Photographers have preferences on everything ranging from their favorite camera to their best lens, how they edit their photos, and what photo paper they use to make prints. What if your own preferences aren't aligned with what your potential clients enjoy? We asked dozens of normal people which photo papers and print products they prefer, and the results were not exactly what I had expected.
If you've watched our hilarious Ritz Camera Chronicles video series, you probably know that I started my photograph journey as an employee sweating away the hours in the print lab. If you dropped off your roll of film or uploaded your digital files to one of the many kiosks in our store, chances are I was the one who color-corrected and printed your images. All of the stores I worked at only printed on Fujicolor Crystal Archive Type II paper, and it came in two varieties: glossy and matte.
Most every person who submitted print orders selected glossy paper, and if they didn't, it was the default paper we used. I, however, always preferred the matte paper because it added what I called "a fine art look" to the prints. The glossy paper was sharp and vibrant but suffered from easily being marked by fingerprints and reflected light causing tons of glare across each print. The matte paper, in contrast, softened the prints a bit, greatly hid any marks left by oily fingers, and reduced reflections on the paper significantly.
When it came time to print my own images, I almost always chose the matte paper over the standard gloss. Even though both of these paper options were of the highest quality for normal prints (the paper itself was light sensitive and needed developing by traditional darkroom chemicals), the largest prints I could make were limited to around 10 inches wide or sometimes 15 inches wide. If I wanted to make larger prints for my wall or even posters, I was stuck having to use inkjet printers that only printed on glossy paper. These prints were lower quality than the Fujicolor paper I was used to, and the final prints were anything but archival quality for fine art.
When the print mega lab Saal-Digital reached out to me a few months ago asking for some photography-related content ideas, I thought it would be interesting to revisit the printing process and see what options I might have overlooked or failed to consider when printing my own work. Since my days working at the now defunct Ritz Camera, most of my photography has been either printed on the same inkjet glossy paper as before or I've spent much more money on acrylic face mounted prints that look very modern and contemporary. I've never used any sort of "archival fiber paper," and I've never printed on metal, PVC, or canvas, even though I'm pretty familiar with the canvas printing found at places like Kinkos, Costco, and other less professional labs.
As I was prepping to order a bunch of different fine art archival papers through Saal-Digital's print portal, another idea hit me. What types of papers and printed products would the average person on the street like most? Is there a chance that my potential portrait and wedding clients don't actually prefer matte paper over glossy paper? What if my acrylic mounted images were too modern for my clients and they actually preferred the much more traditional canvas print? Have I been missing out by not printing on brushed metal, or is that more of a novelty medium that most people wouldn't prefer at all?
These questions seemed really interesting to me, and so I set out to rediscover what my favorite print options were but also see what the average non-photographer on the street might prefer. The above video outlines everything better than I could do in text form, but I'll share a little of what papers and products I used and what the final results were.
Saal-Digital offers a number of options when it comes to printing on fine art, archival papers. Many of these names might be proprietary to the Saal-Digital lab, while others are more recognizable since they have been standards in the fine art printing world for decades. Since I'm pretty inexperienced with most of these printing options, I asked Saal-Digital to suggest their five most popular papers and these are the ones they recommended.
Hahnemühle FineArt Baryta: This paper is the only paper that has a high-gloss finish. Like all the papers below, the Baryta paper is pretty thick and has a nice heft to it. All the papers are thick enough to stand on their own without bending. For this experiment, I ordered all the print papers at 16x24" (actual 15x23").
Hahnemühle Photo Rag: This option is made of 100% cotton. Unlike the Baryta paper above, it has a nice matte finish that almost feels and looks like the printing on a dollar bill. The paper is much thicker, of course, but it has a nice, tactile feel that definitely feels more like a fine art print than the Fujicolor paper I'm used to printing on.
Hahnemühle Bamboo Natural Line: As you might expect, this paper is similar to the Photo Rag above but is made of 90% Bamboo. This makes this paper more environmentally friendly and also allows for some of the highest archival quality of any paper offered in this list. The look and feel was almost indistinguishable to me compared to all the "matte" papers tested.
Hahnemühle Hemp Natural Line: This paper is very similar to the Bamboo above in that it is both environmentally friendly and one of the most highly rated papers for its archival properties. With a blend of 40% cotton and 60% hemp, this paper looks great and feels excellent as well.
Hahnemühle Museum Etching: Much like the Photo Rag paper above, the Museum Etching option is also 100% cotton and has a similar archival quality found in all of the matte paper options above.
Rigid Print Options
For personal artwork and images used with custom frames, raw archival paper will probably be your first step into printing fine art. If you want something that is ready to hang without the need of any frame, you might want to consider some of these other printing options. Using the same two images I used to print on the five archival papers above, I also ordered four different "wall decor" products to compare and test in the real-world experiment.
- Acrylic Prints: These prints are bonded to a thick piece of 5 mm acrylic. I've printed on these before and love the modern look and feel of the final prints. The edge reflects the colors of the print itself, which looks super contemporary.
- Metal Prints: Each of these ready-to-hang pieces is printed on a 0.1" aluminum composite panel. They are not only rigid but also extremely resistant to fingerprints and humidity. These can be printed in different finishes, but I wound up going with the more matte option.
- PVC Foamboard Prints: Using a UV direct printing process, this option places the print directly on 5 mm white PVC foam board. The colors and sharpness are extremely vibrant, and the print can easily be hung as is with a custom frame. Unlike the Metal Print option, the PVC Foamboard does have a significant thickness that reveals the white board beneath the print, which might not be the fanciest of finishes.
- Photo Canvas: This is probably the most widely used option when it comes to printing a ready-to-hang piece of art. A piece of natural canvas is stretched around a solid wood frame, and your image is printed directly on the canvas. The resolution isn't quite as high as some of the other options above, but this wall decor option has been a staple for many print labs.
Which Options Are Best?
So, what are the results of this experiment? When it comes to the raw photos printed on the five different archival papers, I definitely preferred the four "matte" options over the more glossy Baryta paper. Picking one specific paper was difficult because, to my eyes, they all looked 99% the same. The differences in texture, thickness, and feel were so subtle that I don't know that I really had a favorite. If I had to choose one, I would probably go with the Hahnemühle Museum Etching because it was the thickest paper option.
When we asked the random people out on location which paper was their favorite for general photography, the results were pretty shocking. Instead of going with one of the matte options I am so fond of, 45% of the people questioned actually picked the glossier Baryta paper. The second most popular paper was a tie between the Hemp and the Bamboo natural line at 20% each. My favorite paper, the Museum Etching, came in at 4th with just 11% of the vote.
When it comes to printing a ready-to-hang wall decor print, my favorite option is definitely the acrylic prints. I have several huge acrylic prints throughout my photography studio, and for modern and impactful photography, I think the thick acrylic front gives your work the most impact. I was also really impressed with the brushed metal prints as well.
For the wall hangings, we asked our random "potential clients" two different questions. The first was: "which product would you prefer for a piece of fine art on your wall?" The top two responses were the brushed aluminum print at 42% and the acrylic faced prints at 40%. The majority of people preferred these two options as well, and the responses were pretty much dead even. Interestingly, the canvas option came in last with just a single vote at 2%.
The second question we asked everyone out in public was: "what product would you prefer if you were to print a personal or casual photo on your wall?" Once again, the brushed aluminum print came in at number one with 37% of the votes. In a strange plot twist, the canvas print was nearly tied for second place with 25% of the votes, while the acrylic print option took 27% of the votes.
This print test was really eye-opening, and I'm shocked at how popular glossy paper compared to my preferred matte printing option. While the Baryta glossy paper had 45% of the total votes, making it the most popular individual paper, the remaining 55% of people did pick one of the matte options. Since I cannot tell the difference between any of these four papers, I think the correct way to interpret these results is the debate between glossy and matte papers is split nearly 50/50. Because people have such a strong preference between these two types of papers, I would make sure I always ask my clients which type of finish they would like when delivering printed images.
I also found it really interesting that so many people we interviewed did not like images printed on canvas. Sure, more people did say canvas prints looked appropriate for more casual "snapshot" images, but the majority of people were really impressed with the more modern brushed metal and glossy acrylic print options. It was also interesting to hear how many people had never seen these products available for photographic printing. Only a few people we talked with had ever printed on anything other than canvas, which tells me that many of my clients would probably love these print options if they were only aware of these more modern photography wall art options.
I'd like to give a big thanks to Saal-Digital for sponsoring this video and article and letting me run this fun photography experiment. As part of all of our sponsorship partnerships, Saal-Digital is offering Fstoppers readers a sweet holiday deal on all print options available on their site. Right now, you can save 50% using the exclusive Fstoppers Link. Just make sure you answer a few questions to get your discount code.