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.
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 ink 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.
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 tried one but I didn’t really like the results, maybe I’m old school but I’ve never been a huge fan of inkjet prints. I think they look flat and don’t have the depth of a chromogenic print. So I asked them to print a Fujiflex print, then laminate it with a high gloss laminate and mount it to aluminum using the same mount adhesive they use for an acrylic mount that gives a perfectly flat mount. It was spectacular, far better than any dye-sub print, I was hooked! 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 the Fujiflex Crystal Archive Printing Material. Fujiflex Crystal Archive Printing Material is a silver halide color printing material with enhanced digital exposure suitability, designed exclusively for digital output on large-format laser printers. Furthermore, because of its PET (Polyester) base, this printing material produces prints that are superbly smooth with a sharp, transparent super-gloss finish. 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. Fujiflex Crystal Archive Printing Material has also been proven to last 140 years without UV damage which makes it a true gallery quality material.
The next step in creating the Museum Aluminum Mount is laminating the print behind a carefully sourced-ultra-glossy-UV inhibiting-10 mil polyester laminate. Though this laminate is more fragile than the surface of a dye-sub print, the visual snap, clarity and contrast in this presentation is equal to the acrylic mount print but with less weight, a thinner profile and is less expensive.
The final step in the process is mounting the print to a stiffer, thicker aluminum sheet of .094 inch. Dye-sub aluminum is .0625 inch by comparison. Because there is no coating to absorb the dye on the thicker type of aluminum there are no issues with blemishes that are problematic in the dye-sub process. The print is mounted perfectly flat to the point it actually looks like it is printed on the aluminum. The edges of the aluminum are carefully inspected and burnished to ensure safe handling of the finished print. The print is then finished off with a Zbar hanging system and cleat to allow the print to float on the wall.
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 10 mil 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. The only drawback is the cost, dye-sub prints cost about ½ what a Museum Aluminum Mount does. To counter balance the increase of cost, I have had to increase the sale price but I have lowered my profit margin in an effort to keep the sale price from increasing too much.
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.
Tomas W. Mitchell