|Epson Stylus Pro 4900|
In the film darkroom, you’d match your individual negatives to individual papers to craft a perfect print. Papers available in different grades or multigrade options let you use filtration to adjust the contrast. Also, to add another variable, different developers could be combined with restrainers and other chemistry to squeeze a bit more detail or pop out of an image. Master printers would sometimes spend days diligently working on a single negative to concoct the perfect combination of paper and chemistry.
Needless to say, digital changed things. Most of us don’t really go through the alchemy of mixing various concentrations of Clayton P-20 or Kodak D-76 with 0.75 ounces of benzotriazole and print on Oriental Seagull Grade 2 paper to get just a hint of texture on the snowcaps of a mountain landscape scene, but the choice of paper remains an important element in making fine black-and-white prints.
In a digital darkroom determined by Photoshop settings and printer characteristics, there are a couple of important fundamentals to remember. First, to create the darkest tones and pure black, you rely on your inkset. To create lighter tones and white, you rely on your paper surface. Midtones are a combination of inks and paper surface. So even in the digital era, paper choice is a critical aspect of making a print, and a well-crafted print is the ultimate expression of a photograph.
With this in mind, we come to the two most critical attributes of the paper when you’re selecting the right one for your black-and-white prints: base color and surface texture. These two elements work together to produce the look of the final print. You can use a bright white on a glossy paper and create a completely different look from a bright white on a matte or rag surface.
So how do you know what specific paper to select? Just like in the traditional darkroom, experimentation is necessary. Everyone’s tastes are different, and your individual shooting style can have a profound impact on the materials you choose. Consider Ansel Adams’ photography. He was a master printer whose dramatic landscapes naturally lent themselves to glossy surfaces, bright white base colors and cold toning. More painterly looks can be created by choosing a rag surface with a cream-colored base. So start by asking yourself a few questions. Do you like to see your photographs on the crisp sharpness of a glossy surface, or do you prefer the slightly softened look of matte? Do you want the snap of bright whites against rich blacks? If so, a bright white base color is going to be your call.
Once you’ve asked yourself these questions, pick a few packs of 8×10-inch paper. If you tend to like glossy, purchase a glossy and a satin in different paper base colors. Choose an image and print it on each paper. Be aware that you need to set your printer driver appropriately for each different kind of paper or you won’t be making a good comparison. The driver settings will ensure the printer lays down the ink appropriately so prints don’t look wildly different from one another.
Examine your test prints carefully. Are you losing texture and detail in the shadows? How about the highlights? Are you seeing texture or just the paper surface in the highlights? How does the contrast look? Be sure to step back and evaluate the prints from a proper distance. Don’t just study grain structure up close. At first glance, we almost always prefer the glossiest surface with the brightest white, but take a moment and look. Maybe the satin reveals more detail. Does a more neutral base color keep highlights from being blown out? Are midtones looking smooth?
These experiments aren’t a waste of time or money. Epson, for example, offers a number of Signature Worthy papers in various combinations of hot press, cold press and velvet and in different base colors precisely because individuals have individual styles. Moab by Legion makes a bewildering number of papers for exactly the same reason.
Once you find a paper that works best for you, think about doing another round of experimentation from time to time. Ansel Adams was famous for not printing in limited editions, and over the course of his lifetime, his tastes changed as did his responses to his photographs. As a result, a photo of Half Dome printed in the 1940s looked significantly different from one that was printed in the 1970s. One isn’t better than the other; they’re just different. Your tastes will change, too. Mix it up and try different papers from time to time. It will help keep you fresh and engaged with the printing process.