metal print on concrete

Complete Guide to Metal Photo Prints

If you’re looking for a modern way to display your photos in HD quality and head-turning color, metal prints are exactly what you’ve been waiting for. It’s hard to illustrate the superiority of metal prints on a computer screen. But, if you were to see them next to a traditional photo print in person, the difference would be obvious—it’s the one that makes your jaw drop. So, if you’re ready to show off that incredible shot, here’s what you need to know. 

Finish Options
Metal prints come in two base color coatings, an opaque white and a transparent clear. This base coat serves the same function as paper. The inks are absorbed by this area of the specialized metal photo panel. This base is then protected by an outer coating, usually available in Glossy, Matte or Satin.

White Metal, the more popular choice, offers a traditional but vibrant look. Colors are rich and contrast is high. For the most part, colors look the way you expect them to look but enhanced and in High Definition.

white metal

Clear Metal (aka Silver Metal) uses a clear base that allows the brushed aluminum to show through. Since the lightest color available (white point) is the metal itself, images will look darker. But, it will have a glimmer only metal can make. In my opinion, it makes most images look vintage in a modern way. Black and white images on clear metal look like 19th century daguerreotypes. It’s a very unique look.

clear metal

A protective polymer outer coating is applied over the base surface.  Available in Glossy, Matte and Satin, each finish makes a very different look. Glossy is the most popular and the most eye-catching. Although there is some glare, this finish brings the most vivid colors out of metal prints. Matte is the most glare free and the lowest in contrast. Satin is somewhere in between but more like matte than glossy.

Quality - What to Look For
The two main factors for excellent metal photo prints are the quality of metal photo panels and the expertise of the print service provider.

Surprisingly, the quality of the metal photo panels can differ dramatically. Discount services like some found in Groupon use substandard materials that barely resemble professional quality metal prints. These panels can be overly thin with colors that look flat and inaccurate.  Consistent base coatings along with high quality aluminum are essential to getting great quality. While there are many brands of lower quality metal photo panels, Chromaluxe is the one brand that is used by professional photo labs and high quality printers. Definitely ask your printer what brand of metal panels that they use. If they don’t know, look somewhere else.

Next, you need someone with the expertise to get the best color out of them. The accuracy of any print depends upon the printer's ability reproduce colors accurately and consistently. They should be well versed in color management and print production processes. They should be using high quality inks that have been profiled and calibrated to the metal panels. This is done by creating an ICC profile which is digital description of the color characteristics of their print process. If you have a monitor that was profiled and calibrated, the profiled colors of the metal prints should look very close to what you seen on your monitor. Click to learn how to get your prints to match your screen. Remember to ask your print service provider, if they have an ICC profile for their metal prints. This is a good way to get an idea of their level of expertise and their commitment to quality.

How Are They Made?
Metal prints are made by a process called dye sublimation. Unlike the traditional method of printing directly on the surface, which may damage easily, dye sublimation infuses the image directly into the hard coating to provide lasting durability and protection.

The first step requires your image to be printed on paper transfer media on a giclee printer with specialized sublimation inks made for the metal print process. The print will look like a flat colored mirrored copy of the original image.

sublimation print coming out of printer

This sheet is then taped on to blank metal photo panel which is then placed in a heat press. The heat and pressure causes the sublimation inks to transform into a gas. The gas is then absorbed through the pores of the polymer coating of the metal and into the base coating. As the metal cools, the pores close and the metal surface stabilizes.

metal print print inside of press

Additional Benefits
Other than the obvious image quality, metal prints offer additional benefits.

Metal prints offer great value. Since metal photo prints don’t need to be framed, you can save big on framing costs which are often much more than the price of the print itself. When ordered with a wall mount for a nominal fee ($5 to $10), you can have wall decor ready to hang at a fraction of the cost of a custom framed traditional photo print.

Durability and archivability of metal prints are excellent. The surface coating is very tough and scratch resistant. It doesn’t require any glass to cover it. Also, they are incredibly fade resistant. So, how long do metal prints last? The Rochester Institute of Technology tested metal prints to last up to 4 times longer than archival silver halide photographic prints which last about 40 years.

Since they are printed on aluminum, metal prints are also water proof. If you have finger prints or something gets on it, just use a damp cloth to wipe it.

Where to get metal prints
Although metal prints are a great value, they are not cheap. They will cost much more than just a traditional print of the same size. Since you’re spending more, you’re much better off going to a competent pro lab or printer that knows what they're doing rather than a clueless big box reseller who sends your order out to some off-site unknown mass production print plant. Prices will vary amongst service providers. Avoid the really cheap places and use the tips mentioned here to find someone who is willing to help you get what you want.

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