If you never print it, is it even a photograph?

We visited St Cuthberts Mill with a landscape photographer to learn how paper is made. We ended up learning a lot more than that.
Paper mill lined with windows stands below a smudge of clouds with an open green space before it.

On the approach to St Cuthberts Mill in Somerset, England, you wind through narrow lanes that curl around rolling green hills, nibbled neat by sheep. The Cathedral City nearest the mill, called Wells, has the usual charms of the picturesque English countryside. You catch glimpses of a few grand Gothic buildings in the Victorian style behind the meandering limbs of ancient English oak trees.

The remote mill was founded in 1736, when the paper was made entirely by hand (the first paper-making machine was installed in 1835). The spot was chosen for its location, powered by the clean, mineral-rich water running from cave systems of the Mendip Hills. The water that burbles out from these underground caves gathers and feeds into pristine streams, where trout splash and otters romp. The mill itself takes great care to protect the local environment, with no hazardous chemicals released into the river.

The River Axe stands still surrounded by bushy green trees, pink flowers, and foliage. Shot on Canon.

Water is a vital ingredient for papermaking; since the 1700s, St Cuthberts Mill has been utilising the waters of the River Axe, which flow beside it, providing a clean water source to guarantee their paper is the highest grade of archival papers. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III.

The water is why the mill is here. You need a steady supply of it to make quality paper. And we’ve come to see St Cuthberts Mill, part of the FILA papermaking consortium alongside Canson Infinity, which is celebrated for producing high-quality artist papers. The reason we’re here is to see where Canson’s new range of Somerset® Enhanced papers are made, a digital fine art set of papers made using traditional moulds for a handmade look and feel.

“It’s sort of a saying, but it’s one I think is true,” says Chris Ceaser, a landscape photographer with an incredible knowledge about paper, who is also on the tour.

“If you don’t print it, you have to wonder: is it even really a photograph?”

Our tour on how fine art paper is made begins

Catherine Frood, a St Cuthberts Mill employee and our guide for the day, points to the Cylinder Mould machine used in the paper-making process standing next to two men in a reflective vest and safety goggles. Shot on Canon.

Here, we were introduced to the Cylinder Mould machine, one of the last remaining in the world, and the magic behind the paper-making process at St Cuthberts Mill. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 24-70MM F/2.8L II USM lens at 1/40 sec, f/2.5 and ISO 800. © Chris Ceaser

Catherine Frood provides a tour of St Cuthberts Mill, standing in front of paper making machinery. Shot on Canon.

Throughout the tour, it was clear that the paper-making process seamlessly blends machinery with expert craftsmanship to achieve its renowned high quality. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 24-70MM F/2.8L II USM lens at 1/25 sec, f/4.5 and ISO 800. © Chris Ceaser.

“Here, at St Cuthberts Mill…” says Chris, “They are part of the Canson family. Loads of tradition, loads of know-how. Pure cotton papers that are all matte. They make the very finest art papers.” He then introduces us to a traditional mill with a cylinder mould making machine.

A cylinder rotates inside a vat of pulp to make the paper with random fibre distribution for greater surface stability at St Cuthberts Mill. Shot on Canon.

A cylinder rotates inside a vat of pulp to make the paper with random fibre distribution for greater surface stability. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III.

“The process begins with carefully selecting the cotton fibres, which are cotton linters, the seed hairs inside the cotton bulb,” explains Catherine Frood, a Marketing Executive at St Cuthberts Mill, and our tour guide for the day.

We enter the main part of the factory. There are enormous vats, forklifts, and stacks of tightly rolled of woollen material. Some of it is hanging, drying, like laundry on the line.

"These fibres are a byproduct of the textile industry,” she says. “The water here is very pure and comes from the Mendip Hills, after filtering miles of limestone caves, before the River Axe rises just downstream from the mill.”

The rest of the process is extensive, and so we’ll summarise our frantically scribbled notes.

The cotton fibres are rigorously mixed with the waters from the River Axe and calcium carbonate, to give the resulting paper an archival buffering, before going through a refining process to feather the fibres out. The mill works in harmony with its environment, with no hazardous chemicals released into the river (and even boasts a wide variety of wildlife, including heron, kingfishers, ducks and trout).

Papers made with a cylinder mould are quite special and unusual, as they give greater surface stability to a paper due to the random placement of fibres inside the sheet (like handmade paper). The cylinder rotates very slowly inside the vat of pulp, collecting the fibres as it rotates, before being transported onto a moving belt ready to be pressed between natural woollen felts to give the paper its random surface finish. The paper is then dried through by winding through a series of large, heated cylinders before being wound up at the end of the paper machine. Throughout the process the papermakers are constantly testing the paper (with an excess of 50 tests conducted per reel).

That’s roughly the process, but it can vary depending on the kind of paper being made. Saunders Waterford paper, a favourite of watercolour artists, is also passed through a bath of gelatine to increase surface strength, for example. But there is as much consideration put into every kind of paper being made, each of which has its own distinct qualities.

As we continue the tour, after many requests, some of the staff lets us press one of the big red illuminated buttons on the machinery. In one demonstration, part of the quality control process, we use big slabs of wax to test the toughness of different paper varieties.

A worker at St Cuthberts Mill holds a stack of paper down as they slice it with a knife with their other hand as part of the deckle edges process. Shot on Canon.

At St Cuthberts Mill, every piece of paper undergoes the human touch. Here, a highly skilled worker crafts the deckle edges, delicately splitting each sheet by hand. Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III.

As we reach the end of the tour, we meet some of the people at the end of the paper-making process. Or – to be more specific – the end for two varieties of paper, Saunders Waterford and a new ranged called Somerset® Enhanced.

As we admire the paper, we observe the final stage of the Saunders Waterford paper process, as deft hands at work wield tools that look like enormous wooden letter openers. They let us try to slice the paper by hand, which is harder than it looks. You need to glide it along just so, or the paper tears and it’s into the reject pile, back to be re-sodden and hung out in a new sheet.

Our efforts were still rewarded with a few biscuits, which are welcome, and took the sting out of our paper-slicing failure. A bit.

The newest range, Somerset®Enhanced, is a traditional printmaking paper used by artists for a range of time-honoured techniques such as intaglio, etching, stone lithography, silkscreen, relief printing and letterpress. The same traditional fine art paper is now available for photographers, printmakers, and artists alike to reproduce digitally their original artwork as a limited edition by using the Somerset® Enhanced digital fine art papers.

The Somerset® Enhanced range is produced by the artisan papermakers using a traditional mould made papermaking process which we have seen today, and give each paper a handmade look and feel. The paper is 100% cotton rag and has a neutral white base, with no optical brightening agents (OBAs). The proprietary inkjet coating transforms the paper into a digital fine art paper, allowing its compatibility with inkjet printers to offer superb image quality, depth of colour and detail.

This new paper comes in three varieties: Satin (225gsm), Velvet (225gsm and 330gsm) and Watercolour (240gsm), all of which are available in sizes from A4 through to A2. Enhanced Satin accentuates the fine details in the final print as there is no distraction from the grain, while Enhanced Velvet has a fine soft grain which gives depth and movement to the final print. Finally, Somerset has the traditional watercolour texture loved by artists, printmakers and photographers, and which gives an almost painterly feel to the final print.

The case for quality paper to print photographs

A dramatic scene of rocky sharp mountains covered in foliage with the sun rising above, softening the sky, taken in the Quirraing, Skye. Shot on Canon.

For photographs rich in character and detail like the one captured here at the Quiraing, Scotland, Chris suggests opting for a high D-Max baryta gloss paper. This choice preserves the image's profound and almost otherworldly ambience, ensuring its impact remains undiminished. However, if you want a painterly feel, Chris suggests using a slightly textured paper, such as Canson Infinity BFK Rives 310 to give the image a ‘watercolour’ effect. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 16-35MM F/2.8L II USM lens at 1/4 sec, f/16 and ISO 100. © Chris Ceaser

After the tour finished, we sat down with Chris Ceaser to understand more about how paper (and printing) choices affect the way he composes his photography.

Chris has a kind of contagious gruff enthusiasm and a no-nonsense style. We ask why you should print photography at all, and why paper matters.

“Good paper gives us choice,” Chris explains. “Printing is integral to photography. If you’re looking at your photograph on any screen, on your phone, or if someone else is viewing it on a different screen, you’ll all be looking at slightly different colours.

“The real photograph just isn’t there,” he adds.

But Chris, who is the sort of person you can tell does not ever miss a single detail, did us a further courtesy. He broke down the case for printing photography into four points, which are easy to understand for the uninitiated, and that we’ve summarised below.

1. Capturing colours and details

The essence of a photograph lies in its ability to convey the emotions and details captured by the photographer. When printing a photo on low-quality paper, the intricacies of colours and details may be lost or distorted.

High-quality paper, designed specifically for photo printing, ensures that the colours remain true to the original image. It preserves the nuances of light and shadow, allowing the viewer to experience the photograph as intended by the photographer.

“I’ve got a Canon Pro 300 printer that I take around the country with me,” Chris tells us.

“It handles all my plans with ease. It's a pigment-in printer, which is critical for long life. So: say you've got a Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300, and say you want to use some platin fibre rack, with the same sort of settings semi-gloss paper. Beautiful. The ICC profile for that kind of paper is built into the Canon printer.”

2. Depth and texture

Photographs printed on high-quality paper often have a depth and texture that is lacking in prints on standard paper. The texture of the paper interacts with the ink to create a tactile experience, adding a sense of dimensionality to the image.

“This depth draws the viewer into the photograph, making it more engaging and immersive,” says Chris.

3. Longevity and durability

Chris tells us that another one of the advantages of printing on high-quality paper is longevity.

“Inferior paper tends to degrade over time, resulting in fading, yellowing, and deterioration of the image,” says Chris. “High-quality photo paper, on the other hand, is specifically engineered to resist fading and deterioration, ensuring that your prints retain their vibrant colours and sharp details. That’s what you want.”

According to Chris a good printer is essential too, and he takes two printers, the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 and the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300, with him on the road when he travels for work. When coupled with high-quality paper and ink, the right printer produces photographs that are not only more visually appealing but also more durable.

“Prints from a good printer are resistant to fading, moisture, and environmental factors, ensuring that they retain their quality and vibrancy.”

When using Canon inks, such as LUCIA PRO or ChromaLife100+ inks, prints can maintain optimum quality for up to 200 years.

"Inferior paper tends to degrade over time, resulting in fading, yellowing, and deterioration of the image. High-quality photo paper, on the other hand, is specifically engineered to resist fading and deterioration, ensuring that your prints retain their vibrant colours and sharp details."

4. Professional presentation

Whether you're a professional photographer or an amateur enthusiast, the presentation of your prints speaks volumes about your dedication to your craft. High-quality paper lends a professional touch to your photographs, elevating them as works of art.

“Obviously, if you’re getting started out as a professional,” says Chris. “It’s a nice dimension to add to your work, and the better the print the better it is for you, commercially speaking.”

“But it’s also about your work,” he is quick to add. “About realising your vision.”

Some different types of paper to consider for photography

Flanked by rocky snow-topped mountains, a static tree stands alone in a wide lake in Buttermere, Lake District. Shot on Canon.

To enhance the artistic essence of this image, Chris would opt for Arches Aquarelle 310 from Canson Infinity, an innovative pure white matte paper devoid of OBAs (Optical Brightening Agents). The heavy texture enables the sharp details to come to life, emphasising the dynamic movement in the sky against the calm water. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70MM F/2.8L II USM lens at 1/25 sec, f/11 and ISO 160. © Chris Ceaser

The reason Chris really cares about paper is that it’s the medium for his art, photography.

“So: let's say we've shot a choppy lake on a windy morning – it's horrible. So: we've put a neutral-density filtering on,” says Chris. “It smears out the sky and it renders the choppy water flat. Then, we convert it to monochrome. Suddenly, we've got something that's really ethereal and artistic.”

As Chris is snapping the shutter, he’s already thinking about the right kind of paper.

“We might say look I want this to feel artistic, and sort of ethereal, so I'm going to use matte paper. Do I want it to be smooth? If I use a smooth paper, then the sky is going to render smooth. The water is going to look smooth. So: do I use a textured paper? That way, when people look it, there's another element being added.”

“The texture seems to add something,” he adds. “It almost makes the image feel 3-D.”

Below are a few kinds of paper you can consider bringing your photography to life, depending on its composition.

1. Matte photo paper

Matte photo paper offers a non-reflective surface, providing a more subdued and elegant look compared to glossy paper. It produces soft, velvety prints with minimal glare, making it suitable for displaying fine art photography, black-and-white portraits, and images with subtle tonal variations.

2. Lustre photo paper

Lustre photo paper strikes a balance between the vibrant colours of glossy paper and the subdued finish of matte paper. Its semi-gloss surface enhances colour saturation and contrast while reducing glare, resulting in prints that are visually appealing and versatile. This paper type is often chosen for family portraits, wedding photography, and professional portfolios.

3. Fine art paper, 100% cotton

Fine art paper, particularly those made from 100% cotton, is revered for its exceptional quality and archival properties.

“Cotton fibre paper has a luxurious texture and a substantial weight that adds a tactile dimension to prints.

Fine art paper, when 100% cotton like the ones we saw being made, is always acid-free and lignin-free, ensuring longevity and resistance to yellowing or fading over time. Fine art paper is the preferred choice for museum-quality prints, limited edition reproductions, and fine art photography where every detail and nuance must be preserved.

Every detail matters

A beautiful rocky mountain covered in foliage and grass stands on top of a lake in Buttermere, Lake District. The stillness of the water reflects the mountain above. Shot on Canon.

Chris would recommend using the Canson Infinity Arches 88 paper to preserve the ethereal ambience captured in this image, emphasising the tranquillity of the water and the gentle drift of mist. The paper's smooth surface boasts a high D-max, ensuring the image retains its complete depth and dark tones. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 24-70MM F/2.8L II USM lens at 1/13 sec, f/11 and ISO 100. © Chris Ceaser

When you see Chris’ photography – of places such as Prague, the English Lake District, Venice or elsewhere – printed out in its full form, it is hard not to be taken in by its exquisite composition and nearly painterly sensibility. You can also tell Chris sees the world through an artistic eye. You get a sense of his perspective through his photography that is worth hanging on your wall, worth printing.

In photography, every detail matters. From the composition of the shot to the choice of paper for printing, each element contributes to the overall impact of the image. High-quality paper enhances the visual appeal, depth, and longevity of a photograph, ensuring that it stands the test of time.

Whether you're printing cherished family portraits, breath-taking landscapes, or artistic creations, investing in high-quality paper is a decision that pays dividends in the beauty and longevity of your prints.

John Marshall

Related articles

Get the newsletter

Click here to get inspiring stories and exciting news from Canon Europe Pro