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One of the most important questions you will ask yourself as you either start or continue to print your work is “what paper do I choose?” This question will never go away, but with practice and a creative approach becomes easier to answer. In fact I’d say it’s the question I look forward to the most in my printing workflow.

But it wasn’t always that way. Over the years as I struggled with paper selection, I came to rely on a basic set of core principles that gave me consistent results—prints I was proud to sign my name on, and still am. Lots of study, practice, and determination helped as well.

The four principles I share below will let you approach paper selection with creative direction rather than guessing or worst, simply using the same paper for all of your images.

These principles will leave you open to discovery and personal interpretation, which isn’t the case with formulas. One formula I’m sure you’ve heard is “use high contrast paper for black and white images.” While this formula works in many cases, it’s certainly doesn’t apply to all black and white images, and worst yet ignores your own aesthetic preferences and style.

Other formulas I’ve heard include avoiding mat papers because sharp details get softened, or deep blacks become muddy. Both are incorrect assertions that I disprove easily in my printing workshops. A visit to the Canson Infinity booth at any trade show will also confirm how wrong those assumptions are.

Art is about exploring and sharing your way of seeing and feeling, and how you choose to communicate that. Following rigid formulas eliminate that option, and don’t work well, if at all, when you find yourself in unfamiliar territory.

A principle, on the other hand, leaves room for most creative question you can ask: “what if?”

So here are my four principles of paper selection with explanations that I hope inspire you to explore new possibilities.

1. Clarity about the photograph and its message.

You really can’t think about choosing a paper until you’re clear about what the image is about. This is true for every stage of an image, from the moment you select a focal length, to the particular composition, to the way you approach developing the raw file. And this “vision” is what helps you decide what paper best supports the look and feel that will make your message as clear as possible.

Think about what inspired you, what you felt, what motivated you to think it was an image worthy of being created and printed. Those reasons alone should be the basis of paper selection, not what others promote or what’s been traditionally used. You may not be completely clear—that’s ok. What matters is that you’re thinking about some final result. Without a sense what you want others to see and feel, it’s much harder to make any decision about paper.

2. Familiarity with the paper’s personality.

Different papers have distinct characteristics or “personalities” that directly influence the viewers perception of an image, and so becoming familiar with these characteristics is crucial to paper selection. The papers base material, the coating, and the surface quality all contribute to the overall personality that we might describe using words like aggressive, or painterly, or subdued and nuanced. These attributes are often misunderstood and under appreciated, but they have a direct impact on the overall feel of a print, regardless of what you do in the editing stage.

This is why I strongly recommend limiting yourself to the fewest papers possible. The fewer the papers, the more you will appreciate each of their personalities and how they complement or detract from the vision you have for an image. The more papers you “experiment” with, the harder it is to assess what works best for you.

Note: Papers of the same name or type from different manufacturers will not produce identical results – this is why I also suggest sticking to a single manufacturer.

3. Allowing the print to stand on its own merits.

The goal of making a print should not be to match what’s on your monitor’s screen—it should be to create an independent interpretation of your work that faithfully conveys your vision. Yes the monitor is a critical reference point that we use to make technical and aesthetic judgments about an image. But paper is a completely different medium that can not compete with either the color gamut, brightness, or contrast range of a high quality monitor.

The great news is that paper provides something digital devices can not; a tactical, physical, textural quality that bounces reflected light into your eyes. That’s what makes it special and unique, and that should never be compromised by comparisons to a monitor. Take advantage of the monitor to craft the best version of the raw file, then leverage the papers strengths to create a unique experience for those who view your photography.

4. Commitment to trial and error.

Finally, all of these principles rely on this last one, which is that the way to appreciate and learn the art of paper selection is to practice and fail often—just like everything else that really matters and takes skill. Limit the variables (fewer papers) as you learn and grow, and study how an image changes depending on the paper used. Show the prints to others you trust and make a note of patterns.

For example, I always notice that the more relaxed and serene an image makes me feel (and by definition that includes how I felt when I made the image,) the more likely I am to prefer a mat paper. Similarly, dramatic images with strong shadow depth usually work better with a high density paper. But I have many exceptions to these generalizations—as it should be.

Worried about paper and ink costs? Sorry, but that’s the arena you play in when you decide to print your work. Think of it as a worthwhile investment that will pay dividends in the future as your competence and confidence grow—and they will. Your work will also stand out in a big way. 

You want to get to the stage where as soon as a print comes out of your printer, you intuitively know whether your paper selection decision moved you towards or away from your vision, and why. That is where creativity thrives, because you allow each situation to evolve based on your skills and your ideas for a finished result. That’s not based on rules or formulas, but on basic principles that adapt to your preferences as a unique individual.

Print for yourself!

In the next post I’ll share some specific examples where I put these principles into practice.

More on First Principles Thinking

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Great post! ‘Looking forward to the next! ‘Always so appreciated!
    I think the printer is my next investment in my creative workflow. I know I’m “supposed to” get a wide-color-gamut monitor first (I use a MacBook Pro), but I’m just too enthusiastic about starting to print my own images. Comments welcome!

  2. What a terrific post, Robert! I’ve been wrestling with these principles for a while even though I’ve been printing for some time now. Especially number 3. While I view my prints using a lamp that yields different color temperatures, I still relentlessly compare what’s on my monitor to the printed image. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’m doing it until several minutes later – ugggh! But…a saving grace for me is having the luxury of going back time and again to your Printmaking Masterclass to re-enforce these principles (both in-studio and online course). Again, thanks for the invaluable post. I will try to infuse these principles before I engage my next printing session and prior to printing just for the sake of “having to print something”.

  3. Robert, wow! This could not have arrived at a better moment in my life. I have – at long last – dedicated my heart mind and soul to printing as a final form of expression. The four principles you espouse will be my framework for finding my way forward backward and sideways at times. My energy and focus are on the journey. My excitement is in learning and applying my vision into your beautiful principles to see where I can take it all.
    Thank you very much for your help and, more importantly, for sharing your approach to life.

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