Glossy and Lustre Papers for Color Images

Last year I posted a review of Labs and Papers for Black & White. At that time I was using outside labs for all my prints. Based on my ongoing frustration with the results, I decided to start making my own prints and purchased an Epson 3880 printer for the task. With advice from Martin Bailey and his great eBook, Making the Print, I focused on high-end fine-art matte papers. I’ll be posting reviews of many of these matte papers soon, but first I want to cover glossy papers.

Why am I using glossy papers, particularly after Martin convinced me to check out the matte papers? It started when I entered the above image into a local competition that was judged by printing guru Mark Lindsay. I entered a print on Breathing Color’s Optica One. Mark liked the image, but he bumped it down to second place because of the choice of paper. He noted it was a particularly sharp image with a fairly wide gamut, and that it really needed a high-gamut smooth glossy paper. He was absolutely right. My problem was that I had been so focused on matte papers, I’d been using them for everything. BC’s Optica One has a wide color gamut and  high d-max (ie, dense blacks), but as Mark explained, the range of what you can reproduce on glossy papers fundamentally exceeds what you can do with matte papers.

I ordered sample packages from five manufacturers. Yes, there are many others, and when I get a chance I intend to test a few more. But for now I used 19 gloss, satin and lustre papers from Breathing Color, Hahnemühle, Ilford, Red River and Epson. For these tests I printed two images, the one above and the one below. I chose the one below because it contains some extreme colors that are out-of-gamut for any paper.


For each paper I used the ICC profile provided by the paper manufacturer for my printer. I started with the full-gamut sRGB images, soft-proofed them in Lightroom 4, and adjusted the saturation to bring the images to be within gamut for each individual paper. In some cases I changed the exposure in order to best approximate the original.

Most important is that my judging of the results was entirely subjective. Yes, I checked for (but did not measure) the density of the blacks, detail in the highlights and shadows, and the accuracy of the colors. But I also just looked at the prints and decided which ones I liked best. Many of these papers are quite similar, particularly those from the same manufacturer. In an attempt to minimize arbitrary judgmental differences, I compared the papers blind (ie, unlabeled) four times, using each of the above images in two different lighting conditions. Luckily, when I was all done I discovered I’d been fairly consistent in my rankings. In all four comparison passes I chose the same papers as my favorites, although within the top four papers they were particularly close. Likewise, I was consistently disappointed with the bottom six or seven. In the middle of the rankings the order did change somewhat more from one judging pass to another. Of course these are my personal preferences and only for these two images, which are notably colorful, saturated, sharp and contrasty. What’s right for you and your images will likely be different, but I hope I can give you a good place to start in your search for the best glossy papers. Here are the results, in order of my preference.

  1. Hahnemühle Fine Art Baryta ($81 per 50 8.5×11 sheets) is a gorgeous, heavy, very bright white paper with a fair amount of texture. The blacks are not the darkest, but the overall look is terrific. Visually, this is the best paper I tested. But it’s so expensive, I’m not likely to use it very often. (17×22 sheets cost $6.40 each.)
  2. Breathing Color Vibrance Gloss ($15) is a very close second, and is my favorite true glossy (ie, smooth) paper. It’s bright white and renders rich dark blacks. Best of all, it’s one of the least expensive papers I tested. This will likely become my most-used glossy paper. (17×22 sheets currently cost only $1.10 each, only 17% of Hahnemühle Fine Art Baryta, a much heavier paper. It appears that BC is offering Vibrance Gloss for a discount. It’s not clear how long this will be the case or what the price will be after the discount period ends.)
  3. Ilford Gold Fibre Silk ($58) is a warm/ivory color with a smooth but not fully gloss surface. It has good (but not deep) blacks and reproduces warm colors (reds and yellows) particularly well. It’s reasonably expensive, but I expect to use this paper when I want a warmer look than what one normally expects from glossy papers. This paper is also terrific for b&w images, but that’s for another set of tests.
  4. Hahnemühle Baryta FB ($70) is a heavy paper with a light texture and appears to me to have an even wider color gamut than the first-place Hahnemühle Fine Art Baryta. Overall, however, I still prefer the other paper.
  5. Ilford Smooth Gloss ($27) is a lightweight paper with a classic smooth glossy finish and deep blacks. For my work, it’s just a notch below the BC Vibrance Gloss but nearly twice as expensive.
  6. Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta ($70) is a heavy paper with a light texture and good blacks. It has a warmer, more-ivory color than the Fine Art Baryta. By now you’ve probably figured out that the Hahnemühle Baryta papers are all pretty good. And expensive.
  7. Hahnemühle Fine Art Pearl ($81) is a wide-gamut medium-weight paper with a subdued lustre-like finish and a bright white color. The blacks aren’t particularly dark, however.
  8. Ilford Smooth Pearl ($25) is a lightweight lustre-finish paper with a very slightly warm/ivory color. I find its blacks to be a bit weak.
  9. Red River Arctic Polar Gloss ($28) is a bright white, lightweight glossy paper with deep blacks. The three Red River gloss papers are all quite similar, which is why they’re clumped together in my rankings. In fact, in one out of four passes I judged them in the reverse of this order. The color gamut of these papers appears to be narrower than BC’s Vibrance Gloss and nearly all the Hahnemühle papers.
  10. Red River Pecos River Gloss ($25) is very similar to RR’s Arctic Polar Gloss, just slightly warmer and less expensive.
  11. Red River Ultra Pro Gloss ($20) is again very similar to RR’s Arctic Polar Gloss but with a yet narrower gamut. It’s a good value, but still more expensive and (to my eye) not as nice as BC’s Vibrance Gloss.
  12. Breathing Color Vibrance Lustre ($15) has a typical lustre finish. Otherwise it’s virtually identical to BC’s Vibrance Gloss.
  13. Epson Ultra Premium Lustre ($28) is one of the most common papers. It’s lightweight, slightly warm, with strong blacks and a lustre finish.
  14. Hahnemühle Photo Rag Pearl ($86) is heavy with a slight warm/ivory color and a texture that’s smoother than lustre but not full glossy. It’s less contrasty and has lighter blacks than my preferred papers.
  15. Red River Arctic Polar Satin ($28) is a lightweight slightly warm paper with a finish that’s somewhere between gloss and lustre. The gamut isn’t as wide as most of the full-gloss papers, but the blacks are deep.
  16. Red River Ultrapro Satin ($20) is another lightweight RR satin paper. It’s the warmest of RR’s gloss-family papers, but still not as warm as, for example, BC’s Vibrance Rag. The color gamut is somewhat narrow and the blacks aren’t quite as deep as others.
  17. Epson Exhibition Fibre ($35) is a heavy paper with a lustre finish. To my eye, it’s a fairly low-contrast, bright white paper.
  18. Red River Arctic Polar Lustre ($42) is a bright-white medium-weight lustre paper. The color gamut is about as wide as RR’s Arctic Polar Gloss but the blacks are not quite as deep.
  19. Breathing Color Vibrance Rag ($57) is similar to BC’s Vibrance Lustre except that it’s a heavy paper with an ivory/warm color. The paper is not available in 8.5×11 but costs $111 for 25 sheets of 13×19 sheets.

Conclusions: I’ve settled on Breathing Color’s Vibrance Gloss as my everyday gloss paper. It’s one of my top picks regardless of price and is available now for nearly half the cost of Epson’s Ultra Premium Lustre, one of the most common papers. I’ve also purchased some large sheets of Hahnemühle’s Fine Art Baryta for situations that call for the very best.

If you’re interested in glossy, satin or lustre-finish papers I strongly suggest you buy sample packs from at least some of these manufacturers and run your own tests. My experiments are far from technically rigorous and my images probably don’t look anything like yours. Running your own tests is the only way to decide.

If you have the ability to make your own paper/printer ICC profiles rather than depend on those from the manufacturers, you may want to do so. For example, I found that using the profiles from Hahnemühle yielded prints consistently lighter than using manufacturer-supplied profiles for other papers. Although my monitor is calibrated, I don’t have a reflective spectrophotometer needed to read test charts on paper.

I also come at this with my own set of prejudices. For example, I just don’t like lustre papers. While they may be the most resistant to fingerprints (from which glossy papers suffer) and smudging (the curse of matte papers), I don’t like the way they scatter light. I prefer a smooth-finish matte paper or a smooth glossy. I was, however, impressed with some of the satin finishes. (If you do print on glossy or matte papers and expect your prints to be handled such as during competitions, I strongly recommend Hahnemühle Protective Spray.)

Finally, I found that the greatest variations are between the manufacturers. For example, within the Red River line of papers, I had a very difficult time reliably distinguishing Arctic Polar Gloss from Pecos River Gloss and Ultra Pro Gloss. The same is true among the Hahnemühle Baryta papers.

I hope this has been helpful as you explore the beauty of these great glossy papers.