Five Inkjet Papers Considered

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.

Comments welcomed.

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15 thoughts on “Five Inkjet Papers Considered

  1. Hi Michael,
    Yes, Ilford is listening.
    Our packaging on the Gold Fibre Silk was not designed to ship with out an over pack. I will discuss with our Premier Dealer group (B&H is a part of this group)to be sure this is being done properly.

    As for OBA’s in GALERIE GOLD FIBRE SILK, There are none, notta zilch. This media is one of the only actual baryta (aka barium sulfate layered) papers. This layer is intended to keep this product inert, it has the added benefit of giving our media the creamy white that we feel is the ideal backdrop for both color and black and white images. The baryta layer also gives this media a very slight texture, almost unnoticeable but it adds just enough depth to the image to really enhance the overall feel of the content.

    Go with the Gold for your portfolio, I promise you will not be disappointed!

    Tom Poudrier
    Director of Marketing

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    1. Tom, much appreciate your comment. Good to know definitively about the OBA’s. It is an excellent paper, and has been well reviewed almost everywhere it’s been mentioned.

      As for the packaging, perhaps I should clarify. The issue is not so much the shipper’s (“outer”) box; none of the damaged boxes of any paper I’ve received has been shipped “naked” without this “over pack”. The problem, as I see it, is the manufacturer’s (“inner”) box design itself; this is what Epson has done so well. They’ve assumed that the paper isn’t going to be treated with kid gloves, and packaged it accordingly, so that there is a “crush zone” of sorts, with empty space and/or support between the edges and corners of the paper and the inner box itself.

      The paper is tightly held within this support structure so that it can’t shift and bounce loosely within its inner box, suffering damage when the outer box is dropped and the inner box caroms around inside it. Likewise, because of the built-in crush zone around the paper in its inner box, a dented corner means the paper’s corners are protected. For every brand of paper I’ve bought other than Epson, the paper sits in a same-size inner box with no crush zones, and without being held in place tightly enough to keep from shifting around.

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  2. Michael,
    I see, the inner packaging is the issue. We do bag it very tightly and the box is a fairly tight in fit, this should keep it from banging around, but I promise to take a closer look at the larger format sheets to see if there is an opportunity for improvement.

    One last thing, I realize that B&H sells EEF at the above retails, however, this was a “special” they took advantage of and not a “normal sell price”. This paper retails for about 2.90 on average through most other retail locations. Our Gold product is rarely if ever “on sale” but the price is such that it is a great everyday value from a quality and price perspective.

    Thanks for your feedback it is always appreciated

    Tom

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  3. As someone who has spent a lot of time and money shipping art papers around the world, I actually have a lot of sympathy for the inkjet paper manufacturers and retailers. Anyone who deals in paper ends up with a lot of lost profits due to shipping damage, it is the universal curse of the paper business.

    The main problem is the relatively low retail prices of the paper vs. the costs of packaging (I know that seems ridiculous considering how exhorbitant the price of good inkjet papers is, but bear with me.) In most cases, I would imagine that the packaging is by far the single biggest expense for the manufacturers, far more so than the cost of the paper itself (this was true of traditional photo papers as well). If they were to over-package the paper to prevent any possibility of damage it adds a considerable amount to the cost of the final product, and if you multiply it out by the 1000s of packages of paper to be made it becomes a substantial investment for them. And every different type and size of paper requires a separate custom made packaging size and label, it’s nothing to sneeze at. Especially for smaller packs of paper, it is just an economic dead end for them. They have to weigh the extra cost of the packaging vs. the anticipated amount of damaged paper, and usually just eating the costs of the damaged paper is a little less. The extra packaging also means extra weight, and in the case of an oversized pack of large paper, the extra weight may add up to a substantial extra shipping cost to the consumer to get it delivered.

    Plus, look at Tom’s response above. No offense, Ilford is a fine and dedicated company, but he says right there openly that the retailer, B&H or whomever, is responsible for the final packaging to protect your purchase, so all they’ve done is pass along the costs to the retailer who then has to do the same calculations. And you can see that aside from Ilford, the majority of paper makers do exactly the same and I don’t blame them because it is the right decision from a business standpoint. In the case of B&H or any other huge retailer, they sell enough volume of paper that the math is the same: save money on packaging, eat the cost of damaged paper. A smaller retailer might sell the paper for a slightly higher price, but since lost profit will hurt them more I would bet they take more time and energy in the secondary packaging to avoid problems, and despite the added cost it will work out about the same for a customer like yourself. You will be much happier with less hassles. Try to find a company that cares about such stuff even if it means adding a few bucks to the total.

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  4. Sorry, I forgot your last section mentioning Jim Doyle and Shades of Paper. I think your experience with them and their success shipping paper backs up my idea that the smaller companies will care more about your shipping. So congrats to him.

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    1. Kevin, thanks for adding your perspective. I’d never have thought that packaging was so large a component of the manufacturer’s cost, so I can see from a strictly economic standpoint the sense of what you say. Surely, though, there’s some cost to the manufacturer in lost business? For instance, I bought a package of another manufacturer’s paper that came packaged in one of those folding plastic wallet-like enclosures like you’d put loose school papers in! The whole 17×22 package was ruined and the seller (a small outfit) ate that cost; plus, I’ll never buy that paper again.

      Thanks for writing.

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  5. Packaging is -the- cost for the manufacturer. Unfortunately, it’s the same mathematics for flimsy packaging. The packager (in most cases the cheapest packaging will be from converters who buy name brand products in bulk and repackage it generically) will lose some business from customers like yourself due to bad packaging. But until that loss is greater than the cost of better packaging, they have no motivation. And for the most part, those repackaged generics sell fast because it’s marketed through internet forum whisper campaigns claiming “it’s the same as brand x, just cheaper”. And the cheaper they make the packaging, the more loss they can sustain due to damage, so why invest a ton of money up front in better boxes or folders even if it means exactly the same amount of profit as they would make if they invested a lot of money in better packaging and suffered less product loss? I know that’s starting to sound confusing, but it’s a cash flow issue, especially for a smaller company having to advance lots of money for fancy packaging is a significant issue. And those that can’t juggle all these issues simply go out of business, you can probably see how overpackaging doesn’t guarantee long-term success either.

    Sorry to dwell on the issue so much, but I think it’s a area of business that most end users never consider and I think they would make better choices if they knew about it. One time a friend of mine bought custom cut 20×24 Tri-X from Kodak, and the sales rep told him that the cost of handmaking(!) the custom 20×24 triple clam shell sheet film boxes, and then custom printing the labels, was almost $200 per box. For film that was an “outrageous” price of about $750 a box, if I remember correctly. After that expense, according to this rep, the film was essentially free with the purchase of the custom boxes. That is an extreme case, but it is never an easy gig.

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  6. I would lean toward the Epson paper because of my experience with the fragility of the Ilford Paper. You will be showing prints, they will be touched. In my experience, it does not take much to scratch the Ilford paper. If I am going from printer to frame, I would consider the Ilford, but not for something that will be handled many times.

    If I were going to a review I would print on Red River’s 75lb. Arctic Polar Luster. It is nice bright paper and sturdy, which when being handled, is important. http://www.redrivercatalog.com/browse/75lb-arctic-polar-luster.html

    For a review you want prints that can be seen and the handling off does not take away from the time of the review, the longer that takes, the shorter the discussion about content, which is what is important.

    Good luck.

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  7. Simple and clean and efficient is the way to go. Deciding on the order of the prints and how to re-stack them so you do not have to totally re-order them is helpful. I printed on 11×14 the other day. I forgot how much I like that size. I have not been to Photo NOLA before, but sometimes the tables are smaller than you might think and you end up having a conversation across the table. So how you manage your time comes down to how well you manage your prints. A clean and professional, but not overdone presentation works. The first impression is made when you approach the table. Don’t forget a card to leave behind too, maybe a cd too, it depends on what you are after in the reviews.
    This is good:
    http://www.jmcolberg.com/weblog/2009/01/on_portfolio_reviews.html

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  8. Hi Michael,
    Thank’s a lot for this discussion.I specifically like your straightforward and targeted atitude.As a new Epson 3800 user I’m so much confused with the immerse verity, it’s very hard to choose.Also it is especially a big problem for overseas where every sample pack costs a fortune.
    Anyway, I’m still looking for an ideal semi-gloss or smooth matte very white paper for my portfollio and it must be not too expensive. I use a lot the Epson enhanced matte, but.. yes, it a bit away of a nice “fine-art” look.Mmm.. glad to know it’s not just my problem.

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    1. Yoram, the Epson Exhibition is a very good paper. It is quite white—among the whitest available—so you’d be pleased with that aspect of it. It is very smooth; what texture it has, is not at all obtrusive. It is attractively priced right now, though I’m not sure if that’s true overseas. At its current pricing it’s the cheapest of the five papers I looked at.

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  9. Thanks a lot Micael, I did try one Exhibition sample paper wich was really great.It is though a bit hard to get it here in Israel for a resonable price.
    Yoram

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  10. Michael, Enjoyed the write up and your feedback on the different materials you have worked with and as always Jim and I greatly appreciate and value your business! I have a new one for you to try as well…talk soon.

    Cheers,

    E

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