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Paper for making prints

There are many different types

When photo-sensitive paper is exposed to light, an image is formed on the paper, but you can't see it. Just the same as with film, the image is latent, and it is development that makes it visible. This characteristic of both photography paper and film is due to the paper's light-sensitive emulsion - a suspension of silver halides - that is very similar to film's.

Different types of printing paper are available, dependent on several factors:

  • the make-up of the paper base itself - FB (fiber-based) or RC (resin-coated)
  • the make-up of the emulsion,
  • its contrast,
  • the paper's surface finish,
  • its thickness (or weight), and
  • its tint or color.


Fiber-based (FB) papers are considered by many to be the first choice for photographers who seek the best quality and permanence for their prints. Archival prints, intended to last for years when stored properly, are made on fiber-based papers. An image printed on fiber-based paper has increased "depth" and richness because the chemicals are so deeply absorbed into the paper. But, it can be more involved to work with, and requires more time to process. For example, washing time alone is generally measured in hours, not minutes.

Resin-coated (RC) papers also have a fiber base, but it is coated with a plastic compound (polyethylene) that shields the fibers, sealing them to keep them from absorbing chemicals. Because of this, RC papers have a very short washing time, often a matter of only five minutes. They lie flat after drying, a state that can be difficult to achieve with fiber-based papers, and dry very quickly. RC papers are, by far, the most-popular choice for print-making, comprising probably more than 95% of all the prints being made today.

The labels on packages of print paper clearly identify whether they contain fiber-based (FB) or resin-coated (RC) paper.
The labels on packages of print paper clearly identify whether they contain fiber-based (FB) or resin-coated (RC) paper.


In the old days, the specific type of silver salt (chloride or bromide) or combination of silver salts (chlorobromide) in a paper's emulsion gave it its name, determined its speed and its tone reproduction characteristics.

Chloride papers are also called contact papers because they were and are today used pretty much only for contact printing. Because they are so slow in speed (less sensitive to light), they can be handled under bright safelights. They also develop more quickly than other types of paper, and have a good range of tones.

Bromide papers, having relatively coarse grains, had the fastest speed, much faster than fine-grained chloride papers - about fifty times faster, in fact. The high speed of bromide papers made them suitable for enlargements.

Chlorobromide papers, with a range of grain sizes, were made in a variety of speeds between those of the slow-speed chloride and fast bromide papers. Most had good tonal separation (clear distinction between the many shades of gray) and tended to deliver warm-toned prints.

Nowadays, most paper emulsions are not so simple or so easily-categorized since manufacturers are more secretive of their emulsions compositions.

Some RC papers may incorporate a developer in the emulsion layer to speed up development time, which many photographers find to be a time-saver but which others dislike because they lose development control since the papers fully develop too fast.


Photography paper, whether FB (fiber-based) or RC (resin-coated), is available in a range of contrast grades to suit negatives of differing density ranges. For example, glossy surface papers are usually available in five different contrast grades. The idea in using papers with different grades of contrast is to squeeze from a negative the broadest possible range of tonal separation while still getting solid blacks and good highlights - that is, lots of differing shades of gray with bright highlight areas and dark shadow areas. If you get too much cross-over or tonal blending, with one shade looking like another when it shouldnt, you need to change to a paper with a different contrast grade.

Depending on the manufacturer, the softest or least contrasty papers are graded 00, 0 or 1, and the hardest contrast papers are graded 5 or 6, with the numbers between these extremes having graduated degrees of contrast.

How do you know if you have used the right contrast grade of paper? Experience and observation are probably your best guide. Heres what to look for to gain that experience:

If the print has been properly exposed so that its middle tones have the proper density (similar to the density of the negative's middle tones), and if the print's highlights are almost white but contain a trace of detail, and if the deepest shadows are black, then you used the right contrast grade of paper for that negative.

If the highlights appear gray and deep shadow areas are not black, the paper was of too soft a contrast grade for that particular negative. A harder contrast paper should be used to print it.

If the highlights are completely white (no trace of detail at all) and the shadow areas and some darker middle tones are black, the paper was of too hard a contrast.


Variable contrast printing papers eliminate the need for purchasing a selection of printing papers that have different grades of contrast. Their effective contrast can be changed by changing the color of the enlarger's light that is used in exposing the papers, so that prints can be made on one type of paper from a variety of negatives having different densities.

Thats right. You don't need to buy a wide range of papers with differing contrast grades; you just need to acquire one good variable contrast paper and a means of changing the color of the enlarger's light.

How is the color of the light changed? By using colored filters especially made for this purpose. The filters are placed between the light and the enlarger's lens (or below the lens) to alter the color of the light passing through the lens and striking the paper to make the exposure. Using the filters eliminates the need to change papers from one contrast grade to another. You simply change filters and use the same variable contrast paper.

Ilford Multigrade IV RC paper is one example of a variable contrast paper. It has a contrast range comprising seven grades (in half-grade steps) when used with Ilford Multigrade filters. Note that the papers speed will vary dependent on the filter that is used.

Variable contrast paper, such as Ilford's Multigrade, eliminates the need for purchasing a variety of papers having different grades of contrast. However, you need contrast filters in order to use variable contrast paper.
Variable contrast paper, such as Ilford's Multigrade, eliminates the need for purchasing a variety of papers having different grades of contrast. However, you need contrast filters in order to use variable contrast paper.


The two important surface characteristics of printing paper are its texture (smooth, fine-grained or rough), and its sheen, which is derived from a final coating applied over the emulsion to protect it from abrasion.

Texture controls the amount of detail in the print, with the smoothest texture revealing the most detail. A rough-textured paper can conceal small flaws and graininess, and contribute to a different or softer mood in a print.

Papers with high sheen add brilliance to the print.

Glossy papers have a smooth texture with a high sheen finish, and will provide brilliant whites and a "blacker" black than other papers.

Matte papers have a smooth texture, too, but no sheen, so they are less brilliant. Many photographers like the look of a glossy, high contrast black-and-white print while others prefer the non-reflective, muted softness of a matte finish. Most will choose one or the other to suit the subject and mood of the picture itself.

Manufacturers also produce paper finishes using a variety of terms such as semi-matte, pearl, semi-glossy and so on.


A paper for black-and-white print-making may be white or a cream shade. If the scene that was photographed had warm colors, it is usually best-printed on a cream-pigmented paper for the feeling of warmth it provides, but a winter scene, for example, will probably look more natural if printed on "colder" paper that has a white-tinted base.


Most printing papers are either single-weight or double-weight.

Contact prints are generally made on less bulky, single-weight paper, which can be washed more quickly.

Enlargements can be made on either thickness, but single-weight is generally used only when the print will be mounted onto a sturdy backing (except for contact sheets, which are rarely mounted). Very big enlargements should almost always be made on double-weight paper, which is less delicate and more resistant to breakage or bending when being handled during processing or mounting.

Double-weight paper is not only less flimsy and fragile, but it also feels more substantive. Most photographers use double-weight papers for their resiliency when being processed and because they tend to curl and buckle less after drying.

Contact sheets are typically made on thinner single-weight paper.
Contact sheets are typically made on thinner single-weight paper.
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Prepare to make a B&W print