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Inkjet Paper 101 
by Vivid Light Staff

There was a time when recommending inkjet paper was easy. You simply bought your paper from whoever made your printer. Try something else and you risked weird colorcasts, print fading and color bleeding.

Thankfully we have more choices today. There are a wide variety of papers available from an ever growing list of manufacturers. These papers can offer cost savings, a variety of surface textures, and in some cases improved print quality and/or print life compared to OEM papers.

But when you start looking at papers you'll find they have a language all there own. The good news is that once you understand some basics it's all pretty straight forward.

Your Printer 
Before we start we should mention a few things about printers. The phrase "Photo Quality" has been sorely abused by marketing departments and any number of printers that now carry that title are really nothing more than pretty good quality color printers. They're fine for creating presentation graphics but forget about real photo quality. For our purposes we'll define a photo quality printer as: 

A printer capable of producing a print indistinguishable from a print produced in a photo lab.

The first thing to consider before looking at any kind of media is how your printer feeds paper (media). All inkjet printers use a variation on the three styles shown below and each has its advantages.

The first is a front-loading paper tray on the bottom of the printer. Paper is fed from the tray, around a drum, past the print head and into the output tray. This style of paper feed is most often seen in office printers. Their chief advantage is they have a very small footprint on your desktop. These printers should never be loaded with heavyweight papers or specialty media. The problem is making the bend to feed from the bottom tray past the print head. Heavyweight papers will cause jams in this type of printer, and specialty media may begin to loose their coatings as they wrap around the paper path.

Next is a printer that carries its paper in a rear tray above and behind the printer body at an angle of around 60 degrees. Paper enters the printer, makes a partial bend before passing below the print head and into the output tray. These printers have a significantly larger footprint on your desk but they are able to feed heavyweight papers without fuss and can handle most types of specialty media.

Finally some printers have the option of feeding media directly into the back of the printer where it passes directly under the print head with no bending whatsoever. Generally printers have this feed method as an alternative feed option combined with a standard rear tray. The advantage is the ability to print directly onto poster board or specially produced foam core.

You'll sometimes see a brightness number appearing on the paper's packaging. This number can be in the low 80's for copy paper and will typically be in the 90's for presentation and brochure papers. The higher the number the brighter white the paper and the sharper images and text on that paper will appear to the eye. For important presentations and client materials you should always use presentation paper.

The greater the papers weight rating the heavier (thicker) the sheet. Copy paper, which is used for most office printing and memos is rated around 20 to 24 lbs. Presentation papers which are generally brighter white are around 28 to 30 lbs. This gives presentation materials more of a "quality" look and feel. True photo papers start at around 50 lbs.

Every photo printer has a spec for the maximum weight paper it can safely feed without jamming, but experience shows that most rear feeding printers can handle papers up to 100 to 110 lbs without jamming. We've seen some front loading printers that are even fickle with 50 lb photo papers so make sure to check your owners manual if this is what you have. You may also see paper weight expressed in grams. Copy paper is around 75 grams and 50 pound photo paper is 185 grams.

How Long Will It Last? 
It was not that long ago that a print made in the spring would be fading by fall. Today almost any inkjet print on quality paper will still look good after a couple of years.

Some manufacturers are now claiming truly astounding numbers for print life - up to 200 years. Now the odds are pretty good that most of the folks reading this article won't be around to complain in say, 180 years, if their print doesn't live up to the manufacturers claims. So let us get a bit of perspective here.

Fuji Crystal Archive paper is a pretty good standard. It's the paper most used by photo processing labs and has an expected life of 60 years* according to Wilhelm Imaging Research and print-life guru Henry Wilhelm (see sidebar). Compare it with Kodak's Ektacolor Edge 8 has an expected life of around 22 years. Keep in mind that both Fuji Crystal Archive and Kodak Ektacolor Edge 8 are for darkroom and chemical processing only.

As recently as the mid-90s Iris Giclée prints (Iris prints on watercolor papers) produced for galleries had an expected life of 20 years. These were prints whose sale prices often started in the hundreds of dollars.

Compare that to the results for the Epson 1270/1280 printers using Epson inks and Epson Heavyweight Matte or Epson Color Life Photo paper, which tested to between 24 to 27 years. The Epson pigmented inks used in the 2000P were even more impressive. When used with Epson's Archival Matte, Premium Luster, or Premium Semi-Gloss papers their life expectancy is over 100 years.

Canon's Bubble Jet printers turned in a respectable 26 to 28 years when used with Canon's Photo Paper Pro PR-101 papers.

HP turned in a less respectable 15 to 17 years with their Photosmart printers (1215/1218/970) and HP Colorfast Photo Papers but an impressive 73 year performance from their new dye-based inks used with their 5550/7150/7350/7550 printers and Premium Plus Glossy Photo Paper.

Lexmark turned in a dismal performance of less than a year when used with Kodak photo paper.

It should be noted that the performance of all these printers drops dramatically when used with generic photo papers - even when those papers are OEM papers. Epson's dye based printers (1280, etc.) tested at only 6 to 10 years when used with Epson Photo and Epson Premium Glossy Photo papers. HP Premium Photo Paper was only good for 2 to 3 years which leads us to question the label "premium", and their Premium Plus paper was good for just 4 to 5 years when used with their non-dye based inks.

But what about non-OEM papers?

There are some things to look for when evaluating any paper. The first is whether the paper was manufactured with chemicals that will adversely affect its usable life.

Look for "archival", "museum grade" and "acid free" papers. Recycled paper is a good idea for the environment and you can feel good about using it for general office tasks; but it's a terrible choice for your best quality prints because of the chemicals present.

Next look for any data on the papers coating. Coatings fall into two broad categories: porous and non-porous. Porous, actually micro-porous coatings, suck up ink like a sponge with the benefit that they dry almost instantly. But because micro-porous coatings never truly seal they are vulnerable to attack by ozone and airborne contaminants, which shorten print life. Non-porous coatings are composed of ozone resistant polymers that provide longer print life. The downside is longer drying times; meaning careful print handling is required. A misplaced thumb can easily ruin a print.

The final touch when considering papers is the finish. Everyone is familiar with matte and glossy papers. But today you can get a wide variety of finishes on your papers including: rich looking pearls, classic linens (with rough, uncut edges), faux leather and irregular surfaces. Several manufacturers even make papers that imitate E-Series studio papers - the textured finish that we're used to seeing in prints from portrait and wedding studios.

Cost In general you get what you pay for with papers - but not always.

If you buy cheap you are virtually guaranteed poor archival performance and possibly poor images.

However spending a lot of money doesn't guarantee great results. Before plunking down a wad of green on the latest wunder-paper check out the details on the label and check out the manufacturers Web site. Is there any information on your printer pro or con? Does the manufacturer offer downloadable profiles that will take the guess work (and wasted paper) out of the equation when trying to color match a new paper to your printer? Has the manufacturer had their papers tested by the folks at Wilhelm? If so the data can provide a guide as to how long your precious prints might last.

Whenever possible buy small quantities and small paper sizes for experimentation.

The good news is that today the papers you get from the printer manufacturers make a great starting point - one that is equal to or better than what you get from many photo labs.

The great news is that you can now produce images at home that rival the work produced by custom labs. But doing so is not cheap and will take some experimentation.

It's also a good idea to throw some presentation papers and brochure papers on your shelf. When you have use for them they can make a dramatic splash.

What About Discount Inks 
What can we say, based on the test numbers we've seen you get what you pay for.

There are inexpensive third party inks available for a number of photo printers. These are generally printers that are a generation or two old and have been on the market for a while. Unfortunately cheap inks tend to fade faster than quality inks.

There are archival quality inks available from several third party manufacturers that offer good performance but these are generally more expensive than OEM inks. Third party inks in general are an endangered species as printer manufacturers are adding chips to their ink cartridges so that their printers will only work with their own inks.

*60 years when exposed to 450 lux for 12 hours per day, the industry standard for normal or above-normal indoor lighting. The life expectancy for any print goes up dramatically if stored in the dark and all numbers assume the print is properly mounted under glass.

Papers & Inks - Beyond the Basics
If you're ready to go past the basics or you really want to get into the technical nitty gritty of what sets papers and inks apart we recommend you visit the web site of Henry Wilhelm and Wilhelm Imaging Research. These guys have become the "standard setters" for measuring the performance of various paper and ink combinations and their work is impressive. By determining a standard testing method that can be uniformly applied to any paper/ink combination they bring some sense or order to an area of our industry that is overwhelmed by marketing speak.

The problem is that with so many combinations and so many new papers coming on the market every day, chances are you're not likely to find the really exotic stuff here. Bear in mind this site is not for the technophobe!



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