Home > Printing Essentials > Paper 101 – Part 3: RC Paper

Paper 101 – Part 3: RC Paper

Last time we took a look at fine art matte papers. Today we’re going to turn our attention to the photo side of things with a look at RC (resin coated) papers.

RC paper is traditional gloss or semi matte photo paper–what most of us picture when we think of a photographic print. This type of inkjet media consists of a paper base sealed by two layers of Polyethylene (the resin) making it water proof and fairly resistant to scratches and scuffs compared to its matte counterparts.  (Polyethylene is the most widely used form of plastic and most commonly found in plastic bags).

As a photographic reproduction surface RC papers deliver outstanding image quality with deep rich blacks and very white whites.  It is also very affordable when compared to fine art papers.

As I mentioned in part 2 of this series, early ink sets (including Epson Ultrachrome) still had technological issues affecting image quality on this very common paper type.  In those days I remember the often frustrating quest for what I referred to as the “unobjectionable print”.  What I meant was simply this: in order to pass off an inkjet print as equal in quality to a photographic one we needed to remove any objections that would point to the fact that it wasn’t truly a “real” photographic print.  Early on, these objections could be many: paper curl (if printing on a roll), gloss differential, bronzing, metamerism, micro-weave banding, problems caused by over-inking, and even something as basic as an inkjet manufacturer’s watermark on the back of the paper. Notice I said “early on”, but really most of these problems still pop-up today, even on more advanced printers with vastly improved inksets.  Which ones still pop-up?  Kind of a trick question–all of them for some users, and none for others.  It all depends on the quality of the software you print with (this is where I plug ImagePrint) and… the quality of the paper you print on.

Another trip back in time:  Remember when tools like Quark Express came out?  Up until then you would hire a professional to put together your brochure or news letter and you’d get back a product printed with perfect color on high quality stock.  But with the new layout software suddenly anyone with a Mac and a laser printer could produce the same thing in house.  Or at least they thought they could.  Technology has a way of making us feel like we can do more than we’re really capable of, and, while it’s certainly impressive how good an inexpensive color inkjet printer is, they don’t compare to what can be done on a professional wide format printer.  I continually tell people one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to hand a customer something they feel they could have done themselves on their own $129 printer at home.

How does this relate to our topic at hand, RC paper?  Well, just as it’s easy to make the mistake that all inkjet printers are created equal, the same can apply to paper.  And RC paper in particular. Why?  Simply because many manufacturers refuse to remove the watermark from the back of this class of media (something I personally have a big problem with).  Just seeing that brand name on the back of the print can give customers the mistaken impression that there isn’t much difference between what they can get at Best Buy and what the professional is using (and charging them big bucks for).  In short, it sets a lower value on that service.  (After all inkjet is just inkjet right?)  It’s a wrong-headed assumption, of course, but it makes sense to avoid that perception entirely.  And the way we do that is by choosing our papers wisely.  There are plenty of high quality papers available without watermarks and that have a feel to them that goes beyond the standard inkjet RC photo paper.

There are literally hundreds of variations on the finish type for RC papers, but all are still derived from their light sensitive “wet process” counterparts.  The main ones are Matte and Glossy.  We all know what glossy is but matte can get confusing because we associate that word with matte paper used with matte black ink.  But in this context we are talking about a matte finish on top of an RC paper. Matte RC paper will still have a sheen, and still requires Photo black ink, but will appear much less shiny than a Gloss RC finish. Somewhere in between Gloss and Matte is Low-Luster.  In the inkjet world Low-Luster is more commonly referred to by names such as semi-gloss, satin, pearl and luster.

You may also come across surfaces being referred to by a Letter such as F, N or E.  An F surface would refer to glossy paper containing no texture and a highly reflective surface. An N surface paper would refer to a surface with no texture but less reflectivity than an F surface such as a semi-matte. An E surface paper will contain a texture. The degree of the texture will vary by manufacturer.

One last topic I want to cover (and it’s an important one) is outgassing.  Outgassing refers to the release of any trapped gasses in the print, an important step before framing RC prints or placing them in a sleeve of any type.  Why? Well, back in Part 1 we talked about microporous coatings that capture the ink in tiny pores and prevent it from penetrating into the paper. RC papers use this type of coating, and with the ink sitting above the surface of the paper, the water component dries faster than the other ingredients.  What this means is, although the print may appear dry by sight and touch it isn’t really fully dry. It needs more time.  In fact, Epson recommends that prints be allowed to outgas uncovered for 15 minutes after ejecting from the printer and after that they recommend placing a piece of uncoated plain paper on top of the print for 24 hours.  (The plain paper will help draw out the gasses from the print).  If you don’t follow this procedure and frame a print right away the glass may fog with a ghost image.

In conclusion, what makes RC papers such a popular choice is their ability deliver an outstanding image quality for a relatively low cost.  And what makes it possible is the changes in ink technology that came about with the introduction of Epson’s Ultrachrome K3 inks.  Part of that improvement stemmed from the addition of a new lite-lite black ink, but there were also changes to the rest of the inks that helped with metamerism, bronzing and gloss differential–the very issues that up until that point had prevented RC inkjet prints from reaching their full potential as a photographic print alternative. But now, with these enhanced inksets and by following a few simple steps, it’s truly possible to  achieve that “unobjectionable” print that matches the quality of a photographic print in every way.

Categories: Printing Essentials
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