01 February, 2015

Matte Paper

Port Vila, Vanuatu [click to enlarge]

If you simply rely on the specifications, matte papers seem to lag behind their glossier cousins in every regard. Compared to semi-gloss and glossy papers they have "inferior" brightness, whiteness, dmax (darkest blacks), dynamic range and contrast.

On your computer display you probably have a contrast ratio of 600 or 700:1. On a glossy paper you can probably count on 160:1, or more. On a matter paper, however, you'll be happy to get above 50:1.

So, with this "information" under our belts, why would we want to use a matter paper?

It has to be remembered that all photography is a bit of an illusionist's trick. Like the movies or television, the photographic print is an attempt to get the viewer to relate to an "unnatural" image, using the cues of what the eye sees naturally. Matte papers have some qualities that can sometimes facilitate that endeavour.

When you look at most prints you can see that it's paper underneath, with ink on the top. Matte prints have a different look. A word often associated with matte papers is, "organic." Because of the way in which the ink fuses with the paper (okay, it soaks in a bit), matte paper has the ability to get the hell out of the way.

I can't show you what matte prints can conjure up using images on your computer screen or tablet. But if you have a printer, I urge you to get a sample pack of matte papers and give a few of them a try. I'm a big fan of Epson Hot Press Natural. I like a smooth paper, and HPN is one of the smoothest. It also has outstanding Dmax for a matte paper.

Just a hint: Be careful not to judge the Cold Press papers too harshly based on the small print sizes from the sample pack — CP work best in larger prints.

Epson has a series of videos with a few photographers talking about the papers. David Lynch talks about HPN. (It's advertising, but it's interesting.)

Certainly, if an image demands the resolution to show high-frequency detail, or needs the blackest blacks, the highest contrast, or the brightest whites, then matte paper may only be a distraction.

But, when you see a matte print with the right image that's been done rightly, you don't look at the paper, your don't look at the ink, you don't think about contrast — your eyes just carry you into what seems to be the realism of the image.

As with so much in photography (and most things) it's not what you got, it's how you use it.

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