Printing paper: matte vs. glossy revisited

Posted on September 9, 2018 with tags photography.

Let’s revisit some choices… whether they were explicit or not.

For the record, a Google search for “matte vs glossy” says “about 180.000.000 results found”, so it’s like emacs versus vi, except that only gets a paltry 10 million hits.

Tech background

Just a condensed summary that makes some large simplifications, skip if you already know this.

Photographic printing paper is normally of three main types: matte, glossy, and canvas. Glossy is the type one usually finds for normal small prints out of a printing shop/booth, matte is, well, like the normal document print paper, and canvas is really stretchable “fabric”. In the matte camp, there is the smooth vs. textured vs. rag-type (alternatively, smooth, light texture, textured), and in the glossy land, there’s luster (semi-gloss) and glossy (with the very glossy ones being unpleasant to the touch, even). Making some simplifications here, of course. In canvas land, I have no idea ☺

The black ink used for printing differs between glossy and matte, since you need a specific type to ensure that you get the deepest blacks possible for that type of paper. Some printers have two black ink “heads”, others—like (most?) Epson printers—have a single one and can switch between the two inks. This switching is costly since it needs to flush all current ink and then load the new ink, thus it wastes ink.

OK, with this in mind, let’s proceed.

My original paper choices

When I originally bought my photo printer (about five years ago), I thought at the beginning I’ll mostly print on matte paper. Good quality matte paper has a very special feel (in itself), whereas (very) glossy paper is what you usually see cheap prints on (the kind of you would have gotten 20 years ago from a photo developing shop). Good glossy paper is much more subdued, but still on the same “shiny” basis (compared to matte).

So I bought my printer, started printing—on matte paper—and because of the aforementioned switching cost, for a while all was good in matte-only land. I did buy quite a few sample packs for testing, including glossy.

Of course, at one point, the issue of printing small (e.g. the usual 10×15cm format) appeared, and because most paper you find in this format in non-specialist stores is glossy, I started printing on glossy as well. And then I did some large format prints also using glossy, and… well, glossy does have the advantage of more “impact” (colours jump up at you much more), so I realised it’s not that bad in glossy land. Time to use/test with all that sample paper!

Thus, I did do quite a bit of experimenting to decide which are my “go-to” papers and settled on four, two matte and two glossy. But because there’s always “need one small photo printed”, I never actively used the matte papers beyond my tests… Both matte papers were smooth matte, since the texture effect I found quite unpleasant with some photos, especially portraits.

So many years passed, with one-off printing, and the usual replacement of all other colours. But the matte black cartridge still had ~20% ink left, that I wasn’t using, so I ended up with having the original cartridge. Its manufacture date is 2013/08, so it’s more than five years old now. Epson says "for best results, use within 6 months), so at this time it’s about ten times the recommended age.

Accidental revisiting the matte-vs-glossy

Fast forward to earlier this week, and as I was printing a small photo for a friend, it reminded me that I the Epson paper I find in shops in Switzerland is much thinner than what I found once in US, and that for long I wanted to look up what other small format (10×15cm, A5, 5×7in, etc.) I can find in higher quality. I look at my preferred brands, and I find actually fine art paper in small format, but to my surprise, there’s also the option of smooth matte paper!

Small-format matte paper, and especially for portraits, sounded very strange; I wondered how would this actually feels (in hand). One of the best money spent during my paper research was a sample (printed) book from Hahnemühle in A5 format (this one, which I can’t find on the Hahnemühle web site, hence the link to a shop), which contains almost all their papers with—let’s hope—appropriate subjects. I grab it, search for the specific matte paper I saw available in small format (Photo Rag 308), and… WOW. I couldn’t believe my eyes and fingers. Definitely different than any small photo I’ve (personally) ever seen.

The glossy paper - Fine Art Pearl (285gsm) also looked much superior to the Epson Premium Glossy Photo paper I was using. So, time to make a three-way test.

OK, but that still left a problem - while I do have some (A4) paper of Photo Rag, I didn’t have matte ink; or rather, I had some but a very, very old one. Curiosity got the better of me - at worst, some clogging and some power cleaning (more ink waste), but I had to try it.

I chose one recent portrait photo in some subdued colours, printed (A4) using standard Epson Photo Glossy paper, then printed using Fine Art Pearl (again, what a difference!) and then, prepare to print using Photo Rag… switch black ink, run a quick small test pattern print (OK-ish), and print away. To my surprise, it did manage to print, with no problems even on this on-the-dark-side photograph.

And yes, it was as good as the sample was promising, at least for this photograph. I can only imagine how things will look and feel in small format. And I say feel because a large part of the printed photograph appeal is in the paper texture, not only the look.

Conclusion

So, two takeaways.

First, comparing these three papers, I’ve wasted a lot of prints (for friends/family/etc.) on sub-standard paper. Why didn’t I think of small-paper choices before, and only focused on large formats? Doesn’t make sense, but I’m glad I learned this now, at least.

Second, what’s with the “best used within 6 months”? Sure, 6 months is nothing if you’re a professional (as in, doing this for $day job), so maybe Epson didn’t test more than 1 year lifetimes, but still, I’m talking here about printing after 5 years.

The only thing left now is to actually order some packs and see how a small photo book will look like in the matte version. And in any case, I’ve found a better choice even for the glossy option.

What about textured matte?

In all this, where are the matte textured papers? Being very textured and much different from everything I talked above (Photo Rag is smooth matte), the normal uses for these are art reproductions. The naming of this series (for Hahnemühle) is also in-line: Albrecht Dürer, William Turner, German and Museum Etching, etc.

The sample book has these papers as well, with the following subjects:

  • Torchon: a photograph of a fountain; so-so effect, IMHO;
  • Albrecht Dürer: abstract art reproduction
  • William Turner: a family picture (photograph, not paint)!!
  • German Etching: something that looks like a painting
  • Museum Etching: abstract art

I was very surprised that between all those “art reproductions”, the William Turner one, a quite textured paper, had a well matching family picture that is, IMHO, excellent. I really don’t have a feeling on “would this paper match this photograph” or “what kind paper would match it”, so I’m often surprised like this. In this case, it wasn’t just passable, it was an excellent match. You can see it on the product page—you need to go to the third picture in the slideshow, and of course that’s the digital picture, not what you get in real life.

Unless I get some epiphany soon, “what can one use textured matte paper for” will remain an unsolved mystery. Or just a research item, assuming I find the time, the same way I find Hahnemühle’s rice paper very cool but I have no idea what to print on it. Ah, amateurs ☺

As usual, comments are welcome.