Output may come at the tail end of the photography process, but as any pro will tell you, selecting the media on which to print your work cannot be treated as an afterthought.
As photographers scope out the reams and rolls, manufacturers keep an eye on the market and an ear to the wall to discover which features are most important to their professional clientele.
Christopher Van Zandt, general manager and vice president, Paper & Output Systems, Americas Region, Film & Photofinishing Systems for Eastman Kodak Company, says, “Demand for professional color negative paper within North America continues to be robust.Kodak has invented, developed, and is dedicated to producing products that support the popular needs of professional photographers . . . and continues to invest in professional photo paper innovations.” Among today's hottest trends, according to Van Zandt: a luster surface that offers sparkle with improved handling; premium surfaces for sports/commercial/nature photography and portrait/wedding applications; color papers that handle the full range of printing, from saturated color to black-and-white reproduction; papers designed to print well in digital printing workflows; media that allows for quick turnaround onsite; and “Do Not Copy” information, for copyright protection.
Fujifilm U.S.A.’s Doug Fachnie, director of marketing, Color Paper, Imaging division, stresses additional practical requirements. “While there is a tendency for more experimentation in media, with the spread of high-quality inkjet print engines, such as the Epson Professional series, the key indicator of printing professional images is the continued preference for silver-halide color photo paper for longevity, light fade stability, and its intrinsic economic value,” he explains. “For portraiture, model headshots, or product shots, silver-halide color photo paper printing of professional images continues to be the standard by which other media are evaluated for quality, speed, and cost effectiveness.”
Jane Dixon, head of marketing worldwide for Ilford Imaging, emphasizes that it’s the photographers themselves who dictate emerging products. “For Ilford, trends are driven by specific applications or printer technology introduced at any one time,” she says. “For example, as the speed of printers continues to increase, the challenge for media manufacturers is to ensure that the inkjet coating layer is able to cope with the increase."
With experience in dye and ink technology, as well as inkjet-coating technology, Ilford is able to future-proof its products to meet these demands. Adds Dixon, "Photographers also are looking for optimum quality in image performance. Ilford understands how a photographic image should look, which is built into the paper that is manufactured.”
Bob Haupt, sales manager for Hahnemühle, speaks to the sophistication of today’s photographer. “Manufacturers need to offer a wide variety of papers of different weights, surface characteristics, white point, and tactile feel,” he says. “As users become more sophisticated, they require a wider range of paper styles. A prime example is the growing popularity of fine-art papers with a luster or pearl surface.”
David Williams, sales and marketing manager, Art Papers, of Crane & Co., concurs with this observation, with a caveat. “From the fine-art paper side, I’ve seen a heavy investment in development of innovative products, primarily focused on photographers,” he says. “Just last year, we introduced Museo Silver Rag, the first digital fine-art paper with the look and feel of traditional fiber-based photo paper. Since that time, quite a few other companies have introduced products going after the same narrow application. Although this should indicate a positive direction overall for the market, I question whether all of these companies have thoroughly tested these grades and whether everyone will see a return on these investments.”
Focusing on the Issues
Consistent quality in terms of base characteristics and the performance of the ink-receptive coating is the primary prerequisite for photographers shopping for output media, says Hahnemühle’s Haupt. “As the technical knowledge base of today’s digital imaging pros matures, so does the quality of the images they are printing,” he says. “As they use more sophisticated imaging tools, such as custom-made profiles, workflow calibration, and image RIPs, they look for top-quality paper that brings out the increased quality of the images. They not only want and need higher grades of digital paper, but they are less concerned about price. Simply put, better images deserve the best paper money can buy! Given the level of investment pros are making to improve their digital images, the cost of paper and ink becomes a diminishing concern.”
Haupt also cites image permanence as a major factor. “There are two primary elements of paper that could adversely affect image life: fiber acidity and lignin, a by-product of cellulose, which, if not removed, might cause paper to yellow.”
Ilford's Dixon talks about the importance of ICC profiles: “The market is clearly maturing, particularly at the professional photographer level. The thing we are asked about most often is the availability of ICC profiles for the media available,” she says. “We currently have more than 1,300 profiles and we introduce new profiles when new printers or products enter the marketplace. We produce all of our ICC profiles in-house, providing professional photographers with the tools they need to further enhance the output from their inkjet printers. The profiles are optimized specifically for Ilford media and the O.E.M. printer and inks.”
Kodak’s Van Zandt speaks to the issues on his radar. “We hear about three key issues equally: extending color saturation and holding contrast while maintaining true flesh tones; metallic paper in more formats; and flexibility between studio and lab output media,” he says.
“Although there continues to be a very strong need for the more traditional, smooth skin-tone reproduction for portrait work, photographers and the pro labs they employ are showing increased interest in generating the variety of prints and packages that produce brighter whites, a little more snap, broader color gamut, higher color saturation, and a high-quality surface texture to provide a true, professional look. They also want a watermark to identify their work as professional.”
And while all the choices out there may seem to be a photographer’s output dream, Crane’s Williams concedes that they can be overwhelming. “In one respect, photographers suffer from so many choices in weights, surfaces, paper colors, and formats,” he says. “From the vendor side, we perhaps need some standardization to reduce the confusion with some of the terminology and technology. For example, the color-fade issues related to the use of optical brightening agents (OBA) is a hot button in the fine-art world. I’ve read some terribly inaccurate information online regarding this issue. At Crane, we’ve taken the position to not use any OBAs in our museum-quality papers so our customers can avoid the issue of these components fading and causing the paper to yellow.