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A Comprehensive Guide To Metal Photo Prints - They're Totally Worth It!

metal photo print next to chair

All You Need To Know About Aluminium Photo Prints

If you’re looking for wall art with the wow factor, then metal prints could be exactly what you need.

Although sometimes more expensive than some other print mediums, they deliver amazing visual appeal because of their saturated colours & depth that is almost 3D.

So what are metal photo prints? Sometimes referred to as aluminium, they are made by printing, infusing or mounting an image to an aluminium substrate. Different finishes can then be applied & they are ready to hang with or without the need for framing.

These types of prints, despite the higher price point, are becoming more popular because of the outstanding image quality that can be achieved.

How Are Metal Photo Prints Made? The Print Process Explained

There’s 3 ways an image can be transferred to aluminium, each having it’s own characteristics.

1. Dye-Sublimation - using dyes, the image is printed in reverse to a special paper.

The paper is then laid onto the aluminium sheet & put under a heat press.

The dyes actually turn into a gas & are absorbed into the aluminium.

As the gas cools, it reverts back to ink.

2. Direct Print - the name says it all, using a flatbed inkjet printer, the inks are laid down in dots directly onto the aluminium.

3. Face Mount - this technique can be applied to any substrate, not just aluminium.

The image is printed to a photographic paper that is then adhered to the substrate.

What Sort Of Aluminium Is Used?

Now, this can depend.

As with photographic paper, the quality of aluminium used will also determine how well the final image will look.

A cheap budget print service is probably going to use inferior aluminium.

Not only will the sheets be thin & flimsy, but it won’t render colours accurately or as vibrant as they should be.

To really benefit from the full potential that metal prints offer, a reputable print lab needs to be used.

Professional print services use top grade aluminium sheets, as they need to produce consistent results & high quality time after time.

For added strength & durability, an aluminium Dibond is used.

Dibond is a composite material that is sandwiched between 2 sheets of aluminium.

Which Print Process Is Best?

This all depends on the final result you want to achieve, but for that stunning depth that metal prints are famous for, then dye-sublimation is the way to go.

It’s also the most widely used method for this reason.

Because the dyes are infused into the aluminium, it also creates an archival print.

Especially if UV resistant ink is used, as all metal prints are finished with a protective clear coat too, which further seals & protects the image from airbourne contaminants.

Technically not as sharp as other print methods.

This is due to the fact that the individual ink dots spread slightly when infused into the aluminium.

This can be seen under a loop glass, but isn’t noticeable by the naked eye.

In theory, direct printing should achieve better resolution as the inks are laid down in dots directly to the aluminium surface.

Although providing better sharpness, a direct print doesn’t produce the same colour depth & vibrancy.

Because the inks sit on the surface of the aluminium, this could mean they’re more prone to fading.

In saying that, UV inks are generally used along with a protective clear coat.

More than enough to seal & protect the print.

Face mounting can produce sharper results & retain more detail than dye-sublimation or direct printing.

This is because a high quality, even metallic photographic paper can be used.

So optimal sharpness & detail will be retained.

Basically, it’s a quality photographic print that is then mounted & sealed to an aluminium substrate.

In essence, it could be mounted to any mounting board & offer the same results.

When the clear coat is applied, it does offer some depth, but nowhere near that of a dye-sublimated print.

The Verdict

The same old answer I always give to this question!

Best is a relative term.

The best print method is the one you're the happiest with, which can be dependent on a number of factors.

Is it within your budget?

Does the printing process suit the final image?

But if you're looking for depth & ridiculous longevity, dye-sublimation would be the way to go.

If too much depth or colour vibrancy are going to detract from the image, then direct printing is a great choice.

If you're main concern is absolute sharpness, then direct face-mounting will be best suited.


Different Finishes

There’s a number of different options for the final look of your print.

Firstly, a base coat is applied which is usually white, as it renders colours more accurately.

Just as you would print to white photographic paper.

But a brushed aluminium substrate can be used with a transparent coat.

This allows the brushed aluminium to show through in clear & bright areas of the image.

If you like your photograph to shimmer & glimmer, then this may be the finish to try.

The final clear coat is often available in gloss, matte or a satin/lustre.

The gloss finish, although it can produce some glare, gives the most vibrancy & colours that pop.

Producing slightly less contrast, a matte finish will be pretty much glare free.

A nice compromise is the satin finish.

Still nice vibrant colour & good contrast, whilst not producing too much reflection.

Hanging Your Metal Print

Being made from lightweight but sturdy aluminium, means metal prints are one of the easiest photographs to hang.

Your print will arrive with the appropriate hanging hardware.

  • Smaller prints often have a hanging block affixed to the back.

This small aluminium block has a hole or recess where it can simply be hung from a nail, screw or hook in the wall.

This block is usually ½ to 1 inch in depth & this creates the illusion of the print floating off the wall.

  • Either lightweight wood or aluminium is used to make a subframe.

Used for larger size prints as it offers more rigidity, it also allows for screws to be used in either 2 or all 4 corners.

This can hold the print horizontal & prevent moving on the wall.

  • Sometimes a picture wire can be attached to the subframe, allowing the print to be hung like any other framed artwork.

  • If you want your print to sit more flush to the wall, then a cleat can be used.

It’s not as simple as the other methods, as you need to fix one half of the cleat to the wall & the other to the back of the print.

It’s not the usual hardware supplied & is more a DIY solution.

  • Used more in commercial signage applications, stand-off bolts can be used.

They can also create a cool industrial or modern vibe for your décor.

The print will have 4 holes made in each corner, the bolts are sunk into the wall & the print slips over these bolts.

So called because the print “stands off” the wall.


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Should You Frame Metal Prints?

Similar to acrylic prints, metal prints look fabulously modern & sleek & are suited to being hung without the need for framing.

Personally, I feel they look better unframed, but certain frame styles can look good & even enhance their appeal.

Another advantage of frames is that they offer an added level of protection.

Unlike photographic prints that sit behind glass or Perspex, metal prints are thinner & lightweight & this makes them simple to frame.

Many print labs now offer framing as part of their service.

This is usually a floating frame.

Because floating frames have a clean & modern look, they’re well suited to these kinds of prints.

But as the aluminium is only a few millimetres thick, they can be used in any standard frame & some print services will offer a wider range.

Otherwise, you can use a custom framer to make one to a specific style you want.


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How Long Do Metal Prints Last?

This can depend on a number of factors, but studies have shown a dye-sublimated metal print can last a minimum of 40 years & in optimal conditions over 100 years .. that’s at least 4 times longer than an archival photographic print.

So having a quality print is definitely worth the extra cost for something that you can pass on to your grandchildren!

If you’ve read any of my other articles, I always say “you get what you pay for”.

But I believe it’s a valid point.

Cheap prints may serve a purpose (I’m not sure which), but for outstanding image quality & longevity, it’s hard to ignore metal photo prints.


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Are Metal Prints Waterproof?

Although highly moisture resistant, metal prints aren’t completely waterproof. They’re durable enough to be directly exposed to water, although completely submerging one isn’t a good idea.

They’re a great choice for wet areas & are resistant to high levels of humidity.

Fantastic for a bathroom or laundry.

If you’re looking to hang your print in a space where there’s higher levels of moisture, a dye-sublimated print may be the optimal choice.

Even though the print is sealed with a clear coat, a face mount print could damage if any moisture were to reach the photographic paper.

Aluminium is non-ferrous, so these prints won’t rust either, although they can oxidise if exposed to salt air over time.


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Can Metal Prints Be Hung Outside?

Metal prints are a wonderful choice for outdoor areas & in the right conditions can be successfully hung outdoors where they’ll last many years.

The one thing that will degrade any print is exposure to direct sunlight.

Doesn’t matter if UV inks & coating are used, over time anything will bleach when left in the sun.

Also extreme heat or cold will affect metals by expansion & contraction.

This may eventually cause inks to degrade & the protective coating to crack or blister.

But most of us aren’t entertaining guests in such extreme weather conditions!

Hung in a shady area, away from weather extremes, a metal print is a fabulous choice for outdoor spaces.


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Cleaning & Caring For Your Metal Print

In most circumstances, metal prints are pretty low maintenance.

A regular dusting is normally all that’s required.

But if it’s hung in an area near a BBQ or kitchen fumes, it may attract grease over time.

So more regular cleaning is a good habit, as it’s going to be a lot harder once grease has had the chance to build up & sit for a while.

Although highly durable, metal prints aren’t completely scratch resistant.

So no harsh chemicals or scourers, just some mild soapy water & a non-abrasive cloth.

For lighter marks like fingerprints, most glass cleaners are fine, or some isopropyl alcohol.

Don’t use paper towels & other wipes as they can leave lint behind.

A clean, dry lint free or microfibre cloth will do the trick.


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So .. Are Metal Photo Prints Worth The Extra Cost?

These style of prints are getting more popular & I've noticed they're not really much more expensive than other prints.

Especially as they don't need framing, they're very comparable to a quality framed canvas print.

Every print lab or wall art shop is going to vary in price too.

So it will also depend on whether you're purchasing a pre-made print or having your own photo printed.

But my opinion is that metal photo prints are totally worth it.

Amazing quality, long lasting & a modern & contemporary look that will look fabulous in any space in the home.

Final Thoughts

Outstanding visual appeal, jaw dropping colour & depth, highly durable & archival .. what’s not to like about metal prints?

Not every print medium is going to suit a particular photograph though.

The feel & emotion of a photograph can be enhanced, or even altered, by the material it’s printed on.

So metal prints may not be the right fit for every photographic style.

But for an image that looks like you could dive into, it’s hard to go past aluminium dye-sublimation prints.

If you’ve found value in this article .. please feel free to share .. it’s always appreciated.


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