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Whether you like matte or glossy with a smooth or really textury finish, there are certain things you'll need to look for when you're evaluating a specific type of paper. By now, you can probably guess that the first thing I am going to say is look at the blacks in the print. Are they dark enough? If they are, how does the overall contrast range look? Do you see a lot of fine mid-tones where you need them? Skies, reflections, shiny, curved surfaces, these are all places where you need lots of good intermediate tones of various kinds. Next, how does the color look? Is it saturated enough for you if that's what you like? Are some colors more saturated than others? For example, maybe the blues look good, but the reds are muted somehow.
Believe it or not, different papers have different abilities to show detail and sharpness. If a paper absorbs a lot of ink causing the ink to spread and diffuse, then you may not see as much sharpness and detail as with a paper that holds the ink on its surface where it doesn't diffuse. So, consider the detail and sharpness in your image when you're evaluating a particular type of paper. Different papers have different brightnesses. Now, obviously a paper won't emit light on its own, but a whiter paper will reflect more light than a yellowish or a natural paper.
The practical upshot is that the whites in your image will be truly white on a really bright paper, and that might give you a broader range of contrast than you'd get on a paper that's not as white. Now, before you run out to find the brightest paper that you can, be aware that some papers such as this one achieve their whiteness through the use of artificial brighteners which bleach the paper out to bright white. The problem with these brighteners is that they'll decay over time when they're exposed to light, and as they do, the paper will yellow. Sometimes, this yellowing can happen very quickly, within a matter of weeks if the paper is exposed to some direct sunlight.
As the paper yellows, and it may only be a light yellowing, the brightest parts of your image won't be as bright as they were when they originally came out of the printer. This means that your overall contrast may change over time. Now, the yellow print won't necessarily look any worse. It just means that over the long haul, you'll have less predictability about what the print will look like. Archivability is not something you can assess simply by looking at a print. A paper's archivability is simply the measure of how long a print will last on the paper without fading. Now, if the paper is rated at 75 years, that doesn't mean that on the first day of the 75th year, you'll be facing a blank piece of paper. It just means that if handled properly, the image will last 75 years before you see a color shift.
Yellow inks tend to degrade faster than other colors. So, what you'll start to see after you've gone beyond the paper's archival limits is a loss of yellow. This doesn't just mean that yellow things in your image will begin to fade. It means any color that includes yellow as a component will shift to a different color. Archival ratings for a particular paper are always dependent on a particular ink set. Certain inks on certain papers can be very archival. The same ink on other papers may not last as long. Now, there's no way to know for sure if a print will last 100 years. Inkjet print has only been around for a fraction of that time.
But Wilhelm Imaging Research is generally regarded as being an accurate viable source for data about the archivability of certain ink and paper combinations. Wilhelm Research has developed complex ways of aging and weathering paper to determine its archival characteristics, and you can look up specific types of inks and paper combinations on their website. If you're going to sell your work, you'll want to have some kind of idea of how archival your paper choice might be. In fact, some galleries or patrons may demand to know an archival rating. It's important to note that for all of these traits, we're talking about the specific ink/paper combination of your printer and a particular type of paper. The same paper in another printer might not have problems that you're seeing with your printer.
Finally, there are physical characteristics to consider. How thick is the paper? These days, most printer paper is measured using the metric scale. So, if you're used to the old English system which measure paper in pounds, don't be surprised if all of the paper specs you see list weight as GSM or Grams Per Square Meter. Obviously, higher numbers mean thicker paper. Thicker papers may mean trouble for your printer. Before you invest in a large quantity of thick heavy media, you want to be sure that your printer has a way of feeding it. Most quality photo printers have a straight through paper path of some kind for handling thick media.
Thicker prints are fun to handle. So, if you're going to present your images in a way where people can sift through them, then thicker media might be nice. Note however that some matte papers, especially thicker fine art and watercolor papers, can easily scuff if they brush up against something else. Curl is something that you want to pay attention to as you experiment with different papers. A dense print can mean a lot of ink going on to the page, and as the paper absorbs all that liquid, it might curl on the edges. Depending on what you want to do with the print, this might be an issue. It can also mean that as the paper goes through the printer, it gets messed up by ink that stuck on rollers and things like that, so the edges of your print can be messed up.
Finally, as you work with a paper over time, you're going to want to consider consistency. When you buy a new box of the same type of paper, do you feel like it has the same qualities and characteristics as the last box that you bought? Epson, Hahnemuhle, and most other big-name vendors all offer very good consistency from box to box. If you're an Epson user, you might have noticed that they sometimes change the name of their papers. For example, Archival Matte became Enhanced Matte, which eventually became Ultra Premium Presentation Matte. They do this anytime they switch to a different paper supplier so that you'll know that the next box may not precisely match the one that you bought with the older name.
In my experience, I've never noticed a change in quality or characteristics as they've changed vendors. Earlier, I mentioned the sample packs that you can get from Epson and Hahnemuhle and Moab, these are a great way to assess everything about a paper. Sample packs usually come with two sheets of each paper the vendor makes. I print it black and white on each type of paper, and then I do the same with a color image. Being able to see the paper side by side makes it easier to identify different traits and capabilities. Note that sometimes a paper will simply yield a better print, and you won't know why. I was recently comparing some papers that were very similar, but one was about $25 more per box.
And as much as I wanted the cheaper paper to be as good as the expensive paper, it just wasn't. The more expensive paper just had this extra something in the mid-tones. I felt like I could see more detail and the mid-tones, and this luminous quality that wasn't present in the cheaper paper. But I just couldn't tell you why. It's okay just to go with what you like, regardless of whether you can explain why you like it.
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