Maybe you’re getting tired of reading about blind spots. I know I’m getting a little tired of writing about them. I promised to give it a rest, but first I’ve got a few things to say about one of the most frustrating things in modern digital photography: paper selection. I’ll go through it without the explicit blind spot references; if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see where they would go, and if you don’t care, you won’t be distracted by them.
Things used to be a lot simpler. If you made black and white silver prints, you had twenty or thirty popular papers to choose from. The selection didn’t change very much from year to year, although from decade to decade there was noticeable evolution, not all of it for the better. If you made C-prints, you had far fewer choices. If you printed directly from ‘chromes, you really had only one. It was actually possible to try all the papers available, and make selections based solely on your own senses.
The new mainstream is inkjet printing. There are hundreds of papers available. They change all the time. There are three or four popular ink sets. They change every couple of years. The number of combinations is immense; there’s no way you can try all of them.
How to winnow down the field to a manageable number? Most people pick their printer first, and use the manufacturer’s ink set. To make things simpler, let’s assume that’s the case, and you have a new printer. Your first set of candidate papers consists of those that have worked well for you in the past. You try them all, and discard the ones that obviously don’t work well with the new inks.
What’s next? I always go with asking my friends. You get the benefit of their efforts, you get to see their pictures printed on whatever papers they decided were good, and you can probably cadge a few sheets to try with your pictures. The downside is that you and your friends probably don’t try many papers. You’re getting your paper ideas from them, and they’re getting their ideas from you and each other. It could be a closed ecosystem, with the result that you all find papers that are adequate for your work, but miss ones that might be even better.
To cast your net a little wider, reviews – either in print or on-line – are a good option, but you have to find reviewers who are capable and ones who value the same things you do in a paper. The first is pretty easy, if you take the time to track a reviewer’s performance over a year or two (one of my favorites is Ctein). The second is harder. Because you can’t see the prints they’re looking at to make their judgments, you must rely on what they tell you they think is important. That’s where I have a hard time. I can’t tell you what exactly makes me go from “Uh-huh” to Wow” when I’m going through a stack of sample prints. I can tell you what makes the difference between “OK” and “Eech” most of the time; there are visible flaws that are describable. It’s a lot harder for me to say what makes the difference between merely acceptable and eye-popping results. If I can’t explain it to myself, what are the odds that I’ll be able to explain it to someone else?
Then there’s the ugly truth that some images work well with a given paper, and some don’t. If you could see the images that reviewers use, you might be able to figure out if there are enough similarities to some of your images that you’ve got a shot. The reviewers don’t show you all the images they use to evaluate papers; in fact, it seems like they take pains to show you only the most boring ones – is that because they think it would cheapen one of their best images to use it to illustrate a paper review?
One approach that I don’t recommend is the Great Man paper selection process. You know how the syllogism goes: Joe Moderotz is a fantastic photographer; Joe uses EverWhite Expensa paper; therefore you ought to use EverWhite Expensa yourself. Beware. You don’t know why Joe uses that paper, and, if he’s making a living through selling prints, you can trust him to tell you candidly. Maybe his staff handles his prints a lot, and he’s really concerned about bits of paper flaking off and leaving white spots, where you’re going to frame the images yourself. Maybe he finishes his prints with a spray-on coating, and you don’t. Maybe the paper company gives him free paper, or at least has cut him a deal. Maybe he doesn’t ever want to see a customer demand a reprint of a faded image, and is considers longevity to be far-and-away the most important quality of a paper-ink combination, where you are just printing for yourself and ephemeral shows. Maybe he found a paper that was just OK, but has learned its strengths and weaknesses so well that he edits the images to take full advantage of the former and work around the latter.
The above list is not complete. Use whatever sources of information you can to winnow down the immense numbers of available papers to a group that you can test to find the ones that are right for your printer, your images, your workflow, and your aesthetics. Test the runner-up papers as well as the winners, because your criteria for paper quality are unique. There are no shortcuts here. Make sure you do the testing yourself. I’ll talk about how to test in my next post.