Top Inkjet Papers for B&W
I thought I would share with you my favourite inkjet papers to date and try to explain why I chose them. There are many superb technical paper reviews, with DMax, paper base reflectivity, analysis of glossiness and all sorts being assessed (along with endless colour matrices and step wedges being printed). These are in some cases very useful, but not all say very much about whether a paper looks ‘good’. Back when all B&W work was printed in a darkroom, only a tiny minority of reviewers did much technical analysis of papers. What people did was make prints and decide which they felt produced the best looking results! So that is how I decided what performed best: which papers produced the prints I was happiest with? After all, measuring things counts for very little if the end result does not please the Mk I eyeball! It is of course very subjective, so bear that in mind.
FWIW my favourite glossy B&W papers in the last few decades were:
- AGFA Multi Contrast Classic
- Ilford Multigrade Warmtone
- Fotospeed Legacy
The above papers set one heck of a standard, its true. As a result, looking back only five to even years, many inkjet prints fell so short that they have only been described as worthy alternatives by certifiable lunatics; however, things have changed. Silver prints are, especially in hand (and not behind glass) still in a class of their own, but the gap has closed dramatically. I would not be printing digitally if I were not able to produce prints that satisfy my critical eye and some of the papers below are part of that conversion process!
So what am I looking for?
Not Dmax numbers, that’s for sure. Is anyone going to see the difference between a DMax of 2.21 and 2.27? No, not in a million years of trying! So what matters to me?
Does it use Optical Brightening Agents (OBAs)? These can fade over time, resulting in an image that appears less bright than it was originally. Does it use a pure cotton rag base, lignin free alpha cellulose, or synthetic/plastic? Prints without OBAs (or at least, with low amounts) are a safer bet simply because that potential factor for decay is removed.
Aside from draft/low value prints, I am not going to touch plastic papers either. Some look great, but customers expect better if parting with significant amounts of money. Yes, some plastic papers will likely last a very long time, but there is still a question mark there for many people, so why compromise when papers with cotton or lignin free paper bases add only a tiny additional cost to the cost of an individual print? One can argue till the cows come home about how good plastic papers are now, but I would not want to have that discussion with someone who was just about to pay for an expensive print. It just makes no sense to put yourself in that position if you are indeed selling prints.
Paper Base Hue
This is a really big one: what shade of white is it? This has a massive impact on the look of the image: warm, cold…. Neutral… how will it jive with your preferred mount boards (which are not as easy to choose as one might think)? For example, very bright and cold papers can look odd mounted on neutral mountboard. The neutrality of the mount board makes the paper base look stark in comparison. If you use a similarly bright ‘polar white’ mount board, it all looks more balanced, but the overall effect is comparable to having some giant white teeth from a Colgate whitening toothpaste advert on the wall. It can look very sterile, cold and unwelcoming. It might work for operating theatres, but I have yet to find a domestic or commercial display setting where it does. Its a personal opinion, but for years I did my own framing and quickly discovered that the innumerable shades of white mount board can present problems. I soon recognised some excellent neutral whites and now like to choose my paper bases in the same hue zone. This way I never have any problems with mounting prints and thinking ‘urggh, that paper’s white makes that board’s white look like it isn’t white any more!
Gloss Differential & Bronzing
When ink is laid down on the paper, some look great straight on, but if you view the print from an angle, especially when there is light catching the section you are looking at, you can get two issues: firstly the heavily inked area can look less glossy and kinda matt (gloss differential) and secondly, you can get a bronze effect in the blacks. They appear bronzy purply black, when viewed at an angle, which looks bizarre (and ugly).
There are an astounding number of so-called glossy (generally my favourite) paper surfaces out there, ranging from the very glossy to the barely so. Some of these surfaces are remarkably delicate and even the most casual brushing of a fingernail can leave a mark. Generally, I am looking for something glossy enough to allow for the depth that glossy papers should IMHO possess, strong ‘juicy’ blacks but without a surface so delicate that I would fear a feather falling on my print. I’ll cover luster papers at a future point, but there is one I will mention later on because I think its a ‘go to’ draft and low cost paper.
Does it feel of good quality? Does it feel physically strong and unlikely to easily crease?
The Papers That Near Missed!
Everything from Hahnemuhle: Yes, you heard that right: I bought several test packs and printed both colour and black and white and thought some of the papers were lovely, but there was a problem: not one of the Hahnemuhle papers was (to my eyes) truly better than the best of the other papers in an all-round sense and all were very expensive (in the UK). My evaluation was ‘yes, some are some great papers, but they do nothing I cannot get elsewhere for a significantly lower price’, so that was that. To command the prices being asked by Hahnemuhle, the papers needed to be better, but to my eyes they simply weren’t. I wonder if Hahnemuhle is resting on its laurels a little here. For satin and matt papers, it might have been a different matter, but this was all about gloss and I also found some of them somewhat lacking in terms of depth. Ink appeared to lie quite superficially.
Ilford Gold Mono Silk (Gallerie Prestige range) – manufacturer’s link: This is a very good paper and specially designed for B&W work (although I am not sure what precisely that entails, despite Ilford’s marketing pitch). Viewed head on it makes great looking prints, but two things stood out for me: firstly, the base is a little too ‘bright’n white’ for me personally. I like a hint of warmth, but not enough to be noticeable unless compared to colder papers i.e. enough warmth not to look cold! This paper lacked this ‘invisible’ warmth, which means it will be less flexible in use than something that possesses this quality. IMHO, it’s less suitable for portraiture, for example. Then there was the surface, which is difficult to describe. It’s glossy and has good depth, but there is a strange ‘waxiness’ to it when viewed from an angle. The base also felt a bit plasticky to me and although it is part of the same range as the Ilford Gold Fibre Silk, it felt of inferior quality to me. I also think it probably contains significant OBAs. The price therefore also felt quite high for what is on offer, so this one missed by a fair margin, even though gloss differential and bronzing were very well controlled. I thought Ilford were going to knock it out of the park with this one, considering the performance of the below paper (which is much older). Guess its not that easy!
Papers that Impressed
Ilford Gold Fibre Silk (GFS)(Galerie Prestige range) – manufacturer’s link:
This is quite a distinctive baryta paper. It contains no OBAs, it has a noticeably warm base (albeit fairly subtle) that is obvious next to the other papers, but not otherwise. The heft and feel is superb and the surface is a very fine lustre that reminds me of half way between glossy and the satin surface used by Ilford in their darkroom Resin Coated papers. Gloss differential and bronzing are pretty good, but not as good as the best papers here. You’d never see it in a mounted and framed print, for example. There is something about this surface, however, that is just drop dead beautiful for B&W work. It somehow possesses much of the best qualities from both glossy, luster and some smooth matt papers. This paper has proven enormously popular with the fine art photography crowd and it was good enough for Sebastiao Salgado to have printed ALL of the project ‘Genesis’ on. Yes, in terms of bronzing & gloss differential it is a generation behind the very best papers, but its still beautiful and that’s what we are after, right? Color prints are phenomenal too…
Fotospeed Platinum Baryta FB: I am ambivalent about their Platinum Gloss paper and was never sold on the somewhat flat surface and limited depth, but Platinum Baryta is a completely different paper altogether. IMHO it’s an absolute belter. Firstly, the surface is probably the best of any gloss paper I have ever used. It has an exceptionally fine ‘tooth’, but its there. This means there is a very nice controlled shine, rather than a mirror gloss and it reminds me of press flattened Ilford Multigrade Warmtone silver gelatin paper. It is heavy and feels robust. The base feels of superb quality and its archival credentials look very good (no OBAs as far as I am aware). The hue is a very subtle warmth and, for my uses, absolutely perfect in terms of all round use. It has very little bronzing and gloss differential, although its not the best on the market in this respect, but better than Ilford GFS. It prints with fantastic contrast and you can build up really punchy blacks very easily with this paper. I have read the criticism that blacks and ‘blocked up’ compared to some other papers (and here we can contrast it with the below paper), but for punchy, bold B&W, this is the best paper I have ever used. It just seems to look great, easily. In overall terms, I find this paper a little better than Ilford GFS, but they are different, so one does not fully replace the other. As an example, I’d rather print certain female portraits on Ilford GFS, for that gentle surface. For landscapes and general use, I feel the Fotospeed paper has the edge, however. Just. Its solid feeling, just like GFS (and they are of similar 300+gsm weight). Yes, color prints are phenomenal too…
Canson Rag Photographique: This is not a paper I personally buy, because it is IMHO overpriced in the UK at significantly higher prices than the above papers. It is, however, a very good paper indeed. With a 310gm pure cotton base, a nice neutral (but not cold) case, it is very similar indeed to Fotospeed platinum Baryta and Ilford GFS, but with a huge closer to the former and surface perhaps somewhere near the latter. My second minor gripe is that the surface looks a little ‘so what’ to me. It isn’t as glossy as the Fotospeed Platinum Baryta, but lacks the lovely silkiness of the Ilford GFS. I find it a bit dull and neither one thing nor the either. Maybe this is why some many people love it, because its a great all-rounder, so bear that in mind. I have had many prints made on it by pro labs and they have always looked great, but perhaps missed out on the sparkle that some of my favourites possess. A great paper for sure and a favourite of many.
Harman by Hahnemuhle, Glossy: This baryta paper is truly remarkable and, at the expense of sounding dramatic, it absolutely destroys every other paper I have seen or used with respect to certain qualities; namely gloss differential, bronzing and image depth. It has a very subtle warm of perfectly neutral hue (perfect, like the above paper IMHO), the base is robust and feels of great quality, it has excellent archival qualities (I understand), but…. but, the glossy surface marks easily. It is a very glossy surface, that imparts remarkable depth to inkjet prints, but you need to be careful with it to prevent fine scratches and scuffing that may not damage the image as such, but changes the way light reflects off the surface. One of the most remarkable aspects is how open the shadows are, which is a blessing and curse, depending on what you are trying to achieve. It has a very high DMax, so there is no problem there, but print the same file on this paper as compared to the above and the difference is obvious. Shadows are very well separated and reminiscent of silver gelatin paper. This remarkable material comes closer than anything else I have used to an air-dried, pressed glossy silver gelatin paper, minus the robustness those papers possess (relatively speaking). Tonality is wonderful, with an excellent smooth grayscale. My only complaint is that I feel it is a little too glossy. If they backed off a touch here it would be absolutely peerless, but as it stands it is glossier than a darkroom print, but less glossy than resin coated glossy papers for inkjet or darkroom. It weighs about the same as the above and has a good feel to it. I have read complaints about quality control, flawed sheets, shavings/bits of paper in boxes, but have not seen this myself. Maybe there were some bad batches? Once again, color prints are also wonderful…
Epson Premium Luster: I decided to write about this paper, not because it can really compete with the above papers, but because it is a remarkably good value paper that puts some ‘fine art’ papers to shame in terms of image quality. No, it isn’t an archival quality fiber paper. It has no baryta layer. For colour it is somewhat weak in that colours are subdued compared to the best papers, but this is of course a limited weakness with B&W prints. This is the paper I use for inexpensive portfolio prints that people are likely to handle. In A3 it can be bought in good value bulk packs of 100. In A4 I believe it can be bought in packs of 250 and in A2 size, it can be found on ebay (from Epson) for well under £30. Behind a frame, it cannot readily be separated from the best papers here, but with a synthetic base emblazoned with ‘Epson’ several hundred times, its not a paper you’d likely use for your finest prints. Well done to Epson for making this great paper available at such a good price though. Images print with excellent detail, strong blacks, delicate highlights and are very impressive indeed. For the price, its a no brainer. The last few batched of A2 I bought for £27 for 25 sheets.
There are many superb papers I have left out, but that’s because I have not used them. The Permajet range contains some examples that are surely up there with the above and our American friends have a number of brands we do not see in the UK. Please comment if you have a particular paper to recommend for B&W photography!