Matte vs Glossy Photos: When, Why and How

Would you like to know the difference between matte vs glossy photos? There seems to be a confusing array of photographic finishes available these days, and this article aims to help you decide which is right for you – glossy vs matte?

Matte vs Glossy Photos: When, Why and How

Printed photos are making a bit of a comeback after being banished to the wilderness for 10-15 years by digital photography. Take the growing popularity of Instax cameras from Fujifilm, which are breaking all holiday sales records!

Photo printing services are also benefiting from this resurgence of film. More people want physical photographs that they can actually hold, put in an album, and look through with their family and friends instead of scrolling through a screen.

Matte vs Glossy Photos

Matte and glossy photographic papers are the two most popular photo finishes, but each one makes your photographs look very different.

Matte paper tends to absorb light, so the finish has no reflections when viewed under a light source.

You can define glossy paper as having obvious reflections when you shine a light on it. Glossy finishes are more or less the same as matte papers, but they have an extra layer on top to reflect as much light as possible and give that shiny surface.

Glossy paper tends to be what most folks think of when you talk about prints, and it’s true that they make photos look good. However, there are different types of glossy finishes (just to make it more confusing!), like luster, satin, semi-glossy etc.

Matte vs Glossy Photos: You do not get fingerprints on matte photos
You do not get fingerprints on matte photos

Related: RAW format vs JPEG format, which is better?

Mechanics of Glossy vs Matte Surfaces

Matte Photos

Matte photo paper is designed to minimize the reflection of light, and it does this by a combination of the refractive and light scattering properties of the matte coating.

Refractive simply means that light is scattered, instead of reflected, by a surface layer. Light that hits a matte surface is scattered in different directions because of an uneven surface. Many small indentations of the surface of matte finishes create this effect.

Related: Mastering Depth of Field in Photography

Matte finishes also absorb more light as well as scattering it, which give that flat, nonreflective look. If you’re not so hot on the scientific explanation, just think of the difference between matte vs glossy paint in your home décor – matte paint doesn’t reflect light back, while glossy paint finishes do. It’s the same principle as photo paper finishes.

Matte vs Glossy Photos: use matte coating when framing photos with glass
When framing photos with the glass I prefer to use the matte coating

Glossy Photos

Glossy photo papers are designed to be as reflective as possible, and the most reflective of all is high-gloss. For a less reflective but still glossy surface, there is semi-gloss (also called luster or satin).

Related: Abbreviations and Acronyms Used in Photography

The mechanics of glossy paper are the opposite to matte. Because of an extra layer of reflective coating, light isn’t absorbed by the paper – it’s reflected off the surface instead, so it’s non-refractive.

Advantages of Glossy Photos

What makes glossy finishes a good choice?

  • Gloss enhances the colors of an image, making it more vibrant

  • It also adds definition to the image borders to make your photos look brighter and give extra clarity

  • Gloss finish gives your photos a contemporary, modern feel

  • Can be inexpensive and readily available

Disadvantages of Glossy Photos

There are some downsides of glossy prints:

  • It tends to work best on smaller print sizes (8×10, 5×7, 4×6). This is because the larger the photo, the larger the light reflection. This can make it difficult to see the image clearly from some angles.

  • Glossy finishes don’t go well with glass frames. The glass will only intensify the glare of the reflection on your photo. Glossy photos also tend to look like they have a bit of an oily residue on areas where they stick to the glass. This is due to the sticky nature of gloss coating.

  • Gloss photos are also easily scratched or damaged by fingerprints.
Matte vs Glossy Photos: use glossy coating when framing photos without glass
I use the glossy coating when framing photos without glass

Advantages of Matte Photos

What good points do matte photos have?

  • You can display them in well-lit areas or near light sources without reflections becoming a problem.

  • You can put them in glass frames without them sticking to the glass.

  • Matte prints are more resilient when handling and can deal with fingerprints a lot better than glossy finishes.

  • They work well with old-fashioned types of photos that are printed in sepia or black and white.

Disadvantages of Matte Photos

As with most things, there are some downsides to matte prints!

  • Colors don’t look as vibrant as they do with glossy finishes

  • Matte photos reduce the sharpness of an image, so are not a great choice for high-definition photos.

  • Matte finishes tend to require more ink to give your colors good saturation, so they can be more expensive than gloss.

When to Use Glossy Photos

Matching your photos with the appropriate print finish requires a little thought, but here are some pointers for when to choose a glossy finish:

  • If you have vibrant, highly colored photos that you want to emphasize, choose gloss.

  • High definition photos where clarity and sharpness are important will benefit from a gloss finish

Look through the options on paper from your printer, and try to buy the highest-quality gloss paper you can afford for the best finish.

Matte vs Glossy Photos: use the matte coating with black and white photograph
The matte coating goes hand in hand with black and white photographs

When to Use Matte Photos

There are some kinds of photos that will look much better with a matte finish:

  • If you want to put your photos on a wall behind glass, matte will reduce the light glare and allow people to enjoy your photos as you intended them to be seen.

  • Matte finishes tend to suit sepia and black and white toned prints better than color ones, but color landscape scenes can often look very dramatic when printed in matte.

Matte vs Glossy Photos: FAQ

Which Is Better, Matte vs Glossy Photo Paper?

That depends on your needs!

Both matte paper and glossy paper have their uses, so you should first determine what you want to do with your prints.

Then you can decide whether to go with matte or glossy, based on which option is more closely aligned with your intentions.

Matte paper gives a more traditional, fine-art look, with limited reflections and high durability. I recommend using matte paper if you’re planning on framing (to cut down on reflections), or if your images don’t include much intense color.

Glossy paper, on the other hand, is highly reflective and prone to fingerprints, but it’s also very vibrant. So glossy paper is ideal if you want to enhance colors.

Here’s the bottom line:

Neither matte paper nor glossy paper is always better.

Sometimes you should choose glossy. Other times you should choose matte.

It just depends on what you’re trying to create.

What is Better Glossy or Matte Photos for Framing?

When deciding whether to choose glossy or matte photos for framing, it’s essential to take various factors into account. Glossy photos tend to make colors appear more vibrant and can give your images a modern, sleek appearance. On the other hand, matte finishes are a better choice when you plan to use glass frames or if there’s direct light, like sunlight through a nearby window, as they minimize unwanted glare and reflections.

Matte finishes are particularly suitable for framing black and white or sepia-toned photos, complementing their subtler, more classic tones. Additionally, if you intend to display large-sized glossy photos in an environment with artificial lighting, it’s worth noting that they can become excessively reflective, which might detract from the viewing experience.

Ultimately, your decision should be guided by your personal aesthetic preferences and the specific conditions in which the framed photo will be exhibited.

What is Better Matte or Glossy Photos for an Album?

The choice between matte and glossy photos for an album depends on various factors:

Glossy photos enhance the colors, making them more vibrant and providing a modern, sleek appearance. They tend to work best on smaller print sizes (e.g., 8×10, 5×7, 4×6) and are ideal when you’re printing color images.

On the other hand, matte photos are better suited for black-and-white images, offering a more classic look. They are also more resilient when it comes to handling and less prone to fingerprints or smudges. Matte prints are preferable for larger photos in albums.

So, in summary, if you’re creating an album with smaller color images, glossy photos can give them a vibrant, contemporary feel. However, if your album features larger photos or black-and-white images, matte prints can provide a more classic and durable option. Your choice should align with the specific content and style of your album.

Should Wedding Photos Be Glossy or Matte?

Again, this depends on your personal preferences.

Glossy paper will improve the colors in your wedding photos. But you’ll also run into drawbacks: the reflectiveness can make it harder to appreciate every detail, especially if you print large. And the look you get is less traditional and more modern. Note that glossy prints tend to be less expensive, which means you get more bang for your buck.

Related: Make Photos Like Film In Lightroom

Matte paper, on the other hand, will give your wedding photos a more refined finish. But while reflectiveness will be limited, you’ll also end up with more bland colors. I’d recommend asking yourself what you plan to do with the wedding photos; glossy paper works well for simple photo albums because the reflectiveness is manageable, and the colors look nice, but matte paper looks gorgeous in a frame.

Is Matte vs Glossy Better for Posters?

I’d recommend going with glossy paper for most posters. For one, you’ll get enhanced colors, and a glossy finish looks sleek when used on a poster. And glossy posters are pretty darn popular.

But you can also go with matte, especially if you want a more subtle, refined poster, or if you’re mounting your poster under a light (where a glossy finish will cause reflections to spray out left and right). So pay careful attention to the light and the contents of your poster before printing, especially if you’re thinking glossy might be the way to go. 

Why Is Matte More Expensive Than Glossy?

Matte prints do tend to be slightly more expensive than glossy prints.

But why is this?

It has to do with the amount of ink that’s applied during the printing process. A glossy finish naturally creates beautiful, well-saturated images, so there’s no need for excessive color; you get a colorful print straight from the beginning. Whereas a matte finish dampens down the vibrance – so in order to compensate, the printer adds extra ink.

Ultimately, glossy prints still appear more saturated than matte prints, which is one of the reasons why many photographers choose glossy over matte.

Glossy vs Matte Photos | Final Thoughts

You should also think about how you want to display your prints. If you have matte prints for display, place them near a light source or a window to absorb more light. If you are printing with glossy paper, place the print with a light source directly above it or somewhere there is no direct light on it.

Hopefully, we’ve managed to make the matte vs glossy photos question clearer for you and give you some food for thought!

Articles Related to “Matte vs Glossy Photos: When, Why and How“

by Viktor Elizarov
I am a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada, and a founder of PhotoTraces. I travel around the world and share my experiences here. Feel free to check my Travel Portfolio and download Free Lightroom Presets.

Leave a Comment