Dye-Sublimation Aluminum Prints Not Good for Art


Dye-sublimation aluminum prints are all the rage right now. Go to any art festival or photography gallery and the photographers are almost exclusively showing their images on dye-sublimation aluminum. I even got sucked into the trend hook, line and sinker…well at first anyway.

So what are dye-sublimation aluminum prints? Dye-sublimation is the technology of printing an image, with dye onto special transfer paper and then, with heat and pressure in a press, transferring the image to the final product of specially treated aluminum.

Why have I steered away from dye-sub aluminum? When I first started printing to aluminum with the dye-sub process, I was excited that the image would be produced on a flat surface. I also believed the hype that the image was infused into the aluminum making it scratch resistant. From the first order I placed, I found issues with the process. I should qualify that I have over 30 years’ experience in the photography printing industry, it is what I do for a day job. I understand the principles in creating photographic prints and I am trained in troubleshooting and fixing issues in the printing process from the original chemical process printers to the new inkjet printers. So to say I know exactly what to look for in a print is not an understatement. When I received my first order of aluminum prints to use as displays I was disappointed. I had ordered them from a lab in California and the color was too cool, not at all what I wanted. I had a few done from a local lab and again wasn’t overly impressed. Then, I got caught up in the hype with everyone else when a wholesale art facility near my home announced they were now offering aluminum prints. I placed a huge order with them which quickly became a nightmare of quality control issues. I ended up taking my business back to the local lab I used before and worked out my needs with them. Let me explain further my issues with dye-sub aluminum.

First the concept that they are scratch resistant is over exaggerated. Sure they are pretty hardy but I have had prints damaged at shows just placing them on a wall and having them brush against another print. This situation happened with my display of “Let there be Light”. It brushed against a canvas print as I was hanging it and the edge of the image flaked right off. I have also noticed scratching and scuffing on prints just from packing and handling them for events.

Damaged edge from basic packaging and transporting.

Second pock marks, divots, craters, or whatever you want to call them, are a problem on aluminum dye-sub prints. Any imperfection on the surface of the print in my book makes it unsuitable as a fine art print. The labs that make aluminum dye-sub prints won’t even redo the print because of these craters unless they are really bad or in a key spot.

Third and most important is image quality inconsistencies. The whole process of printing the image on transfer paper and then transferring it under heat and pressure is unreliable for getting consistent color and density in the final product. Color shifting can occur with each printing because of ambient temperature, humidity or improper calibration of the press and how long the print is “baked”. If the heat is too high as the dye transfers to the aluminum, ‘blow out’ can occur which leaves a rippled texture effect on the edges of the print. Damage to the transfer print such as bends or wrinkles in the paper will transfer to the aluminum causing print defects. The D-Max or maximum black on dye-sub prints is not black. When inspected under a bright light the blacks are green, though I hear Epson is coming out with a new dye to solve this problem. There are other issues that can happen such as the transfer paper not covering the aluminum completely which leaves white borders on the print, foreign objects like sawdust on the aluminum which block the transfer of the image leaving white spots on the print. All photo printing from chromogenic prints to inkjet to dye-sublimation should be done in a clean, dust free environment. The local art wholesale place I tried using are doing their prints in the same room they are cutting frame molding, and they can’t figure out why they have quality control problems.

Black “Squigglies” caused by removing the transfer paper too soon.

White edge from transfer paper not covering edge completely. Also notice black “rippling” caused by blow out.

Foreign matter such as sawdust or dirt on aluminum at time of transfer will leave white spots.

I have had a love hate relationship with dye-sub aluminum since I first tried it. The love part has been the fairly inexpensive cost which has allowed me to offer fabulous prices for my clients. The hate part has been the inconsistent quality. After three years of fighting the process trying to get decent results I began to look elsewhere. I approached a local pro-lab here in Utah about what they could offer, knowing they do not offer dye-sublimation aluminum. They suggested an inkjet print mounted to aluminum and a gloss laminate. I had them make me a 20x30 inch print, and I've been hauling it around to art shows to see how it holds up. It is spectacular, far better than any dye-sub print! Let me explain more about what I am now offering and call “Museum Aluminum Mounted” prints.

My new Museum Aluminum Mounted Print line will be offered exclusively in my Limited Edition line and dye- sublimation prints will be discontinued from the limited edition line. I will still offer dye-sub prints in open edition printings for my commercial clients.

The key to the Museum Aluminum Mount is an archival pigment paper print with archival rating of hundreds of years. This paper print is laminated with a highly scratch resistant UV inhibiting overlay and then mounted to a sheet of aluminum. The colors are rich with high saturation, the whites are clean and bright, and unlike dye-sublimation, the black is deep and truly black. This print is glorious and makes the image glow with life. This museum grade, aluminum mount has archival quality of hundreds of years and is very durable. If one of your Museum Aluminum Mounted Prints fade, Tomas will replace it at no cost to you!

Back side showing burnished edges and Zbar hanger with cleat.

With the thin profile, the finished product looks so similar to a dye-sub aluminum print that it is easy to mistake for one at first glance. Once you start inspecting the image clarity, contrast and color you will find there is no comparison. In fact the print has a definite acrylic mount look to it because of the laminate which helps the image really glow!

The new Museum Aluminum Mount is a huge step up for the fine art collector looking for a gallery quality piece that has far more depth and range than a dye-sub print.

I am excited to see my work produced in such a way that meets the demands for a thin profile metal print but with the high quality of a photographic paper print. I am also very excited to offer this new line to my clients, knowing they will appreciate this high-quality presentation and the improvements it offers over dye-sublimation prints.

I will debut my new line of Museum Aluminum Mount prints at my shows in 2019. If you would like to see examples of this wonderful print mount compared to a dye-sublimation print come to any of my shows and see the difference in person.

Happy trails!

Tomas W. Mitchell

Limited Edition of 100 Museum Grade, Fine Art Prints. This photograph is part of my Enchanted Forest Series of photographs all...
Enchanted Gold

Limited Edition of 100 Museum Grade, Fine Art Prints.

This photograph is part of my Enchanted Forest Series of photographs all taken on October 8, 2019. Finding a grove of aspen trees this glorious in the fall is truly enchanting. There wasn't another person in site and I openly gasped in awe at the spectacular golden colors in the leaves, the rich green, red and yellow in the grass and the amazing soft light. I love spending time with trees and I stayed this evening photographing until dark enjoying the magic of the forest.