As I prepare my portfolio for review at PhotoNOLA next month, my thoughts have naturally turned to the subject of inkjet papers. There’s a welter of different papers out there, so much so that can be overwhelming to consider them. To wit, here are some of my thoughts as I evaluate my range of choices.
I do not intend an exhaustive review of any one paper, nor do I claim any sort of scientific accuracy in my musings. Others have done those things, and reviews of all these papers are available for the searching on the web. (For some of the better reviews, search on Luminous Landscape, or check Stephen Schaub’s Figital Revolution. There are many others.) Furthermore, since PhotoNOLA will be my first portfolio review, I am far from expert about the review process itself. On that subject, I expect to have more to say here once the bleeding has stopped I have had some time to mull over the experience.
There are a number of considerations in play as I choose a paper. Obviously, I want the paper to show the images to best advantage, and not get in the way of the work. I’ll be printing a portfolio of no more than 20 images (figuring on at least twice that many sheets on hand to account comfortably for waste and error during printing, or for last-minute accidents), at a size not smaller than 11×14 inches, nor larger than 16×20. 13×16 is the likeliest size—small enough for ease of transport and handling, large enough to show the work well without being overwhelmingly large at close viewing distances. Most of my work was shot on 6×7 cm or 4×5 inch negatives, so it’s more “square” than the rectangular proportions of 35mm film negatives, DSLR sensors, and inkjet papers. 13×19 inches is a standard paper size in this digital era, so I can trim a bit off without undue waste.
Paper cost is a consideration, but not a deal-breaker given the nontrivial cash outlay involved in signing up for the review, creating the work, and traveling to New Orleans. It wouldn’t make sense to drop that kind of coin and then print the work on Bounty to save a few pennies. On the other hand, while I want a quality paper, I’m not worried about archival longevity for this portfolio the way I would be if I were printing the work for a paying customer; I expect the review prints to get enough handling to render them unfit for serious display after the event. This means that the presence of optical brightening agents (OBA’s) is not the deal-killer it might be if maximal archival stability were the goal.
I switched to glossy “PK” (photo black ink) papers when I replaced my four-year-old Epson 4000 with a 3800 a year ago. For color work I prefer glossier papers for their greater Dmax and “depth” of color, so that rules out the entire universe of matte-surface fine-art papers. Pre-3800, I had printed extensively on Arches Infinity and Moab Entrada fine-art papers (neither of which is available under those names any longer, if at all) because they suited the work I was doing at the time. Plus, even had I wanted to print glossy back then, the 4000—with its older Ultrachrome inkset— just couldn’t handle it. Bronzing and gloss differential were awful. With the 3800 and its Ultrachrome-K3 inkset, glossy printing is brilliant.
In the year since my PK epiphany I have tried a number of glossy papers, and have accumulated small lots of several different ones across a range of sizes. My paper pantry currently contains five: Epson Exhibition Fiber, Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk, Harman Glossy FB Al, Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Baryta, and Canson Platine Fibre Rag. Each is excellent in its own way, though there are important differences. There are no glaring flaws with any; stuff like bronzing or gloss differential, even when present, seem negligible with Ultrachrome-K3 inks. I’d be happy printing the work on just about any of the five.
For obvious reasons it would be convenient to use what I have on hand, without having to order more. Aside from the sunk cost, I’ve found that the majority of larger-sized papers I’ve had shipped to me—vs. purchased locally, at generally much higher prices—have arrived damaged! The most common injury: poor design of the paper box and/or poor packing of the paper box within the shipping box, resulting in damage to the box corners and to the paper within. (Are you guys listening out there? How hard can this be? Only one of you manufacturers has gotten this right!) I don’t fancy having to send papers back and forth as I watch the calendar count down to D-day and H-hour.
Epson Exhibition Fiber is the heaviest of the bunch at 325 gsm; it is an acid- and lignin-free alpha-cellulose paper that is the whitest of the five. I mean, bright white, nearly bluish, achieved through chemical bleaching and “minimal” OBA’s. The paper has a very slight texture or tooth which appears more linearly distributed than that of the other papers; it is in no way displeasing. Like all of these papers, EEF resembles more or less an air-dried silver-gelatin paper, in this case an F-surface. I have this paper in 17×22, but not enough on hand to do the job. Fortunately, EEF—once inordinately expensive—now sells for less than half its original price (ahhh, competition!) at a current $1.88 per 13×19 sheet. Plus, Epson packs it in a sturdy black-plastic bag within an oversize box, with supported edges and floating corners so that shipping damage to the box doesn’t mean automatic damage to the paper. Good thinking, Epson! All in all, EEF is a weighty, substantial, beautiful paper that would do any portfolio proud.
I have plenty of Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk in 13×19, but alas, this box arrived with subtle corner damage that I initially failed to notice, and thus decided to live with, knowing I’d be trimming off a few inches of every sheet anyway. (Ilford, are you paying attention? Talk to Epson about how to package your products!) This 310-gsm rag paper is one of the family of baryta papers designed to mimic even more closely their silver-gelatin analog predecessors. A white baryta layer beneath the ink-receiving layer renders these papers white without OBA’s, enhancing archival stability. (Of note, I’ve not been able to determine definitively whether or not IGGFS contains OBA’s; the Ilford website is cagey about it, while other online sources say “none” and still others say “not much”. Which is it, Ilford?) IGGFS has a smooth stippled surface that also looks like air-dried F surface silver gelatin, but with a bit more sheen perhaps than the Epson. The paper color is also quite a bit warmer than the EEF. Also a fine paper; and since I have plenty on hand, it’s a leading contender for the job. $2.20 per sheet. [Update: see the comments following this entry. Straight from Ilford, NO OBA’s in this paper.]
I have a limited supply of Harman FB Al Glossy in 17×22, so I’d need more. This paper was purchased locally so I got it intact, but it too is packed in a flimsy, close-fitting box that doesn’t inspire shipping confidence. (Good grief, Harmon!) This 320 gsm baryta paper has, I’m told, the same fiber base as its silver-gelatin relative, Ilford Multigrade IV FB. It is white without being glaring; and it is the smoothest of the five, with nearly no discernible surface stipple or texture. Though they all claim to resemble an air-dried F-surface paper, this Harman offering comes closest among the quintet to that silver-gelatin ideal as I remember it. I quite like the surface, and would consider printing the portfolio with it, but I have concerns about how the surface would endure handling without noticeable fine scratching. Too, I find the paper’s reverse side to feel a bit plasticky. Admittedly, this is highly subjective. It’s really a fine paper; we are talking nuances here. Current price: about $2.40 per sheet.
The remaining two papers, Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Baryta and Canson Infinity Platine Fibre Rag, I have only in 8.5×11, purchased in order to try them out. The Hahnemuhle is a 315-gsm paper, while the Canson offering weighs in at 310 gsm. Both are 100% cotton-rag baryta papers; neither has OBA’s. To my eye, these papers have a quite-similar surface texture, with a bit more obvious stipple than the Ilford, perhaps a bit more than the Epson too, but more evenly distributed than linear like the EEF’s texture. (In order of decreasing texture, I’d rate them Hahnemuhle ~ Canson > Epson > Ilford > Harman.) The Hahnemuhle looks the warmest of the bunch; I’d estimate them as Hahnemuhle > Ilford > Canson > Harman > Epson moving warm to cool, though the differences between the first three are slight. Again, highly subjective and unscientific. One minor consideration: the Canson was the only paper where I found gloss differential more than barely noticeable. Gloss differential is highly dependent on the tones present in the image, however, and I’ve printed only a limited range of images with this paper. I’d not put too much store in this observation without further testing.
Both the Canson and the Hahnemuhle have a very pleasing toothy tactile quality on their backsides, which I find lends substance and heft to the papers. If I were printing work to sell to clients, where ostentatious quality and archival stability were paramount, I’d probably choose one of these two. But at a whopping $5.08 per sheet for the Hahnemuhle, and $2.76 for the Canson, all this cottony goodness comes at a price—these are the two most expensive papers of the five. Not that it matters; both appear to be back-ordered in many sizes at the usual vendors. And both are tight-packed in close-fitting boxes like the Ilford and Harman papers, raising the specter of shipping damage—though the boxes do look sturdy. I’ve never had an 8.5×11 box of any paper arrive damaged, but I still wonder how the larger sizes would ship. Perhaps a reader will weigh in on this subject.
So what’s the verdict? Probably either Epson Exhibition Fiber or Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk. Both are excellent and moderately priced as these things go, though I had just about made this decision on the merits even before I calculated that they are the least expensive of the five papers. I have plenty of the Ilford on hand; and I’m confident that if I had to order more of the Epson, its bulletproof packaging would get it here intact.
A final word about vendors. I’ve used B&H as my pricing source, since their website is easy to navigate and they have everything. I’m a satisfied, many-times-repeat B&H customer. But let me put in a good word also for owner Jim Doyle and his Shades of Paper. I bought my Epson 3800 from them, and I’ve bought at least a few of the aforementioned papers (the ones that arrived-intact) from them as well. They are service-oriented and honest vendors, and do all they can to earn your business. I have no relationship with them beyond that of satisfied repeat customer, and I’ve received no consideration for mentioning them other than the satisfaction of supporting a business that’s done me right every time.
I appreciate your hanging in to the end of a long and detailed post, and hope you find the information useful.