A few weeks ago the folks at Red River Paper sent me a couple sample packs of their papers to test out.
I’ve been holding back on this review because I wasn’t quite sure the best way to approach things.
First of all, I’m not an expert at printing. Printing is of one of those subjects that seems simple at first and then you break the surface and discover it’s far more complicated (different printers, different paper types, different surface coatings, optical brightening agents, types of ink, color profiles, RIPS, it literally goes on an on).
So I think it’s important to start this review / comparison giving a brief background with my experience printing.
My Background With Printing
For the longest time we used a professional lab to handle small client print orders. Then we decided to purchase an Epson 3880 to handle these small orders (basically 4x6s, 5x7s, and 8x10s – the kind of print sizes clients would order to put in frames on their desks or around their house, not really wall mounted stuff). The Epson 3880 can handle printing up to 17×22, and it prints with archival pigment ink. (Note: The Epson 3880 is now discontinued, if you’re looking for the current equivalent printer then check out the Epson P800)
After purchasing the printer our first client print order covered the cost of the printer! In that respect I definitely recommend a professional printer to any photographer processing small print orders for clients. It doesn’t take long to do prints, the quality is better than from the lab, you have more paper options – and most importantly you have instant feedback (being able to see the printed photos right away) allowing you to quickly correct any mistakes or problems.
In the beginning we experimented with a variety of paper from a variety of manufacturers (Epson, Moab, Hahnemühle, Ilford). It was overwhelming.
Our Two Main Papers
After much trial and error as well as helpful insight from a local printer we eventually settled on using two different papers:
Epson Luster: This is the type of paper you probably think of when you think of lab prints. The surface is not glossy, but it’s also not matte. I would describe it as having fairly minimal shine, showing great contrast, and excellent blacks. The paper shows color well and photos look crisp. This is the main paper we would use for client prints.
Moab Entrada Bright 300: This is a heavier stock paper with a matte surface. It’s more what you might think of as a fine art paper. What I really like about this paper is that it’s double sided – which makes it really versatile. We’ve used this paper for everything from fine art prints, to business cards, note cards, postcards, and just prints for our fridge. The matte surface and heavy weight of the paper feel wonderful to hold. The important thing to know about this paper is that because of the matte surface you don’t get as much contrast as you would compared the the Epson Luster paper. This is why it’s nice having a supply of both papers depending on what you’re printing.
About Red River Paper
Red River Paper is an inkjet paper supplier who sell directly to customers through their website. They don’t sell through distributors and are thus able to pass cost savings onto the customer. They’re based in Dallas, Texas but can ship all over the world.
They offer 30 different inkjet papers, and provide paper color profiles for Epson, Canon, and HP printers.
You should definitely check out their website, which I found really helpful in terms of understanding the advantages and purposes of each different type of paper.
A Mini Review of Red River Paper
The first thing that I want to mention is the shipping packaging.
I’ve purchased paper online through B&H Photo before, and multiple times the boxes of paper in the order got damaged in shipping. B&H was quick to send replacements, but it was an inconvenience. I eventually just switched to purchasing paper from our local photography store.
However, the packaging from Red River Paper was outstanding. The paper was super secure protected snuggly with plastic air wrap bubble stuff. I would feel pretty confident ordering paper from them. That’s not to say accidents can’t happen in shipping, but their box and packaging looked like it could take a beating.
I tried out two paper samplers:
Both sample packs contained a variety of paper with two sheets for each kind of paper. I did not test all the paper. What I was looking for were papers similar to the papers I use.
For luster paper I tested the UltraPro Satin 4.0, Arctic Polar Satin, Palo Duro Satin, and the San Gabriel Baryta SemiGloss 2.0.
For matte paper I tested Aurora Art White, Aurora Art Natural, Polar Matte Magna, and Polar Matte Double Sided.
I also tested out the Polar Pearl Metallic – which doesn’t really fit into either of those categories but is a neat paper none the less.
I put together a print test sheet with some black and white images, a portrait with skin tones, photos with vibrant color, as well as fine detail. For all the papers above I printed the same test sheet – using the specific paper profiles provided by Red River Paper for my Epson 3880.
I also printed out test sheets on my regular paper (Moab Entrada Bright 300, and Epson Luster).
Here a look at the test print I put together:
Now my criteria for evaluating these prints is not super scientific. Basically I was looking to see how the Red River Paper stacked up against my default Moab and Epson papers.
A comparison of the matte paper
The closest similar paper Red River Paper offers to Moab Entrada Bright 300 is their Aurora Art White (which is also double sided).
The Moab paper looks to be slightly brighter. The Moab paper is also a bit heavier (250gsm vs. 300gsm).
The Aurora Art White paper feels nice, and I actually prefer the surface texture of the paper compared to Moab. The surface texture appears finer than Moab.
However, when it came to print quality – the Moab paper was superior in every way. The skin tones looked more accurate, the colors were more vibrant, the photos looked sharper, and there was better contrast.
I found a portion of a black and white photo that helped give a bit of insight into what might be going on:
The shots above are straight out of camera – no adjustments made. And please forgive the quality, the only macro lens I currently have is for my iPhone 6S Plus which is what the above shots were taken with. Still they give a good idea of what things look like close up.
Basically it seems like the Aurora Art White paper isn’t holding the ink as well as the Moab paper, or maybe it’s being absorbed into the paper more. The result is that the blacks (and likely all the colors) don’t seem to be showing up as well on the Aurora Art White. So this is likely what’s effecting contrast, sharpness and color vibrancy.
Unfortunately I got the same results with two other papers: Aurora Art Natural, and Polar Matte Magna
I was careful to use the correct printer profile for these papers, so I’m wondering if it’s possibly a surface coating issue.
And reason I’m wondering if it’s a surface coating issue on those other papers is because my results for the Polar Matte Double Sided were quite a bit better. The transitions still didn’t seem quite as smooth and the blacks weren’t as rich compared to the Moab paper, but overall color, contrast and sharpness were good.
The Polar Matte Double sided paper is much brighter and cooler than the Moab Entrada Bright 300. This actually resulted in skin tones that looked a little cool compared to the Moab paper. So I prefer the slightly warmer tones in the Moab. Another thing about the Polar Matte paper is that it has very little surface texture compared to the Moab. And the Polar Matte is a bit lighter.
So this test was rather inconclusive. I wish that all the Red River Papers held the ink the same way the Moab paper does (then this comparison would be more about paper brightness, texture, weight, etc) but it seems like I was only able to get a great print with the Polar Matte Double Sided (which is nice, but quite a different paper from the Moab Entrada Bright).
Note: I should also mention I’ve seen similar issues like this before with Epson’s own Hot Press Bright paper (what I called “hot mess” paper). I wanted to pull my hair out working with that paper. It did not hold ink well, and bits of the paper (specks) seemed to actually come off the paper or the paper’s coating. I’ll never use it again. I don’t have a direct comparison, but the Red River Paper does seem quite a bit better than Epson’s Hot Press Bright in this regard (no flaking).
A comparison of the luster paper
First I’ll mention that I was really impressed with all the Red River papers in this category.
The UltraPro Satin 4.0 is what they state is the most comparable to the Epson Luster we use.
The difference in print quality (color, contrast) between the two are quite minor. The Epson Luster does seem to offer a bit more contrast, but the surface coating on the Epson Luster seems a bit shiner than the UltraPro Satin 4.0. The extra shinyness with the Epson Luster means that you notice the surface texture a bit more (something Red River Paper describes as “depth”).
The UltraPro Satin 4.0 is also a bit warmer compared to the Epson Luster (skin tones and the black and whites looked better).
Sidenote: An advantage of the Red River Paper is that there are no marking on the back of the paper. Epson Luster paper has their logo and “Epson Professional Paper” marks on the back. If you’re doing prints for clients it’s nice to have unmarked paper.
Now the other papers!
There was the Arctic Polar Satin, which I felt was too cool compared to the Epson Lustre.
Then there was the Palo Duro Satin. This paper was awesome. It’s slightly warmer than the UltraPro Satin 4.0, and thus also warmer than the Epson Luster. The Palo Duro Satin also has an even finer surface compared to the UltraPro Satin 4.0. Prints. I really like this paper.
Now the trouble here is pricing.
Based on purchasing 250 sheets of 8.5×11 inch of each paper here’s the price per sheet break down.
Epson Lustre: 39.6 cents / sheet
Red River UltraPro Satin 4.0: 35.0 cents / sheet
Red River Palo Duro Satin: 50.0 cents / sheet
Maybe you see the problem? The Palo Duro Satin would be my preference. It produced better quality photos compared to the Epson Luster – but it’s also more expensive than the Epson Lustre.
The UltraPro Satin 4.0 is cheaper than the Epson Lustre and is arguably still a better paper compared to the Epson Luster, but I’m not sure the cost savings are significant enough. And I guess the point is moot, since I would rather be using the Palo Duro!
Other Red River Papers
The Polar Pearl Metallic paper was cool. We found that our clients really liked metallic prints (maybe because they were different from regular prints and they couldn’t easily order them themselves?). We used to have to order metallic prints from a lab, but being able to do them with inkjet would save time/money.
My absolute favourite paper was the San Gabriel Baryta SemiGloss 2.0. This is an absolutely stunning, breath taking paper. It’s brighter and warmer than the Epson Lustre. The surface is finer and less shiny compared to the Epson Luster. Black and white photos and skin tones are wonderful. And the weight of the San Gabriel Bartya is substantial (315gsm)! It’s much heavier than the Epson luster (240gsm), and even heavier than the Moab (300gsm). For 250 sheets of this paper it comes in at 90.3 cents / sheet. So it’s not cheap!
Still, I could see adding the San Gabriel Baryta paper as a third option. To be honest if you’re doing prints for clients who are paying you, then this is probably the best option to use. They’re going to see and feel the difference with this paper. You could then move to using the Epson Luster, or the UltraPro Satin 4.0 for less expensive prints (like for sharing photos with family / friends).
Are you still here reading about paper? Thanks for sticking around! I’ve been trying to think of some paper jokes but they’re all tearable.
For the time being I think I’ll be sticking with my current setup of both Moab and Epson Luster.
I would need to do additional testing and get in touch with Red River Paper to find out what might be going on with the surface coatings. I know that their matte paper can produce great results (since I saw it in the Polar Matte Double Sided). Personally though, I prefer the weight of the Moab (which is a bit heavier than the Aurora White).
If you’re doing client prints then I would definitely recommend checking out the San Gabriel Baryta paper, you won’t be disappointed. And the UltraPro Satin 4.0 is nice and a good replacement for the Epson Luster – the Palo Duro is nicer but pricer.
It’s really important to keep in mind that I approached this review /comparison from a perspective that was most relevant to me. If you have different printing needs (gallery fine art, fine art print sales, B&W printing, etc) then you might find different papers more useful than me.
My suggestion is to check out the Red River Paper website, and order a couple of their sample packs. You’ll get a much better idea of what these different papers are like – which is so hard to show in photos and describe with words.
Do you have an opinion about paper? I mean who doesn’t? Share your thoughts in the comments (in particular I’m wondering if anyone has tried any Baryta paper from other manufacturers and can share their insights!) Thanks!