technical: photographic paper

Photographic paper

These are some of the considerations you need to be thinking of when choosing what sort of photographic paper to use or buy.

Base type

This is either resin coated or fibre based. Resin coated paper is high quality paper that is coated on both sides with polythene to seal it, then the photographic emulsion is coated onto this. Because processing chemistry just works on the surface of the paper without soaking in, the paper is quick to process, wash and dry and can be used in high speed processing machines.

Move the pointer over the diagram to find out about each layer of photographic paper (requires a javascript compatible browser. Full text is in the printer friendly version.)

diagram: cross-section of photographic paper Protective coating: this prevents the paper from being scratched. Emulsion: this is the part of the paper that does the real work. It contains silver chlorides, bromides and iodides suspended in gelatine. These react with light to create a latent image which cannot be seen until thedevelopment process has taken place. Paper is less sensitive than film; it usually requires several seconds or tens of seconds of light exposure to create an image. Pigmented polythene: this layer stops the emulsion from soaking into the fibres of the paper. This makes the processing, washing and drying quicker and prevents the paper from getting soggy and falling apart. Paper: good quality paper with anti-curl agent Another polythene layer sealing the paper from water and chemistry.  This layer contains a dye which prevents light from reflecting from the base of the paper back into the image, so preventing blurring of highlights.

Fibre based paper has the photographic emulsion coated directly onto the fibres of the paper, and processing chemistry soaks into the paper making it much slower to process, wash and dry. Fibre based paper is usually used for archival permanence and high quality fine art / exhibition printing.


Photographic paper is available with a wide variety of surfaces, such as glossy, pearl, silk, lustre, stipple, matt, etc. The choice is up to the photographer. Beginners usually find it easiest to use glossy paper as it is more obvious to see which side up to put it under the enlarger. This can sometimes be difficult under safe lighting conditions.


Paper comes in single, medium or double weight. Single weight is very thin and flimsy, suitable for making paper negatives, as it allow more light through, so enabling contact printed positives to be made easily. Medium weight is used for most general purposes, and double weight is used for large size high quality fibre based papers.


The tone of the paper refers to the colour or tint of the emulsion, and the base paper. The appearance can be warm, cold or neutral. Warm toned paper gives brown-black tones, eg. Agfa Record Rapid. Cold toned paper gives blue-black tones, eg. Agfa Brovira. Neutral toned paper gives neutral blacks and greys on a pure white base paper, eg. Ilford Multigrade. The base tint of the paper may also vary from white to cream or ivory. eg. Ilford Galerie has a cream tint, giving prints a warm tone.

The type of developer used, and its freshness can also affect the tone of the paper, some papers appearing warmer toned when developed in partially exhausted developer. The tone of paper chosen is the choice of the photographer and should suit the subject matter.


Grade refers to the contrast of the tones in the paper. There are 2 ways to control contrast, through using graded papers or by using variable contrast paper.

Graded paper is all the same contrast level in one box. If you want to change contrast you use a piece of paper from a different box. With this system you need lots of boxes of paper and must be careful to put paper away in the right box.

Variable contrast paper, such as Ilford Multigrade, relies on a system of yellow and magenta filters put into the enlarger to change contrast levels. It is possible to produce a whole range of different contrast levels from 1 box of paper, which is more economical, once you have got used to using filters.

Paper grade guide

0 Very soft Very low contrast, lots of undifferentiated mid tones. May be no pure black or white areas to create impact, so the print looks flat and dull.
1 Soft Low contrast with little separation between highlight and shadow areas. Print will look flat and contain detail in mid tone areas but not much impact.
2 Medium Tones begin to separate, more difference between shadow and highlight, with some pure black and some pure white.
3 Medium/hard Crisp clean appearance, good tonal separation, should be possible to produce pure black and white tones. Highlight and shadow clearly differentiated, but some mid tone detail may be lost.
4 Hard More contrast and differentiation between highlight and shadow. Gives print impact but detail in mid tone areas can be lost.
5 Very Hard High contrast, may be no mid tone greys at all, content of print is either black or white, so there may be severe loss of detail.