What impact does printing on matte, semi-glossy or glossy paper have on my photos?

This answer says that dynamic range is more with glossy paper. What other effects does the paper type have on the output?


Glossy papers have darker blacks, so you can display wider tonal range, get better perception of contrast and sharpness. But those blacks (whole image, really) are glossy and reflect the world around. So you may have nice deep blacks, but if they will reflect your white shirt or a window, you won't enjoy them as much. That may become even bigger problem for images mounted under glass. So there are tradeoffs and you need to pick the right compromise.

Many high quality prints are printed on pigment printers these days. The prints are great, but when using glossy paper, you can see so called gloss differential where certain areas of the print are glossier than others.

Glossy prints are also less forgiving when mounting on a board - small bumps and imperfections are more likely to be visible.


Perception is reality. I'd like to state that the emulsions of different surface-type papers are the same. The dynamic ranges of the emulsions are the same. The only difference is the surface texture.

What is different is our perception of the dynamic range. This is due to the "dilution" of the dark areas of the print due to tiny highlights on the irregular surfaces of textured papers. The more irregular the surface, the more apparent "dilution" of the shadow areas of the print.

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A glossy paper can be lit and positioned so that the reflections are angled away from the viewer so that the blacks appear saturated. A semi-gloss surface texture have tiny highlights on the irregular surface so that the dark areas appear giving the impression of a reduced dynamic range from the glossy example. A matte surface has the most "bumps" whose surfaces put very many highlights that reduce the darkest areas the most.

Contrast: Increased dynamic range increases the contrast of the image. Glossy surfaces are capable of showing greater contrast than are less glossy surfaces when properly lit and positioned.


The typical photographic scene depicts a range of luminances that covers about 10 f/stops. Since each f/stop represents a doubling of the light energy we are taking about a range of 1024 to 1. That’s 2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2 = 1024. In other words we can’t capture the full luminance range of a sunlit vista and display it. If we could, you would need to wear sunglasses to view the image.

OK, we can capture on film 10 f/stops but when we project this image of a computer screen or by side projector, the best we can output is about 256 to 1. That’s 8 f/stops of range. When we print this image on glossy paper, the best we can get is 64 to 1, that’s 6 f/stops. If we print on semi-matte paper the results are 32 to 1 or 5 f/stops. If we print on matte paper the image only displays a range of 4 f/stops, that’s 16 to 1.

Why so great a loss of total range when the picture is placed on paper? Slides are viewed from the rear by light that transverses the image. When the image is projected on a screen the optical system of the projector has what is called “flare”. This I misdirected light rays due to lens aberrations. This plus turbidity in the film takes a toll. A print is viewed by reflected light. The viewing light plays on the print, transverses the image, hits a white under coat called a baryta (white under coat of barium sulfate). This primes the paper and provides a reflective undercoat. The light rays reflect off the baryta and transverse the print emulsion a second time on their way to your eye. The result is a huge loss of tonal range.

Additionally, a print on glossy paper delivers a higher perception of contrast and contrast as compared to other surfaces.

Alan Marcus retired photo enginner

  • Were you at The Park? I was in Bldg. 32 R&D – Stan May 11 '16 at 22:31

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