Quality Explained - Photographic Prints

Before I explain my printing specifications it is important to remember that producing a ‘quality image’ starts well before the printing stage. Using the latest Phase One camera system, with a colour profiling and matching process that ensures the file sent to the printer is of the highest quality. Trying to help you the customer understand what you are purchasing is actually quite difficult because we live in a world of marketing and catch phrases that anyone can use without actually knowing what they mean, let alone how to apply them. So in layman’s terms here are some notes on what I have learnt over the years, and apply to each of my prints. One quality component does not mean a quality finish if the rest of the products are substandard.

A Giclee Print (pronounced zhee-clay) is a common term used across the industry which sounds impressive, but basically just means an inkjet print. There are no quality standards that come with the use of this word so you need to look deeper into the process to determine quality.

Fine art print / photographic print / fine art paper / photographic paper / premium photographic print / archival paper. Words used throughout the industry and again very hard - almost impossible to actually find a definitive answer or definition. Therefore one must dig deeper again, into the actual build of the paper to understand what you are purchasing.

What is the paper made from? In general terms photographic papers are one of two types:

  1. Wood-based pulp papers - which are made with varying percentages of wood-pulp containing natural acids, and therefore requiring buffering to bring back to Ph neutral during manufacture. The quality of the paper depends on the quality of wood pulp and how much lignin is left in the pulp. Lignin turns the paper brittle and yellow over time. Within the wood pulp based papers used regularly in the photographic world there are 2 main forms.
    1. Resin coated inkjet papers - whilst considered “photographic” this is what you get from mini-lab set ups in camera shops and retail outlets because their main purpose is to sell the camera and equipment, not the print which is more of a side line for the business. It is also the cheapest type of photographic paper. These types of papers are generally made from a layer of low grade wood pulp with a layer of plastic (polyethylene) on top which separates the ink sensitive layer from the wood pulp layer. The advantage of this is it creates a commercially appealing ultra smooth appearance. These papers also have optical brighteners in them to offset the yellow appearance that is now considered unsightly, but which degrades the archival life of the paper.
    2. Fibre based inkjet papers - are made from cotton rag fibres or wood pulp (high grade) where the baryta coating is applied directly to the fibres. This coating is a barium sulfate, containing the mineral barite and is where the ink sensitive receptors are. The advantage of using fibre based papers is the character, texture and feel of the paper can come through adding to final look of the print.
  2. 100% Cotton Rag Paper is the highest possible quality as it is actually produced with cotton, a natural acid free product, therefore not requiring the addition of buffers. A naturally occurring white cotton pulp also having no requirement for optical brighteners these papers are the ultimate in archival and permanence quality. This paper has been developed to meet the ISO standard 9706 for museum grade longevity requirements.

My Print Specifications

I do not use resin coated papers for any of my prints. I only use the latest fibre based inkjet papers and cotton rag papers (for all the reasons outlined above) as well as calibrated large format printers with genuine inks and custom profiles. I am a certified Ilford Printer and undergoing certification for Canson:

  • Small Prints (20cm up to 100cm) - a fibre based inkjet paper, which is high in alpha cellulose making it a very stable acid free paper.
  • Large Prints (125cm Upwards) - a 100% cotton rag paper, which is not only naturally acid free due to the very high content of alpha cellulose in cotton, but is made without the use of optical brighteners which are known to affect the longevity of images.