Photographic Papers - Keith Dotson

Characteristics of Fine Art Photographic Papers

The photographic papers has valuable characteristics that make it unique and particularly different from ordinary paper. In fact it has the ability to emphasize the expression of a composition, mood, theme etc. So let’s discuss these in concrete and practical terms, and let’s keep in mind that, when choosing a type of paper, implicitly or…

Paper Characteristics

A segmented overview of printed fineart characteristics and attributes that comprise the physical paper may be illustrated like so …

Photographic Papers - Keith Dotson

Photo courtesy of: ©Keith Dotson

Base Material

This is the real parameter that defines if a type of paper can be called “Fine Art” or not. Fine Art paper is usually made of natural fibres such as cotton or alpha-cellulose, and it isn’t artificially bleached with chlorine or other whiteners. This makes it possible to obtain prints that last from 60 years to a few centuries if properly treated.

Surface Finish

It effectively denotes the paper’s appearance when looking at it. There are, by now, dozens of finishes, and it is the area that makes choosing the best kind of paper complicated. Photographic paper can be grouped in types, where the main ones are: Matte, Semi-Glossy (baryta, lustre, satin), Glossy and Textured. Since there isn’t a proper standard classification, each individual defines them quite freely, to make definitions as simple as possible.


Is often lumped with surface finish, but it possesses its own dignity as well. Let’s say texture means “when the sheet of paper feels smooth or coarse”. Actually, texture influences the rendering of details, the capability of paper to reflect light and the tonal range. It also grants particular aesthetic effects to the printed image.

Grammage and Caliper

All paper has a weight, which is measured in grams per square meter (gsm), and that is what we call “grammage”. The higher the grammage, the more substantial the paper. It ranges from 100 gsm of rice paper to 500 gsm of cotton paper. There isn’t a “right” and “wrong” choice. It depends on the effect that’s wished for. Caution, as grammage goes hand in hand with the so-called “caliper”, which represents nothing more than the paper’s height as in thickness. It could be perfectly inconsequential to you, but not to your printer. Each printer has caliper limits, so be sure to check them out before buying particularly high-grammage paper.

White Point

If we were to take five different sheets of paper and put them under the same light source as illustrated above, they would all return different perceptions of their whiteness and brightness. Some types of paper will look warmer and others cooler, or brighter. There isn’t a “correct” and “incorrect” white balance, there only exists the one we like best in relation to our specific picture.


the last item on the list, but not the least important. Gamut represents a parameter that is all too often underestimated. Actually gamut isn’t a characteristic of paper, but one created for the paper/ink/printer combination. Changing the paper will also change the quantity of colours (intended as a combination of chromaticity and luminance) that we are able to represent on it. Just like a monitor. In the field of printing, the one most often referred to is a parameter called “Dmax”, which represents the value of the deepest black that is measured after printing, i.e. how “deep” the blacks are. So, essentially, different paper used by the same printer will allow for different depths of the blacks, as well as different chromaticity.

Further characteristics to the FineArt print can be obtained by deckle edge. These papers feature a feathered edge on all axis and are described as having a deckle edge, in contrast to a cut edge. Before the 19th century, the deckle edge was unavoidable, a natural artifact of the paper-making process in which sheets of paper were made individually on a deckle, a wooden frame.

Museum Etching - Deckle Edge

Matte, glossy, smooth, bright, warm… there really are a lot of photographic paper types, thanks to the mix of characteristics that distinguish them. This shouldn’t be daunting, but rather it should reassure us that, no matter what kind of image we wish to print, there are going to be one or more types of paper suited for that artwork.

Favourite photographic paper is very much a personal choice, so hopefully this article will inspire you to better understand which characteristics to look out for as a collector or creator of art, and how to evaluate the result obtained with it.

Just note that choice of paper goes hand in hand with each and every artwork. The choice of paper is not a simple one, but done with excellence will separate a good investment from a bad one.


3 responses to “Characteristics of Fine Art Photographic Papers”

  1. SvalinnArt Avatar

    This is a great illustrative discription of FineArt papers for prints and the effects to consider when moving to the lab. Your insight will for sure benefit your printed works and the quality they represent. Thx for your contribution. It’s appreciated.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Obviously quality prints matter for it’s longevity as well as the expression it portrays. Getting around all of this is a huge undertaking, so if it contributes to helping artists or collectors, that’s indeed all I can hope for. And you’re welcome… I really appreciate your efforts on this site and all the functions available for me as a contributing artist!

      1. SvalinnArt Avatar

        We are happy, you like how it pans out for now. Use all you want and we are looking forward to see more from you at the fair.

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