Glossy, lustre, matte or watercolor paper?

Untitled photo

Glossy prints have a shiny, mirror-like surface that makes pictures more contrasty with deeper and more intense colors. Glossy prints can also hold finer detail than prints on matte or watercolor paper because colors tend to spread out as they soak into a matte surface and the texture of the paper itself obscures very fine details.

Unfortunately, the shiny surface of a glossy print reflects light. That reflection results in glare which can obscure a picture printed on glossy paper unless the print is carefully oriented so that the reflection does not appear to the viewer. Reflections from the glossy surface can be a serious problem for a glossy print displayed in a glazed frame because of double reflections coming from the glossy surface and the glazing.

The image to the left visually compares reflections with and without a covering glass on semi-gloss (lustre) and matte paper. Notice how the semi-gloss paper (top) shows an expanded glare beyond the reflection, but the unglazed matte paper (bottom) shows a reflection only on the glass. When both papers are covered with ordinary framing glass (right side), both have a well-defined reflection of the overhead canister light. But gloss, semi-gloss and lustre papers have  expanded glare that makes it much more difficult to view the photograph without glare.

The texture of matte and watercolor papers eliminates the mirror-like shiny reflections of glossy, semi-gloss and lustre  papers.  The texture also reduces the contrast of a picture making the blacks seem less black, the whites not as white and colors in general not as saturated.

A print on matte paper does not show as much detail as a print on glossy paper because colors spread out more during processing on the textured matte surface and the texture creates a fine noise.

In addition to reflections, the shiny surface of glossy paper easily shows fingerprints.  Unlike glossy prints, prints on matte paper do not show fingerprints.


Glossy paper works very well for 4x6" prints where retention of fine detail is necessary because of the small size. Prints this size are often held in the hand when viewing making it easy to position the print to minimize glare.

Semi-gloss and lustre papers work well for prints 8x10" or smaller when viewed hand held. When framed glazed and displayed on the wall, their small size makes it easier to position the prints to minimize reflections and for the viewer to move to a position to eliminate them.

Prints 11x14" and larger should be created on a matte or watercolor paper, framed glazed  (see the blog item "Why glaze? Glass or acrylic?") and displayed properly lighted on a wall. Proper lighting prevents or minimizes reflections. Large prints are usually viewed at distances farther than handheld prints.  Therefore, large prints do not require the same high resolution in the paper to retain fine detail at farther viewing distances. At the same time, the texture of matte and watercolor papers often adds an artistic feel to the work.

Canvas prints are normally displayed without glazing. Because canvas prints are coated with a protective spray, the lack the non-reflective texture of matte paper and behave a little bit like a lustre or semi-gloss paper. The fabric and texture of the canvas prevents this surface from retaining high resolution detail. However, canvas sizes 12x18" and larger can show high detail at normal viewing distances.

  • No Comments
Powered by SmugMug Owner Log In