Photography and Art

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Commentary on New Photo Fine Art Papers

A while back, I wrote a post on the number of fibre-based fine art papers being released by manufacturers such as Hahnemmuhle and Ilford. Last night, I did some printing using a brand new box of Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk. I had high expectations. Michael Reichmann had reviewed this paper here and given it two thumbs up, so I eagerly unpacked the box of letter-sized paper and threw a sheet in my printer (an Epson R1800). I downloaded the profile from the Ilford web site and printed this picture:

I use this image a lot for printer tests. It has three things that are useful in evaluating prints:
  • the sky has some very delicate highlights, especially the top left quartile, where it is easy to lose highlight detail and have a big white blob instead.
  • The trees on the left and right of the photo are very dark and it is easy to lose shadow detail and have two black blobs.
  • The colours in the sky and the water contain lots of subtle shades of red and a colour cast is very easy to spot.
Much to my disappointment, I disliked the Ilford Gold Fibre silk! I hated the feel of the paper when I took it out of the box and I didn't much like the image quality either. The Ilford profile gave the photo a brownish colour cast (maybe that's why they call it Gold Fibre) and the paper felt like stiff cardboard and looked like it was coated in plastic. On a positive note, there was excellent detail in the highlights and shadows and, after hunting around for another profile, found that the colour cast disappeared when using a profile for Hahnemule Fine Art Pearl.

After re-reading Michael's article, the words "your mileage may vary" resonated with me and I decided to examine my motivations for choosing fine art paper to see if I can sort out why I had such a negative reaction to this paper.

First of all, I have no background in traditional black and white photography. While I've been taking pictures for years, I only really got interested in photography when it intersected with my other passion: computers. I don't get all misty-eyed when people talk about the look and feel of old black and white photos. In fact, I find the whole aura around silver gelatin on fibre (basically silver Jello on cardboard) rather baffling. Cotton rag papers seem much better to me - they handle better and have a nice texture. If you're interested in delving further into the history of photo papers, here's the Wikipedia article.

Second, my personal style seems to be evolving towards a gentle, pastel-rich type of image. Here's an example of a photo that typifies the look that I like right now:

This is a print that borders on magic realism. It reminds me of some of Ken Danby's work and I like the subtlety of the colours in the water and sky as well as the way the paddle boat seems to transcend reality. In short, I was delighted when this came off the printer.

Given my current personal style, here are the criteria that I've decided to look for in fine art paper. Remember, your mileage may vary!
  • Lifespan: I've had bad experiences with fading dye inks on RC papers and don't want to go there again. I'd like to think that my art is going to outlive me.
  • Colour accuracy and ability to differentiate between subtle colour differences. I don't have the equipment or know-how to do my own profiles, so I use manufacturer's profiles and depend on them to be accurate.
  • Esthetics: I love paper that feels good to the touch, looks good in a frame and gives people the impression that I cared enough about my work to print it on a fine art paper.
  • Price: given two papers of equal attractiveness and functionality, the cheapest will win out.
  • High Dmax: the ability to print the blackest blacks is useful to people whose style features high contrast. Right now, that isn't me, so I rank high Dmax last in the list.
Let's assume that I want to use photo black ink in order to get the highest possible dMax while still retaining my other goals. If I look at the major types of fine art paper for photo inks available right now, they break down into two categories:
  1. Papers based on cotton rag with no or minimal optical brighteners
  2. Papers that are either based on wood fibre (with the potential to contain harmful lignin), or contain optical brighteners or both.
Given my stated priorities, my choice can only come from the former category. Here are papers categorized by lifespan potential (unproven obviously):

Cotton Rag, no optical brighteners
  • Moab Somerset Photo (mould-made, no OBA's, claimed dMax 1.75)
  • Moab Somerset Enhanced Velvet 225 (cotton, minimal OBA's)
  • Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl 320 (cotton, OBA-free)
Alpha-cellulose base or OBA's (or both)
  • Moab Colorado Fiber Satine or Gloss 245 (alpha-cellulose base, OBA's, claimed dMax of 2.4
  • Ilford Galerie Gold Fibre Silk 310 (alpha-cellulose base, OBA's, baryta coated)
  • Harman Photo Gloss FB AI (alpha-cellulose base, baryta-coated)
  • Hahnemuhle FineArt Baryta 325 (alpha-cellulose base, baryta-coated)
  • Hahnemuhle FineArt Pearl 285 (base not specified, contains OBA's)
  • Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Satin 310 (cotton, OBA's)
Given the Epson R1800's predeliction to choke on any paper over 300 GSM, my next step appears to be a test of the two Moab Somerset papers. Stay tuned.

Update on Tony Ray-Jones

Just to lay this saga to rest, the print was delivered a couple of weeks ago and it is beautiful. We now have a lovely black and white print hanging on the wall that actually looks like a fine art photograph.