What to Know Before Buying Inkjet Photo Paper

Learn how to choose the right paper for your projects

When selecting photo-quality inkjet paper to use with your inkjet printer, the choices may seem overwhelming. Terms like satin, matte, luster, and more are thrown around, and prices can vary wildly.

If you plan to print photos or other high-quality images and need the right inkjet paper, here's what you need to know to choose the best product for your needs.

No matter how good your inkjet paper is, the quality and resolution of your source image is the single-most-important factor for achieving an excellent print.

Inkjet prints on inkjet photo paper
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Characteristics of Inkjet Paper

A number of paper types fall under the inkjet-printer category, such as standard ream paper usually used to print out text documents. Inkjet photo paper, however, can accommodate high-quality photo prints with a vast array of colors, without bleeding.

Inkjet photo paper varies in size and finish. Some have glossy or satin finishes, while others have matte finishes. Coatings range from "cast coated," which is usually on cheaper base paper, to "micro-porous," which is usually on top of a higher-quality paper.

But when you're shopping for inkjet photo paper, you don't have to get too technical. There are five main considerations: weight, finish, brightness, opacity, and caliper.

Advances in inkjet paper surfaces now allow for more creative printing, such as transfer paper for iron-ons, printable stickers, and more.

Inkjet Paper Weight

Weight refers to a paper's thickness and can be expressed in pounds or grams per square meter. The higher the weight measurement, the thicker the paper, and the more durable and substantial it feels. Most inkjet photo papers are found in the 24 to 71 lb. (90 to 270 g/m2) range. If you're printing photos, you'll want your paper in the heavier, thicker range, around 62 lbs. and higher.

Paper with heavier weight will not only look and feel more substantial but also lead to crisper text and less ink bleeding. Before investing in heavily weighted paper, however, be sure to check the maximum paper thickness your inkjet printer allows.

If the paper is marked as "heavyweight," it doesn't necessarily mean it's heavier than other comparable papers.

Finish

A paper's finish refers to its sheen and texture, and choosing a paper's finish depends on your own taste and preferences. Whatever finish you select, be sure to set your printer driver correctly to match the paper's finish.

Gloss Finish

Just like the name implies, inkjet paper with a gloss finish has a glossy coating, giving your printouts the look and feel of real photographic prints.

Papers with a gloss finish may be described with other terms, such as "high gloss," "semi-gloss," or "satin," which isn't as shiny as other glossy papers. You'll also see terms like "pearl" and "luster," which are satin-like finishes with more texture.

Inkjet photo paper with a gloss finish is a great choice for printing images with rich colors, clarity, and sheen.

Because a glossy coating keeps the paper from readily absorbing the ink, some glossy papers dry slowly. However, quick-dry gloss finishes are common today.

Matte Finish

Matte inkjet photo papers are smooth and velvety, rather than shiny and glossy. These papers are thicker than regular inkjet paper and are specially formulated for photos. Images printed on photo matte papers appear soft and non-reflective with vibrant colors, but they won't look like real photo prints, as with glossy paper.

Many matte finish papers allow you to print on both sides. If you're including text with an image, the text will appear crisp and clear.

Brightness

How white is white? In terms of paper, there are many different levels of whiteness or brightness. Brightness is expressed as a number from 1 to 100. Photo papers usually have brightness ratings in the high 90s, while regular copier paper is somewhere around the 80s.

A paper's brightness affects how image colors look and how clear they are. This is especially important for photos. Even if a paper has a high brightness rating, it's a good idea to get samples and see how your images print onto the paper from your inkjet printer before making an investment.

Since not all papers are labeled with their brightness rating, the best way to determine brightness is simply to compare two or more papers side-by-side.

Papers labeled as "bright white" or "ultra-bright" can be misleading. If you're buying paper for printing photos, check the brightness number and make sure it's at least 95.

Opacity

Opacity refers to how much light can be transmitted through the paper. In other words, how see-through the paper is. With a higher level of opacity, printed text and images are less likely to bleed through to the other side. Standard copier paper has less opacity and is more translucent. Heavier-weight paper is more opaque and less see-through.

An inkjet photo paper's opacity is especially important for double-sided printing. This type of paper has a higher level of opacity in general, usually between 94-97.

Caliper

Caliper refers to the thickness of a single sheet of paper. Photo papers are heavier and thicker than typical multipurpose papers, and their higher caliper helps with the ink coverages needed for printing photos.

Choosing Inkjet Photo Paper

There's no one right way to select inkjet photo paper. There are many varieties as well as many considerations. Even if you like a certain paper's texture and feel, it may not work well for the particular image you're printing.

Experiment with different types of paper on your printer. Evaluate your results and the kind of "mood" you get when mixing certain papers with certain photos and images. Take advantage of free paper samples so you don't have to make a big cash investment when you're learning. You'll soon have the experience and know-how to match the right paper to the right project.