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How to Discern Print Quality

How to Discern Print Quality

When shopping for prints it’s common to find a wide variety of prices for similar-sized prints. This leads one to wonder what accounts for these price differences, and whether or not it is worth spending the extra money on more expensive prints. When it comes to fine art prints, it does tend to be a “you get what you pay for” industry. 

Many of the print retailers offering very low prices are generally only able to offer those prices because they are using cheaper materials. Oftentimes these cheaper materials are not archival and will age quickly, ruining the appearance of the print. If you’re unfamiliar with the industry, it can be hard to tell which prints are better quality. We’ve seen more than our fair share of prints, both great and poor quality, and we want to use that knowledge to empower you to discern print quality. 

Visual Aspects

Even if you aren’t sure what specific type of paper/canvas and inks were used to create a print, there are several ways to judge print quality just by looking at the print.

Material Weight

Close up of paper texture

You’ll find that many cheaper prints tend to be printed on very thin, poster-style papers. These papers are flimsy and easily damaged, prone to dings, dents, and accidental creases. Canvases also vary in weight, with cheaper materials again being on the thinner side. Our paper is a heavyweight paper, at 350gsm. This makes for sturdy prints, with less risk of being creased. 

Depth of Color

Vibrancy and depth of color will be affected not only by the paper or canvas used but also by the inks and printers. Printers with a larger ink set can produce a wider range of colors and tones. When looking at prints, you’ll want to consider the quality of colors as well as the black and white tones.

Black- and White-Points

Three paper prints

The white point can vary depending on the paper. As there is no white ink, any white areas in the image will be the white of the paper. Fine art papers and canvases vary from bright white to natural white but ultimately still have a white point. Less archival prints can yellow over time, so it’s important to make sure the prints you’re considering buying haven’t yellowed in the white areas.

Quality papers with quality inkjet coatings will be able to produce deep, rich blacks, especially when paired with professional printers and inks. Dull black areas are an indicator of a poor-quality print.

Bold Colors

When looking at a print, consider whether the colors are bold and vibrant or dull and lackluster. Dull colors will indicate a poor-quality print, made with subpar materials. Our professional printers, with large ink sets, and museum-quality paper and canvas produce rich colors that clearly indicate a quality print. 

Print Sharpness

A print that isn’t sharp could be the result of several different issues. The most likely option is that the image is being printed larger than the file size and resolution can handle. When browsing our collection of images, you may notice that some images are available up to 40”x50”, while others are only available up to 16”x20”. This is because the sizes we offer are determined by the file size and resolution of the original files. Some files are simply larger than others, and we will never push a file beyond the size it's capable of, as we prioritize making quality prints. Not all printmakers share this philosophy, resulting in small files being printed in large sizes, making for unsharp prints. 

A lack of sharpness could also be caused by the printer itself. If a printer is not being maintained well or is simply too old, it may no longer be capable of producing sharp prints, even if the image being printed is perfectly sharp. 

Paper and Canvas
Navy N2S Planes printed on paper and canvas.


Technical Specs

Some factors determine print quality that you likely won’t be able to determine by just looking at the print, but you can ask the seller or printmaker a few questions to get the information you need. 

Quality of Materials

The materials used to make the print will have a significant impact on the overall quality of the final print. From the printers to the inks to the papers and canvases, every material makes a difference. If you’re unsure about the quality of the paper or canvas, we would recommend asking the seller what materials were used. You can then look up information about the paper/canvas to learn more. 

Archival Ratings

Truly high-quality prints are made using archival materials. Different papers and canvases will come with different archival ratings, and even the inks can vary in archival quality. Ideally, you’ll want to be buying prints made with materials rated to last over 100 years. These materials are likely to be of higher quality and will last a lifetime so your print always looks as good as the day you bought it. To learn more about archival ratings, check out our article on the subject here.

Our Materials

At Old Town Print Gallery, we’ve tested countless papers and canvases before making a decision about which to use for our prints. After these tests and plenty of research, we decided on Hahnemuhle’s Museum Etching paper and Breathing Color’s Lyve canvas. Both of these materials are museum quality, rated to last over 100 years before any fading. 

Learn More

If you’d like to learn more about the paper and canvas we use, you’re in luck! We’ve written articles giving you all the details about both. Follow these links to learn more about our paper and canvas.

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