Fiber-Based Inkjet Papers

Good news for photographers who want to make inkjet prints on high-quality papers

By Uwe & Bettina Steinmueller Back to

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The future is looking great for inkjet printing—and the present is quite strong too—as new fiber-based inkjet papers continue to appear regularly. It wasn’t always this way. Until about 2005, inkjet printers had two main categories of photographic fine-art papers to choose from: satin, luster, or semigloss resin-coated (RC) papers; and matte cotton or wood- fiber-based fine-art papers. Both had advantages and disadvantages.

RC papers

RC papers (I’m excluding the ultra- glossy papers here because they are rarely used for fine-art prints) have a good densest black (Dmax) of 2.2 or higher on current pigment-based print- ers by Canon, Epson, and HP. These papers produce excellent image quality but have a couple problems:

• The look of the paper in open portfolios—The main concerns are the look of the surface and the plastic feel (not much of an issue if displayed behind glass).

• Longevity concerns, mainly due to some outgassing.

Matte fine-art papers

There is no doubt that matte fine-art papers can produce superb images. The main downside is a much lower Dmax than with RC papers (about 1.6 to 1.7). But even at this Dmax, prints on matte fine-art papers can look wonderful. Don’t compare these prints to prints on RC paper, however. Comparing prints is, of course, a powerful method for trying to rate papers, but it can also confuse things. If you compare a print on both matte and RC papers, the matte print looks washed out. On its own the matte print may look wonderfully painterly and soft. But if you place the prints side by side, the RC print will grab the attention because of its higher contrast. It is like listening to loud music and then switching to a delicate, low- volume sound.

The same is true for paper whiteness. If you compare a paper full of optical brighteners (see note below) with a paper without brighteners, the one without them will look yellow. In reality, the paper with brighteners looks bluish and can even look very aggressively white (Figure 1).

All these papers were compared to classic “air dried” silver-halide papers, especially in the black-and-white world. Clearly the new RC inkjet papers could not match their beauty, though their Dmax was on par. The matte fine-art papers were a different category and found a wide following, but still lacked the contrast range of the classic papers.

This initiated the race for new inkjet papers that match the “air dried” look. The first generation of these papers in 2006 seemed interesting to me but never really excited me. My main objection was the surface—some had much too strong of a luster-like look. They just could not match classic silver papers

Then, in 2007, manufacturers released a second generation of papers that I find a major improvement; the surfaces of the new papers are a lot more pleasing. I will look at five new papers here.

The new magic ingredient: baryta

In some ways, Harman was the first to come out with one of these second-gen- eration papers. The company also pro- duces the classic and highly regarded silver-halide Ilford Galerie papers, based on which they created a new line of inkjet papers. (One of these interests me most: Harman Gloss FB AL.) These new Harman papers used classic baryta, and Ilford and Hahnemühle soon followed with baryta papers of their own. Baryta was used for many years for classic silver papers because it brightens the paper and provides a good base for coating. It also seemed to match the taste of many black-and-white photographers. As I learned, there seems to be only one source left for the baryta-base paper: Schoeller in Germany (Harman and Ilford use this base paper and then differ in their coatings). Hahnemühle is likely making their own papers—they are a top-rated paper mill—adding baryta as part of the coating. I cannot tell much about the technical merits of baryta per se, but fact is that I find these new papers a major step forward in look and feel.

Before I present five different new papers, I want to talk a bit about the important but often overlooked issue of optical brightening agents (OBAs).

Note on OBAs

I quote from a Hahnemühle press release (2006):

OBAs are white or colorless com- pounds that work by converting ultraviolet light into visible light, thereby making the paper appear brighter or whiter. They do not change the color of the paper; they only fool the eye into seeing a whiter color. After being exposed to UV rays for a long period of time, OBAs will begin to lose their fluorescent quality, leaving only the natural base color.

This seems to be an accurate description on what OBAs are and what they do. I believe that because they all probably fade faster than the papers fade (mean the paper reverts back to a more yellow tone) it is better to use papers without OBAs—if you are willing to accept the natural, slightly more yellow look of papers without OBAs. This is a purely artistic and pragmatic decision.

Here are some facts about OBAs:

• OBAs fade, especially under UV light.

• Not all papers with OBAs fade at the same rate.

• Bright white papers allowing high contrast need OBAs.

• OBAs can be applied to the coating or the paper itself.

• Some papers use more OBAs than others, which means that the differ- ence between papers with and without OBAs can vary.

I always suspected that classic silver- halide papers also contained quite a bit of OBAs. In the art world this seems to be accepted. The real question is how fast the papers with OBAs will yellow and how bad the photos will look if they go back to the natural base color of the papers. This is an entirely different effect than the yellowing of the paper substrate itself.

If you find that natural papers without OBAs work for your images, this would be a safe bet. Otherwise live with the fact that your papers will yellow over time (and some seem to do this faster than others). As the photographer, you have the choice to use papers with or without OBAs. There is no silver bullet.

It’s possible to measure papers (using Babel Color/Eye One spectrophotometer) and find indicators for OBAs. The dip at 430nm in Figure 1 shows a reflection of more than 100% in the blue range. This is the effect of OBAs.

Talking about paper is like talking about music or food. The final deci- sion is very personal. Even different photos may ask for different papers. On the other hand it is a good practice to restrict yourself to a selection of very few papers; otherwise you don’t learn to use them well. That is why I am mostly discussing the technical aspects of these papers; they are all good— which one is best for you can only be determined by you. I tested most papers on the Epson 3800 or Canon IPF6100 wide-format printers.

Hands-on with the papers

The papers differ in their whiteness (see notes on OBAs) and the maximum black density they can produce. I got at least a Dmax of 2.2 with all of these papers, which is excellent. I found that all of them work well for both color and black- and-white, but that the Harman Gloss FB AL is particularly good for black-and-white.

All of the new papers have to be handled with a lot of care. The surfaces scratch easily. Some may harden after drying for several days. With the early fiber-based papers, I often found a high paper-defect rate (blotches, black spots, and uneven coating). I don’t have enough experience with these new papers to tell, except with Harman, where I did not find any problems. It also is known that some papers may lack batch consistency (e.g., differing roll by roll), and time will tell how the new papers behave.

Don’t forget to consider packaging in choosing a paper—I often get papers with kinked corners. The best packaging I have seen is from Epson. Harman and Hahnemühle have good packaging too, while I think Ilford boxes are not strong enough. Check your boxes when you buy, and use an online retailer that handles your papers with care. (I have an entire article on this topic online at www.outbackprint.com/papers/ papers_002/essay.html.)

About the Ilford brand and name

Because there is a lot of confusion about the Ilford name, let me explain the situation. The old Ilford company went bank- rupt about two years ago. It was essentially two different parts: a British operation for classic darkroom papers/ chemicals, and a second operation to produce inkjet papers and the classic Ciba/Ilfochrome papers. Both parts were taken over by two entirely different companies. The former inkjet-paper/Ilfochrome company owns the brand name Ilford now and all their products are called, of course, Ilford. The British operation was taken over by Harman Technologies and they can only use the Ilford name for their classic silver-halide papers.

Conclusion

I would be happy to use any of these five papers because they are all very good. My final notes are about some extra reasons to choose one paper over the others.

• Harman Gloss FB AL is very close to the classic Ilford silver- halide papers

• Canon Polished Rag has a nice natural white.**

• Hahnemühle FineArt Baryta seems to have the least delicate surface.

• Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk is the least expensive and has no brighteners.** A very good value.

• Epson Exhibition Fiber Paper is nicely thick.*

Overall, the new 2007 papers were a welcome addition for fine-art printers. Now that digitally producing fine-art photographs have become widespread, it is good news that better papers—as good as those that darkroom printers enjoyed— are becoming widely available. I believe further improvements will come, but they likely will be fewer, as we now have inkjet papers worthy of fine-art images.


About the Author

Uwe & Bettina Steinmueller
Contributor
All images are copyright Uwe & Bettina Steinmueller. German photographer Uwe Steinmueller and his wife and partner Bettina came to live and work in the United States over a decade ago. They concentrate on taking photos for fine art prints, mainly nature and urban landscapes. Uwe has authored numerous books and articles about digital workflow. He is also the owner and editor of Digital Outback Photo www.outbackphoto.com.