I get many questions from photographers about printing their photos on metal, especially for the various group exhibits I’m involved with in San Diego. So I’m going to try and answer the most common questions in this post.
What is a metal print?
There are actually several different media referred to as a metal print. The most popular, and what I will focus on in this blog post, is dye-sublimation on aluminum. In this process, your image is first printed on a transfer paper. The paper is then put on top of a sheet of coated aluminum and stuck in a heat press at about 400F. The inks then become infused into the coating. Most labs then put a frame or gatorboard on the back of the metal with hanging hardware so that the print stands out from the wall (float mount) resulting in a finished piece that requires no framing.
However labs might offer other media that are also called “metal” prints. These could be
- A paper print made on metallic paper. This is a regular paper print, although it has a unique shimmery appearance, and needs to be framed/mounted
- Direct printing onto a metal surface with inks. The inks are then cured with ultraviolet light (often called UV direct).
- Printing onto a photo paper which is then glued to a metal sheet (usually dibond). The surface is then sealed with a protective coating.
If you read through the descriptions on the lab you use, you can usually figure out which process they are using.
These approaches all have their own pros and cons and it’s beyond the scope of this post to compare them. I would note however that direct UV printing is generally considered an economy product.
What is ChromaLuxe?
There are a few different manufacturers of the aluminum panels used in metal printing. For the best quality, you’ll want to find a lab that uses ChromaLuxe panels.
What surface should I choose?
For dye-sub prints, most labs will give you several options in terms of the finish. First is the base coating on the aluminum sheet. This can be either white or clear (sometimes called sheer). Generally I recommend you get the white finish. The clear finish allows the bare metal to show through where the image is white. It’s a very cool effect but it doesn’t work for all photos. Unless you’ve seen the clear finish in person before and know that you absolutely want it, I would avoid it.
The second option on finish is the gloss level. You can usually choose between high gloss, mid-gloss or satin, and matte. This is a personal preference. High gloss images are extremely vibrant and look almost wet, but may have problems with reflections. The matte finish will handle reflections much better but lose (in my opinion) some of the punch.
What type of corners should I choose?
Most labs will give you a choice between sharp rectangular corners and rounded corners. Choose rounded corners for safety.
What hanging mount should I choose?
Labs will often give you a variety of hanging options. These could be
- a hole in the float mount for a nail
- a picture frame on the back with a wire for hanging
- a French cleat mount on the back
Method 1 or 2 are the most convenient and you can hang your metal print with a simple nail or hook placed into drywall. Metal prints are very light and this will be sufficient until you get to larger sizes. However, for a permanent installation or larger prints, the French cleat is the most secure (very important if you live in earthquake country).
How do I prepare my file?
Read through the lab’s FAQ on file preparation and submit in the format they recommend. Usually that means either a jpeg or tiff file in sRGB or adobeRGB color space. For resolution, anything over 150ppi should look fine.
You should perform output sharpening on your files. Usually I just use the export option from lightroom and choose “standard” and either glossy or matte depending on the surface.
The main gotcha with metal printing (and using a lab in general) is that the prints may come out too dark. If you don’t have a calibrated monitor and proper viewing environment, I’d recommend printing a few test images on paper and send these to a lab (it doesn’t have to be the same one) with no autocorrection. Check your prints for brightness and colors and adjust your file appropriately.
Some labs will offer metal proof prints at a nominal cost. I’d recommend this especially if you are doing a large metal print for the first time with a lab.
Here is a longer article that covers the steps I go through preparing an image for printing.
What labs do metal printing?
For those living in San Diego, as far as I know there are no local labs that do dye-sublimation. The closest labs would be
- Art Beat (Irvine)
- Metallography (Temecula)
- Spirit Printing (Chula Vista)
Outside of these, you can try the following labs:
- Aluminyze (NY)
- BayPhoto (Norcal)
- Image Wizards (NC)
- Metal Mouth Prints (KS)
- Reed Photo (CO)
- Shiny Prints (FL)
- White House Custom Color (MN)
- White Wall
These are labs that photographers often recommend but I have personally only used a few of them. I have no affiliation with any of these labs.
Many labs have a substantial first time ordering discount and/or a discount for those who resell their prints. There are also various discount labs that do metal printing. I don’t know all of them but the only one I would try would be Costco due to the ease of return policy. Costco outsources their metal printing to Fujifilm but unfortunately they do not use ChromaLuxe blanks.
How long will it take to make a metal print?
Many labs publish this information on their website (search for “production time”) but if you can’t find it, contact their support and ask directly. Some, like Bayphoto, are extremely fast and will ship a metal print within 2-3 days. Others may take as long as 2 weeks.
What should I check for when I receive my print?
ChromaLuxe panels may have small defects in the surface of the material in the form of bumps or pimples in the surface. These are basically caused by specs of dirt that get trapped during the coating process. Unfortunately ChromaLuxe considers this an acceptable flaw and print labs basically accept this as they have no other choice. However the labs will try to place the defects in a busy part of the image so they are less noticeable. If you see such a defect in an important part of your print, I would complain to customer service and ask for a remake.
I’ve also had small black flecks show up in my metal prints (see image). I believe this was due to contamination during the heat transfer process. Again if you see this, ask for a remake.
How much does a metal print cost?
Prices will obviously vary depending on the lab, finishing options, crating, shipping, and tax. But for a 24x36" from a lab that caters to professionals (i.e. those that resell their prints) and quality conscious consumers, I would expect to pay between $200 and $300.
If you are trying to figure out pricing for a variety of print sizes, I use $0.30 per square inch as a rough estimate.
When should I choose metal over other print mediums?
In my opinion, metal has some strong advantages that have greatly contributed to it’s popularity. If any of the following are important to you, consider a metal print:
- Lightweight. My 24x36 metal print with a float mount weighs less than 5 lbs. In contrast, my acrylic facemount of the same size weighs 15 lbs. Metal is light enough that even large prints can be hung with a single hook and do not require sturdier mounts like a french cleat.
- Robust Surface. The surface of the print is a hard enamel-like coating. It is scratch resistant and more durable than other mounting and framing options. Humidity, such as in a bathroom, is not a concern. In fact, many art fair photographers use metal because it is light and can handle the wear and tear from constant transportation better than other options. However note that metal is not industructible and can still be scratched, chipped, and bent.
- Super Glossy. Metal prints can achieve a very high gloss level with the surface looking almost wet. This can have a major wow factor on viewers.
- Inexpensive. For a ready to hang solution, a metal print is cheaper than other options such as a traditional framed prints or acrylic face-mounts.
Here are the drawbacks of printing on metal:
- Image Quality. If you want the ultimate in image quality, you are probably better off picking a paper print, whether they are inkjet or chromogenic (i.e. made on light sensitive paper). Metal prints, because they are based on a transfer process do not have quite the same level of color fidelity or sharpness. This is more noticeable in small prints that you view closely.
- Cannot Make Proofs. Before making a large print, I will often proof it at home on a smaller 13" or 17" wide printer before sending my file to a lab. However you can’t proof a metal print in the same way because of the equipment needed (a giant heat press that will go to 400F and specialized inks).
- Reflections. The glossy surface of a metal print will strongly show reflections. With other printing and framing methods, you have the option of choosing anti-reflective glazing such as museum glass or Tru-life acrylic.
- Image Permanance. Chromaluxe does not have the fade resistance that can be achieved with pigment prints.
How do I sign a metal print?
I use a DecoColor paint marker with an extra fine tip. Make sure to allow enough time for the paint to dry before touching the surface. I switch between silver and black markers depending on the image.
You should also practice your signature beforehand. And yes my hand writing sucks.