The Arrival of Ink Jet Metallic Paper
Digital fine art printing is the new darkroom, to be sure. It is an art and a craft and it is certainly exciting when a useful new tool is introduced to the ever-growing market. “Metallic Paper” meanwhile, has a history as a compelling alternative to traditional paper, at times quirky and at times radiant. I am happy to see the alternative brought successfully to the world of inkjet with Red River’s new Polar Pearl Metallic.
First, this isn’t Red River’s first attempt at an ink jet compatible metallic paper. It is, to my knowledge, the first commercially available paper for pigment-based printers from any company. (Pigment printers include our studio’s workhorse Canon iPF6100.) I have a half-used box of Red River Metallic Silver paper, a paper with a foily silver front designed for dye based printers. Also produced in gold, the old foil paper is a good example of paper that stands little chance of not looking weird. In hopes of recreating the look of popular Kodak Endura Metallic paper (a paper only available for professional photo labs), I bought a box and ran a huge stack of tests and calibrations and profiles to no avail. It’s a weird paper, best left for specific art applications that call for highlights of aluminum foil.
[To be certain, because it has been a couple years, I ran a test print on Metallic Silver and the Canon iPF6100. This particular Canon is a pigment ink printer, so the print will not last, but the comparison might be useful for owners of dye ink printers. The print is actually pretty cool. It looks deeply solarized, like an impossibly photo-real airbrush painting on the hood of an F150. The greens, reds, yellows, and oranges of my test print, rendered with respectable accuracy. Saturation is difficult to judge, as the print look completely different from every angle. Highlights are either crazy silver or a lightly mirrorized version of the ink color. It's certainly unique and, in fact, looks pretty good if you happen to be at just the right angle.]
[back to Polar Pearl Metallic] This paper – at quite the other extreme – is white, bright white. Not to admit to falling for marketing hype, but it’s surface really is pearly. I love prints with depth and pop, sharpness and saturation; I couldn’t wait to test it out. As for utility, this paper handles and loads as easily as any less interesting paper would. It is relatively fingerprint resistant (much unlike the Silver Metalic and even Kodak Endura Metallic) and of sufficient weight to easily feed through my Canon. It is a lighter weight and a thinner paper than Red River’s beloved standard, Ultra Pro Satin 2. It easily feeds and presents no abnormalities in loading, printing, or drying.
As I’ve found the Canon’s self-calibrating to eliminate the need for in-house profiling (see this entry for an in-depth look at my color work-flow) I ran tests using Red River’s provided color profile. It is important, with any ink jet printer and paper, to match a color profile to paper and printer. I ran tests using Canon’s Photoshop print plugin, allowing 16 bit printing, and spot-on perceptual profile matching. Per my standard workflow, the files were all 16 bit, 450 ppi, ProfotoRGB files. As usual, Red River’s profiles proved to be very good, better than I could do in-house.
The resulting prints are dead-on for color. Greens, reds, yellows, and blues look amazing, skin tone is accurate. The paper renders saturation with restrained brightness that is surprisingly accurate to on-screen images. It has a mild sharpening effect, a subtle cross between Lightroom’s “Clarity” and a Photoshop high-pass filter. One test image, a back-lit bridal portrait with a strong reflector fill, looks nearly 3D, with the bright highlights along the bride’s arms seeming to stand off a green, out-of-focus background. Very cool. In certain skin tones, I notice a slight amplification of red saturation, an easy fix, but worth noting. Also, the is a noticeable boost in skin-tone contrast.
In terms of depth, a subjective analysis, I find this paper to look a little flatter than Ultra Pro Satin 2. Prints don’t have the same depth, though the warmer tone of Ultra Pro Satin 2 might be deceiving (Polar Pearl Metallic is a bright white.) The actual surface is very smooth, with only the most subtle wave texture. It is glossy, but not sticky or shiny. Prints are very crisp and sharp and – astonishingly – highlights look pretty darn good, very natural and white. The results are sharp, bright prints with a shimmery gloss finish.
It isn’t a distinctly metallic look, but rather a pearly satin look. When compared to Kodak Endura Metallic, it is much more accurate and less wild, less foily, and less glossy by far. I, without doubt, prefer it to the Endura. Compared to Red River Gloss Duo, another paper I keep on hand, it is similar in texture, but with a bit less reflective surface and a bit more detail, especially in shadows areas (it is much thinner; the Duo is double-sided card stock.)
In side-by-side comparisons with 17″x11″ prints of the same file on Ultra Pro Satin 2, there are some interesting observations. The UP Satin is warmer and has a bit more depth to it. It also is a bit more saturated. The metallic has a slicker, modern feel and looks smoother, if a bit 2-dimensional. I showed the prints to a critique group of 5 fellow professionals and got mixed results. One called the metallic cold and lifeless, one thought it fit my work well, being modern and energetic feeling. It is certainly not the crazy look of Silver Metallic, nor the solarized obviously unique look of Kodak Endura Metallic.
It is a very legitimate light-gloss photo paper with no drastic tendencies and good sharpness, saturation, and accuracy. Impressively, it only displays unsightly gloss differential issues at extreme viewing angles and in badly-blown highlight areas. It is, due to it’s cool tone and tendency to bright mid tones, a good choice for landscape, still life, and architecture, and a bit quirky for portraits (if your portraits are a bit quirky, it will be great.) It is surprisingly mainstream and not-distracting for a metallic paper, a huge achievement. Truly a pearly finish and very worth running a few tests for digital artists who enjoy exploring new surfaces for their work. I, for example, found it to be an excellent paper for a small run of hand-made books, being sturdy, easy to work with, finger-print resistant, and interesting-looking. I’m anxious to see if the line expands to include a warm-tone version, a 2-sided version, or other variants… in the meantime, I’d recommend this as a unique alternative to the expected satin finish.