Looking for the best photo paper for your inkjet printer? This guide will help you pick the right one from the huge choice available, show you the options and help you find the best photo paper for you at the best price.
Many photographers feel that a digital image doesn’t become a real photograph until it’s been printed onto paper, and who are we to disagree? There’s also a lot to be said for creating your own prints with a high-quality photo printer instead of uploading your digital images to a lab. For one thing, you maintain control over the whole process and, with a just little learning and maybe a bit of trial and error, you should be able to get fabulous results that are exactly as you want them.
Professional photographers often feel that printing their own images enables them to show their photos in the way they want them to be seen, rather than being at the mercy of random and possibly badly adjusted monitor screens, tablets and even smartphones, owned by their clients.
Photo papers fall into two main categories. The first includes glossy, semi-gloss and lustre papers, which have a protective, shiny top layer. These are most ideal for use with photo printers like the Canon PIXMA PRO-200 and even general home printers, which use dye-based inks to generate photo output. The water-based ink is fully absorbed beneath the top layer, enabling excellent uniformity with an entirely smooth finish.
With matte photo papers, the ink is laid on the top-layer inkjet coating, rather than being absorbed beneath it. It’s more ideal for printers like the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 and Epson SureColor P700 and SureColor P900, which use pigment-based inks. Unlike dye-based inks, the pigments in these inks is suspended in the liquid rather than being dissolved. The larger molecules of the pigments are more robust and better suited to matte paper. They’re also suitable for printing on glossy, semi-gloss and lustre photo papers but less ideal than dye-based inks. That’s because the pigments generally won’t be fully absorbed beneath the outer layer, which can give rise to ‘bronzing’, where the print looks blank and lifeless when viewed from certain angles. Gloss differential can also be a problem, where areas of the print with a denser covering of ink look less glossy than areas with a relatively light covering.
Using own-brand inks and photo papers from the likes of Canon and Epson, you can be assured of photo prints that should last a lifetime without fading. The chemistry of the inks and papers are naturally formulated to work together. ICC (International Color Consortium) profiles ensure that the right mix of inks is used to maximize color fidelity for any given own-brand paper with a particular ink set. It’s an important issue because different papers have varying whiteness and react with ink in different ways. Indeed, ultra-white papers sometimes include optical brighteners, similar to those used in laundry detergents, which react with UV light to give a super-bright appearance. The downside is that stability is less good over time, so they’re typically not used in archival and ‘fine art’ media.
Because the results are pretty much guaranteed when using own-brand inks and papers, many photographers don’t venture any further. But that’s missing a trick. So-called ‘fine art’ media is available from printer manufacturers like Canon and Epson but also from specialist paper makers like Canson and Hahnemühle, who take papermaking to a more elevated level. Whereas standard photo papers tend to have a plasticky feel and can be somewhat lacking in character, fine art papers are often based on cotton ‘rag’ and other premium fibers, and are created to the highest standards with specialist manufacturing processes.
Some Canson and Hahnemühle’s fine art media is made on traditional mould paper machines, which are now very rare, in a process that goes back centuries and has been favored by the greatest painters down the ages. Fine art media is generally heavier than mass-produced photo paper and comes in a huge range of smooth or uniquely textured finishes that give them a much higher-quality look and feel.
As with printer manufacturers’ own-brand papers, Canson and Hahnemühle offer ICC profiles for a huge range of inkjet printers, to ensure the utmost accuracy and fidelity. Let’s take a closer look at some of the best photo paper options available on the market today.
Best photo paper for inkjet printers
Canon photo papers
For those printing with a typical 5-ink PIXMA multi-function document/photo printer, Canon’s Photo Paper Plus Glossy II PP-201 is the most sensible choice for performance and value for money. It’s a reasonably weighty 265gsm glossy photo paper with an attractive high-gloss finish. For the best results, however, especially if you’re using a more exotic printer, Pro Platinum is the better option. It’s a fair bit pricier but is superior in quality and weight, at 300gsm. As Canon’s range-topping glossy paper, it has excellent brightness, enables sumptuous color rendition and is very resistant to fading.
The debate over whether glossy or lustre finish is best has been going on since the days when we used to have our rolls of 35mm film processed on the high street. Naturally, lustre isn’t as full-on shiny as glossy paper but it has advantages in reducing glare from strong light sources bouncing off the surface, and is preferable for handling if you’re passing prints around, as it’s more resistant to fingerprints. Canon’s Photo Paper Pro Luster is an up-market paper with an attractive look and feel, that delivers excellent results. Like other Canon ‘Pro’ papers, it’s priced accordingly and, if you’re happy to settle for a little less, check out Canon’s Photo Paper Plus Semi-gloss SG-201, which has a pleasant satin finish.
Available in a wide range of sizes up to A2/17x22-inch, this is Canon’s best matte photo paper. Unlike glossy, semi-gloss and lustre, there’s no reflection from the surface. Deep colors and rich blacks can look really dramatic. It works just fine with Canon’s dye-based printers up to and including the PIXMA PRO-200, and is even better with pigment-based printers like the imagePROGRAF PRO-300 and PRO-1000, which feature matte black inks. For use on more mainstream PIXMA multi-function document/photo printers, MP-101 Matte Photo Paper works well and is much cheaper to buy. It’s also lighter in weight, making it easier to use for creative projects and creating greetings cards. With this in mind, there’s also a double-sided MP-101D version.
Epson photo papers
Like Canon, Epson offers a wide range of glossy papers to suit different needs and budgets. Going up through the price range, there’s Epson Value Glossy, Epson Photo Paper Glossy, Epson Premium Photo Paper Glossy and Epson Ultra Photo Paper Glossy. For performance and price, the Premium Glossy paper gives the best mix of standout performance with Epson’s 6-ink dye-based photo inkjet printers, without spending over the odds. color rendition is excellent and the high-gloss surface is superb. It’s only really worth trading up to the range-topping Ultra Glossy paper if you want the heavier 300gsm paper weight, compared with the Premium paper’s 265gsm. Another advantage of the Premium paper is that it’s available in a number of roll options, ideal for use with Epson’s larger-format printers that have built-in or optional roll feeders.
Fully glossy paper can hang awkwardly on the wall, diminishing the image if strong light sources are bouncing back off its surface. Lustre papers are often preferred but not everyone likes a textured finish. This semi-gloss premium photo paper strikes a good balance with a glare-resistant but ‘cockle-free’ finish that makes it highly suitable for exhibition-grade printing. It enables excellent resolution for retention of ultra-fine detail, along with rich color saturation and deep blacks. The paper performs equally well with Epson’s dye-based printers and its more pro-grade pigment-based photo printers like the SureColor P700 and P900, although slight bronzing can be apparent with pigment inks. A variety of cut-sheet sizes is available, as well as various roll options.
Epson makes two similar matte photo papers, sold as Archival Matte Paper in Europe and Ultra Premium Presentation Paper Matte in the USA. They both have an excellent matte finish that avoids distractions from bright lights bouncing off the surface of the paper. They have excellent whiteness and are great for printing both color and black & white photo prints, thanks to their impressive tonal range. One potential problem with the Archival Matte Paper is that it’s only available in a relatively limited range of sizes, and there’s no A2/17x22-inch option to suit printers like the SureColor P900.
Hahnemühle has a history of top-quality papermaking that goes back to 1584, based at the same site in Germany throughout, to make use of its top-quality and entirely consistent natural water supply. Photo Rag Baryta is one of the company’s best-selling photo papers, from its Digital FineArt Glossy line-up. There’s a truly vast range of Hahnemühle FineArt media to choose from and the Glossy section itself is very extensive, including metallic, pearl and satin options. The Photo Rag Baryta is based purely on cotton fibres and has a lovely natural whiteness. The smooth, glossy inkjet coating enables very vibrant color rendition along with superb sharpness and really deep blacks, ideal for really punchy results.
Hahnemühle’s Digital FineArt media is split into various categories that include matte smooth, matte textured, glossy and canvas. German Etching is a great all-rounder from the matte textured range. It’s genuine mould-made paper, based on a traditional and now very rare process, giving it a lovely tactile feel, along with a unique surface texture with a felt structure that generates a truly three-dimensional effect for photo prints. Its 310gsm density also gives it a really substantial, top-quality look and feel. Vivid color and really deep blacks are assured by the premium matte inkjet coating.
A new addition to Hahnemühle’s Digital FineArt collection is the ‘Natural Line’ of papers. The three options so far consist of Bamboo, Hemp and Agave. As such, each of these papers is created from plant-based cellulose, chosen for being rapid-growing, requiring relatively little water and no pesticides. The raw material therefore grows quickly and naturally, as well as being highly sustainable and very eco-friendly. The Bamboo paper is a prime example, being made from 90% bamboo fibres and 10% cotton. It has a pleasantly warm and natural white that works particularly well for printing images with warm hues, as well as for creating black & white prints. It’s a matte paper with a delightfully subtle, felt textured surface.
Canson has long been renowned as a maker of top-quality fine art papers. More recently, it’s gained added prestige with the acquisition of ARCHES, a master papermaker since 1492 and the only paper mill in France using a traditional cylinder mould process for all of its papers. Current choices in the Canson Infinity ARCHES line-up include 88, BFK Rives Pure White, BFK Rives White and Aquarelle Rag. The 88 is made entirely from cotton fibres and has an ultra-smooth matte finish. As with all of the other fine art papers in our guide, it’s completely free of any optical brighteners and has excellent archival qualities. Photo print quality is similarly top-drawer, with natural whites, rich blacks and superb tonal range.
Many photographers favor matte paper for printing and Rag Photographique from the Canson Infinity line-up is one of the best. It’s available in two different densities, in both cut sheet and roll options, and there’s also a double-sided ‘Duo’ version. It’s created from cotton fibers but includes additional natural minerals to enable an exceptionally smooth white tone. It’s also particularly long-lasting, having been developed to satisfy museum requirements as well as catering to the digital fine art market in general. The paper is wonderfully smooth to the touch and delivers superb photo print quality with particularly deep blacks.
The base material for this lustre photo paper is made purely from cotton fibers, but it also has a microporous top layer coating to give it a lustre finish. As such, it’s based on a paper that was a favourite for many years in the original Platinum/Platine traditional photographic market for conventional darkroom printing. The ‘digital darkroom’ Platine Fibre Rag has the same look and feel as its conventional forebear, the F-Type Baryta Fibre paper. Excellent for both color and black & white photo printing, it has a superb tonal range from really deep blacks to bright whites.
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