Buying Photographic Papers

When dealing with photographic papers consider five things: contrast, surface, base type, thickness, and tone.


Contrast refers to the degrees of light and dark in a photographic print or negative. When describing a negative contrast depends on the development and exposure. Overexposed or overdeveloped negatives are dark, or thick and yield low contrast prints. Underexposed or underdeveloped negatives and light, or thin and result in high contrast prints. Low contrast prints are gray with few light or dark areas, and vice versa high contrast prints are mostly light and dark with few grays.

Photographic paper usually comes in 5 contrast grades. Numberd one through five each level indicates the level of contrast: 1-low contrast, 2-average contrast, 3-slightly high contrast, 4-high contrast, 5-very high contrast.

I have little expierence with graded papers because I find it easier to use variable-contrast papers. Also called selective, multigrade, or polycontrast these papers allow for tweleve different contrast levels. When using these papers contrast is controlled by special filters placed in the photographic enlarger that allow for subtle or severe changes in contrast. Polycontrast papers also permit one to change the contrast in certain areas of the photograph instead of the whole image. I prefer multicontrast paper because it eliminates the need to buy multiple packages of paper, although filters are expensive.


Surface indicates just that, the surface of the paper. Examples include glossy, matte, semi-matte, and pearle. Although glossy is most commonly used I prefer matte. Most artistic photographers agree that glossy paper is ugly and only useful when printing kitch photos.

Base Type

Papers come in two types: fiber and resin-coated(RC). RC is coated on both sides by a fine film of plastic. RC is often more conveniant because it curls less, exposes, processes,and dries faster. It is also cheaper then fiber-based and ideal for beginners. Most professional photographers use fiber-based papers because they are more visually appealing. I suggest RC for beginners, but once you feel comfortable switch to fiber-based. You will not regret it.


Fiber-based papers are available in three weights: single weight, medium weight, and double weight. Because double weight is easier to handle and curls less it costs about one third more expensive then single weight. For exhibition purposes or when printing on paper larger then 8x10 double weight is recommend. RC paper is only available in medium weight.


Tone is the color of the photographic paper. They range from warm to neutral. Warm papers will have a brown tint and the whites will appear off white. Some what of an antique look, like sepia toning. Neutral papers have a whiter base and the blacks appear more blue or grey. Luminos makes a wide variety of fun papers in different colors. I recommend their tapestry paper, a warm toned paper.

Now that you know the basics of photographic paper classification you are ready to decide what your desired effect is. Basic papers will have no tones listed on the package. If you are looking for variable contrast paper check to see that VC, PC, or some variation is listed. If the box says grade #2,3,4 etc. the paper is graded paper. Also remember to check the surface of the paper. If you are in a store and have questions, do not be afraid to ask!

Freestyle has an excellent selection of papers ranging from everyday to specialty papers like Luminos. Oriental and Luminos warm tone papers are beautiful. Kodak and Illford also produce dependable papers. Freestyle sells the cheapest paper I have found. Check them out at