For some people, paper is paper, but for those involved in printing or photography in any way, paper is a vast, comprehensive topic. There are dozens of sizes, weights and finishes, like gloss paper, all with different consequences for printing projects. From project appearances to unexpected shipping weights, understanding your paper choices is integral.

Understanding Gloss and Matte Papers

Shiny paper is gloss paper, and that shine serves any number of purposes. If there’s no shine, that’s matte paper. You wouldn’t use glossy paper for a resume or project invoice, and you shouldn’t use matte paper for a brochure.

Matte paper doesn’t reflect light, and therefore, it has no shine. Your standard printer paper is matte, technically, but photographic paper can be matte too – although that’s usually called satin – and is great for bold, dark blacks and high contrast, which is why black-and-white photographers appreciate it. Matte also means the paper is uncoated, so inks and colors absorb right into the paper, making this the ideal choice for text-heavy projects.

Glossy paper is all about color and vibrancy, making it the default choice for marketing materials where graphics and photography are in play. The glossed finish means colors sit on top, and that’s why they're so vibrant compared to matte images. There are degrees of glossiness, though, and semi-gloss paper is popular for photography since gloss's light reflections can be problematic, especially when printing photography for an exhibit. Sometimes, the shiny coating has other purposes too.

The Other Glossy: Coated Paper

The glossy finish on paper is created through a coating, yes, but you can get coated paper, which includes UV coating. UV refers to ultraviolet, or the sun’s rays, which are notorious for fading printed materials. Bookstores, for example, never display books in a window for more than a week or the covers will get bleached by the sun. UV coating prevents fading for printed materials and photographs.

If you’re printing promotional posters or presentation folders, paying extra for UV coating makes sense because they're intended to be used or seen over longer periods. If you’re doing, say, a tri-fold brochure you’re sending to another office across the country, UV coating would make shipping more expensive because it adds weight.

It also adds expense, but not value, to such a project since brochures aren’t intended to sit in the window for three weeks, making the UV coating indulgent and unnecessary. But that poster you've got in the window should certainly get a UV coating or your printing project will lose oomph while exposed to sunlight.

What Paper Should You Use?

Glossy paper works for many professional purposes – from door hangers and calendars to brochures, flyers and rack cards. Sometimes, you can have glossy fronts with matte backs – something that’s a smart plan if you want a business card people can make notes on since glossy fronts will make the pen’s ink smudge.

Ultimately, if you’re dealing with a professional printing house, tell them all the purposes for your project and they’ll give you the lowdown on what you need. Keep in mind that the thickness and size of a paper are often as important as the finish.

The weight of a paper helps to tell you what the thickness is. Depending on your project, you may need a thick cardstock or a thin but UV-coated poster paper. Office supply stores and professional print shops are always keen to help you get the right product for the right job, so don't hesitate to ask.