Matte vs Glossy Paper: What Should You Print on (Premium)

How does the old saying go? If I recall it’s something like “My photo isn’t done and isn’t a photo until it is printed.” This is an old saying, but one that holds true for many photographers as they grow and progress. Arguably speaking, one of the biggest accolades of photography as an art form is the idea of printing your photo. Seeing your photo in real life on something other than the screens that you stare at all day and night is a testament to your work. Some may consider printing to be a dying art and it is arguably a hard sell due to it being an experience that you need to have in person. With a world that has growing economic disparity and that puts more emphasis on getting that double tap on your photo vs seeing it in galleries live, printing is an art form in and of itself that black and white photographers really should look into.So let’s just start with the basics and explore things that many photographers have never even thought about.

Matte Paper

If you’ve ever had prints made or seen them, then chances are that they’re all from the same Fujifilm paper used by Walgreens, Costco, Duane Reade, etc. That’s a glossy paper and that’s what people are so used to seeing. I’m going to tackle glossy in a bit. But first, I should really emphasize and talk about matte paper. Instead of these pharmacy prints, you should liken matte paper more to the types of paper that one would typically write on. Even then, matte paper isn’t really done a whole lot of justice by saying that.

Unlike the paper that you write on typically, matte paper tends to be thicker and is sometimes called “cardboard stock.” For what it’s worth, it’s also much more durable. When you put your hands on the paper, it has a much different tactile experience than anything that you’ve felt before and that’s often due to how the strands of fibers are put together. Matte paper tends to absorb light in a scene rather than reflect it. If you’ve ever seen a matte computer display and a glossy computer display, you can immediately tell that one is much easier to edit on than the other–often times it’s the matte. It tends to cut down on reflections but also does different things to your photo. At the same, matte can make your colors more dull unless you calibrate your software and printer to know that you’ll be printing on matte paper. While that may sound complicated, it’s literally the case of one or two clicks of your mouse.

Some of my favorite Matte papers are made by Epson and Red River. Generally speaking, it requires greater amounts of ink to make the colors look more saturated. But that can also be offset by the lighting. Lighting for matte prints are a whole other story. For that reason, lots of photographers prefer the look of matte for black and white photos.

Glossy Paper

Glossy prints and paper tend to be what folks commonly associate photo prints with. Why? I honestly want to blame the industry. It’s sometimes cheaper to make and people are often spellbound by the look of their prints. I’m not going to lie here, it’s pretty difficult to make a photo look bad on glossy. But for what it’s worth, there are different types of glossy. What you’re most used to seeing from pharmacies are glossy prints but then there is semi-glossy, luster, pro luster, satin, etc. The marketing terms can be interchanged for forever, but glossy paper can be defined as paper that when you look at it and shine light on it, you’ll clearly see reflections. But just like your cell phone’s screen, it makes the colors, text and all pop so much more.

Glossy paper and prints can make for really great printing experiences. Colors often look fantastic with glossy paper. Despite my saying that Glossy paper is the most commonly used option, that doesn’t mean that it’s only a basic offering as I was lead to believe years ago. There’s lower end glossy and higher end glossy.

How You Light It Matters

Matte prints and glossy prints are both different beasts. I want you to imagine, if you will, the photos that you probably have in your home. Maybe they’re framed. But as you walk around them, are there reflections? Then note a few other things:

  • What color is the light in your room?
  • What color are the walls?
  • What colors are in the print?
  • At different times of the day, are there more or less reflections on the paper?

Those are just a basic number of questions to think about and the list can go on and on. But let’s set up some general rules. If you’re printing on matte paper, then make sure that the light source is directly hitting it. If you’ve got a matte print, try placing it closer to a window to absorb that light. If you’re printing with glossy paper, then make the light source either directly above it or indirect. This will give the paper full illumination, brighten the colors, and cut down on reflections.

Printing

Finally, there is the whole process of actually printing your images. When it comes to doing this, I strongly recommend getting a dedicated photo printer. You don’t need the highest end options, but the reason why you should strive for one of these printers is because they have multiple inks that work harder to get the colors more accurate according to the Adobe RGB scale. That also requires having a monitor that can cover a decent amount of that scale. Software like Lightroom, Photoshop and Capture One can do a great job with handling printing; arguably Lightroom does it the best. Then what you also need is some sort of color calibration tool. I’ve been using Datacolor’s tools for years. This will help you get more consistent results across the board and you can then create color profiles of your monitor to send to the printer to make your print match what you see on the screen.

Or at least that’s the goal…

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.