During his career, Ansel Adams used a lot of different paper brands and types. As a member of the ƒ/64 group, Adams always was looking for materials that would render his image with the sharpness that he captured when he made the exposure.
When you’re printing digital images, you have a bewildering number of choices for your paper because, unlike when Adams was working with film, you obviously don’t need to have a light-sensitive emulsion on the paper. In fact, if you prefer, you don’t even have to use paper made for a printer. A modern inkjet can print on all sorts of surfaces. (Note: Before you try printing on something out of the ordinary, check with the manufacturer to be sure you won’t damage the print head by doing so.)
Most photographers tend to pick a paper and stick with it all the time. The initial selection often is based on cost or because another photographer suggested it, and while most of us know that we prefer a glossy or matte finish, that’s usually where the heavy decision-making process ends. Your choice of paper, however, can be a much more creative aspect of photography. You can use the paper to dramatically influence the mood of the image because the surface of the paper will create a hardness or softness to the whole photograph.
If you’ve been thinking that the paper world is divided into glossy or matte, you’ve been missing out on a whole universe of possibilities. Watercolor papers like Arches have a rough surface, and they take up the ink in such a way as to render a scene decidedly softer than a smooth paper. Canvas options give an image a painterly quality, and they reflect ambient light in such a way as to give a photograph a slight sparkle as the viewer moves around it.
You don’t have to go all the way to canvas or watercolor papers, though. For example, manufacturers like Legion and its subsidiary Moab make a wide variety of papers with subtle variations in the surface and the whiteness of the paper itself.
So how do you find the paper that matches the look that you’re going for? The only real way is to test them yourself with your own images. Ansel Adams would get boxes of new papers as they came on the market and try one of his negatives to see if he liked the paper. He was testing the whiteness, contrast and texture, and being a constant tinkerer, he was never afraid of experimenting with something new. As a digital shooter, setting up profiles, buying the paper and getting a print dialed in seems like a lot of work, but depending upon your needs and how much of a tinkerer you are, it can be well worth it.
To test, we suggest you choose a single image that you particularly like. It should be sharp to give you a good baseline across different papers. Again, check with the printer manufacturer to be sure that the papers you want to test are compatible with your print head. With your ink tanks close to full, make a single print from each of the papers you’re testing. You should be able to get a profile that will get you pretty close to where you want to be without making a ton of prints on each paper. Take accurate notes and label each print. You’ll save yourself a lot of time, energy and resources by taking good notes. Evaluate the individual prints in good light and find what looks best for you. We suggest you try just a few papers at a time. Going out and buying 10 or more boxes and making a bunch of prints becomes counterproductive because your eyes actually become fatigued.
A note about print size and specialty papers: As you experiment with watercolor papers or other rough surfaces, you’ll find that you can make larger prints than you’re used to. That’s because the roughness that creates that soft look to the images also reduces the effect of digital artifacts like “jaggies.” Additionally, most of us have a frustrating image somewhere in the archive that just isn’t as sharp as we’d like. Printing that photograph on a more textured paper can have a pretty good result. Give it a try.