The Paper Chase: Pick the Perfect Paper for Your Printer

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If you're looking for a really challenging pastime, you could tackle one of the classics, like competing in a triathlon, reading James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, or learning quantum mechanics. Or, if those don't seem tricky enough, try your hand at picking the right paper for your printer.

Step into any office supply store, and you'll see shelves full of all kinds of papers--cheap white, color-tinted, or photo-related with labels like photo paper, glossy, swellable, and cotton rag.

No doubt you've also seen gorgeous prints on display at the computer store--samples of what you could accomplish with the newest photo-quality inkjet printers. But getting those same results at home can be daunting if you don't feed the right paper into your printer. The various photo-centric papers all claim to be great, but how can you really tell which one to use?

Should Your Paper Be Branded?

It's no secret that the big names in printers, such as Canon, Epson, and HP, offer a complete line of inks and papers. Each company claims that you'll get the best results when you use its products with its printers, and all warn you to steer clear of papers sold by other companies.

In general, they're right. With inkjet printers, especially, companies design printers, inks, and papers to work together to yield the best results. If you use third-party paper with your inkjet printer from a big-name manufacturer--Office Depot's plain-white copy paper or even specialty photo paper from a company like UK-based Tetenal--the ink may spread too far into the paper before drying, causing inaccurate colors, lower print resolution, and a dull finish. Plus, the prints will likely fade faster.

So here's our most important advice: You'll get the best image quality by sticking with inks and papers recommended by your printer's manufacturer. After all, getting great photos out of an inkjet printer is a tall order, and it requires ink, paper, and printer to work together like a well-practiced orchestra.

But what if you're using a laser printer? Plain text documents, or draft-quality graphics, require no such symphonic interaction--you can stock up on your local office supply store's bright white copy or laser paper to your heart's content.

You might also want to consider some of the more affordable color laser printers that let you print photos onto glossy paper; for more details, see "The Print Shop: Get Glossy Photos From Color Laser Printers".

Pick the Right Photo Paper

You're on pretty safe ground if you use Canon, Epson, or HP photo papers with their respective printers, but you still have some decisions ahead. The paper section at the local office supply store often holds numerous but seemingly similar choices. Here we'll discuss Epson's, HP's, and Canon's offerings--and look at Kodak's, as well.

Epson offers the broadest--and possibly the most confusing--selection of papers, with names like DuraBrite, Premium Glossy, Photo Quality Glossy, and ColorLife. Here's the scoop: As a general rule, Epson's best paper--for pictures you plan to frame or share, for instance--is Premium Glossy Photo Paper. For less formal photo printing, Epson also sells a less-expensive All Purpose Glossy Paper. This is a great choice for documents that you want to come out looking good but not place in a frame--presentations, reports, and flyers, say.

Another point to remember: You'll get the best results when you match the paper to the kind of ink you are using. Epson's Premium Glossy Photo Paper is the right choice for most Epson inkjet or photo printers, but if your printer uses DuraBrite ink, then use the DuraBrite Ink Glossy Photo Paper instead.

HP's Premium Plus is the top-of-the-line photo paper for HP printers, but for routine photo printing, you might be more inclined to print on HP Premium paper (which, HP claims, is slightly better than the kind of paper used by your local photo lab). For documents that combine text and photos, try HP Photo Paper, a lightweight grade that's slightly higher quality than HP Everyday Photo Paper (the latter is something we'd use for sharing drafts of photos).

Canon has made their paper products even easier to figure out. Just look for the colored stripe that runs down the center of all their paper packages; papers with a gold stripe are premium blends intended for the highest quality prints, while bronze identifies the paper as an everyday variety.

Of course, Kodak--a company long almost synonymous with photography--also makes photo paper. Kodak paper is an excellent alternative if you can't find paper from your printer manufacturer, or if your printer's maker doesn't offer its own line of paper. Kodak offers four varieties of paper, which include Kodak Ultima (best for high-quality, display-grade photographs), Kodak Premium Picture Paper (less expensive, good for sharing with friends), and Kodak Anytime Paper (a lightweight paper best for everyday printing of text and pictures).

Get Past the Jargon

By reading the fine print on the paper package, you can usually figure out if the paper is right for your particular printer. Plus, if you're interested in high-quality photo printing, you can generally see if a particular paper makes the grade.

For example, some papers may have unusual descriptions like "swellable" or "cotton rag." Swellable paper is designed for high-quality photo printing--the coated surface actually swells as it absorbs ink. Cotton rag is ideal for inkjet printers that use pigment-based inks; most low-cost inkjets, on the other hand, use dye-based ink, so you should steer clear of cotton rag in this instance.

High-quality paper also has a polymer coating--for both dye-based and pigment-based inks--that keeps the ink from spreading, and it also protects the ink from fading over time. (This also applies to dye-based ink.) The downside? Coated paper can take many hours for your prints to fully dry. Better paper may also be advertised as acid-free and lignin-free--these are signs that your paper is more likely to give you the best image quality and the best overall life span.

Everyday Photo Printing

Now you know how to choose the right paper for making great, special-occasion prints. But what if you just want to make everyday printouts of photos and don't need to mount them on the wall of an art gallery? The good news is that almost any paper will do. If you won't be framing or sharing your prints, that's when you can grab any old photo paper off the shelf, even if the package doesn't have your printer company's name on it. The prints will be somewhat dull and the colors won't look as accurate, but you'll pay pennies per page instead of about a dollar per sheet.

The cheapest papers you can buy--usually sold for everyday printing and called "inkjet paper" or just "photo paper"--are porous papers that usually lack a protective polymer coating. The selling points: They're inexpensive and quick- or instant-drying. The downside: Pictures degrade in short order.

Bonus Tips: How to Get the Best Prints

While memories can fade with time, no one wants the same thing to happen to their photographs. With a few precautions, you can ensure that your prints are the best they can possibly be.

For starters, in addition to using the best photo paper recommended by the printer manufacturer, configure your print software to use the settings for that paper when you print. To do that, click the Properties button next to the name of your printer in the Print dialog box and choose the paper you've loaded into your printer from the list. Obviously, this is a good reason to use the printer manufacturer's paper for high-quality printing, since other brands will not be listed here. Some printers don't require you to do this, however, because they have a sensor that detects the paper type.

You'll find that some companies will tout fast drying times for their papers, and fast-drying paper can be handled after just an hour or so. However, when high-quality, coated, or photo-quality paper rolls out of your printer, I recommend that you avoid handling it for 12 hours to prevent finger smudges--or even 24 hours to allow the ink to set permanently. And don't try to print on both sides unless the paper is specifically marked for two-sided printing. Every printer manufacturer sells at least one kind of two-sided paper. Epson offers A Double-Sided Matte Paper, for instance, while HP sells papers optimized for two-sided projects, like the Premium Photo Card and Premium Note Card stock.

Once your print is totally dry, put the print under glass or plastic. Exposure to common gasses and particles in the air can dull or fade your photo quickly. Finally, for the longest life, keep the picture out of direct sunlight and in a cool, dry environment. That means no matter what other precautions you take, photos that are stored in an album will last longer than ones hung on the wall.

Oh, and one last tip: Keep your original digital photo files around even after you print. That way you can reprint them in ten years when you notice the colors start to fade.

Find Out More

For the latest prices on printer paper, check out PC World's Product Finder. And for our recent hands-on testing of photo printers, see "Photo Printers: The Price of Great Pictures" and the accompanying ranked chart, Photo Printers: Big And Small.

Dave Johnson writes Digital Focus, a weekly tips newsletter. He tells you how to get the most out of your digital camera, scanner, printer, and image editing software. Sign up here.
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