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The Best Photo Papers for Your Prints

To get the most from any photo, the way you present it is crucial. It does not matter whether you print at home or have someone else do it for you. Sometimes, the size of the print makes a difference. Other times, the frame decides which way you might go.

Still, never underestimate the quality of the paper you choose. Photographs are artistic expressions. Quite often, the paper makes a tremendous difference.

It's tempting to buy that bargain-bucket photo paper at the local drugstore... It's even more tempting to have that drugstore print your pictures in an hour. Neither are a great idea if you want prints that last. 

If you’re thinking about having your photos professionally printed, you’ve got a great idea! Photo prints make wonderful keepsakes and are perfect for preserving precious memories. Album and scrapbook creation are fun activities to bring families together, and sharing pictures of loved ones with each new generation strengthens bonds and brings joy to our lives. There are far too many options out there, and misinformation abounds, so here’s an honest discussion from our perspective.

puppy smiling lying in pile of vintage polaroids


Matte Paper vs Glossy vs Fine Art and Other Photo Papers

The finish is one of the first things to consider when having your photos printed. It goes a long way toward determining the experience of viewing and handling your photographs, and you’ll want to choose the type that best suits your purpose.

Is Glossy Paper Any Good? What About Lustre Photo Prints?

A Glossy finish provides a smooth coat which has a shiny, reflective surface. These result in bright, vibrant photos with a magazine sheen. It’s no surprise that one use of a glossy photo finish is to print the actor and actress head-shots used by hollywood casting offices.

Details really pop when they have a glossy finish, colors look more vibrant and saturated and the contrast between the light and dark areas is strong. Only slightly less shine and a bit of texture appears with lustre, so they are very close.

Glossy photos are often used for promotional or advertising purposes, and may not be ideal for your family photo collection. Professional photographers like gloss finishes because of the high contrast, sharp detail and vivid color reproduction. However, because of glare, and because the slick surface can stick and scratch, framing photos with a glossy finish is not recommended.

If you’re adding to an album or scrapbook, and will be sharing memories hand-to-hand you’ll want to avoid fingerprint smudges as much as possible. For this purpose, a satin or semi-gloss finish may work better. Moreover, that shiny gloss finish just doesn't look right when you're thinking about vintage or antique photos and custom framing.

Because of the highly reflective, shiny surface on a glossy / lustre photo, there can be a huge problem with glare, depending on the light conditions or angle of viewing. Another challenge with the glossy finish is that, unless you’re wearing gloves while handling them, you will end up with fingerprint smudges that are hard to clean without scratching or further damaging the photos.

Heat and humidity will quickly damage or destroy glossy prints. For those of us here on the gulf-coast, glossy paper is just a bad idea all around. Inexplicably, glossy or lustre paper is all they offer at most big-box quick print operations.

At our boutique, we don’t even sell glossy or lustre paper prints. We’ve seen what happens over the years. If you want something shiny, take a look at a high-quality metallic paper (see below). If you want something with even more shine, have your photo printed directly to a solid sheet of metal (self-plug here: we can do that for you).

Is Matte Paper Good For Most Photography?

The Matte finish is the opposite end of the spectrum from glossy. Matte photos may have an ultra-smooth or textured, glare free surface and are harder to damage than delicate glossy finishes. Fingerprints are much less visible, but the textured finishes tend to absorb liquids like fingerprint oils more than the smooth ones. A great photo processing lab and high quality matte paper can yield some truly spectacular results.

Still, don’t be fooled. If you can buy 100 sheets of matte photo paper for $10, it’s almost guaranteed to produce less than spectacular results. If you’re buying it from the grocery store, local market, or office-supply store, be careful.

Not all matte surfaces are equal. The best matte papers can usually be bought online through reputable companies like Adorama or B&H Photo. 

Satin Or Semi-Gloss Papers -When Are They Appropriate?

Popular brands will have different trademark names for their semi-gloss paper. These finishes fall somewhere between glossy and matte. The ideal is to reduce the glare and susceptibility to fingerprints that high-gloss finishes suffer from, while preserving the vibrant color, contrast and sharp detail that make them so popular.

Bad news though… That satin texture picks up fingerprint oil and dust like a swiffer dust mop. Fingerprint oil and other liquids slowly spread (with help from that fine texture), eventually leading to badly discolored areas near the corners where the photo is held. So here’s the scoop. If you want this type of photo, make sure it stays covered (album or frame) and don’t let that uncle with the greasy “fried-chicken” fingers touch it.

Choosing Metallic Photo Paper

So you love shiny photos. That is fine now that we’ve explained the perils of glossy pictures.Metallic finishes on traditional photo papers are not new. Iridescent papers have been impressing art lovers for years. However, new metallic papers do exist in inkjet or dye form as well. 

This finish can actually improve upon the richness and vibrant colors of a typical glossy finish. This produces an extremely sharp image that looks like it’s been printed right onto a metallic paper surface. Yes, just like the chrome all over your 1978 Dodge, these photos will pick up fingerprints, but they are much more resilient than their predecessors, and it is perfectly safe to clean them with photographic emulsion solution. 

Don’t use something like this for vintage or antique photos. We like to use the term “period-appropriate” around here, and when you are reprinting something like a restored photo from 1890, you don’t want it to shine like one of the Kardashian girl’s hair. Try to keep the print as close as possible to that old original.

What Are Fine-Art Prints? 

Fine Art Paper uses high percentages of natural materials such as cotton in manufacturing (usually 100% for inkjet papers), which makes it more than suitable for archival purposes. Aside from longevity, when used with the right inks, it has a high tactile quality and weight that many enjoy. Though it may seem a bit more flat at times, it also yields itself to gorgeous contrasts.

Many fine-art papers are delicate due to the fact that they have no emulsion on the front of the image, but we love this type of print. They last much longer when framed (acid-free, no chemicals, etc), and some of the more textured finishes are nothing short of spectacular. Keep reading and we’ll talk about our favorites below.

Photo Paper Qualities - What Are They?

The Photo Paper Receiving Layer

When you have your photos printed, pigment is actually laid on top of the paper. The receiving layer massively affects the overall quality of the printed photo. This is a chemical layer that catches the large amounts of ink required for quality photos and ensures that the details hold over time. The two most common types of receiving layer are Cast Coat and Micro or Nano Pore.

Cast Coat

The cast coated receiving layer has been the standard for a long time. This receiving layer is only used with glossy finishes and is usually the budget option. Heavily pigmented inks can cause smearing and cast coats are not the best for archival purposes. 

What Is Photo Paper Brightness -Vs- Whiteness?

Paper brightness refers to the amount of blue light that reflects off a page. The brighter the paper, the more vividly it will display colors. Paper brightness is usually measured along a scale of 0 to 100, though many manufacturers don't tell you. To choose your photo paper, it helps to understand the difference between paper brightness and paper whiteness (see below).

Paper whiteness refers to the ability of paper to reflect the entire visible color spectrum. You'll often see this graded as a percentage in paper specifications. Higher percentages typically have a slight blue (think bright daylight) bias. Still, they aren't automatically "better" than lower percentages.

A lower whiteness rating indicates a lack of optical brightening agents (OBAs) in the paper, which in turn means it is more likely to be warm white.

Like light bulbs, photo papers can be warm, neutral, or cool white. And just like lighting, these different hues enhance certain subjects. For example, warm white flatters skin tones, whereas bright-white will emphasize blue skies, winter scenes, and high-contrast black and white photos. A neutral white paper is a good all-rounder.

Does The Thickness (Weight) Of Photo Paper Really Matter?

Slightly thicker papers capture the feel of old-style chemical prints. The more substantial weight often seems intrinsically more valuable, too. However, more substantial papers are not always higher quality in printing terms. Heavier or thicker paper rarely affects the quality of the photo itself, but it does change the experience of handling the photo..


Photo Paper Reviews - Our Picks

Best Paper For Vintage Photograps

breathing color photo paper for picture restoration

Breathing Color is a leading U.S. manufacturer of fine-art papers, photo papers, linen, canvas, and metal substrates for dye-sub printing. Try Breathing Color's Optica One. It's a certified archival grade fine-art paper.

Its ability to distinguish between extremely dark tones (it's Dmax capability) makes this paper ideal for black and white photography, too. The slightly warm, vintage look is spectacular.

If you love the “antique” heavy matte look, Fuji Deep Matte is absolutely gorgeous and has the smoothest surface of any paper we’ve used. It is very durable. We love it mounted on ⅛” Styrene or Gatorfoam for easier framing or hanging.

Best Metallic Photo Paper

Ilford Galerie Metallic Gloss

All around,Ilford Galerie Prestige Metallic Gloss  is the best paper for portraits and colorful landscape photography. It has an unsurpassed incredible eye-popping dmax. In our tests, it outperformed metallic papers from all other vendors we use and has a hardy resin coating. Our second choice (and far less expensive) would be Breathing Color Vibrance Metallic.

Best Paper For High-Contrast Photos

canson infinity rag

Another of our favorites is Canson Infinity Rag Photographique in 310 gsm. With its 100% cotton content, this museum-quality matte paper offers excellent archival protection. This is another paper with impressive Dmax capabilities, which enables it to render great detail in ultra-deep blacks. It's an excellent choice for restoring old black and white photos or reprinting images with wide contrast.

Canson Infinity PrintMaKing is another 310 gsm paper that is particularly soft and silky to the touch, giving it a luxurious quality.

Best Textured Fine Art Paper


German paper manufacturer Hahnemühle is one of the biggest names in art materials, which include an extensive range of photo papers. We like to use the William Turner as well as the Albrecht Durer variants of this high-end luxury paper. If you're looking for something truly unique with a texture that stands out and catches the eye, these are great choices.

William Turner 100% cotton paper is named after possibly the most celebrated landscape artist of all time. It has an exquisite texture and creates gorgeous prints with an amazing, unique look. Its textured matte finish is created by a process that simulates the feel of handmade paper.

To extend the lifespan of canvas inkjet prints, Hahnemühle Varnish is invaluable. You might even call it a lifesaver. It protects the print against UV light and humidity. It won't change the appearance of your photographs or artwork, but the protective aspects are invaluable.

Best All-Around Matte For Everyday Printing


Among the unique papers we use is Red River Polar Matte 88lb, which is unusually thick stock with a snow-white finish. When you want a beautiful matte with a little more durability, this archival grade and Its microporous surface are a great choice.

Need another choice? We also use Breathing Color Vibrance Matte. This 229 gsm paper has 98% brightness, which helps it to deliver vibrant colors.

Best Vivid Color Modern Photo Paper For Exhibitions

We love Hahnemühle Photo Rag® Metallic. This finish adds depth to the razor-sharp detail with a shiny finish.

As an alternate option with a lower price, try Breathing Color Vibrance Metallic (see above). It really is a fantastic choice and maintains stability for a long, long time. Bonus: This company is in Austin, which automatically makes them a top-tier producer. :)

Other Fantastic Photo Papers

Here at Heritage Photo Restoration and Genealogy, we also admire (and frequently use) other papers from industry giants like Epson, Fuji, and Ilford.

Epson Legacy Fibre is long-lasting with its 100% cotton composition. It is a particularly bright paper for rendering colorful, detailed pictures. Caution: This paper is very popular and depending on production levels it can be ridiculously expensive.

Washi Torinoko by Ilford is a remarkable paper. It is specially made for Ilford on a traditional Japanese Tanmo machine. The paper has a refined, tactile quality that feels handmade. This process of paper-making boasts a Japanese heritage dating back 1500 years.

2020 Photo Paper Comparison Grid - Can You See the Difference?

photo paper comparison s

Heritage Photo Restoration

Here at the best photo restoration in Houston, our primary concern is your satisfaction. We're a boutique operation, and we care about your photos. We also care about your family history and current situation, so rest assured we treat your items as if they were our very own. 

Give us a call or drop by our studio and let us show you how to make your old photos beautiful again.

We're Restoring Yesteryear!