Though discussions about photography in magazines, classrooms, message boards and camera clubs often focus on the latest photographic equipment or the hottest Photoshop tip, in the end, it really comes down to one simple thing: the print. It’s nice to share an image via e-mail or by allowing a friend to look over your shoulder at the camera’s LCD, but there’s no better way of sharing your unique vision of the world than by reproducing it on paper.
Mounting and framing your photographs play a big role in properly displaying and sharing your images. It’s also key for ensuring that those prints last for generations. Your choice of printer, ink and paper, as well as the way you handle the finished print, all come together to create the satisfying experience of appreciating a good photograph.
Inks, Papers and Lightfastness
Until recently, pigment inks were the only way to go for lightfastness, but the last few generations of dye-based inks have been catching up, promising decades of resistance to fading and color shifting. However, whether you’re using dye-based or pigment-based inks, your choice of paper will have one of the greatest impacts on the life of your photographs.
Besides choosing between a matte and a glossy surface, one consideration when selecting a paper is how it interacts with the inks of your printer. Paper types, even those produced by the same manufacturer, won’t behave the same in terms of resistance to fading, moisture and pollutants. If lightfastness is a key concern for prints, it’s important to know how long you can expect prints to resist fading and color shifts.
One of the best sources for this is Wilhelm Imaging Research (www.wilhelm-research.com), an independent organization that does exhaustive tests for lightfastness on printers, inks and papers. It provides extensive data on print life, using specific printers with a wide variety of papers.
When it comes to longevity, it’s essential to understand the types of papers that are available for inkjet printers. Three common types include swellable, porous and cotton rag.
Swellable papers consist of three separate layers, two of which are polyethylene. Between these two layers is the paper base that absorbs the ink. This type of paper is best suited for dye-based printers, despite some papers being marketed as “universal,” meaning compatible with pigment-based printers, which they often are not.
“A swellable paper is a paper that literally swells in the presence of moisture,” says Dan Steinhardt, marketing manager for Epson America. “The ink is absorbed into the swellable layer. The problem with swellable papers is that they’re highly susceptible at all times to moisture, not just from ink. It especially becomes an issue for those living in high-humidity environments.”
As the name suggests, porous papers consist of spaces where ink is deposited. One of the benefits of their special coating is faster drying time and a higher resistance to damage from moisture and humidity, as well as other pollutants. Typically, porous papers deliver better results, in terms of lightfastness, with pigment-based inks than with dye-based inks.
“A porous paper has many microscopic holes so that the ink can penetrate,” says Steinhardt. “They’re also known as instant dry papers. They tend to also be resin-coated papers such as Epson’s Premium Luster paper. The advantage of such papers is that you can use either dye-based or pigment-based inks—both are compatible.”
Cotton rag papers, also referred to as fine-art papers, consist of acid-free and lignin-free cotton fibers. These papers, which include protective coatings for resistance to pollutants, offer the greatest lightfastness. “Most of the fine-art papers are cotton rag-based, and they’re buffered, meaning that they have been treated so that they’re acid-free or neutral,” explains Steinhardt. “This is important because all paper tends to have some acidity as it’s being manufactured. It also removes lignin, which is one of those inherent things that can lead a paper to start to yellow.”
Beyond issues of longevity, the way an image is reproduced on a particular paper is a big consideration. The whiteness, texture and color-reproductive qualities of a substrate make a huge difference in the final look of an image. So, it’s important to consider what you want to express with each of your photographs. There’s no one best paper. Evaluating color and tonality, as well as the light resistance of your prints, will round out your assessment of any photograph.
Pete Turner’s Prints
Master photographer Pete Turner has been considering these elements while producing prints for a retrospective exhibition of his photographs scheduled to open at the George Eastman House Photographic Museum in Rochester, New York. For him, the choice of paper was important.
“I was tempted at one point to go with a matte-type surface,” Turner says. “But I’m a photographer, and I really wanted to make photographs that look like photographs. I’m using Epson’s Premium Luster paper because I think it’s the closet thing to silver-halide photographic paper.” Turner takes great care in handling his 17×22- and 24×36-inch prints from the moment they’re produced from his Epson Stylus Pro 4800 and 7800 printers.
“You only handle prints from the opposite corners because you don’t want to ding them,” he says. “What we tend to do is, once the photographs are out of the printer, we put them on foam-core boards. Anytime we’re moving them, we’re sliding them from one board to another, and we never pick them up unless it’s from opposite corners. By sliding your prints, you avoid nicking or dinging them.”
An important step on the way to matting and framing the prints is placing interleaving tissue on the surface of the prints. Though resin-coated papers dry almost immediately, they still release a substance called glycol. The substance exists to help prevent clogging in the printer’s nozzles, and while it won’t damage the print, it can produce a fog or haze that appears on the surface of the glass.
To prevent this outgassing when a photo is framed, the interleaving tissue is placed on top of the print for a period of 24 hours. The release of the gas will be evident, as the interleaving tissue will display waves across its surface. Though cotton rag and swellable papers are less susceptible to this, it’s a good idea to cover prints with this tissue to protect them until they have been properly framed and printed.
Mats and Framing
A mat is an important element for exhibiting your prints. Besides giving a professional appearance to your image, it prevents contact between the photograph and the glass of the frame.
Your choice of mat is just as essential as the paper on which you’ve printed your photograph. Like the paper, the mat itself needs be made of materials that are both acid- and lignin-free to ensure the longest life of the print. Some museum-quality mats are made of 100% cotton fibers and include calcium carbonate buffers to eliminate acidity. Even the adhesive tape used to secure the print to the mat should be made specifically for archival framing.
Companies such as Light Impressions (www.lightimpressionsdirect.com) offer a wide selection of mats and frames that are excellent for photographs. Many are available in precut siz
es or can be custom cut for off-size prints. If you’re submitting your images to a professional framer, ask what materials are being used to mat and frame your photographs.
For Turner, the size of the mat plays a big role in how his images will be displayed.
“For the show, we experimented with different-sized mats,” he says. “We tried a three-inch and a four-inch mat and just compared them, and then we looked at the frames. We’re going to have a light gray wall for the show, and I didn’t want the viewer to be too focused on the frame. So we went with a very simple frame and ended up picking a three-inch white mat.”
Whether you’re a master photographer preparing images for an exhibit or an enthusiast decorating a home with your favorite photographs, you’ll find that framing is as much of an art as the photographs that they showcase. By being methodical in producing your prints and choosing the best materials, you can ensure that your photographs not only will look their best, but also will last for years to come.