There are quite a few options for printing your photos, but your first question before even diving into the world of print might be to ask why anyone would want to print their pictures in the first place?

In 2020, much of the art we consume on a day-to-day basis is provided to us digitally, including the art we produce. 

Fire up your app store and you’ll see a whole host of applications explicitly dedicated to photography. Everything photo related is available to us, from purchasing stock photos online from sites such as Unsplash, to photo editing apps, specifically designed for phones, like VSCO, and of course the ubiquitous sharing service, Instagram.

So, what compels us to still value the printed photo in a digital age where almost any transaction can be completed with the swipe of a thumb? Here are a few ideas that spring to mind:

Decor

No matter how significant an impact the digital world makes on our lives, we are still flesh and blood physical beings who live in homes. When you walk into a beautifully furnished living room and see bare walls, that space can often feel cold, more of a house than a home.

We decorate our homes as we do our bodies, show what is important to us, what is beautiful, and represent our sense of style. 

Digital photography may be ever-present, but this has also brought the technology (DSLR cameras) and know-how to millions of amateur photographers who would love to print their favorite personal pieces to hang up above the mantle.

Nostalgia

The dark side of having access to millions of photos online is that every photo feels fleeting. People often talk about the fleeting existence of digital life, and reminisce about a more real and fulfilling experience when we turn off our phones. For many people, having one precious moment captured and posted to the kitchen fridge is a more meaningful gift than having an entire folder on your phone filled with selfies.

Portfolios

In terms of a professional approach to printing photos, it’s a practical and fail-safe way to ensure that you have copies or backups of your work by having a hard copy portfolio, especially for photographers who still favor film over digital photography. However, this should not replace the age-old advice of backing up your work. Photographer or not, everyone should have a hard drive where they back up any work saved to their laptop as often as needed. This is common practice in a photo filing system.

several image prints

Print Surface Differences

Now that we’ve covered a few reasons why printed photos are still valued, let’s take a look at the different print surfaces we will explore in this article.

Lustre

Lustre photo finishes are semi-gloss and the industry standard for event photography, such as weddings or portraiture. The finish is true to skin tones and it’s texture helps minimize the impact of fingerprints and glare.

Glossy

The next level up in gloss from lustre is a highly reflective photo paper.

Glossy photos have excellent clarity and make the colors of a photo bolder and brighter. A glossy finish is added as another layer on top of a picture, and is also great for showing off the skin tones of your subjects. They are designed to reflect as much light as possible.

Matte

Matte photos have zero gloss or shine on the surface. The finish is smooth and has no glare. This is achieved by printing a photo as is, without adding the extra layer of gloss. Matte images show a lot of texture, and are great for landscapes or black and white photos.

Metallic

Metallic photo paper has a 3D effect designed to bring out the light in the image.

These prints are sometimes known as metal prints because they are printed on an aluminum panel and don’t require a frame.

Metallic photos have a slight shimmer, deep saturation of colors, and sharp details. The paper itself is sturdy and resistant to tearing and curling.

3 people looking at several portrait prints on a wall

Comparisons Between Photo Finishes

Now that we’ve briefly summarized each photo finish, how do you decide which one for your printed photo? Below we’ll compare the finishes to help with that decision.

Lustre vs Glossy

The semi-gloss finish is often preferred by industry photographers for events like weddings and personal or school portraits, because lustre surfaces combine the light attraction of gloss with a texture that is a bit more resistant to glare.

The size of your printed photo also makes a difference when comparing lustre to gloss, because each finish is designed to reflect light. Lustre-printed photos aren’t as glossy, and don’t make colors pop as much as high-gloss photos will, so if you have a small-sized headshot or family photo, you might opt for a glossier finish.

Lustre vs Matte

If you’re looking to hang up a photo in your home, behind a frame, you might want to consider a matte finish over a lustre photo. Because matte-finished photos have no added layer of gloss, they reflect less light than lustre photos, making them more suited behind a pane of glass — as glass will reflect light for you. In highly illuminated areas full of natural or artificial light, such as your living room, a matte photo would be seen very well compared to a lustre photo.

And while lustre photos have a texture that is more resistant to fingerprints and damage than a glossy printed photo, matte options provide even more protection since a smooth layer of gloss, even semi-gloss, makes photos less resilient to handling.

Lustre vs Metallic

Metallic photos have a modern look because they don’t require the use of frames. They are incredibly durable and can last decades mounted on your wall.

However, lustre paper is known for most accurately representing the brightness, colors, and skin tones of subjects. For metallic prints, they can sometimes turn out brighter and with higher contrast. 

Because both surfaces will reflect light — metallic finishes are known to reflect sunlight — the content will really determine which finish to use. 

Choosing lustre when your photo contains people might be a better choice, but a metallic photo might do a better job of capturing a landscape.

Glossy vs Matte

Besides the obvious difference between a layer of gloss versus no layer of gloss, glossy photos don’t stand up to the quality of matte images if your image has a low contrast or pastel colors. While the color will remain true, the glare from a glossy finish makes it more challenging to see the contrast than a matte photo.

However, matte finishes don’t stand up to glossy images when it comes to the brightness of colors. A matte photo is a better choice behind a glass frame, hung up on the wall, but a glossy photo would fare better inside a photo album. 

It’s also worth considering that matte finishes are great at highlighting texture, or what some might call moodiness within an image, but that means a matte finish could also bring out unwanted texture like noise from high ISOs.

Glossy vs Metallic

The decision between a glossy or metallic photo really depends on the size. 

Both finishes offer striking, sharp visuals, and each one is great for displaying images that are bright in color. But glossy photos that are blown up increase the surface area, reflecting more light, and are more delicate than metallic photo paper to fingerprints, and wear and tear.

A metallic photo offers a chrome-like appearance and an extremely durable, long-lasting alternative, and seems to absorb rather than reflect light.

Glossy photos don’t fare as well inside a glass frame, whereas metallic photos are ready to be hung up and sans frame.

Matte vs Metallic

While metallic photos will absorb light, your matte photos will refract light, making matte finishes more suited to moody, black and white images, and metallic finishes better for vibrant landscapes with bursts of color.

Both metallic and matte photo finishes are made to last, but metallic prints, like the other finishes with gloss (glossy and lustre) are more susceptible to fingerprints.

Conclusion

What are the best finishes for you?

Whichever finish you choose will ultimately depend on your style.

If you want a moody photo, try a matte finish that brings out the textures in your image.

If you’re looking for the best finish for a photo album: Any of these finishes would work great in an album, but try for a lustre or glossy photo for accurate skin tones and bright colors.

If you want to hang your photo behind a glass frame: A matte finish is perfect as it adds a luxurious feel to your pictures and doesn’t reflect light behind glass, the same way glossy photos would, making it easy to view from various angles.

If you want a modern, clean style: Try a metallic photo for an exceptionally vibrant pop of color and striking imagery. Mounted on a metal plate, usually aluminum, the metallic photo will often not need a frame to hang on the wall. 

Or if you want quality and price that will last several years: All of these finishes and paper choices are made to last, but metallic finishes tend to be a bit pricier.

Any of the choices above, when handled with care, will capture your images in beautiful and diverse ways.