Materials & Surfaces

Printing your photos is an exciting step to take as a photographer. Whether you are sharing your work with loved ones, preparing for a critique, or supplementing your income, printing invariably adds dimension to the artistic process that will shape and improve your craft. Like photography, a lot of photo printing boils down to having the right tools and knowing how to use them.

Surface Finish

A paper’s surface finish is one of its most distinguishing characteristics, ranging from textured matte to high gloss with many degrees in between. We are going to start with the most basic types: glossy, luster, and matte.

Glossy finish is a popular and common choice, favored by those looking to make their images pop with striking contrast and saturated, vibrant colors. This surface finish also provides incredible resolution that benefits imagery with fine details. It does have its drawbacks, chiefly being susceptible to glare that can make viewing the print itself difficult. You might opt for a glossy finish if you want to showcase the details and colors of your imagery, especially if your print will be viewed without a glass frame or cover. Just be sure to handle your work with care, because glossy prints smudge easily!

A matte finish uses fewer coatings than a glossy finish, allowing varying degrees of the underlying paper’s texture to come through. Matte finish is ideal for framing and viewing because it doesn’t reflect light, making it a popular choice for displayed works among professional photographers. It tends to be a bit understated with slightly muted tones and lower contrast. If coloring and detail aren’t your primary focus, a matte finish is a great way to elevate the artistry of your final print.

Lastly, we have luster, which is often referred as satin, semi-matte/gloss, silk, and pearl. Luster offers a finish between glossy and matte with slight texture and reflectivity. It produces great color and detail while allowing texture to accentuate your work. A luster finish is great for photographers looking to avoid the glare of a glossy finish or the flatness of a matte finish. Because it is well-balanced, this finish is a popular option for many photographers.

A paper’s material and texture can help contextualize and deepen the impact of your print. They are worth considering if you’re looking to curate an experience or make an impression. Material refers to the makeup of the paper, with the most common kinds being cotton rag and coated.

When looking for paper, weight and thickness will help determine a paper’s overall feel and quality. Weight refers to the heft or grammage of a paper, often expressed in grams per square meter (gsm). A heavier paper is less prone to buckling when hung for long periods of time, which can be helpful if you are printing in a humid or hot climate. Thickness is simply the thickness of a sheet of paper, which is commonly expressed in mils (or thousandths of an inch). Thicker papers can be too rigid for some printers, so you will want to make sure your printer is rated for your job before purchasing the thickest fine art paper.

Brightness, whiteness, and tone are different ways to describe the true appearance of your photo paper. White photo paper can vary substantially, with yellow or bluish tints that will impact your image’s vibrancy, dynamic range, and overall appearance. On paper the brightest, whitest option would ordinarily be the best, but bright white papers have their own drawbacks to consider. It can be difficult to determine a paper’s brightness and tone just from looking at it, which is why the brightness percentage exists. Refer to this spec to determine how bright, warm, and cool a paper is, with lower percentages indicating warmer, less bright papers, and higher percentages indicating cooler, brighter papers.