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What You Need To Know Before Printing Your Photographs

photographic prints

A Guide To Photographic Print Mediums & Materials

Whether you’re a professional photographer, a keen amateur with a DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera, or just love taking images with your phone camera, it’s a satisfying feeling to see your image printed & hung on the wall.

Print technologies have progressed a lot over the years & continue to do so.

There’s also an amazing range of different print mediums available, as well as ways to display your photographs.

This guide will help you understand the different characteristics of various print mediums so as to help you decide which one will best do your photographs justice.

How To Choose The Best Print Medium For Your Images

I’ve stated this in other articles, but I believe “best” can be subjective.

Subject Matter

Sometimes a print that is pin sharp with accurate colour & perfect contrast may not suit the actual image.

Many fine art photographs can be minimal in tone & need a more subtle approach to printing.

This can also hold true for some portraiture, not every subject suits, or wants, every wrinkle visible!

Other images can be bold & colourful & that liveliness needs to be translated to print.

So a more dynamic print medium will be appropriate.


Some print mediums are more durable than others.

If the print is going to be hung in a high traffic area or where it can be subject to environmental contaminants, then certain materials are going to be up for the job more than others.

Certain prints are more suitable for wet areas like bathrooms for example, or kitchens where they’re exposed to cooking odours.

So let’s take a look at these various print materials & what makes them unique.

Choosing A Suitable Photographic Paper

photographic paper on desk

Probably the 1st medium that comes to mind when thinking about photography.

These days, images are printed onto paper either by laser or inkjet printers.

But back in the dark ages (literally, as you’d be in a darkroom!), images were transferred to an emulsion paper via a negative & enlarger through a chemical process.

There are still some photographers that use this method & these papers are still available today.

If you’re willing to fork out the cash, as it’s expensive & usually on an industrial scale, there are printers that use digital enlargers which can print a digital image using the wet print process.

Papers For Laser Printers

Laser printers are mainly used for printing out documents in the home or office & don’t come close to achieving the quality of an inkjet printer.

They use powdered toner instead of ink, as well as only 4 colours: cyan, magenta, yellow & black, they can’t reproduce the same tonal gamut of an inkjet printer that uses 6 colours.

As a default, laser printers tend to be calibrated for printing out documents, so you’d have to mess with the settings to create any improvement.

  • Basic office paper will do the job if you’re not looking to hang your prints in an art gallery!

If you just want to share some happy snaps, then this is a very affordable option.

  • Coated papers are available in glossy, low gloss & matte & will yield a slightly better result.

Some manufacturers label their paper as “professional laser photo paper”, which

simply means it’s a slightly better quality.

All these papers are available in different weights, or thickness, so a thicker paper may work best if you’re going to mount or frame it.

Papers For Inkjet Printers

Whatever medium you’re printing to, inkjet printers deliver high quality images.

This is because they lay the inks down in small dots & are able to be calibrated for a high number of dots per inch, or DPI.

They also produce colour accuracy, sharpness & level of detail.

This is why they are used by professional print labs & printing services.

Some photographers will invest in their own inkjet printer, as it gives them a lot of control over the final image.

But they are a hefty investment, more for the working photographer or photography business.

There’s quite a choice of companies that manufacture photographic papers, some cheap, some expensive.

As I say in nearly every article “you get what you pay for”.

So if you’re printing your own images, you’ll have the freedom to experiment with various brands to find the one that best suits your needs.

Whichever the brand of paper, they’re normally available in 3 finishes:

1. Glossy - has a shiny, more reflective surface.

This type of paper does produce great sharpness & contrast as well as good punchy colours.

It can be more susceptible to fingerprints, so extra care needs to be taken when handling.

Already a reflective surface, if mounted behind glass it can be even more so.

Perhaps a semi-gloss may be better in this situation, or use an anti-glare glass or acrylic.

2. Satin - sometimes referred to as pearl or lustre, these papers are pretty much the same, the latter having a slight texture.

Also referred to as semi-gloss, they sit halfway between glossy & matte, still producing great colour & resolution, but with less glare.

3. Matte - they are known for producing less contrast, but this needs explaining.

Matte papers have less maximum density, in other words, the blacks aren’t as deep.

Being non-reflective, the blacks are actually more true & high contrast can still be produced, it’s just the blacks aren’t as rich.

But this is actually a good thing, as certain images will reproduce better on a matte paper.

Many photographers will choose matte, as photographs can sometimes look cheap or garish printed on glossy paper.

Specialty Papers

Also compatible with inkjet printers, there are a number of speciality photographic papers that offer their own unique & excellent qualities:

  • Baryta Paper - this is a fibre based paper with a barium sulphate layer.

Like traditional darkroom papers, this barium sulphate layer is applied before the ink receiving layer.

Barium sulphate is a natural compound similar to clay & is also used in the production of plastics & rubber.

Mainly used for fine art, black & white & exhibition prints, it produces good shadow detail, deeper blacks as well as good highlights.

Having a wide colour gamut makes it popular for colour photographs too.

There’s a good choice of manufacturers that produce these papers & with a slightly textured finish & decent thickness, or weight, they’re an excellent choice for fine art & archival prints.

  • Cotton Rag - no, it’s not printing on a dust cloth!

Standard photographic paper is made from wood pulp, whereas cotton photo paper is made from .. you guessed it .. cotton.

As well as being acid free, the inks are absorbed into the paper, rather than sitting on top, making it an archival paper.

I’ve never used this paper myself, but a quality cotton paper is touted to reproduce the highest level of detail & sharpness on the market.

Another fantastic paper for finer art & exhibition prints.

  • Metallic Paper - there’s a few different variations of these papers with different finishes.

They’re often used with face-mounted acrylic or aluminium ( metal) prints.

As the name implies, they have a metallic quality, perhaps not suitable for certain photographic styles, but they do deliver superb depth, punchy colours & great contrast.

With superb sharpness & a shimmery, almost iridescent look, they are best displayed without a glass frame. It’s an archival paper that is also curl & tear resistant.


Photographic paper is available at many price points to suit any budget.

With a good range of sizes available too, it’s a great choice for holiday snaps & fine art images alike.

With a printed photograph, you have the option of storing it archivally or in a photo album, as well as mounting & framing for display.

If you’d like to explore photographic prints further, here’s some articles that may be of interest.

Printing Photos On Canvas

stack of canvas prints

Canvas prints continue to be an affordable & fabulous option for printing your photographs.

From professional print labs to high street photo shops, canvas is available in a range of styles & sizes.

Canvas in itself isn’t a material, but materials that are weaved together to produce a suitable surface for inkjet printing.

There’s 3 types Of Canvas Weaves Used In Photographic Printing:

1. Cotton or Linen - the go to for creating archival & exhibition prints due to it’s archival nature.

As we’ve learned with cotton photo papers, cotton is acid free.

The inks are also absorbed into the cotton instead of laying on the surface, providing further protection from fading & airbourne contaminants.

The downside to cotton is the inks spread slightly when absorbed & the image may lose some sharpness.

But for muted landscapes & fine art this can actually be a benefit.

Cotton has less consistency between batches too, hence why it’s used for one off & limited edition prints.

2. Polyester - the cheapest canvas, but don’t let that deter you.

Being synthetic means the ink dots sit on the surface which creates better sharpness & detail as well as vibrant colours, rich blacks & great contrast.

This could look cheap or tacky with the wrong image, but for those photographs that you really want to pop, polyester could be the best choice.

3. Poly/Cotton Blend - used by most print labs because it sits in that sweet spot between being too muted or too contrasty.

Usually a 60% polyester to 40% cotton blend is used & it’s easy to achieve consistency & colour accuracy.

Many professional & amateur photographers will use a poly/cotton blend for this reason, as it’s perfect for long print runs.

As well as 3 choices of canvas material, a print can also be made in 4 ways:

1. Gallery Wrap - these are the most popular canvas prints & for good reason.

The printed canvas is wrapped taut over a frame, also called stretcher bars & secured with staples on the back.

The image can bleed around the edges, which is the most favoured look, but white or black edges are also available.

These prints are ready to hang & look great without the need for framing.

But most print services also have the option of a floater frame.

The print is mounted within the frame with a gap all the way around, hence the print seems to “float” within the frame.

It’s a wonderful contemporary look that suits most decors.

2. Studio Wrap - similar to a gallery wrap, except the frame is usually thinner & the canvas is stapled on the edges.

Floating frames can’t be used due to the staples being visible, so normally a custom frame is required.

3. Mounted - this just means the printed canvas sheet is adhered to a backing substrate, usually Gatorboard or something similar.

Being thin, they can be used with any standard picture frame or a custom frame can be made.


I feel canvas prints give you the most bang for your buck.

If you use a reputable print lab & a quality image file, canvas won’t disappoint.

They’re available in various sizes from small to supersized, so can be used anywhere in the home.

Not every photograph may suit the slightly textured look that canvas offers, but in my own experience, I love seeing my landscapes come to life on a canvas print.

Explore these articles if you’d like to learn more about canvas prints.

Printing Your Image On Metal Prints

metal photo prints hung on wall

Sometimes referred to as aluminium prints, these offer jaw dropping quality, colour vibrancy & an almost 3D depth .. with the right photograph, it feels like you could stick your head into the image!

There’s 3 Ways These Prints Can Be Produced:

1. Dye- sublimation - this method is preferred by most print labs as well as photographers.

This is because it’s this process that gives metal prints their famous 3D depth.

The image is 1st printed in reverse with special dyes onto a specific type of paper.

The paper & aluminium substrate are then sandwiched together under a heat press.

Under this intense heat, the dyes turn to gas which are then absorbed into the aluminium.

As the metal cools, the gas reverts back to ink, except it’s infused into the aluminium.

Technically this process loses some sharpness, as the dyes are spread rather than laid down in dots.

But the difference can only be seen under a magnifying loop & not visible to the naked eye.

2. Direct Print - as the name implies, using a flatbed inkjet printer, the ink is laid down in dots directly to the surface of the aluminium.

Although slightly sharper, the image won’t have the same depth, colour vibrancy or contrast.

But again, perhaps the image doesn’t require such punch or vibrancy.

A base coat is 1st applied to receive the inks.

Usually this base coat is white as it delivers the most accurate colour tones.

But with brushed aluminium, a clear coat can be applied.

The brushed aluminium will then show through the clear areas & highlights of the image creating a wonderful shimmer effect.

3. Face Mount - the photograph is 1st printed to a high quality photographic paper, then simply adhered to the aluminium & sealed with a clear coat.

Although producing the sharpest image with the most detail, as you’re simply printing to photographic paper, it offers none of the uniqueness of metal prints.

This method can be applied to any substrate.

Metallic paper, as we’ve already covered, is often used though.

The iridescent quality of metallic paper sitting under a clear coat does make for a stunning image.


As well as being scratch resistant, whichever print method is used, they are all sealed with a UV protectant clear coat & many print labs nowadays are opting to use UV resistant inks as well.

Dye-sublimated prints are archival & tests have shown that when kept in the right conditions, they should last for at least 100 years.

Being highly durable but lightweight also makes them easy to hang.

Part of the appeal of these prints is they look modern & slick & don’t require framing.

But being a relatively thin aluminium, they can be used with any standard picture frame & most print shops will offer framing as part of their service.

Another bonus is they don’t require glass or acrylic either.


One of the more expensive ways to print your photograph, but if you have a high resolution image, you’ll be blown away by the results.

Certain scenes & landscapes really lend themselves to dye-sublimation printing, it’s almost like looking through a window at the scene .. simply stunning.

If you’d like to learn more about metal prints, check out these articles.