Understanding Photographic Paper Finishes

Before you begin printing, you’ll need to choose the type of paper you want to use as the print medium. The three main types are matte, glossy and luster. Which you choose will have a dramatic impact on how your image appears when printed. It’s worth mentioning at the outset that there is no best photographic paper finish. Instead, it depends on the effect you want to create and the final display presentation. There are also paper subtypes such as metallic that can add a unique look to prints. In this article we look at each photographic paper option, what they offer and how to select the right option for you.

Winter's Embrace

Winter's Embrace, Max Foster's limited edition photography print of a hoar frost covered tree from his Winter gallery collection. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50. Photo © copyright by Max Foster

Luster, Glossy, Matte, Metallic & More!

Photographic paper finishes refer to how the paper appears, both with and without print. In this article, we will discuss matte, glossy and luster prints (the most common options) as well as specialty ones: pearl and metallic. Not all photo print shops use these exact terms, so to clear up confusion, we will also include other names you might encounter in each section.

In general, you can determine the difference between different photographic paper finishes across the following dimensions:

  1. Details
  2. Texture
  3. Glare
  4. Color vibrancy
  5. Brightness
  • Details - Relate to how the print captures the original image and sharpness. A paper that retains details will appear very sharp and maintain resolution from the image file. Papers that do not retain detail soften the final printed image.
  • Texture - Specifically refers to the surface of the paper; papers can be completely smooth or have a textured surface.
  • Glare - Is the extent to which light bounces off the surface of the paper when a light is shone on it. Glare can be very distracting and make viewing an image difficult due to reflected lights.
  • Color Vibrancy - Refers to the extent of color saturation across the entire spectrum. Photographic paper with high color vibrancy brings out muted tones while avoiding over-saturation of those that are already colorful.
  • Brightness - Refers to the base level whiteness and reflectiveness of the paper and how bright the image will be when printed. Some papers have a pure bright white base and can reflect light efficiently to appear brighter than off-white papers, for example.

As you will discover, many of these dimensions correlate with each other across paper types. Furthermore, certain paper properties are more suitable for particular genres of imagery than others.

Photographic Paper Comparison Chart
Photographic Paper Comparison Chart


Glossy photographic paper has high brightness and high glare. Superficially, this might sound like a negative. However, it is exceptional for bringing out deep blacks in photo prints and displaying fine details. Glossy photographic papers are made in several ways. Typically, manufacturers create them by laminating, cast coating, resin coating or multi-coating. These papers offer the most vibrant colors and lack any surface textures. They do tend to stick to the glass when traditionally framed, so it is recommended that larger prints be combined with a rigid backer to prevent this. Glossy papers can also be face-mounted to acrylic for a frameless or framed high-end look and presentation. Glossy tends to be best suited to landscape photography due to its high impact look.


Luster prints have a finely textured surface that lessens the glare of glossy prints. Direct light sources will still produce a sheen on the print surface, but not nearly as much as with glossy. Luster papers offer great color vibrancy and details, and are considered excellent multi-use papers. Luster paper has a pearl-like appearance, which often leads people to use the two names interchangeably. People also refer to it as “semi-gloss” because it sits halfway between gloss and matte. Luster is useful in situations where you want to make a photo viewable from multiple angles and it tends to be less vulnerable to finger prints than gloss.


Matte paper is the lowest brightness paper available. Colors and details are also muted compared to luster and glossy. In general, matte papers resemble traditional fine art papers. They can be smooth or have a slight texture depending on the paper construction. The benefits are a completely glare-free surface and more subdued look that is great with portraits, pastel colors, black and white and other fine art photographs.


Metallic photographic paper is perhaps the most eye-catching option available. It scores high on brightness, color vibrancy and details. Most professional photography labs recommend it for colorful landscapes and cityscapes. It is not ideal for portraiture though, since it can struggle to accurately represent skin tones. The paper surface is smooth like glossy paper, although it has slightly less glare. It is a unique paper that can provide added depth and interest to final prints.

Other Paper Types

Each photo paper manufacturer uses different specifications to produce papers unique to them. A Kodak Endura Luster will have different surface texture, brightness and other attributes when compared to lusters from other manufactures such as Fuji, Red River Paper or Epson. Additionally, some papers are chemically activated photographic paper and others are inkjet specific. There are numerous papers that blend the characteristics discussed above, as well as fine art papers that are made with cotton fiber (cotton rag). Manufacturers such as Canson and Epson produce fine art papers that all offer unique traits.

The Sounds of Silence

The Sounds of Silence, Max Foster's limited edition photography print of coast redwoods in Redwood National Park from his Forests & Trees gallery collection. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50. Photo © copyright by Max Foster

Which Type Of Paper Should You Choose?

Which type of paper you choose depends heavily on your application and who will be doing the framing. Black and white images or photos of people often look best with matte. Those wanting a versatile paper suited for bright environments while minimizing glare may choose luster. Landscape photographers will often choose a glossy or metallic paper to produce the most contrast, color vibrancy and overall wow factor. However, these two finishes are highly susceptible to fingerprints so it is recommended to use clean cotton gloves or leave it to a professional framer to handle. Most print labs offer a photo paper sample pack that contains the most popular options for comparison. I recommend ordering these to help see the differences in person so you can make the best decision possible.

Breezy Point

Breezy Point, Max Foster's limited edition photography print of Makena Beach, Maui from his Hawaii gallery collection. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50. Photo © copyright by Max Foster