I’ve always wondered what makes writing on some papers feel different than others. I’m sure you’ve noticed that some paper feels incredibly smooth when you write on it and other paper has some feedback or “tooth” to it. Furthermore, the way a paper feels doesn’t seem to have any correlation to how it performs with fountain pens. To try and get a better understanding as to what makes paper feel and perform the way it does, I grabbed my macro lens and got up close and personal with a bunch of different papers.
How I Photographed The Papers
To prepare each paper, I grabbed a fountain pen with an extra fine nib (an Esterbrook with a 9550 nib and Iroshizuku yama-budo) and drew a 1-centimeter line on each piece of paper. I also wrote “1 cm” next to the line. I did this for a few reasons. First I wanted to see how the ink looked on the paper. I also wanted some sort of size reference for the fibers and any texture in the paper.
Once I had my papers prepared, I set up my photography gear. To photograph the paper I used my Nikon D810 and the Nikon 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. I lit the paper with two LED lights set up at paper level and aiming towards each other so that their “beams” crossed on the paper. The reason for this was to maximize how visible any texture in the paper would be. I mounted my camera so that the lens was parallel to the paper, found the minimum focusing distance for the lens, and photographed each piece of paper from the exact same distance with the same setup.
This entire setup gave me a bunch of photos that were all the exact same except for the paper that was used. I was able to crop them so that they were the exact same size so the scale between images remained consistent. This gave me the images you see below.
These images offer a good representation of how an ink will perform on each paper and also what the texture of each paper is. What to pay attention to:
- Look at how the ink performs on the paper. Pay attention to the shading, sheen and feathering. Also notice how crisp the edges of the ink look. All of these can give you an idea of the difference between a high-quality and low-quality paper.
- Look at the texture of the paper. Pay attention to the size of the fibers and how big any spaces between them are. Larger, irregular spaces indicate a paper that will give more feedback.
To get the best idea of how each type of paper looks, you’ll need to click on the images and view them in the lightbox that pops up. I uploaded high-resolution images for this article, so to get an even better idea of how they look, right-click on the lightbox image and choose to either open it in a new window/tab or download it to review it on your computer.
Fountain Pen Friendly Paper Macro Photos
A Closer Look At The Paper Texture
After looking at the above images, I found it a little hard to see any major differences between the papers. Of course, some really stood out as having a quite a bit of texture, but not enough to account for how different all of these papers feel when writing on them. I remembered that my photo editing program (Adobe Lightroom) has a feature that might help, so I opened up the images in Lightroom and took a closer look
The feature is called “Visualize Spots” and it is intended to help find dust spots on images. I realized I could use it to better see the texture in the paper. After tweaking the sensitivity a bit, I found a setting that I thought was a nice balance between revealing the texture of the paper and not showing too much detail. You can see screenshots of those images below (in the same order as above). More white means more texture.
If you’d like to learn more about using the Visualize Spots tool in Lightroom, it is found in the Spot Removal tool. Here’s a blog post I wrote about it for Photography Life, a photography blog that I contribute to.
After getting up close and personal with all of these different papers, I thought I’d gain some sort of insight that would help me figure out what makes some papers perform differently than others. I had hoped that looking at them more closely would create some sort of “aha!” moment and suddenly it would all make sense. They obviously have very different textures and they shade and sheen in different ways. Writing on them also feels different.
Despite all of these differences, looking at them up close didn’t help my understanding one bit. Papers that perform great (like the Life L Writing Paper) look almost exactly the same as papers that are not very good (like Moleskine Paper). Papers with tons of texture perform the same as papers with no texture. Long story short, I didn’t learn a thing. It was definitely interesting to see how different some of the papers looked, but in the end I can’t say that anything is more clear than it was before. Regardless of the outcome, I did the work and figured I might as well share it so you could see for yourself!
As to what causes the differences in paper quality, it mainly comes down to fiber size, fiber type and coating. These are all topics that I’d like to cover in some future articles, but for now we’ll stop with the above images.
Hi, my name is John. I’m a Colorado-born professional photographer who recently moved back to Denver after spending 3 years in San Francisco. I’ve been using and collecting fountain pens for over 20 years. I got my first one in college when I got bored taking notes with ballpoints and pencils. Since then I’ve bought and sold hundreds of pens, but have consistency in my love of Esterbrooks.