but of course thats not the case. Fine art papers are often thicker and heavier than plain matte papers, with a variety of surface textures including smooth, satin, velvet and watercolor. As a rule, they are more expensive than regular matte papers, and sometimes considerably more. Matte papers are the best choice when you want an economical paper with the smoothest surface and the best photographic output. Choose fine art papers when you want the texture of the surface to lend a certain characteristic to the print, or you simply want the paper to feel more luxurious in a potential customers hands. As an additional benefit, many fine art papers now rival the best matte papers in terms of photographic quality.
A number of terms are used to describe the characteristics of paper. Weight is commonly expressed in grams per square meter (gsm or g/m2). This is simply the weight in grams of a hypothetical square meter of a particular paper. A heavier paper feels more substantial, but it doesnt guarantee better print quality. The thickness of a paper, or caliper, is specified in mils (thousandths of an inch). A thicker sheet of paper also feels more substantial and can often handle greater ink loads, even if its the same weight as a thinner paper. Finally, paper surfaces are described with terms like smooth, satin or velvet. Smooth papers have little-to-no surface texture, whereas satin papers have a soft, satin feel to them and velvet papers tend to feel a little rougher.
I tested twelve papers, ranging from inexpensive matte papers costing under $1.00 per sheet to high-priced fine art papers costing several times as much. To judge each paper, I printed the standard PhotoDisc target image, which includes common colorful objects, areas with shadow detail and skin tones useful in judging prints. Ive added a gray ramp to the side of the target to help judge absolute black and linearity of tones. I also printed a selection of my own images consisting of saturated blues, yellows, reds and greens to make real-world judgments.
Epson Enhanced Matte/Archival Matte Epson Enhanced Matte formerly named Archival Matte is used as the baseline for comparison to all the other papers tested. Enhanced Matte is a single-sided paper with medium thickness and weight, and a smooth, soft white (slightly warm) surface. Print quality is excellent, with deep blacks, saturated colors and good shadow and highlight detail. Enhanced Matte contains some acid content, which might cause the surface to yellow over time, so it cannot be considered archival (hence the reason Epson changed the name). Archival Matte had the Epson logo printed repeatedly on the reverse side, with arrows showing which direction to feed the paper. This didnt appeal to artists and photographers selling their work as fine art, so Epson reportedly removed the logo and arrows when they renamed the paper (I have not seen the new Enhanced Matte...