Choosing a Fine Art Paper

When producing high-end prints for our clients, choosing the right paper is often the subject of much discussion.  Which one will bring the colours to life?  What about those rich vibrant tones?  How can we bring out the sharp detail that defines each line and nuance of my photograph?  Or maybe it is all about the subtleness of saturated pastels and muted softness?  Or which paper will produce black & white prints with well-differentiated grayscale tones? 


The questions and the possible solutions are almost endless and selecting the right paper is vital to achieving the outcome you want.  It plays a huge role in the print’s Wow Factor.  In fact, if a print in not getting the oohs and aahs it deserves, then we have to figure out why and correct it for you.   


So we thought the following primer, kind of a Fine Art Paper 101, might provide some insight into the capabilities of paper and how to choose one that works best for you.  However, that’s also why we’re here and we can certainly work with you to help find the paper that makes your image come alive.  And with that in mind, let’s start with a quick look at the capabilities of Fine Art Paper. 


But first, a RULES ARE MEANT TO BE BROKEN WARNING – Photography is an art.  Analytical logic may describe the computer inside your camera but it is your eye that sees the scene, takes the picture and views the image.  So we can pretty much toss objectivity out the window because we live and work in a world influenced by light.  Worse yet, that light is always changing.  And if that’s not crazy enough, remember that how you felt when you took that picture probably wasn’t the same way you felt while editing and could be different again when you view the photograph.  So consider what I’m about to expalin as just a guideline.  Nothing is written in stone, rules are always meant to be broken and sometimes that Eureka moment is hard earned. 


Fine Art Paper

In broad terms, the types of finishes available today include glossy, luster, pearl, silk, satin, matte and rag.  Manufactures will sometimes use different branding descriptors but you will almost always find one of the more generic names included in that description.  Each of these papers can take the same image and produce a different effect.  Sometimes the difference is very subtle and harder to detect then others, so for now I thought we’d just regroup these papers into three distinct categories…Glossy, Semi Gloss (luster, pearl, silk, satin etc.) and Matte.



Prints done on glossy paper will be the most vivid and sharpest you can get.  They have been described as lively, bright, full of zest and pure unadulterated colour but what you want to remember is the vivid, sharpness part.  Even in black and white, glossy can give you razor sharp definition.  You choose glossy when you don’t want to be timid about your image.  Think of a garden full of colour, a big loud parade or carnival, summer vacation with the kids, that trip to Vegas.  If someone looks at your picture and says, “wow, you must have been having fun” or “are those colours real?” then go straight to glossy.


BUT and there is always a “but”, glossy paper is extremely sensitive to just about everything and needs to be handled carefully.  The surface will easily scratch and fingerprints will last forever, so it should be put into a frame and under glass as quickly as possible.  That being said, glossy carries more colour punch per square inch then any other paper!


The glossy we use is Epson’s Premium Glossy.



These papers come very close to the colour performance of glossy but they have a bit more texture to the paper and a bit less whiteness or optical density.  They still have punch to their colours but they’re not brash.  In terms of colour, think of an early morning sunrise or an evening sunset or a garden with dappled shadows.  Fall colours, misty mornings on the lake, forest scenes with hidden creeks and waterfalls.  These papers can also be ideal for weddings and they are outstanding for architectural images.  Semi-gloss papers have a wide colour range that can make a statement about what you are photographing.


These papers are not as sensitive to scratches and fingerprints but should still be handled with some care.  Because they are more robust and easier to handle, they are a great choice if you are planning on sending your picture somewhere.


We use a variety of semi-gloss papers but our go to number one paper in this category is, Epson’s Exhibition Fibre.  BUT, it is also the most sensitive to scratching, so package carefully if you are planning on sending it cross-country.



We carry a half dozen or more variety of matte papers and each one has a unique and sometimes quirky personality to it.  They can produce the most stunning and evocative fine art prints imaginable and some of the most impressive black and white images you could possibly wish for.  But they can also drive you insane with colour shifts and colour casts you never thought possible.


We have favorite papers like Cold Press Bright and Cold Press Natural but also work with papers like Bamboo and Sugar Cane from Hahnemuhle.  As mentioned before, each has it’s own personality and so we prefer not to recommend a specific matte paper until we’ve seen the image you want to print and had a chance to discover what kind of outcome you want for that particular print.


I love mattes for the potential they hold but often rely on test prints and conversations with you the photographer in order to decide on how best to draw out every detail within your image.  And when that magic happens, that perfect mix of light, ink and paper, the visual rewards can be beyond amazing.


So if this has got you thinking more about papers and your photographs and you have more questions, drop me a note or if you’re in the area, drop by our print studio.  You can even send or bring in a few of your images and we’ll have a look and figure out what would work best.  If time permits, we might even be able to work in a test print or two. 

Bill McQuarrie
Bill McQuarrie


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