State of the ART: Rag Mama Rag!

A year ago, this column discussed extreme performance printing using the utterly unique Pictorico PPF 150 in a piece called, “Why Paper?” As a follow-up, this article will explore rag-based photographic papers. Inspired by the eponymous song written by Robbie Robertson of the Band, “Rag Mama Rag!” examines some of the highest quality rag-based papers available today.

What Is Rag-Based Paper?

When referring to “rag-based” paper, we mean paper that is made from cotton linters. As seen in Figure 1, cotton linters are the almost-pure cellulose “fuzz” that surrounds cotton seeds, not the cotton boll itself. As such, the cotton linters are only a small portion of the product of harvesting cotton and, thus, a bit of a rare commodity. The rag-based paper produced from cotton linters is very robust. In fact, most of the world’s paper currency is made from it as the material holds up extremely well over time and under harsh conditions.


Figure 1: Cotton Linters from Cotton Boll, image courtesy of KCD Agro Products

A Brief History

In the fine art world, rag-based board and paper are considered to be of the highest archival quality. It is no wonder then that it has found an application in modern digital photographic printmaking as well. Artists have a long history of adapting the technology of the day to create new ways of making art, and the history of rag-based papers is no exception. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, artists began to output digital images as physical prints using Iris inkjet printers, which were originally developed by Iris Graphics to create proof prints for the pre-press industry. Artists commonly borrowed rag-based watercolor paper from the fine art world to print their digital photographs. The resulting prints were quite exciting, but the archival life of the dye-based inks used in the Iris printer was extremely short-lived.

Along came Epson who pioneered low-cost inkjet printing and quickly improved photographic inks utilizing pigment-based materials, which have a long archival life. However, as the inks improved, it was quickly noted that the photographic print paper itself also had to improve. Paper, as well as ink, has a direct impact on the quality of the print and its archival life.

Despite the inherent beauty of rag-based papers, there were two hurdles to overcome: the surface absorption rate and the texture of the fiber surface. Both of these are crucial to the quality of the photographic print. The more “dot gain” or spread that the ink has on striking the paper surface and spreading out on the fibers, the more correction is required to linearize the tonality. Also, the rougher the surface, the harder it is to create fine-resolution and print contrast within the photographic print—a tough task when the paper itself is based on the bumpy cellulose fibers of cotton linters. To solve this intrinsic problem, cotton rag began to be produced using special milling techniques. The surface of the rag-based paper was treated or sealed to provide less absorption of the ink droplets, which kept them from spreading, allowed for quicker drying times, and smoothed the surface fibers for better resolution.

Modern Rag-Based Papers

Since the early days of rag-based photographic printing, these paper products have evolved into entire families of print materials based on cotton linters, each with a different degree of milling and surface treatment to obtain specific performance. The big challenge for the mills making the paper has always been to find the right balance of surface treatment to either allow the photographic print to show from within the paper or on top of the paper.

Photographs that show from within the print surface are generally characterized as papers that have a “matte” surface. For matte paper, most inkjet printer systems utilize a specially developed Matte Black ink. The prints on matte photographic paper tend to have low print contrast (typically 45 to 1, or a Dmax of 1.65) but show beautiful upper zones and vibrant colors from within the paper. The extreme challenge with matte paper is having enough lower zonal contrast so as to properly show the deep shadows within the photograph. Nevertheless, matte prints are often seen as much more “artistic-looking” due to the close relationship of the photograph to the rag-based paper.

On the other hand, photographs that show on top of the paper surface use “glossy” surface coatings. Glossy rag-based paper requires the use of Photo Black ink, which is specifically formulated to stick to the glossy surface. These papers tend to produce photographic prints that have high print contrast (typically exceeding 200 to 1, or a Dmax of 2.3 or greater), allowing superb viewing of the lower zonal values and deep shadows within the photograph. Compared to matte prints, the trade-offs are that these high contrast prints require directional lighting to reduce the glare from the print surface and that they do not have the interesting texture of the rag-based surface.


Figure 2: Making Rag-Based Paper at the Mill, photo courtesy of Hahnemühle

Rag-Based Paper Roundup

In reviewing the papers below, the goal was to find rag-based papers that pinpointed the proper balance between matte and gloss while still preserving the nature of the rag-based paper texture.

It is important to note that the following rag-based papers were selected based on each product’s exceptional reputation within the photographic community. This review is not intended to be exhaustive. You are encouraged to use this review as a starting point to determine your own personal needs.

Comparison prints were made on the Epson 4900 inkjet printer with the appropriate Matte Black or Photo Black ink, using ColorByte Software’s ImagePrint RIP to drive the printer and ColorByte’s superb paper-specific calibrations for the printer profiles.


Moab by Legion
Somerset Museum Rag

  • 300gsm/m2
  • Buffered with Calcium Carbonate
  • Minimal Optical Brighteners Added
  • Use Matte Black Ink
  • Dmax 1.63, Dmin 0.061, Contrast 37 to 1

Somerset Museum Rag is a true matte-surfaced cotton rag product produced by Legion in its own mill. The surface is likely the smoothest in the industry, and its performance is what you would expect from a matte paper. Viewing conditions of the print are stellar at all angles, with no special lighting needed to enjoy the print. The trade-off, as with all matte-surfaced papers, is that the print contrast is low and it is difficult to have meaningful contrast and separation of the lower zones in the photographic print. These types of papers excel with color prints that are purposefully composed to bring the dynamics of the photograph up into the mid to upper zones of the image.

Somerset Museum Rag is provided in full 50-foot rolls and the production consistency is outstanding. There is some “milk” or “haze” on the surface of the print while the ink slowly dries down. Though the print is instantly dry to the touch, it takes careful overnight drying for the print to fully come into its own, which is true for most matte rag-based papers.
_______________________________________________________________

Innova Art
Soft Textured Natural White 100% Cotton IFA22

  • 315gsm/m2
  • Buffered with Calcium Carbonate
  • No Optical Brighteners
  • Use Matte Black Ink
  • Dmax 1.68, Dmin 0.078, Contrast 40 to 1

Soft Textured Natural White 100% Cotton paper was a nice surprise coming out of the box and then again in print. The surface has a beautiful fine-deckle texture that creates a wonderful “feel” to the print. It gives the matte surface a unique appearance and enhances the overall artistic look of the photograph without being distracting. If you can get away with a truly matte rag-based paper for your work, this one was the most fun to experiment with and offered stunning results.

Soft Textured Natural White is provided in 50-foot rolls. From my sample box, the beginning of the paper had an irregular edge, so it took a few extra minutes to cut the edge off straight and load into the Epson 4900. While not a major issue, it did take a bit of care before printing, as the Epson printer wants the end of the paper to be ruler-straight before use.
_______________________________________________________________

Hahnemühle
Photo Rag Satin

  • 310gsm/m2
  • Buffered with Calcium Carbonate
  • Moderate Optical Brighteners Added
  • Use Matte Black Ink
  • Dmax 1.65, Dmin 0.085, Contrast 37 to 1

Photo Rag Satin was also a complete surprise, not so much coming out of the box, but in viewing the actual photographic print produced on its surface. This rag-based paper, produced in Hahnemühle’s own mill, is the first to have a slightly gloss response to the Matte Black ink while having a true matte surface in the upper zones. When I spoke to Stephen Schaub, creator of the website Figital Revolution, about this paper, he commented that he considers this his “Goldilocks” paper. As he said, “In my mind, where gloss is just sometimes too hard a surface and matte is just too flat or soft a surface, it [Photo Rag Satin] is the perfect in-between.” Photo Rag Satin also has a slight deckle to it and, in combination with its unique surface coating, it makes for a beautiful print surface. The coating produces a delicate gloss in the lower zones, slightly extending the separation and print contrast of those zones over the matte-surfaced paper. However, it does this without disturbing the traditional matte surface look in the upper zones, rendering a rather magical print.

This product ships in the most elegant box in the industry, giving it an aura of preciousness. The only disappointment is that the product comes in 12-meter rolls (approximately 39 feet) rather than 50-foot rolls.
_______________________________________________________________

Hahnemühle
Photo Rag Pearl

  • 320gsm/m2
  • Buffered with Calcium Carbonate
  • No Optical Brighteners
  • Use Photo Black Ink
  • Dmax 2.41, Dmin 0.061, Contrast 223 to 1

Photo Rag Pearl is extraordinary. To my surprise, I fell in love with this product straightaway. Unlike the papers I’ve described thus far, this rag-based paper has a surface coating that requires Photo Black ink. Out of the box, the paper’s surface has a slight luster to it that can only be seen at extreme angles and under direct light. While not a traditional matte surface, it certainly is not glossy either—“pearl” describes the surface well. However, the moment that the lower zones of the photograph are inked during printing, a distinct gloss and “wet look” appears in those zones. The great surprise is that the extreme upper zones and the borders of the print do not look glossy. Color inks take on a rich saturation, and the mid and lower zones have just the right amount of gloss needed to make them feel alive. Photo Rag Pearl makes prints look truly photographic, with richness to the print that fills the senses. This may become my standard print material of choice.

Like Photo Rag Satin, Photo Rag Pearl ships in the same elegant box, and a standard roll size is 12 meters long.
_______________________________________________________________

Innova Art
FibaPrint Warm Cotton Gloss IFA45

  • 335gsm/m2
  • Buffered
  • No Optical Brighteners
  • Use Photo Black Ink
  • Dmax 2.55, Dmin 0.089, Contrast 289 to 1

In early 2006, Crane & Co. released a new rag-based paper called Museo Silver Rag. It was a premium glossy print material with many ardent fans. However, when the art paper division of Crane & Co. was sold, this product was never quite the same. Lovers of the original Silver Rag have been seeking an alternative ever since and I’m glad to say the wait is over. Innova FibaPrint Warm Cotton Gloss IFA45 fills the hole left by Silver Rag, plus it has all the latest advances in rag production and coating technology to go along with it.

Innova FibaPrint Warm Cotton Gloss is a high gloss rag-based paper that doesn’t use exotic surface fillers to smooth the fiber before coating. The paper looks glossy (but well-balanced) out of the box, and it prints with the exquisite depth that one would expect.

The pertinent question for the photographer deciding between Hahnemühle Photo Rag Pearl and Innova FibaPrint Warm Cotton Gloss is whether the borders of the print and the highlights within the print should look glossy or matte. That is not such a simple choice. When properly framed (using rag board and premium anti-reflective glazing material), there is a significant difference in how the photographic print with matte borders is perceived versus the print with gloss borders. There is no right answer, and it is truly up to the photographer to decide what is best for his or her work.

FibaPrint Warm Cotton Gloss is shipped in 50-foot rolls and comes straight out of the box ready to print. An issue to be aware of with this paper when used in roll form is that it tends to stay curled after printing. That was not the case with the other products I reviewed for this article. I live at high altitude with extremely low humidity, so the curling may not be an issue in other environments. Using cut sheet is an alternative for this paper, and when using cut sheet, the paper curl issue is mitigated.
_______________________________________________________________

Selecting a photographic paper for printing your work can be a daunting task. There are no right or wrong answers, only answers specific to your work’s needs. Producing a fine art photographic print is an exacting and considered process. Rag-based papers inherently have the look of “art” about them, and, with careful selection, one can produce masterful prints maximizing the strength of the paper’s inherent beauty. No matter the paper used, remember that what is on the computer is an image, but what we see on paper is a photograph. It is important that you print your work so that it is seen in full resolution and intent, and as a true photographic print.

Special thanks to Colorbyte Software, makers of ImagePrint, for the technical data for each of the papers above.

Sign in or Sign up to post response

    • I would like to know your thoughts on the Epson Signature Worthy papers. I use their Hot Press Natural foe BW printing and have great contrast and tonal separation in the low key areas.

       

      -Owen O'Meara

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Same question with the Hahnemuhle Photorag Ultrasmooth 305gsm (one of my favorite papers), compared to the Somerset Museum Rag?

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • I am pleased to read your comment on the Hahnemühle Photo Rag Pearl. Late last year I created a print portfolio for a review event. I went through a number of sample packs to select a paper for that purpose. After printing an image on many of them, and reprinting on some with proper profiles, I picked the Photo Rag Pearl. The event went well and I got many positive comments on my paper choice and presentation.

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Mark;

      I think it is clear that they have come light years in the development of both archival inks and papers.

       

      -O

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Little by little these papers and inks get better and better...which is good because it must be pure hell living in the shadow of galleries who proudly display hand crafted works on Ilford Warmtone Fiber...:-)

    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Maybe prints are observed differently if the knowledge of their technology is different in the observers.

      For me the matte prints have the image on top of the paper and the gloss ones have the image embedded. I see little described here about the inkjet coatings used today on all photo quality inkjet papers. The inkjet coatings, gloss or matte and their quality, make the difference on where pigment particles are located in the print. Pigment particles on top of glossy and satin papers give the undesirable effects of gloss differential and worse "bronzing". They have to penetrate the top layer and become encapsulated in the glossy top layer of the coating to create good glossy prints. For that reason the Photo Black has smaller carbon pigment particles than the Matte Black and a lower pigment weight in the ink.

      On the other hand on matte papers the pigment particles have to be arrested near the top of the inkjet coating to create enough Dmax and chroma. The main reason why the print surface is so delicate. Good matte coatings do this by trapping the pigment particles in a top layer and absorbing the ink media fast in the layer below it so bleeding of the ink is reduced and the ink media solvents can evaporate from that layer later on. Dmax up to 1.8 is possible with MK ink in my experience, with Photo Black on matte papers a Dmax that high is impossible.

      There was a time that dye inkjet inks were used on uncoated rag papers, your intro refers to that period. The Iris period, Colorspan and maybe the very early years of Epson 3000 to 9000 wide formats. When the term giclée was coined. With the dye ink absorbed in the matte uncoated rag paper surface I would see the images as being within the paper like we see colored textiles as being colored throughout. The strong staining by the dye inks could still produce, for that time, acceptable photo images. Today's matte pigment inkjet prints give me another impression, the image is on top of the paper.

      Ernst Dinkla

    • To post a reply Sign In

Sign in or Sign up to post response