What’s A Metal Print? A Complete Buy Guide
If you’ve searched high and low for ways to display that beautiful photo you just took you’ve probably come across the very popular “metal print” option. So what exactly is a metal print? How and where is it made? How much does it cost? What are the advantages and disadvantages over other products out there? How long do they last? We’ll do our best to cover every aspect of this product so you can make an informed decision whether this is the best photo display option for your image.
There is always a ton of misinformation and hype out there among the latest and greatest photo products. It’s always been incredibly important for us to be transparent and tell the truth, revealing what we actually see in the real world in working with these products and getting feedback from customers. No product is as perfect as the manufacturer would have you believe and Chromaluxe is no exception. Yes, it’s a great product for a number of applications but we’ll also highlight some of the disadvantages you won’t read anywhere else along with key components and questions to ask the print lab before purchasing your metal print (we hope you go with us but there are other great print labs too!).
How is it made?
In a nutshell, the metal print is a dye sublimation process where the ink is infused into a special coating on the metal which produces a glossy and vibrant end result if using the high gloss Chromaluxe product. They do offer a mid-gloss and satin option which we don’t currently carry and instead steer our customers to our matte photo mounted options.
Step 1: The photo is printed onto a transfer paper which is a mirrored copy of the image.
Step 2: The transfer paper is then taped to the thin .045″ blank metal (Chromaluxe)
Step 3: The metal + print is “baked” in a large heat press for a minute or two at around 400 degrees. The combined heat and pressure of the press allow the ink to transform into a gas which gets absorbed into the pores of the special polymer coating of the metal print. As it cools, the pores close and the surface stabilizes creating permanent color.
Make sure it’s Chromaluxe
There is really only one option when considering a well made metal print and that’s the Chromaluxe option. Chromaluxe is the metal print brand you should insist on since there is no comparable product out there. Sure, there are cheaper knock offs in terms of both the metal and the ink used and those won’t hold up well over time. We’ve heard the horror stories of knock off metal prints fading in just months.
ChromaLuxe is the global manufacturer of premium print media, supplying high quality blank substrates for a variety of applications that require superb image quality and durability. All coatings and substrates are made in the USA with manufacturing and fabrication done in Louisville, KY. With additional locations in Belgium and Australia, ChromaLuxe serves its global customer base and provides products to more than 80 countries.
ChromaLuxe is an extension of Universal Woods, the world’s leading manufacturer of hard surface sublimatable products and mezzanine decking. It is also a sister brand to Unisub, which provides the highest quality custom sublimatable products. To learn more about ChromaLuxe, please visit: ChromaLuxe.com. Connect with ChromaLuxe on Facebook (facebook.com/realchromaluxe), Instagram (instagram.com/realchromaluxe) and Twitter (twitter.com/realChromaLuxe).
Not all metal prints are created equally
You might come across rock bottom pricing on metal prints when shopping around. Be careful. There is always a reason why photo products are priced well below the market average and when it comes to this product there are several reasons why that’s likely the case. One is the metal itself as discussed above. Insist on Chromaluxe and make sure that is used. Also ask about the ink type. Cheap knock off inks (ie many from China) for example can fade quickly and offer subpar color. Make sure the inks are name brand like Epson, Roland or Sawgrass. Don’t be afraid to ask these questions of the company you choose. They should be able to answer that for you and if they can’t there are many other companies to choose from. For the record we use Chromaluxe with Epson inks.
In terms of the expertise in making the metal prints this where the real difference is between print labs. Quality materials is a great start but only the beginning. There are two additional key factors in determining the end result – color profiling and “bake” time/temperature.
Many labs will use the out of the box color profile for the Chromaluxe metal print. For the absolute best result particularly with black and white photos, it makes a big difference to develop a custom color profile. Before launching our version of the metal print here at Bumblejax we spent months perfecting both the color profile to be certain we were producing the best prints possible.
Bake Time & Temperature
Another key component is temperature and bake time. If you bake the print too long or not long enough and/or don’t have the right temperature set, the result may not be optimal. Here at Bumblejax there has been a lot of consulting with industry experts and trial and error on our part to get the optimal times and heat depending on the size of the print. It varies from print to print.
Metal prints are considered a higher end photo presentation but at the lower end of the scale when compared to mounted prints (which involve printing to professional photo paper and mounting to a substrate such as wood, metal or acrylic). This is due to the fact that dye sublimation metal prints involve less time and labor then mounted prints along with less of a likelihood of a flaw in the print.
Metal prints are also very popular with almost every major print company and boutique photo lab offering them. That means better pricing and larger sales for the consumer. We should mention however that prices in recent months have increased substantially as material and labor costs have skyrocketed. Costs of course can really vary but an average price for a 24×16 is in the $150 range and for a larger 36×24 you’re looking at around $275.
Pros & Cons
- Durable: scratch, heat and moisture resistant
- Cost: considerably less than the higher end acrylic or bamboo print
- Vibrant: great for images with rich colors even black and whites with bold blacks (as long as color profiling is done accurately by the lab – see above)
- Eco Friendly: made recycled aluminum and 100% recyclable, no VOCs
- Color fade: while Chromaluxe metal prints should last several years especially if avoiding direct sunlight, they won’t hold up as long as mounted pigment inkjet prints which is what we specialize in (yes we do Chromaluxe metal prints too). We believe some of the claims out there of metal prints lasting a lifetime are likely in conditions with no direct sunlight. In fact, if you take a look at the new Chromaluxe EXT product which is designer to better withstand direct light, Chromaluxe says it should last 2-3 years. That means that the standard Chromaluxe products could fade fairly quickly. We’ve had our mounted inkjet prints in direct sunlight for 10 years now with no fading. Our pigment inkjet inks have UV protection within the ink itself as does the acrylic in our acrylic prints products and the laminate in our other mounted products.
- Very thin metal: while they look sleek and modern they offer a less substantial look than say a 1/4″ thick acrylic or 3/4″ bamboo mount due to the very thin metal. You’ll see some labs provide a higher end look to the metal print by backing it with black sintra to increase the thickness. That’s a nice option if you want a more substantial print in terms of thickness.
- Color accuracy and detail: the dye sublimation process is fantastic for providing these durable and vibrant metal prints but you definitely lose a bit in color accuracy, color gamut and detail when compared to an inkjet photo print which we use in all of our photo mounted products.
- Imperfections: The special coating on the Chromaluxe metal prints can at times show subtle imperfections which at regular viewing distance would typically not be seen. All print labs have various levels of acceptable imperfections which may differ from what you deem acceptable to so be sure to ask about this. We do our best to avoid sending out metal prints with imperfections that can be seen at regular viewing distance of a couple feet away.
Chromaluxe provides an array of metal print finish options including high gloss (by far the most popular and what we offer), mid-gloss, satin and a textured option. They even have an EXT product better designed for outdoor use which is supposed to extend the life of the print in direct sunlight.
Metal Prints FAQ
Here are some questions that seem to pop up quite a bit and most are answered within the article but we wanted to highlight them here.
Are metal prints any good?
They certainly can be! Again it goes back to the quality of the materials and craftsmanship. Avoid too good to be true pricing. Look at the reviews of the company not on their website but reviews on 3rd party sites such as Trustpilot, Google, and Facebook. Look at where the prints are produced? Are they coming from China or made in the USA? All these questions are important. Well made metal prints are indeed great!
What are photos printed on metal called?
The process of printing to metal which is really a process where the image is printed to paper first and then baked into the metal is called dye sublimation. When you hear the term metal prints this is the process that is used to make them. These often get confused with metallic paper prints which is a popular photo paper used in our mounted photo products and a popular choice with our acrylic prints.
What is the advantage of metal prints?
The biggest advantage is that they are highly durable in terms of heat, moisture and scratching. You just have to be careful with these in direct sunlight since they will tend to fade far faster than photo paper products. They also offer great vibrancy with a sleek and modern look.
How long do metal prints last?
There have been simulations that indicate metal prints could last 65-100 years as long as there is no direct sunlight. That’s a bold claim! We always say that if properly cared for and hung away from direct sunlight it should last a lifetime. In sustained direct sunlight you may not get two years out of these which is why launched their EXT product which claims 2-3 years in direct sunlight.
Which is better canvas or metal?
This of course is very subjective and depends on the look and style you’re trying to achieve. Canvas is a more traditional look with the image wrapped around the edge and offers a softer textured appearance. Metal prints are more modern looking and very vibrant and glossy.
Which is better acrylic (glass) or metal?
Again this is very subjective and depends on everything from budget to print location, style preference, etc. What we tell customers is that both offer a highly glossy vibrant appearance. The acrylic print is the higher end superior product in terms of appearance, color accuracy, detail, longevity and configuration options but comes at a much higher price (30-100%). The Chromaluxe metal prints do hold up better in high humidity or moisture situations (ie outdoor signage, bathrooms with poor ventilation) and still offer great vibrancy. The big question we always ask the customer is will the print hang in direct sunlight and if so they’re better off with an acrylic print since there is UV protection in the ink as well as the acrylic. The metal prints also won’t scratch as easily as the standard acrylic (we do have the scratch resistant Trulife acrylic as an upgrade). If a customer is undecided after a discussion of pros and cons of each we always to steer them to our sample pack or ordering one of each in a small size using their own photo.
Conclusion & Bumblejax Recommendation
Overall we’re big fans of the metal prints which provide a rich vibrant look for colorful, bold images at a more affordable price than mounted print options such as our popular acrylic prints. They work really well in areas with high humidity and moisture such as bathrooms or even outdoors. As a photo lab that does primarily high end photo mounting with little room for error we definitely like the relative ease at which these can be made once we got the color profiling, bake times and temps locked in!
We do however recommend avoiding if they’re going to be hung in areas of sustained direct sunlight particularly if you’re a photographer selling your work. They won’t hold up nearly as long as pigment inkjet products. For highly discerning photographers who want the best color and detail possible you might consider ordering a small metal print sample and photo print sample to get a sense of color before printing the final large piece.
The type of image is key here as well. Metal prints do work best with bold, colorful images. For softer color images you’re best going with a satin or matte finish mounted photo print.
Here are a few examples of images that would look fantastic on Chromaluxe metal prints.
We know there’s a lot to consider when deciding on which medium to use for your photos. We have many options on this site alone! We’re here to help and you can speak with one of our art consultants at 1.877.518.5187 (yes we pick up the phone or get back to you within 30 min to hour tops!). You can also contact us here. If you’re in the Seattle area feel free to make an appointment to come by our shop M – F 9AM – 3PM to see samples of all of our different products on the wall. Please contact us to setup an appointment to come in.
If you know you want to get a metal print we’d love to have the opportunity to create your art for you! We have an easy upload and configuration system here. We can produce any size down to the 1/4″ up to 60×40″ in size. All metal prints come ready to hang with a high quality full aluminum subframe and french cleat. We round the corners by default 1/8″ to avoid sharp corners. Our pricing includes gallery quality and file improvements (if needed) to make sure you get the best metal print possible. For example we’ll de-noise, sharpen, resize, etc but never change color unless requested. For black and white metal prints we make a manual adjustment in Photoshop on every order to make sure the final print is as close to neutral as possible (no color cast). That’s not easy to achieve with this product. Many labs charge extra for all that, but we feel you should get the best every time and include it in the price.