State of the ART: Why Paper?

Photo.net member, Pete Myers, is a fine art photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is the second of four installments called State of the ART. You can visit this artist and explore his captivating portfolios here.

In The Purpose of Fine Art Photography, it was suggested that an image becomes a photograph upon printing it at full resolution—an important process for any photographer to truly evaluate the results of his/her own work. But why print on paper? Be it cotton rag or alpha cellulose, gloss or matte, could our limitation in photographic print quality be because we are printing our images on the wrong media? Is there an alternative to using paper for our prints? Or are we relying on the voodoo of the paper surface to add something to our photograph that was not there in the original image? 

We are in a new era in photography. Our digital cameras have ushered in a new standard in image fidelity and image-making. Why would we not also embrace a revolution in how we print our photographs and what we print them on? Certainly inkjet printers have slowly been accepted as being capable of both superb image quality and archival lifespan. So why is it that we are still printing on a media (paper) that was introduced in the second-century AD?

For one reason, it would seem a lot of paper mythology in the digital photographic era is a holdover from the past. When naive artists meet grumpy old gallery owners that have an entire closet full of photographic prints from a different era that they are trying to peddle, it becomes a cruel dance by them to suggest to clients and photographers that the modern print is not up to fine art standards due to the lack of “elegance” of the print media. It is a way for gallery owners (and museums) to cause discrimination against works that are threatening to them in the new age of digital photography.

For me, the right print media is that which supports my image with the exact precision of photographic composition that went into the image on the computer monitor. It is the fidelity of the image as a photographic print that should ultimately be the single most important factor in deciding what I print on—not attempting to make the work look like it came from a different era, when it is not. What is framed and under glazing rarely shows more than the photograph itself, so the misplaced concern for the romance of the surface is just that. Our work as photographers is in the era in which we live, and we should be proud of it.

Our most advanced inkjet printers squirt out and pummel the print surface of the photograph with gazillions of pico liter-sized (very, very small) drops of pigmented ink. The pigment itself is coated with a thin polymer that acts as glue to adhere the pigment to the surface of the photograph. There is also a fluidic career that evaporates away on the surface of the print so that drops of ink can be formed from the pigments. The entire print process relies on these drops of ink to be of uniform size, and great precision in order to have exacting image fidelity.

It does not take great magnification to see that the surface of paper is a forest of fibers of large size (relative to the ink drops). There are very few inkjet print papers that do not have a polymer coating on the surface to fill in the fibers in an attempt to smooth out the surface so that the ink pigments don’t get lost within the fiber. Consequently, one is not printing on the paper surface per se, but rather on the polymer on top of the paper. If we are printing on a polymer surface anyway, why use paper to support the polymer?

Paper companies have made media based on all variations of the theme—from nearly raw fiber for matte prints, to highly filled (barytra) surfaces for ultra-gloss. But we know from streets and roadways that it does not matter how many potholes are filled or how carefully done; it is not the same as having a smooth, freshly paved surface to begin with.

Pictorico is owned by Mitsubishi Imaging (MPM). It makes one of the most unique photographic inkjet print materials on the market, called PPF150 Pro Hi-Gloss White Film. The material is made on a polyester base—the same material that was used for Cibachrome —which has been a reference standard in archival quality for color photographs in museum collections around the world. Polyester is extremely inert, highly archival, and dimensionally stable. Further, unlike paper, insects do not like to eat it, and changes in humidity do not change the characteristics of the material.


Figure 1, courtesy of MPM, Inc.

As depicted in this photograph (Figure 1), PPF150 is coated with an extremely fine layer of precisely engineered micro-ceramics that act as ink receptors for the material. The ceramic is an aluminum oxide variant. Sapphire is also in this class of aluminum oxide, and is the second-hardest material from diamonds. Quite clearly, the ink receptors are some of the most robust available, and extremely stable.

Also shown in this figure, we see a comparison of the dot gain of a typical drop of ink hitting the surface of a polymer-coated, paper surface. Figure 2 (below) is of the same drop of ink hitting the surface of PPF150; and for all intents and purposes, there is no dot gain. Having very little or no dot gain, there is little need for calibration compensation in the print process, resulting in significantly greater image resolution, gradation, and fidelity in the print—especially in the lower zonal values. In essence, low dot gain helps “open up” the print.


Figure 2, courtesy of ColorByte Software

Figure 2 shows how nearly the entire Adobe RGB color space can be accurately printed on PPF150, when using the Epson x900 inkset with ColorByte Software ImagePrint to drive the printer. The background image is the entire CIE 1931 color space. The wire frame behind the foreground is the outline of the Adobe RGB 1998 color space. The foreground color space is that of the PPF150 with the Epson x900 inks, driven by ImagePrint. As you can see for yourself, it just about covers the full Adobe RGB 1998 color space, save for the extreme corners (which is often typical of computer monitors as well).

Mitsubishi makes this material in a special manufacturing plant in Japan. The building in which the material is made is a football field in length. The material carefully winds through the plant in many careful stages of coating and drying, in a long continuous coating path. It takes extraordinary care to deliver this type of material as a scratch-free, blemish-free surface—and they do it well.

It is best to use the material in rolls, if at all possible. Cut sheets are readily available, but it is not a material that you can readily load into your paper tray and hope to have transported through your printer. Sheets must be hand-loaded; and while I have done it many times with great success, it is a bit of a pain. The best use of this print material is as a roll product.

PPF150 has an ultra-glossy surface. This is how it achieves a measured photographic Dmax of 2.6 (a 400 to 1 contrast ratio) with x900 inks. As was the case with Cibachrome (a process used for the reproduction of film transparencies on photo paper), it is easy to mar a surface without proper care. Prints should be made, dried, and then stored in archival boxes with interleave tissue as soon as possible. Better yet, dry the print and frame it immediately. If you are just proofing images, tape the PPF150 print to the wall using art tape to have a good view under your spotlights.

On the x900 series printers, the platen should be set to “narrow” for this material, and a new alignment calibration should be run. I like to set my printer up to pause for 5 seconds (a value of 50 in the Epson Custom Paper Setup Panel) between unidirectional print head movement. I am not in a hurry to print my images, and the extra dwell time between ink passes helps with drying time as the print head gradually builds up the photograph.

Mounting is a bit different than using paper. For best results, larger prints should be mounted with an archival mounting film, such as Gudy 831, to an acrylic or aluminum surface—not rag board. The surface needs to be glass-like smooth as any roughness will show through the PPF150 print. Mounting to aluminum sheet or acrylic is a proven method. With acrylic sheet, it is best to use black, so that light does not back-illuminate the print.

For smaller prints, it’s easy to use an acrylic sheet, and use archival hinging tape in the center of the top of the print to adhere it to the sheet. Use no more than about one-quarter of the print width in tape; then use archival corner mounts to hold the corners loosely at the edges. With a mate up front, and sandwiched between glazing and frame, the PPF150 tends to drape on the acrylic backing with a static charge.

Point-source lighting (spot lights) should be used to illuminate the print at an angle of 30 to 45 degrees from the wall. The ambient light in the room must be low to truly appreciate the high Dmax, high contrast, and image fidelity of the printed photograph. High levels of ambient light relative to print illumination will not allow the human eye to properly see the full benefits of this new media. As with works in a museum show, lighting is critical and essential to seeing the most in the photographic print. The quality of reflected light off of the print surface is what makes the print come alive to the viewer.

In order to fully appreciate the print fidelity of PPF150, it will take some time, materials, and practice. Like everything else in photography, there is no substitute for experience. The more one dedicates himself/herself to this print material, the better the results. Given some experience with PPF150, perhaps you too will come away asking, “Why Paper?”

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    • First off, the concept sounds fundamentally sound because of: non-fiber substrate, fiberless surface and the high (I think) dmax.

      Non-fiber substrate seems like a no-brainer for stability.

      I've always regarded texture sufaces with some contempt as an attempt to emulate painting, rather than embracement  of photography as a legitimate art form in itself. In particular, the article's mention of the detail swallowing nature of texture surfaces resonates with me. Having said that I do acknowledge the glare issue of glossy surfaces. dammit

      The dmax issue is, IMO, one of the great limitations of printing It's always a challenge to transcibe real world dynamic range to that of a surface viewed by reflected light, and any tool available to assist is worth examining. 

      Could the dmax (2.6) be put in context? Is are there any higher dmax surface on the market?

      What becomes of the dmax when it is behind glass? Does the advantage still hold, or is glass a great equalizer of all surfaces?

      Storing prints in archival boxes is, in my opinion (I'm sure others will disagree), a paradox at best; in that a picture (image, print, photo, capture, call it what you will...) only exists when it is visible.

      Oh yeah... and how about that reflective glare? Is it forever to be teeter-totter of dmax vs reflection?

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    • Thanks for the article. I wasn't familiar with this material, and you have provided some very useful information.

      And now the grammar geek speaks (sorry; I edit stuff for a living): (1) "One of the most unique" makes no sense. Unique has no degrees. (2) It's not "for all intensive purposes," but "for all intents and purposes."

      Keep the articles coming.

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    • Hello Pete,

      I can't say that I agree about marring Cibachrome's - they were pretty tough and hard wearing compared to most inkjet prints today. However, I do agree that putting inkjet prints into picture frames straight away will protect them. If you are handling inkjets then get yourself some cotton gloves.

      The carrier fluid that you refer to is the primary reason for marks on modern inkjets and in most cases you can alter the profiles to allow for the optimum amount of ink to be laid down without getting a soaking wet mess. If you do find a sticky residue then try drying it out until it evaporates (hair dryers work well) and then if you need to remove further marks then use clean cotton gloves to **gently** wipe the surface and you will be fine. However, a properly profiled printer shouldn't do this!

      Some places may over laminate to protect it further. This is fine for exhibition graphics but it doesn't work well with photographs - the slightest bit of dust or dirt underneath and the finish is ruined. You will especially see this with lighting. If you can avoid this then do - framing is far better for photographs.

      Paper thickness is important as well. Heavier gsm papers tends to absorb ink better and are less likely to kink and cause problems when framing.

      As for different types of substrate, well inkjet has very few limitations compared to photographic and everybody should try them out: Matte paper, satin paper, gloss paper, water colour paper, canvas, vinyl, PVC, acetate, backlit film.... The list is long!

      Alan

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    • "Why paper?" is a sound question and PET is quite an inert material. Yet the inkjet coating applied on top does not differ that much from coatings on other inkjet papers. The aluminium oxide can be found in some of Harman's Fiber qualities next to the Baryta (Baryte, Barite) or TiO2 whitening agents. The best inkjet coatings are at least build from several layers of different materials, among them a receptive layer where the pigments get arrested and an absorbing layer below that where the ink medium should go in the first place to allow its quite slow evaporation over a longer period later on. The idea that the ink is kept on top and the ink medium evaporating there till the pigments particles (+encapsulation acrylic) lay bare is simply not true. A very smooth polymer like a calendered PET makes it easier to apply a uniform coating layer with a high gloss grade. To sketch the inkjet coating on other inkjet papers as a kind of filler on rough fibers is not doing justice to many good qualities of inkjet papers, among them RC papers that have a very smooth base to start with. Dots can be better defined on film media but whether that difference will show in practice compared to good quality inkjet papers is debatable.

      The inkjet coating and its bond could be the weak part of the PPF150. Like with most inkjet media it has to be seen whether the coating and its bond will last as long as the base it is bonded to. The PPF150 has optical brightening agents in both the coating and the PET base. I measured them. Only fade tests (like Aardenburg-Imaging does) can tell whether the white will not shift in time. That next to the fade resistance of the inks printed on this material.

      The Dynamic Range is the range between the maximum media white reflectance and the minimum reflectance of the black gloss ink. Only for the black the gloss adds to that measured low reflectance, for the white it does nothing. It is that 45 degr measuring description of spectro- and densitometers that gives that black measure result, much harder to create that condition for our eyes in normal display conditions. For the white, there are RC and Baryta papers that have a higher white reflectance than the PPF150 with its L 96.3, there are matte papers that go up to L 98. The last will also show that in practice, the viewing angle is far less important than it is for the PPF150 with its high gloss. The same when used in frames, the PPF150 absolutely needs the best reflection reduced glass and careful lighting. It will still show reflections in normal gallery ambient light. A high level of display light is also needed to make the quoted Dmax of 2.6 usable, if not shadow detail will disappear simply because our eyes need that much light at that low level of reflection. Usually curves are used to get shadow detail back as that display light level would be quite uncomfortable and harm the longevity. A Dmax in the range of 2.2 to 2.4 is adequate enough and matte papers with a Dmax touching 1.8 are fine when framed behind glass. 

      PET is a durable base. PET inkjet media are not archival/fade resistant till tests confirm that property. PPF150 prints may proof to be more difficult to display and the measured optical qualities are not reflected in every case = print/display conditions (pun intended). There are PET inkjet media with matte coatings. They seem not to attract the same attention. Considering mounting and display conditions, Diasec face mounting may be a better concept if high gloss is preferred. A true independent test on longevity does not exist for that method either.

      Ernst Dinkla

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