You spent time researching which camera and printer to buy, and you put effort into shooting great pictures. It doesn't make sense to load your photo printer up with whatever cheapo paper you find at the office supply store.
If you're a photographer who really cares about image quality, then you need to be as serious about paper selection as you were about camera and printer choice. There is an overwhelming variety of photo papers out there, and they are far from equal. The fact is, while it may seem like nothing more than flattened wood pulp, there's a lot of technology and science behind photo paper, and different kinds are better for different applications.
Start with the finish
Your first concern when choosing a paper should be the finish. Some papers are glossy, others have a matte finish, and others are more textured, like the art papers that painters use.
Gloss and Semigloss Many novice shooters are attracted to glossy papers because the prints appear to have very "rich" colors. It's true that if you are just printing snapshots to pass around, gloss or semigloss papers can be very pretty. However, the gloss creates reflections and shine that can actually obscure your image. If you're planning to frame a print, glossy paper makes even less sense as you'll be getting glare from both the gloss and the glass. As your eye improves, you'll most likely want move away from glossy to other finishes that better show off your photos.
Matte In addition to not creating distracting reflections, a good matte paper will deliver darker blacks than gloss paper, which means better contrast. Also, a quality matte paper will often hold finer detail than a glossy paper, which can be important for images where detail and texture are critical.
Canvas Another nice option for images that you want to frame is canvas. A quality canvas print will deliver a matte-paper like contrast and color, but since there's no glass over the print to reduce contrast and saturation, the colors remain much more vibrant when viewed from a distance. Note, though, that canvas does have a rather rough texture, so you want to be careful where you hang it—a canvas image struck by side light will show a lot of bumps.
Art Paper Finally, there are "art" papers that deliver a matte finish with a fair amount of texture, like water color paper. These papers offer varying degrees of contrast and color, and a different overall look. Some might appear more painterly, and many will be a strong yellow or beige color. Images with broad areas of flat color, like landscapes, can work very well on these papers.
Durability and longevity
Hang a photo in direct light and it will fade. A print from a pigment-ink-based printer, such as the Epson r2880, will fade more slowly than a print from a dye-ink-based printer, such as the Epson Stylus Photo 1400, but all prints will ultimately fade. The good news is that a good pigment printer can yield prints that will last for well over a hundred years without fading, and even some dye printers can deliver upwards of twenty years—much better than many color films. Wilhelm Imaging Research is the third-party company that printer vendors use for longevity testing, and its Website shows the results of its testing of many different printers and ink/paper combinations.
However, image longevity claims are often dependent on a specific ink/paper combination. If you want maximum longevity then read the fine print in your printer manual very carefully. Most vendors will recommend a specific type of paper for maximum archival stability.
Note, too, that if a particular ink combination is said to last seventy-five years, that doesn't mean that in the seventy-sixth year, the page will be blank. Claims of longevity simply refer to how long the print can go before it begins to exhibit color shifts.
Some papers are whiter than others, which is usually achieved by adding whitening agents. While there's nothing wrong with a very white paper, those whitening agents can change color—sometimes very quickly. That means that the paper will appear very white when it comes out of the printer, but in a few weeks it may shift to yellow, creating a subtle change in the appearance of your image. If you want to be certain your image looks the same over time, choose a paper without artificial brighteners. If the paper is very white on the printable side but not so much on the other, there's a good chance that it has been brightened.
Printer settings and profiles
When you go to the print dialog for your printer, you'll usually see a pop-up menu of the type of paper you want to print on. Most third-party papers will include instructions on which paper type to choose when printing from Epson printers, and will sometimes include suggestions for HP and Canon photo printers.
If you run a color managed workflow, and so have used special hardware to calibrate your monitor to try to ensure more color from screen to printer, then you'll probably want profiles for your paper choices. You can build your own with special hardware but most third-party paper manufacturers provide free profiles for major photo printers. Check the vendor's Website for details.
Finding the right brand
If you're serious about printing photos and want to see some of the differences we've talked about here, then the best place to start is with the papers manufactured by your printer vendor. Epson, HP, and Canon each sell a wide assortment of papers. What's more, these papers will already be selectable in your printer driver.
If you want to branch out and try some other options, consider papers from respected vendors such as Hahnemuehle, Red River, Moab, Ilford, Inkpress, Museo, and Innova. Hahnemuhle sells a $20 sample pack that includes two sheets of nine different types of paper. This is a great way to quickly experiment with a bunch of different types of fine-art matte papers.
Handmade and specialty papers can be a lot of fun, though it's best to avoid using a paper that puts off a lot of dust as this can gum up your printer's works. While you can stick any type of paper in your printer, you'll have no idea as to its longevity, or contrast and color capabilities until you try printing on it.
Measuring the cost
In general, you get what you pay for with paper—cheaper paper will deliver an image that's inferior to a more expensive paper. But if you can settle on an affordable, everyday paper, you can save your fancy, expensive paper for the prints that really matter. For example, I use the decent quality Epson Ultra Premium Presentation Paper Matte or HP Advanced Photo Paper Glossy for my less important prints. When I want an "exhibition" paper—a quality matte paper for creating the best possible prints—I bring out the HP Hahnemuhle Smooth Fine Art.
Shopping for a new paper is one of the easiest ways to upgrade the image quality of your prints. Set aside some time to experiment, find some sample papers, and have some fun making prints with your modern-day, digital darkroom.