Do you remember the days of the darkroom, where under the dull light of a bare red bulb, you’d lovingly expose your sheets of photographic paper under the enlarger, dodging and burning with your bare hands to correct exposure, and then stage the paper through various chemicals before pegging it to a line to dry. Well, you may be surprised to learn that much of that still goes on in this digital age. The dodging and burning now happens in tools like Lightroom and Photoshop and those beautifully varied, tactile papers from the days of chemicals still exist. The difference is, now they are printed using modern inkjets printers on an ever expanding range of exquisitely tactile fine art papers.
The chemical papers of old used to come in types like fibre based, resin coated and baryta layer. The terms refer to the composition of the base material (e.g. wood pulp or cotton), and the type of coating that will hold the photosensitive chemicals. The same terms apply to today’s inkjet papers, only instead of chemicals, the coating must hold the ink (either pigment or dye) from the printer. The tactile quality and image-holding characteristics of individual papers created many legendary brands and products.
Each paper traditionally had its own strengths and weaknesses, and the choice was often a creative one based on which paper would bring out the best in the photographic image. The photographer would consider the texture and gloss level of the paper, whether there were optical brighteners in the paper affecting it’s whiteness, how great the contrast in the finish would be, and how broad the gamut. Some papers also have an x-factor, almost like a 3-dimensional quality that made them remarkable beyond the image itself. Two of my favourite papers today include Hahnemuehle Photorag, and Chromajet Centurion Metallic Pearl. These are very different papers with very different creative effects.
Hahnemuehle is a company that has truly stood the test of time. It can trace its origins back to a paper mill in Relliehausen, Germany in 1584, and has followed the evolution of paper products through paint, pencil, photography and now inkjet printing. Hahnemuehle invented Fine Art Inkjet Papers and sparked a whole industry that has led to inkjets being the medium of choice for photographers and art reproduction. Their Photorag paper is one of their finest. It’s a 100% acid-free cotton rag with a slightly rough paper-like texture. It’s smooth enough not to impair fine detail, but textured enough to give prints a tactile quality that goes beyond a two dimension print. Skin tones and textiles, in particular, are well suited to this paper.
While holidaying in Tasmania a few years back, I visited a photographic gallery in the historic town of Stanley (famous for its sheer-sided bluff affectionately called “the Nut”). Resident photographer David Murphy had some stunning local landscapes on display which immediately caught my attention due to the quality of the printing. It turned out they were printed on Hahnemuehle Photo Rag Satin, a paper I was unfamiliar with at the time. Photo Rag Satin is unusual because it is a glossy paper, but can be printed using matt black ink. The prints themselves were quite amazing, presenting with a quality unlike any I had seen. It is now my gloss paper of choice, thanks to both its natural beauty, and the fact that I don’t have to keep changing between gloss and matt black inks anymore.
Hahnemuehle has recently launched a new range of deckle edge papers. The deckle edge is what you might expect from a hand made paper where the edge is not quite formed and a bit rough and ragged. Indeed these deckled papers from Hahnemuegle are hand made and have the look and feel of traditional artists paper. The papers are so beautiful, they present a challenge to framing, as the last thing you want to do is mask those edges behind a mat. I am looking forward to receiving a sample that has been float mounted in a shadow box to really show off the beauty of these papers.
Chromajet Centurion Metallic Pearl has a finish similar to silver halide metallic photo papers and offers exceptional image clarity, and brilliant colour reproduction with a high-gloss metallic finish. It’s a resin coated paper made from 100% paper fibre and is quite delicate to handle due to the brittle nature of the coating. It’s one of those papers that can take your breath away when matched to the right photo, with intensely deep solid blacks, and a reflective shimmer a bit like you would expect if you were to print onto aluminium foil. One of my favourite photos printed on this paper is a still life sculpture of wood and pebbles that take on a sparkling 3d effect when enlarged to A2 on this paper.
A quick word on gamut and contrast for those who may be unfamiliar with the term. Gamut refers to the number of distinct colours that can be produced by an output device. If you consider a line of coloured squares fading from blue, through purple to red colour, then the number of squares which can be distinguished in colour from their neighbours, this will help you to understand gamut. The greater the number of distinct colours an output device can produce, the greater the gamut. Fine art inkjet papers will all have their own gamut that distinguishes them creatively from each other. In general, I tend to stick to wide gamut papers, except perhaps for canvas prints where there is a trade off against the textured surface.
Here at Ashley Photography I am passionate about the print quality of my work and have printed hundreds of samples in search of the most beautiful papers. When ordering prints from us, be sure to ask me to match your photos to the best paper, and try to choose a framing system that will best showcase the result.