By Mark Levesque, CPP, M. Photog., Cr
Metal prints are real head-turners. Seriously, we're talking high impact. In an industry where differentiation is critical, metal prints provide photographers with a product that is new, different, and not yet available to the masses of new camera owners. It’s as close to a leg up as can be expected in the current state of the industry, and photographers would be wise to consider metal prints as part of their product offering.
The metal prints product round up in May's Professional Photographer magazine showed the wealth of choices in this product space. From regular rectangular panels to custom shapes, to multi-panel murals and ornaments, there are plenty of options to fit with your existing product line.
A ChromaLuxe white-base, custom shape metal print.
Metal panels are created using a dye-sublimation process. A print is made using dye-sublimation inks on a sheet of transfer paper, which is then placed on an aluminum panel that has been coated with a special polymer. A heat press is used to apply pressure at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, which causes the ink particles to sublimate from a solid to a gas, which then bond with the polymer molecules. This process causes the dye particles to be embedded in the polymer coating, with the dual benefits of color fastness and surface durability. The risk of scratches marring the surface is minimal; the hard shell polymer coating is quite resistant to abrasion.
Most of the labs that offer metal prints are using ChromaLuxe’s dye-sublimation technology. The lab is supplied with a recipe for creating the panels, as well as the coated aluminum panels themselves. Each lab tweaks the recipe to become the lab’s own, so there may be subtle differences in the product appearance even though the raw materials are coming from the same place. It is a good idea to order some samples from your lab to ensure that you know that your lab’s implementation of the dye-sublimation procedure suits your style, and also so you are familiar with the various finishes.
Image Wizards sells directly to photographers and distinguishes themselves through their AluminArte line with incredible image quality, the size of their panels (up to 48 x 96 inches), and the option for flush mounted sides. The flush anodized aluminum framing option is decidedly upscale, both in appearance and price. I prefer its more substantial, premium look to float-mount options.
An AluminArte white-based metal print with flush-mounted sides.
When ordering a metal panel, there are two main choices in terms of finished appearance: whether the panel will have a clear polymer base or a white one, and whether the final finish will be matte or glossy. These two decisions will have a significant impact on the final product, so consider carefully. The white base coating allows your image’s true colors to be represented (as seen above), whereas the clear substrate allows some texture from the lightly brushed aluminum to show through, particularly in the lighter areas (below). The choice between matte and glossy is about glare and depth. The glossy finish is highly reflective, but also gives the appearance of greater depth to the images. The matte finish significantly reduces glare.
With a clear base, the texture of the metal shows through. (Click for large view.)
Aluminum prints are easy to care for, and can be expected to last in excess of 50 years. The panels are intended for indoor use, out of direct sun. Their hard shell polymer surface is quite abrasion resistant, and they are unaffected by water. Dry cleaning can be accomplished using a microfiber cloth, which is conveniently included with the Image Wizards panels. If fingerprints and smudges are an issue, isopropyl alcohol is suggested. Image Wizards also recommends Meguiar’s Cleaner Wax to shine and polish the panels.
As with paper prints, metal panel photographs pop a bit more with individual illumination and are a natural fit in commercial applications, where such lighting conditions abound. They also fit in well with a modern décor in a home setting, so portrait clients (especially seniors) are also a target market.
Metal prints provide an additional palette with which photographers may express their artistry and leverage the sundry shapes, display options, and eye-catching gleam and depth to reap the benefits of increased differentiation in a crowded marketplace.