Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

The Matte Aesthetic

One of the nice attributes of digital photography is that it allows for one to do their own printing. Of course, this can get out of hand, as I described in my post about being a perfectionist. Nonetheless, the advent of high quality inkjet printers and image editing software has now given us unprecedented control over the appearance of our images, perhaps even more so than the wet darkroom.

Once an image has reached the stage where it is ready to be printed, the first decision that has to be made is….printed on what. Assuming that the answer, as it will likely be in 99% of cases, is printed on paper, then the obvious question is……what paper? And that is where the fun begins.

First, let me back up a bit. I print with an Epson 7600 Ultrachrome printer. The 7600 uses separate types of black ink for optimal printing on matte paper on the one hand and semi-gloss to glossy paper on the other. Unfortunately, at any one time, the printer can only be loaded with one of these two types of black ink. While it is theoretically possible to change over from one to the other, it is quite a hassle to do so, and also results in wasting a significant volume of rather expensive ink. For all intents and purposes, from a practical standpoint, when I got the printer I needed to make a decision as to whether I wanted the vast majority of my prints to be on matte or glossy paper.

I chose matte. I like the matte aesthetic. Without question, the semi-gloss to glossy paper alternative is equally valid. But matte paper has, for me, very appealing attributes. The image tends to take on a very ‘painterly’ appearance that looks quite unlike a traditional photograph. Of course, there is nothing ‘wrong’ with a traditional photograph; after all, we are ‘photographers’. However, to me, the aesthetic of matte paper seems to give the image a rather unique quality that sets it apart, in a positive way, from the images we are used to seeing on a daily basis.

There are a whole host of different types of matte papers available, ranging from bright white (using optical brighteners) to more natural colored rag papers and even papers with a slightly creamy underlying tint. Personally, I tend to use a slightly creamy paper for images where I want to impart a bit of a warm tone, such as images involving autumn color. In images where I want to maximize contrast I will use either a natural toned or very white paper, as the picture’s whitest white can only be as bright as the underlying paper the image is printed on.

Beyond the visual, however, there is something else even more ephemeral. Tactile sensation. A factor that I find as important as the paper color and brightness is the paper’s thickness and texture. There is something very satisfying about holding a photograph printed on heavyweight paper in one’s hands. There is a certain feeling of ‘permanence’ it seems to impart to the image. The choice of smooth versus textured paper also effects the tactile sensation of viewing the print. In effect, looking at the print starts to move beyond a purely visual experience and becomes one that also involves the sense of feel. It is unfortunate that a good deal of this aspect of the image is lost when the print is matted and framed under glass. Even then, though, the paper texture still has an effect on the visual appearance of the image.

To be sure, there are some downsides to printing on matte paper. Because of the way ink is absorbed onto the paper, images on matte paper, while sharp, are generally not as ‘razor’ sharp as those on glossy paper. Likewise, the saturation, or, for lack of a better word, the brilliance or contrast of an image is higher on glossy paper. Because of the lower contrast appearance on matte paper I do find it somewhat more difficult to get an optimal softproofing in image editing software and often have to use curves to increase the contrast more than I had anticipated. However, I personally feel that the gain in contrast tends to benefit the image more than a very slight loss in highlight or shadow detail, at least in most images. Finally, I do very little ‘people photography’, but do tend to like the appearance of portraits a bit more on semi-gloss or glossy paper.

It is certainly a matter of personal opinion, but I find that the aesthetic of matte paper is one that has a great deal of appeal to me.