One of the most common decision dilemmas when making a photo book is choosing a paper type. At the end of the day you can visually see the templates and most features of the book online, but nothing will compare to the physical experience of holding different papers in your hand, feeling them and seeing them in various lightings.
There are many paper categories and hundreds of paper types but here is a very concise guide to what you need to know in the world of photo books.
If you’re not interested in the details, just scroll to the bottom for my tips.
This is the most straightforward information that companies provide and you should pay attention to it. If you can’t see this information when choosing your paper, go to the help section of the company or in case I have already reviewed that company, I will have the information on my blog/vlog. Thickness is measured in gsm, i.e. grams per square meter. In the states you might have # or lb depending on the company, in that case refer to their conversation guide.
Non lay flat (perfect bound) books usually use the thinnest papers for ease of binding and to reduce costs. These books can range from 80-200gsm, where 80 is equal to your average, cheap A4/letter paper used in your office/home printers and 200 is like a decent business card, it doesn’t bend too easily. There is nothing wrong with using an 80gsm paper, however, in my personal opinion a photo book is still a collection of photos, it’s not a newspaper or magazine and it has to last long, therefore it needs to be printed on something that resembles a photograph even if it’s in a book. The thinnest paper that I would go for is 140-160gsm for any kind of a photo book, anything thinner than that will look cheap and will easily tear and break. Luckily, even the entry range books are offering a decent thickness these days, but there are still a few makers that will try to market newspaper stock to you as something amazing. So watch out! (Mixbook, Shutterfly, Chatbooks, Apple etc.)
Lay flat books are a bit more complicated since they are printed as double spreads and then stuck together, therefore a 200gsm paper will actually feel 400gsm in the final book. There is inconsistency in how companies provide this information, since some of them will state the paper thickness, while other the final thickness, which is double of the actual paper. Regardless, a good lay flat book will be anywhere between 300-600gsm, this thickness will allow the book to stay open properly without much curling. (Saal, Bob Books, Mixbook, Shutterfly etc.)
Flush mount books. So this is where the paper thickness is not exactly vital. Why? Because these books are created in a way that a PVC sheet of varying thickness is inserted in between the pages giving them their rigidity. So, as long as it’s a high quality paper, the thickness doesn’t really matter since ultimately it’s the PVC sheet’s thickness that will define your book. (ZNO, FramSmile, Saal etc.)
- Silk paper is by far the most commonly used choice, especially in cheaper, perfect bound books. It is in between the matte and glossy. More often than not, you don’t even get an option, it is just the golden standard. These books are usually pressed digitally. If you go into a bookshop, most books containing photos such as recipe books and travel guides will use this paper. It has a subtle sheen, it’s not glossy! It’s called silky because the sheen might resemble (to some) the look of silk. It’s long lasting and a good option for cheap books, but don’t expect terrific colours and dynamic range from this paper.
- Glossy speaks for itself. It is a highly coated, smooth paper that is very shiny and reflects light. Some people hate it because you can’t see it clearly in bright light or because overuse of it in the marketing department made it look tacky, however, a glossy finish will give you the very best dynamic contrast and most vibrant colours, digital or photographic. Other disatvantages might be fingerprints; oil from skin will leave a mark on glossy paper.
- Lustre (luster, pearl, semi-gloss) became the most elegant and preferred option in photography, especially wedding photography. It has slightly more sheen than the silk, and it also has a beautiful pearly/sandy texture that not only softens the photos but is much kinder to fingerprints and light reflection too. Although it’s not as crisp as its glossy sister, it still delivers fantastic colours and tones. Lustre papers are used in photographic printing, you won’t really find them in digitally pressed books.
- Matte papers are supposed to be completely shine free and smooth, although this is debatable. I have seen books before with matt paper that looked exactly like lustre. I guess some companies will usually give you two options, a glossy and a matte, and since the lustre is less shiny too, they might sell it under the same blanket category.
- Uncoated, as the name suggests is quite a rough paper stock. I don’t understand why it became popular in the photo book world, it looks like papyrus or some business cards. I think they are amazing for some art prints, letters, restaurant menus but can’t see how they fit into a photo book. But, hey! who am I to decide? All you need to know is that photos printed on uncoated stock will not be crisp sharp since the inks are going to dissolve a bit and you need to take care of them as they can easily get damaged (no protective coating). It will not have a smooth surface like the coated papers (above) and they tend to be more porous.
What does it mean? Well, paper made from wood-based pulp that has not had its lignin removed turns yellow, becomes brittle, and deteriorates over time due the acids in it. Therefore making papers acid-free solves this problem and makes your books live longer. These days most companies use acid-free papers by default, but if you can’t see the sign or statement anywhere, go and ask them!
So now that I explained briefly what’s on offer, here are my suggestions:
- On the budget: No brainer, you will have to go with a digitally printed silky paper book, they are the best value for money.
- 150+ pages: Sadly, no or very few companies can make photographic or lay flat books for that many pages, so if you need a book with 400 pages, you will have to go digital silk again, even if you have the money for better.
- You are a colour and quality freak: I would suggest going for a glossy finish, and, if you can afford, a silver-halide printed book. That’s the very best you can get. Although you can add text and elements into these books, they might make it look tacky, so try to keep it simple: full bleed photos and double page spreads.
- You love your quality but hate the shine: Easy! Lustre and silver halide. All the good stuff that the glossy has but without the gloss.
- You love your quality but like scrapbooking: Again, I would suggest silver-halide lustre, or if on a budget, digital lustre. It’s such a versatile paper stock that anything looks good on it, text or photo.
- You despise shine: I don’t know why anyone would hate a bit of shine, unless you live in the dark haha, but then go for a completely matte paper, and I mean matte, nor lustre.
- If you’re arty-farty: try the uncoated, you might like it, although it will not exactly look like photo prints.
- If you want your book to make a statement: do a thick flush mount book with either glossy or lustre paper, needless to say, it has to be silver-halide printed.