Some time ago, in a former life when we were allowed out of our homes, soon after I bought my new Epson SC-P600 photo printer, I decided it was time to try some different papers for printing on and I bought some trial variety packs from Fotospeed to try out their range of papers.
(Spoiler alert - all the papers gave excellent results on my Epson SC-P600 using generic profiles but I couldn't tell any difference between any of them, nor between them and my current standard Epson Archival Matte paper. Now read on if you want more detail.)
For a long time now I've been a user of Epson Archival Matte paper (by the way - matt and matte are the British and American spellings respectively) and been very happy with it. It has excellent colour fidelity, meaning that whatever colours are in the picture will appear in the print. This didn't used to be the case on my Epson SP-2100 printer using certain papers. For example Hahnemuhle German Etching on that printer, using both a generic and a custom-made profile, had trouble distinguishing between certain shades of green.
It might be worth describing this phenomenon. I'm not an expert so I may get this wrong but the way I see it is this. If you have two shades of green on the shot this will create texture and detail in the shot. If the printer/paper/profile combination maps these two shades to the same shade then the texture and detail will disappear. Texture and detail require differentiation between colours. I found on my Epson 2100 with some (expensive) papers that they couldn't correctly differentiate all shades in some pictures and so lost details.
Anyway, the ability of Archival Matte to reproduce colour and hold detail, plus a pretty good amount of contrast, made it my standard paper. The fact that it is less than half the price of fancy papers didn't hurt.
Despite being entirely happy I thought it was time to try again with other papers. The prompt was that I'd heard that manufacturers' generic profiles were much better now and that Epson's drivers with the newer printers were better, so I thought I'd get different results. I didn't want the expense and complication of having to get custom profiles built for each paper (though Fotospeed will do this for you for free on their own papers).
Everyone seems to be going for Fotospeed these days and their customer service and engagement with the community seem to be very good. They have trial variety packs available that have a few sheets of each type of paper so you can try and compare. I bought one each of the Matt, Gloss, and Photo Quality test packs.
I tried to figure out how to put some science into the assessment but I couldn't so I just chose some shots that might be representative. I was particularly interested in black and white reproduction because this is not so good on the Epson SP-2100. The tones take on a green cast in ordinary daylight (I work around this by adding a slight warm tone to B+W prints).
In all cases I was using the Fotospeed generic profiles that I had downloaded from their site, and setting my printer driver settings according to their recommendations. For the Epson paper I was printing according to my normal settings, which is using the Epson generic profile.
I first ganged up eight different shots to print on a single sheet and tried this. Looking at the results I basically couldn't tell the difference between any of them, nor could I see any difference compared to Archival Matte. Actually, this isn't entirely true - the one thing you can easily see is the paper white. The papers vary from a very bright neutral white to quite a warm colour and this is clearly visible. It's most noticeable with black and white.
I then chose two pictures and printed these two, singly, on the two sheets of each paper I had left.
I left them all to dry overnight and then compared. I looked at them outside in daylight (not in direct sun) and from normal viewing distance. This meant holding them out in front of me, with bent arms - not "pixel peeping" to see microscopic differences.
The difference in paper white is very obvious in the monochrome prints and if you're doing monochrome this may be the single biggest deciding factor. For the colour prints you can see the paper white difference when comparing the prints side by side but when looking at a single print I don't think you can notice that the paper has a warm base. Our eyes adjust too easily.
Apart from the paper white, there is basically no noticeable difference between any of them. Colour reproduction using the generic profiles is excellent on all of them and I haven't yet seen any need to get a custom profile made. Contrast and sharpness are also excellent. However, the same is also true of Epson Archival Matte and it's half to a third the price.
All the papers in the trial pack are described as "smooth" and only a couple have noticeable surface texture and then only slight. In the hand some feel thicker and heavier and some feel more luxurious and this is the only area where Archival Matte loses out. It is much thinner and doesn't feel as expensive. If you are selling unmounted prints at a high price then you might discount Archival Matte for this reason - the feel in the hand would perhaps disappoint a customer expecting a premium product, despite the photo reproduction being just as good.
Once the print is mounted and behind glass you basically can't see any difference apart from the paper white.
However, I did make a choice between the Fotospeed papers - Smooth Cotton 300. This has a slight warmth to the white, and the nicest feel in the hand - thick and silky (or should that be "cottony" ?) I also wondered whether I could see a slight increase in what I will call sharpness. I looked much more closely and compared against Archival Matte and thought perhaps this was so but if it is it is very small. It was interesting to end up with Smooth Cotton. I compared all versions of one of the photos and chose one of them as "the best", though it wasn't really any better than the rest. Then I did the same with the other photo. The version of each that I'd chosen was on the same paper - Smooth Cotton. This was either pure chance or perhaps there really is something about it that I prefer. When I then looked and felt each of the other papers I still preferred Smooth Cotton - it has the nicest feel in the hand, with a very slight warmth to the paper white.
Smooth Cotton is just over £1 per A4 sheet, compared to 40p for Archival Matte. So will I switch? For colour I'm not convinced. I don't think any of my customers will see any difference. For monochrome I'm also not convinced but this time the choice is, IMHO, driven by what colour paper white you think works best with your black and white prints. As I've been slightly warm toning my B+W up to now this might make more sense - make the photo neutral and print on warm paper. Anyway, for the moment there's no hurry to decide and certainly no compelling reason to make a change. Of course I still have the two glossy trial packs to try and I suspect they'll be quite different.
All prints were made through Adobe Lightroom, with the Epson print driver set to "No Colour Adjustment" and the appropriate paper profile selected from within Lightroom and perceptual rendering intent chosen.
In the print driver the media type for all papers was set to "Archival Matte" and quality was set to "Quality" (1440 dpi), as per Fotospeed instructions.
I've now written Part 2 of this, with more detailed notes about each individual paper.