Selecting A Printing Surface

Digital photography – which includes digital printing via high quality inkjet printers – has made a wider variety of printing surfaces available as like never before.

We have glossy and matte, warm and cool, smooth and textured, as we had in the past in the darkroom and these surfaces are getting better and better all the time, particuarly with the introduction of the fibre-based papers that have come on the market recently. Aside from the standard glossy and matte, we also have specialised surfaces like canvas and even metal. If you’ve not seen a print on metal, they really can be quite striking.

With all these choices available, it makes choosing the right surface to print a photo on even more important. There are lots of opinions out there on how to choose the right paper for the image and what follows is mine.

Right now, canvas is the hot item. It’s new. It’s cool. It’s different. Well, maybe not so different anymore. It seems like canvas is being used by a lot of photographers for a lot of images that would look better on another surface.  It’s almost become cliché, which is unfortunate.

When it comes to printing, I categorise media into two types – hard and soft. Hard are those surfaces that hold finer detail better, provide a crisp appearance, generally have a better colour gamut, more vibrant colours, better DMax and are typically harder to the touch. Gloss, semi-gloss, lustre would fit into this category. As would metal, obviously. Soft are the papers that offer, generally, more muted colours (albeit only slightly in some cases), a lower DMax, provide a more painterly look, a softer look and are softer to the touch. Pretty much just the opposite of hard papers. Things like Velvet Fine Art, watercolour, museum rag, textured rag and canvas are these types of media. A paper like Epson’s Ultrasmooth Fine Art can fit into both but in general the printing media available on the market will fit into one of those two categories.

Choosing the right paper for the photo being printed is as key, in my opinion, to making it look good as the editing of the image in the digital darkroom and the presentation of the printed piece afterward (framing, matting).

Choose hard papers for those images where you have lots of fine detail, where you want to retain as much sharpness as possible, where you have brighter, more vibrant colours.  Images like this would be the majority of landscapes, architecture, wildlife, nature, macro.  What could be termed as ‘hard’ images.

Soft papers would be used for those images with less fine detail, a more ethereal look, soft light, where ultimate detail and sharpness is less important, where a more muted colour palette may be desired.  These types of images would be things like soft florals, impressionistic images, softer landscape/nature (i.e., a fog covered field of spring wildflowers in early morning).  Or, in other words ‘soft’ images.

Portait/people images are a bit of a mixed bag and could fit into either category depending on the person/people and the intent of the image.  If the image is a portrait and the intent is to be more flattering then a softer paper may be in order; but not a heavily textured paper like an etching or watercolour.  If it’s an image of a person that’s intended to show grit, a weather-worn face of someone who’s spent a lifetime working outdoors in the elements then a harder paper would probably be better.  This is where a paper like Ultrasmooth Fine Art could come into play since it can often work in both situations.

In the end, it’s your choice what you print on.  It’s your photography and you can present it any way you like.  Thinking about the different media available and choosing the media based on the type of image can; however, have a big impact on how the print is perceived by the viewer.  And probably the last thing any of us want is to be seen as being cliché.

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