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The Image-Centric Approach to Paper Selection

One of the most common questions I receive about fine art printing is Which paper is best for…black and white images, or landscapes, or portraits?” And I totally understand those questions because I used to ask myself the same questions when I started down the path of printing my own work.

But eventually either you start to look at other paper options and wonder if there’s a better choice, or one (or many) of your prints don’t quite work as well as you’d like on your “chosen” paper.

Perhaps you’ve had the feeling that there’s something missing, but you don’t know exactly what that is. Or you simply accept the doubt because you think that’s the best you can do given the materials at hand. I’ve been there too.

On one such occasion, I decided to experiment with some sample papers I had received from my local dealer, and before the day was over, a whole new world had opened up to me. I had stumbled upon a new way (at least for me) of imagining my prints, and my landscape photography. For the first time I saw more of what I had envisioned in the field simply by using a paper that had a different texture or finish than what I was used to.

And that’s when I learned that there was more than one approach to selecting papers, one that could potentially allow me to become more creative with my prints. I learned that papers that have more contrast or saturation don’t lead to better prints. Nor is texture to be avoided with highly detailed images. It all depends on what you want to say with your prints. 

Lets examine the two approaches that I think are most common amongst photographers and print makers.

  • Paper-centric Approach – In a paper-centric approach, you evaluate different papers and their characteristics and decide which paper is best for you. This implies that most if not all of your images will be printed on this paper. You may have more than one favorite paper, but the focus is generally on the paper, not the image.
    When photographers ask me to recommend a paper for their images, or for a particular subject matter, ie. landscapes, I can tell they are using this approach. My answer is usually I don’t know.

  • Image-centric Approach– Instead of finding one paper that works best for your images, or even which paper is best for b&w or HDR, you evaluate each image based on what you’re trying to convey and choose a paper that best complements or strengthens that vision.
    The paper selection comes after you’ve determined what the image is about, not before. This allows you to be much more expressive with your prints, and use the unique qualities that a great paper can add to your images.

Because I use Canson Infinity papers, there is an exceptional range of high quality papers to choose from. But this doesn’t mean that I select from the whole range  because there are some papers that generally don’t complement the style of my images. 

Once you identify the papers that do complement your style and vision, and get to know those papers well, you can leverage them for their strengths and make stronger prints. I also love how this promotes a creative approach to print making, which can lead to many eye-opening surprises

I’m not saying that one approach is necessarily better than the other, but for me the image-centric approach definitely allows me to make the most expressive prints possible. It lets me become more creative and effective with paper selection. Given that we have the choices and technology that were never available to generations of photographer before us, I think it’s an artistic privilege tat I want to take advantage to produce the best work I can. 

Learning how to match an image to a specific paper requires at least these four factors:

  1. Clarity about what the image is about and how you want to convey that to the viewer.
  2. Understanding the specific tonal, textural, and aesthetic characteristics of a specific paper or range of papers.
  3. Allowing a print to become an object separate and distinct from the digital file or representation on your monitor or electronic device. Too often we fall into the trap of wanting to match what we see on screen, yet I believe this is a mistake. These are distinct mediums with their own unique ways of representing tone and color. Furthermore, this diminishes the role of the paper in creating a new or enhanced interpretation of the image—the reason we print in the first place. What matters most is not matching what we see on screen, but making a print we can be proud of. 
  4. Trial and error – Yes it’s unavoidable that paper will be wasted, but it’s the only way to truly learn the nuances of paper selection. Printing workshops can help as well, assuming paper selection is a major focus. (We dedicate a large portion of our workshops to this very topic.)

A painter adapts his approach and methods to the medium he’s painting on for the greatest aesthetic and emotional impact. Likewise I think a similar approach to paper selection yields the most captivating prints. Combine that with the excellent papers available from Canson Infinity, and there’s much to explore for the creative print maker.

I love paper and how it impacts and refines my vision as a landscape photographer. If you want to elevate your prints, or your photography though print making, the use of the right paper can make all the difference and set you on a new path of photographic discovery as it did for me years ago.

I’ll share more tips and insights about paper selection in future posts. Thanks for reading!

This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. Hi Robert,

    Great information and guidance. I’ve been using the “image- centric” approach to picking papers and am really glad that you suggested it during the printing class last year. Being open to trying new things can give one opportunities to experience the unexpected which sometimes turns out spectacularly – and sometimes doesn’t. In either case I believe the experience is valuable and helps to inform your vision going forward. I’m pretty sure this holds true in all forms of art. Thanks again for the article.

  2. I recently had a few images of mine printed on Canson papers and it has opened up a whole new world for me! Thanks for your informative article. I can’t wait to experiment more, with your encouragement.

  3. Robert, thank you for this post. I am a fan of Canson Infinity papers and often print the same image on different papers as part of my proofing process. It’s good to read that you are encouraging others to do the same. I will be sharing this post.

    Thanks,
    Chip

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