Photography Basics

Understanding Various Photo Papers

If you are in the market for photo papers, you are surely bombarded with options and industry buzzwords, making the job of choosing the most suitable type overly complicated.  In this post we will talk you through your options.

Photo frames on wall -- understanding photo papers
Photo Credits: Travis Isaacs/Flickr

Photo Papers — Properties, Different types.

Weight In GSM

Paper density is measured in GSM or grams per square meter –  g/m². Normal printer paper will be around 80gsm to 90gsm in weight, while photo paper can exceed 300gsm. Not to be mistaken for a quality standard, GSM is better considered as a measurement of impression and touch, as heavier weights feel more special and invested in.

If you are handing a photo to someone that has a keepsake element to it, heavier weight prints are more suitable. On the other hand, if you are printing marketing literature which has little keepsake element, a lighter weight make more financial sense.  The quality of the image is to do with the coating on the paper rather than the weight of the base.

Photo Paper Structure

The structure of the paper is where quality is lost or gained. Regardless of the manufacturer, there are two important aspects that will impact quality, print detail and archival properties.

The first is the base on which the paper is made. Options vary between bases of normal printer paper (used in common everyday photo papers) to a base of PE coated paper. PE coated base contains normal paper which is pressed between two layers of polyethylene making it highly stable in its ability to accommodate huge amount of inks. Your photo paper of choice will often include a description of the base. For better results, opt for the PE coated option.

The second feature to impact quality is the chemical that coats the base paper (either normal or PE coated). This chemical, which is known as the ‘receiving layer’, is tasked with containing the ink on the surface. Budget photo paper uses a technology called Cast Coating in which the ink sits on the surface of the chemical and must be given sufficient time to dry. Higher end photo paper use micro and nano pore chemical coating in which the ink sits in microscopic pores making it instant dry. Pore based coating makes the print more durable due to better resistant to humidity, UV light, touch and other elements that will significantly shorten a print’s life.

Black and White Digital Prints photo papers Compared
Photo Credits: Mark Nye/Flickr

Photo Paper Finish – A considerable confusion occurs when users attempt to compare photo paper finish. On occasion, vendors will use their own terminology to describe a similar finish making it hard to make sense. The three common options are:

Glossy – The most widely used in the glossy option. It allows for the finer detail in the print such as sub-tones and true colours to appear, however in certain lighting conditions it makes the image hard to see due to the glare effect. In some cases, viewing from an angle or even viewing directly when the print is framed behind glass is hard.

Satin – Satin finish include a level of gloss, but nowhere near that of the glossy finish. It is often the safer option between no gloss to some gloss. You will come across satin as ‘Semi-Gloss’ (HP, Epson and Canon), Pearl (ILFORD and other niche vendors) and Luster (Canon), though these are all basically variants of satin.

Matt – The only finish without any level of glare is the matt finish. The lack of finish makes the paper suitable in rare occasions, as the finer details of the image won’t show. It is used in prints of black and while colour, or when large-scale printing is required as this finish is significantly cheaper to produce.

When researching your options next time, look at the paper structure and finish as guidelines.

If you have any questions about photo papers, leave your comment below.

About the Author

Joseph Eitan, MD of As well as editing the Photo Paper Direct blog, Joseph works with professional and amateur photographers on aspects of small and large format printing.

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  1. I have looked everywhere for the type photo paper that professional printing places use. It has the slight texture on it and I can’t find it. I have even bought what is called professional and it is not textured. What is this called and where can I buy it?

  2. Hi, In photo paper the pearl or luster finish will give a slight textured feel as opposed to satin which is also semi-gloss but totally flat. Professional printers often use the pearl option due to this delicate textured feel. I hope this helps. Joseph

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