Once you've got your printer, what choice do you have with consumables to get the best out of your investment? If you're going for top quality, stick to manufacturers' inks. While they may be pricey, and the costing of original consumables is a constant thorn in most printer customers' sides, there's little doubt that inks designed to work in a given printer are the best choice for print quality.
When it comes to photo papers, though, you have a bit more leeway. While the paper recommended by the different manufacturers will usually give very good results, it's often not the only choice. Photo papers are coated with a series of layers, each designed for a different purpose. There are layers to absorb ink, layers to reduce scratches, layers to improve gloss.
By changing the composition and mix of the layers, paper makers can tailor a paper to match a given ink, which is what manufacturers mean when they say that the ink and paper is a system. Most printer makers work in collaboration with paper manufacturers to produce papers that work well with their inks. There's no reason, though, why paper manufacturers shouldn't develop their own coated papers, which also work well with those inks.
Ilford, now part of the Japanese Oji group, makes papers for some inkjet makers, but also sells its own branded products, such as the Galerie range. From our experience, these papers can give good results with a range of printers, though they don't work well with Epson's pigment-based DuraBrite inks.
Most paper manufacturers publish compatibility charts, so you can get a good idea of which papers to try. Ilford's can be downloaded here and rates papers as fully compatible, partly compatible or not recommended. Ilford also provides a good range of ICC colour profiles for its papers, worked out for different inks. You can download these for free, on registration. We'll cover ICC profiles a bit more, later.
The other way of finding alternative papers for your photos is to buy samples from different suppliers. Paper Mill Direct, which also makes papers for a range of different shops and suppliers as well as branding its own, will sell you a pack of all its paper types in A4 sheets for under £10.
If you're testing a selection of papers, print several small images on each sheet: a landscape, a portrait with good flesh tones and something with sea and sky to check blues. Use the same set of images on each paper, so you can make direct comparisons.