First Impressions: Red River Polar Matte Magna v. Arctic Polar Luster for Black and White Printing

It’s a difficult and intimidating move from having a lab make your prints to producing your own giclées in the studio. What printer? What paper? What the heck is a “giclée?” Do I need to learn French to make my own prints?

In response, It depends, It depends, It’s a pigment ink print on treated paper produced in an inkjet printer, and Absolutely not.

Paper choice is only one piece in the battle to create a viable fine-art giclée print, and it’s an important one at that. Wrong paper choices can equal muted colors, poor or nonexistent textures, different color balances, and worse. This review is meant to help amateur photographers learn a bit more about two types of Red River paper that are useful for fine art black and white printing: The 96-pound Polar Matte Magna Card Stock, and the 75-pound Arctic Polar Luster.

I recently made the move to giclées, made more confident by fellow professional and friend Terry Cockerham in Dallas at Light and Bytes Photography. He’s been using the giclée process for years, and owns several Epson printers that shoulder a heavy production load in the studio. He makes his living solely by photography; seeing as how he’s not living in a dumpster behind a TGI Fridays, I’d say he knows what he’s talking about. But being new to giclées myself means I’ve been reading voraciously, and making some educated mistakes along the way to producing some prints with which I’m very, very satisfied. As was a gallery curator with whom I recently met–a good sign.

I have two printers at my disposal. The first is a Canon Pixma Pro 9500 Mark II, a printer that has been replaced by the Canon PRO-10 this year. The second is an Epson 3880 that I’ve had for only about two months. The prints I made for this review came from the Pro 9500 Mark II, and it performed reasonably well considering my lurching, novice status with this process.

I’ve worked with digital prints for a long time (about 15 years), even when I was still shooting emulsions like Kodak E100 VS and E100G. A custom lab would do drum scans (expensive, since they had to remove the emulsion from the holder, use a solution to adhere it to the drum, make the scan, burn to CD, and rebuild the slide) and send me the files. I could then work over the raw TIFF files in Photoshop to color correct and master the images. But at that point, I would burn another CD and send the files back to the lab to make archival Fuji Super Gloss Crystal Archive prints. A long process, and an extremely expensive one. A 36″ wide print cost more that $155, all totaled, and meant I had to raise my gallery prices to compensate. Anyone who does gallery shows will know that higher prices mean fewer sales. (Unless your name is one that appears frequently at the Museum of Modern Art, which mine doesn’t. Actually, it never does.)

Long story short: Giclées have about the same fade-free lifespan as a traditional print, and cost about a tenth of the price at the most. When Terry told me this, and showed me the prints he produces, I was sold. I can now print images up to 35″ high and 17″ wide by using a custom paper size definition.

Since many of my best-known photographs are black and white, I decided I’d test several papers from the Red River Photographer Sampler kit, since there are two sheets of 18 different paper types, each labeled so that you can used them for reference in the studio. The two I chose: the 96-pound Polar Matte Magna, a very heavy card-stock paper with natural white finish; and the luster finish 75-pound Arctic Polar Luster. First impressions first.

Polar Matte Magna Surface Quality
Polar Matte Magna Surface Quality

The Magna is heavy–very heavy–and has a pleasing, soft finish; hold it at any angle to the light, and no reflection will get in the way of your image. It has very little surface texture, allowing the fine details of the image to virtually “pop” from the print. I printed two different prints on the paper, “Little Chicago,” and “Ardmore.” While “Ardmore” turned out vivid and engaging with beautiful tones, “Little Chicago” had its problems. More on that later. The paper has a warm tone that may look slightly ivory if placed underneath the Luster paper.

Arctic Polar Luster Detail
Arctic Polar Luster Surface Quality

The Polar Luster is a traditional deep-texture finish paper; while satin papers have a shallow finish, luster papers have more texture in order to create more surface pattern interest. I’ve had good luck with lab luster papers in the past, and after my problems with “Little Chicago” and Polar Matte Magna, I tried the Polar Luster. Though this type of paper presents more problems when viewing from a side angle, it presents other benefits that offset this shortcoming. The paper has a brighter-white, perhaps even slightly blue character.

I tried several versions of each print with both Canon’s printer-based color profile matching, and then Red River’s ICC profile for each paper (provided for free on their site). Oddly, I had problems with the profiles, and ultimately had better results letting the printer do the color matching for me after I adjusted the mid-grey point to 1.07 in a levels adjustment layer in Photoshop.

Initial Results and Impressions

I found the Polar Matte Magna excelled at fine details in areas above Zone 4 (darker middle grey) and below Zone 8 (white with detail), especially in grasses and rock detail. However, it struggled in expressing Zone 8 and above, such as in white clouds and sunlit metal; below Zone 4, I found details disappeared or muted in critical areas. The finish of the paper made up for some of this, creating such levels of detail in the middle 5 zones that the lost detail in the others were less noticeable (notice I didn’t say “No big deal”). I discovered this through using “Little Chicago” as a test print, which even labs have had difficulty printing due to its high dynamic range (all 11 zones), especially in the low cloud structures and bright whites.

The Arctic Polar Luster did everything the Polar Matte didn’t. The subtle cloud detail leaps from the page, the contrast is properly controlled, and midtones well defined. Where this paper struggled was in fine detail, probably due to the surface texture depth (I expected this). The paper seemed to deal with the high dynamic range better, but the results looked more “photo-lab” than did the Polar Matte. Moreover, the midtones were more recessed than those of the Polar Matte.

Recommendations

This isn’t a mutually-exclusive situation, because paper choice never is. (Want to know more? Read Ansel Adams’ The Print, and you’ll understand about paper dynamic range.) As a result, I’m presenting a pro-con set for each type.

Polar Matte: Good at fine midtone detail, surface smoothness; poor at high dynamic range work. Use this paper for low-contrast images that focus on the midtones with exceptionally fine details.

Arctic Luster: Good at higher dynamic ranges, good contrast; Lack midtones compared to the Polar Matte, as well as potential to resolve fine details. Use this paper for high dynamic range photos that “pop,” but have less need for fine, detailed midtones.

I’m looking to do more of these in the future, most notably looking at a fine art paper, Canson Infinity Arches Velin Museum Rag, and how that fares with black and white work. Be watching for the tests.

3 thoughts

  1. Will this printing process work using Aperture rather than Photoshop or do I need to export out of Aperture and into Photoshop? I am planning to purchase the Epson 3880 in June, and feel more comfortable working in Aperture than Photoshop. Thanks!

    1. Mary Jane,

      The process should be the same, since the printer dialog in Aperture is much the same as Photoshop in this situation (because it uses Epson’s driver for the overall printing output). I use Aperture as my preferred program as well, but I usually do my fine-tuning in Photoshop since I think the print quality is more controllable in this manner. I looked over Aperture’s printing process, and really the only difference is in that you’ll set your parameters in Aperture, hit “Print”, and the Epson print dialog will appear; this is where you complete the remainder of black and white settings.

      Thanks for the question!

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