Paper Education: Brightness and Whiteness

What you need to know about these two paper traits and how they affect your printing.

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Paper brightness and whiteness are two important factors when considering paper choices, but they are often the two most commonly misunderstood paper traits. What do these terms mean and why do you need to know the difference? How do these traits affect your paper choice and final printed results?

Brightness is the amount of light a paper reflects from its surface. It is measured on a scale of 0 to 100 and the higher the number, the brighter the sheet. Think of brightness like a light bulb. When you use a 40-watt bulb in a lamp, the room is dimly lit, you can’t see details in the room clearly, colors are murky and the shadows in the corner seem dark and fuzzy. But if you put in a 100-watt bulb, the room lights up and you can see more clearly, colors become vibrant, details appear and shadows have more contrast. The same happens to your printed image when it is reproduced on papers with different brightness levels.

For many years, brightness also provided a standard upon how to classify coated papers into a Premium, #1, #2 and #3 category (other paper characteristics such as surface and opacity are also considered). Typically, the higher the category number, the higher the paper brightness (and the higher the quality and the cost). Today, we still loosely use those category numbers to distinguish the difference between coated sheets. However, with the influx of imported papers and house sheets, the lines have become blurred. Imports sometimes boast high brightness levels that technically put them in #1 category, but the other characteristics of the sheets, such as surface and opacity, are not of the standards of a #1. This has lead to some confusion in the market and, unfortunately, the commoditization of some coated papers.

There's no excuse not to do what makes you happy.

Whiteness refers to the shade of the paper and usually can be distinguished by the naked eye. The three major shades of paper are: balanced white (neutral), warm white, and blue white. In theory, the best paper would be balanced white because it’s neutrality doesn’t interfere with the colors of inks that are printed. However, today, most papers (especially coated papers) are manufactured to a blue white shade. The reason for this is the blue white shade appears brighter, cleaner and whiter to the human eye. In fact, 15 or 20 years ago the market dictated this blue white trend as designers showed a preference towards this shade and the paper mills responded accordingly.

How does brightness affect your printing?
Higher brightness papers reproduce images with more vivid color, sharper details, and higher contrast. If you are reproducing photographic images, we recommend using higher brightness papers (91 brightness and above) for best results. Lower brightness sheets (90 brightness and below) are suitable for designs with a lot of text, line art or single color reproduction. If you have spent a lot of money on photography or spent countless hours color correcting in photo shop, do yourself a favor and select a quality sheet that is going to maintain or enhance your images and all your hard work.

How does whiteness affect your printing?
A balanced white sheet is best if the goal is precise and exact color reproduction, food or flesh tones. If you have images of oceans or sky, a blue white shade can enhance the blue tones. A warm white is a good shade to use with text heavy designs or publications, as it is easier on the eye to read due to the lower contrast between copy and paper. Warm whites are also great for flesh tones if you would like to “warm” them up. Beware of overly blue white sheets with flesh tones as they can make skin tones appear grayish or sickly.

Can two sheets that have the same brightness look identical?
No. Although the brightness levels are the same, the shade can be entirely different.

Do all blue white (or warm white) shade papers looks the same?
No. Every paper mill has their own “recipe” for their shades. Some are made slightly blue white and some are overly blue white (these can actually take on a gray appearance.) The only shade that MAY be consistent among different mill’s papers is a truly balanced sheet. We say MAY because different lighting sources and measurements can be used at different mills. It’s always a good idea to request paper samples from our Sample Department to make visual comparisons.

Should you select a paper based on brightness alone?
No. Brightness is only one factor to look at. Other traits such as surface, opacity, caliper, bulk, shade, paper gloss and ink gloss need to be considered. Brightness is not an indicator of the overall quality of the sheet, the category is.

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Understanding paper characteristics provides an informed foundation on which to base your paper choices. If you would like to learn more about paper basics, subscribe to the Field Paper Blog