Modern Printmaking Part Four: Choosing Materials

A guide to selecting paper and alternative media options for photographic prints
Modern Printmaking Part Four: Choosing Materials
Printmaking is the most important step of a photographer’s workflow. Photo by Jason Bradley.

The first three articles in this series focused on the “why” and the “how to” of printmaking with modern tools. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.) This fourth and final article will attempt to condense the “on what” we should print. I refer to the big decision of deciding what paper—or other medium—to use.

Surprisingly, choosing the medium is almost always an overlooked step, yet the right selection can help define a style for your work just as much as your choice of color versus black-and-white. It tells your audience that this paper is worthy of all of the sweat, time and financial commitment you’ve put into your work.

Rarely does the serious photographer buy the most affordable camera and lenses because they’re good enough. Photographers want the best resolution and low-light capability, and the best glass they can afford because they want the most out of their gear. Well, the same goes for the printing medium. There are papers that are worthy and papers that are not.

In general, there are two main paths to go down. There’s the alternative media path, or what I often refer to as the wall-paneling path, and then there’s the traditional fine-art paper path. The wall-paneling path is one that I consider a lower-cost, ready-to-hang alternative. It’s a great way to either start seeing your art or collecting other artists’ work without the requirement and expense of custom framing, and framing is an art unto itself.

Modern Printmaking Part Four: Choosing Materials
Photo by Jason Bradley.
Modern Printmaking Part Four: Choosing Materials
Two of the most popular alternatives to printing on photographic papers are metal and canvas. Each can come ready to hang without the need for custom framing. Photo by Jason Bradley.

Alternative Media and Wall Paneling
Digital printing has opened the door to printing on all kinds of media. We can print on canvas, acrylic, fabrics, parchment, onto film or aluminum sheets, and even directly onto wood. I hope you can gather from the list of options that digital printing often can be about the trend and obscureness of the medium rather than the accuracy, consistency and overall reproductive quality of the final product—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Bearing this in mind, I think it’s safe to point out that the two more popular mediums right now are canvas and printing on metal sheets.

Metal Prints. Printing on metal is done using a dye-sublimation process. The print isn’t actually laid on the metal, but instead onto a transfer medium. The ink on the transfer medium is then moved to the metal by way of a heat press. Think of how an iron-on T-shirt is made. If you’ve ever sent one of your images to be printed onto a coffee mug, metal prints are made in the same manner. Metal prints are most often high-gloss, shiny, vibrant panels that work well for a presentation with punch, although there are also subtler, low-gloss metal presentations available.

Canvas. Unlike printing on metal, printing on canvas is typically done with the same aqueous inks you’ll find in any Epson or Canon pro-grade printer. All canvases need to be coated to protect the print and to provide a more pleasing finish. Some labs do print on canvas with solvent ink printers, in which case coating isn’t required because the inks are more durable and vibrant right out of the printer compared to aqueous inks.

Printing on canvas has become quite popular. I think this is mainly because canvas is a casual and engaging medium that’s very lightweight and much more affordable than traditional paper and custom framing. Canvas tends to work well with large prints or mural-sized prints that are intended for distance viewing, and they work well in rooms that lack custom lighting. One of the complaints about canvas is that its inherent texture makes it a challenging medium for printing images with high detail.

Traditional Photo Paper
For me, nothing beats printing on paper, and I have a reverence for paper that I don’t have for other media. Paper provides a broader set of options for style, can offer better overall reproductive quality, and has a history and tradition that speak to the craft of photography, and to me, on a personal level.

Modern Printmaking Part Four: Choosing Materials
Almost all of the papers on the market list their GSM (grams per square meter) specifications right on the front of the box, which refers to the paper’s weight.

The most beautiful prints I’ve ever seen, that have literally brought me to tears because they were so beautiful, were all on paper. There’s a difference between being moved by an image and being moved by a print. If you’re moved by the narrative and meaning of an image, then the medium may be incidental to your experience, but I’ve been moved by prints where the narrative meaning was almost incidental. What I became emotionally involved with was the printmaker’s understanding of contrast, tonal relationships and the paper in such a masterful way that the print itself was the art. When you look at such prints, it feels like they’re projecting light instead of reflecting it.

My personal bias aside, let’s talk about paper substrates, and about a paper’s look and feel, before we make such masterpieces.

Paper Substrates. Substrate is a term that refers to the materials that make up the paper. In general, photo paper is made from different kinds of wood pulp or cotton fiber. Yet, paper substrates are refined and coated in a myriad of ways. There are rag papers, alpha-cellulose papers, resin-coated papers, rice papers, baryta papers, bamboo papers and fiber papers. In any instance, the paper is made from either cotton or another plant-fibrous pulp such alpha cellulose or bamboo.

Modern Printmaking Part Four: Choosing Materials
A Hahnemühle paper swatch shows us that papers are available in a variety of colors and textures.
Photo by Jason Bradley.

Typically, cotton is king, as they say in the industry, but that’s mainly because of brand recognition, as far as I can tell. Often referred to as rag papers, 100% cotton papers generally have the clout of being more “fine-art” than their substrate competitors. However, papers made from alpha cellulose are considered a lower-cost cotton alternative with little to no change in the quality or archivability of a paper.

An alternative for people who want trees in forests and not in galleries is bamboo paper. Bamboo isn’t widely used by paper manufacturers at this time, but we may see its market expand in the years ahead.

Paper Look and Feel. Regardless of one’s preference for substrate, there’s nothing more important than how a paper looks and feels. A paper can be made of 100% of the finest cotton fibers available, but if you don’t like how it looks, then who cares what it’s made of? A paper must be both visually and tactilely captivating to the photographer, and there are many contributing factors that make up the look and feel of a paper. Papers come in different weights, colors, reflectivity, textures and coatings.

The feel of a paper is dictated by both the weight of a paper and the paper’s texture. The weight is important because a paper needs to feel substantial in the hand of the photographer. If it’s too light and flimsy, it can feel inadequate; if it’s too heavy, it can seem like a card stock or rag board rather than a nice paper. The weight of a paper is almost always provided in GSM (grams per square meter). For example, a 220 GSM paper may be considered lightweight, while 320 GSM may be considered a heavy paper.

Papers can be almost glasslike in their smoothness, or very rough, with a pitted and textured surface. This is important because some images work well on some textures, but poorly on others. Let’s say I have a portrait I want to print, and one of the highlights of the image is the feel of the soft skin tones. Printing that image on a rough-textured surface would kill that feeling.

The look of a paper is dictated mostly by its color and reflectivity. There are bright white papers, neutral papers and warm-toned papers. I have no opinion about one being necessarily better than the next. Like my previous example of avoiding putting a soft skin tone on a rough paper, some images will work better on a bright white paper, while others could use a little warmth. For my work, I tend to like my black-and-white images on neutral-toned paper and my color work on a warmer paper. I don’t print on bright white papers much, although I have many architectural and product photos that work very well with these papers, as it helps provide a crisp and clean feel.

What may be the most important factor to photographers is a paper’s reflectivity. There are glossy, matte and semigloss papers. Glossy papers are highly reflective and designed for high impact. They produce deep, vibrant colors with high contrast and lots of detail, and are ideal for bold prints. Glossy papers are a good choice for color landscape and wildlife photography, commercial photography or anything that has a lot of color, contrast or impact. On the downside, many glossy papers are fragile, can pick up fingerprints and can scratch easily, and the highly reflective nature of glossy papers actually may distract a viewer from an image. Glossy papers require proper lighting to minimize reflection, and if properly lit, they can be quite beautiful, but if they’re hung on a wall without care, they end up being more like mirrors than prints.

Pairing Paper To Photographic Style
Here are a few suggestions for pairing papers to specific styles of photography. I recommend using it as a guide to start trying different kinds of papers to discover what paper matches your style best.

Alternatively, matte papers have little to no reflectivity, ideal for mounting in rooms with less-than-perfect lighting situations. They provide less impact with color and contrast, but offer a finer medium for photographers who prefer quieter tones. Matte papers are ideal for more fine-art work as opposed to commercial work, and are widely used by lovers of black-and-white photography. They’re also fragile and can pick up oils from your hands easily, so cotton gloves are highly recommended when handling.

Lastly, semigloss papers are the most common and versatile of all the papers. Semigloss papers can be used with high-impact images or images with smoother tonal features. Semigloss papers are generally the most durable of the three categories, though I’m a believer in handling prints with cotton gloves regardless. Semigloss papers can work under good or imperfect lighting conditions and are available in a wide range of variations. Semigloss papers come as baryta papers (baryta refers to the addition of the compound barium sulfate), luster papers, fiber papers or pearl papers.

Where to Begin
Regardless of whether you choose a traditional paper print or alternative media, I suggest taking your time playing with the options out there to learn what’s going to suit your work and your style best. There are no hard-and-fast rules to this stuff.

Additionally, most labs can make small samples for you on different papers without you having to invest too much—I offer this to my clients. If you print at home, many paper manufacturers will offer sample packs of their paper lines so you can try a variety of papers at once. All I ask is that you look at good, high-end, fine-art papers, and shy away from the generic brands. The good news is that there are many excellent sources for premium papers today. I think Moab, Epson, Innova, Ilford, Red River, Canson and Hahnemühle, just to name a few, all have exceptional papers to sell. For my work, I tend to use Hahnemühle and Canson almost exclusively, as I think they make sublime papers, and each company has a rich history with many contributions to the world of art papers—they have been around for literally hundreds of years.

Regardless of where you settle, print something, and print a lot. Digital photography has pushed the way we interact with our work into the realm of the virtual—the print remains as the one way that we get to hold, feel, see and interact tangibly with our art. Painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, potters, chefs and actors are all artists who produce art that engages our senses in one way or another in a physical space. The photographer’s job is the print.

Jason Bradley has a unique set of skills. He specializes in nature and wildlife photography both underwater and above; he’s the owner and operator of Bradley Photographic Print Services, a fine art print lab; he leads photographic expeditions around the world, and is the author of the book Creative Workflow in Lightroom, published by Focal Press. Visit BradleyPhotographic.com to see more of his work and find info on his upcoming workshops and expeditions, and BradleyPrintServices.com to learn about his fine art printing services.

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