Selecting the Right Substrate

PHOTO Techniques, Mastering Digital Techniques, 2003

By John Paul Caponigro Back to

john paul caponigro, substrates, digital printing, photo technique

The substrate you select has a profound effect on both the aesthetic and technical aspects of a print.

You can’t underestimate the impact that the material and surface characteristics of a substrate have on the presentation of an image. There’s a fundamental difference between plastic and natural fiber that can be seen and felt. Since looking is a sensual act, the sensual qualities of your prints are key ingredients in the experience of looking at them. When selecting a substrate, choose one that suits your images’ content and/or your artistic intent.

Many choices available

The astonishing array of choices available for inkjet printers today should suit almost every need. With a single printer, you can print on surfaces that span the gamut—from matte to glossy. You’ll find fiber, plastic, and metal. Uncoated, hand-coated, mechanicallycoated. Machine-made or hand-made. Even silk, canvas, foil, and transparent mylar don’t seem exotic in comparison to the most unusual substrates people have tried to feed through their printers. Experiment freely, but also exercise some caution as very fibrous substrates may clog print nozzles. You can damage your print feed mechanisms with very thick substrates, depending on your printer model. Direct paper feed is necessary to print on heavier substrates with thicknesses above .25mm and up to 1.5mm (available on these Epson printer models 5500, 7500, 9500, 10000, 2200, 7600, 9600).

Typically, specially formulated paper coatings are necessary to achieve optimum quality. Without them, ink may not stick to very shiny surfaces and excessive dot may reduce detail, Dmax, and gamut. The chemical compositions of today’s paper coatings contain drying agents to reduce dot gain, while increasing print speeds and optical brighteners to achieve crisp, cool whites. Under certain conditions, some coated papers fluoresce to varying degrees—they actually emit more light than they receive. Cooler paper whites are favored as they can always be warmed with the addition of yellow ink without significantly reducing brightness. Warmer paper whites cannot be cooled as easily with cyan inkwithout reducing brightness. Prepared liquid coatings are also available.

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Paper-making is currently undergoing a renaissance, in part due to the advent of inkjet printing. Today we are faced with an embarrassment of riches. Some of the world’s finest paper makers now manufacture products for inkjet printers including Arches, Cranes’ Museo, Hahnemuhle, and Legion’s Somerset and Concord Rag, and Royal Reniassance.

Epson manufactures an impressive paper line specifically designed for their printers. The list includes more than two-dozen paper types, ranging in surface from high gloss (Photo Quality Glossy Film), to gloss (Photo Glossy Paper), to semi-gloss (Photo Semi-Gloss Paper), to matte (UltraSmooth Fine Art Paper). Their substrates come in a variety of weights—from Epson Synthetic Paper (.47mm) to Epson Enhanced Matte Posterboard (1.2mm). In certain circumstances, Epson collaborates with manufacturers such as Cranes and Somerset to produce select substrates.

A dramatic impact on quality

Never underestimate the impact of your choice of substrate on print quality. Substrate has a dramatic impact on longevity (archival or permanence rating), gamut (saturation), Dmax (density of black), and ISO brightness (lightness of white). Your choice of substrate actually has a greater impact on gamut, Dmax, and dot gain than your choice of inkset. Substrate alone determines a print’s ISO brightness. Typically glossy papers yield greater gamut and Dmax, while matte papers yield greater longevity. But this applies only as a general rule. Glossy papers tend to produce significantly darker blacks and more saturated shadows, but matte papers may produce more saturated highlights. Glossy papers may produce more saturated colors in certain ends of the spectrum (typically reds and yellows), while matte papers may produce more saturation in another end of the spectrum (typically blues and magentas). Recently, certain glossy papers have been reformulated to have somewhat greater longevity than matte papers. There are many trade-offs to be made when choosing a substrate. To identify these you may want to graph and compare the gamuts of various substrates along with the images you intend to print with Chromix’s ColorThink.

Sample before you buy

Many manufacturers offer sampler packs of paper. It’s a good idea to test a variety of paper types to determine the optimum substrate for your images. Epson, for instance, offers a paper sample brochure with small swatches of their papers. You can find a wide variety of media choices online (,,,, etc).

Your choice of substrate is an extremely important factor in how your images will look and feel when printed. Along with choice of printer and ink, substrate is one of the most significant choices you can make to get the quality you want from your prints.

About the Author

John Paul Caponigro
John Paul Caponigro is an internationally recognized fine artist and author of Adobe Photoshop Master Class (second edition –2003). He has been awarded membership into many photographic organizations including the Photoshop Hall of Fame, the Epson Stylus Pros, Xrite Coloratti, and the Canon Explorers of Light. He has shown internationally in Italy at the Museo Archeologico Regionale, Val d’Aosta, and the VIR, SpA, Milan. John has shown his work in the United States in galleries and museums such as the Palm Beach Photographic Centre Museum, Delray Beach, FL and the Pingree Gallery in East Hampton, NY, and the Pasadena Museum of California Art, CA. In 2002 Caponigro won the honor of being voted one of Zoom Magazine's 15 Best Artists of Past 30 Years. In 2003 he was Photo District News' Annual Winner, and in 2008 he won the Communication Arts Award of Excellence. John Paul's art is the subject of published articles and books on photography and creativity. His images have been included in over 20 books on Fine Art Photography.