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Making Metallic Prints

It used to be that if you wanted to print on metal you’d have to make a tintype or, even earlier, go see Louis Daguerre. But in recent years, there’s been a resurgence in metallic printing options, some of which are actually printed on sheets of real metal, while others are just metallic-looking photo papers that impart a metallic look. Here’s a rundown of my experiences with a few great metallic printing options, including lab-made prints, actual metal prints and even inkjet paper options for making home prints with a metallic appearance.

– Lab-printed metallic papers. My first stop for a metallic print was to call on one of the big national print houses that make it easy to order prints remotely. You know the ones: Bay Photo, Adorama, Mpix. I simply uploaded the photos I wanted to print and checked the “metallic surface” option to receive prints on Kodak Endura Metallic paper. This upgrade cost me a 20% premium over traditional papers, but the results are pretty stunning. The paper has a sort of pearlescent shine that really does give it a high-gloss, polished-metal feel. It works especially well with subjects that lend themselves to this sort of metallic treatment: industrial scenes or “slick” well-produced photographs. Bright colors—especially rich reds and blues—come across really well, while subjects that may have the right “glossy” vibe but not a lot of bright colors still work well, but they don’t show off the beauty of metallic papers like color-rich images do. I’ll state right up front that these lab-made metallic paper prints ultimately became my favorites of the bunch. The cost of an 8×10 print was just under five bucks.

– Lab printed on real metal. The next option I tested was a photograph printed on actual metal. The lab accomplishes this by some sort of voodoo, likely involving a printer that costs more than my house. It used to be that a big machine simply sprayed ink onto any number of surfaces, including metal. But these days the best metal prints are made on an aluminum panel, and the image is virtually embedded in the metal—not floating above it. The results are interesting in that even though this is the only print made on an actual metal substrate, the prints I made look the least like what we tend to think of when we envision metallic printing. I guess that’s a function of just how great the metallic papers look, with their high-gloss sheen and pearlescent finish. Don’t get me wrong, the real metal print still looks amazing, and it has a quality the paper prints don’t: it’s substantial enough as a physical object to simply hang as is, right on the wall. With a simple foamcore backing to offset it (something labs typically offer, as well) you’ve got a finished object ready to hang. I definitely like the actual metal print, but if you’re looking for as much glossy “pop” as your dollar will buy, in my experience you can find that elsewhere. If what you want is a sculptural object, nothing compares to the substance of the prints on real metal. Cost of an 8×8 print was $17.

– Inkjet printing on metallic paper. Many popular inkjet paper manufacturers, like Epson and Moab, offer their own metallic printer papers. I tested a box of 8.5×11 from Epson (25 sheets was about 25 bucks) called Metal Photo Paper Glossy. Even on my aging inkjet, the results are outstanding and definitely rival the lab-made metal print. The only fault I can find is that there’s some metamerism (the appearance of the ink floating above the paper, which causes it to reflect light differently between highlights and shadows), particularly in the darkest areas of the print. The inkjet’s ability to print continuous tone images might take a backseat to a lab-made silver halide print, but that’s not a function of the paper itself. The bottom line is if you want to regularly make metallic paper prints, there’s very little that should keep you from investing in a box of Epson’s metallic paper. It definitely has the same slick, high-gloss feel as a lab-made metallic paper prints without the higher cost and without waiting to get your prints back from the lab.

Each of these methods produces beautiful prints. If you haven’t had the chance to try printing your own images on a glossy metallic substrate, you’re missing out on one of the best innovations of the digital era. Metallic prints are simply beautiful.

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