Photography and Art

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Printing on Metal Part I

The Toronto Contact Photo Festival is coming up on May 6th and I'm getting quite excited about it. Contact is the largest photography festival in the world and runs for the month of May. Normally, I'm just a spectator, but this year I'm going to be a participant. Three of my works have been selected for an exhibition in the Elaine Fleck Gallery. Elaine and I had a meeting last week to review some of my recent work and we picked two images from my Intimate Portraits project, a series of close-ups of the large laker ships that winter in the Toronto harbour. The third image was taken very recently in the snowy wilderness of Haliburton and features an old trolley car abandoned in the woods.

I've been reading about printing on metal recently. I discovered this concept on Scott Kelby's blog where he was really enthusiastic about metal as a medium for fine art photography. As I thought about displaying my work for Contact in a way that would stand out from the thousands of other images on display, I thought about printing on metal. The subject matter of the three images is a metal object, so it seemed sensible to represent the subject matter on a similar material.

When I searched around for a photo lab to print my work, I found three that consistently came up in Google: Bay Photo Labs, ImageWizards and MarcorMedia.

Before I went shopping, I decided to do a little research on printing on metal and came upon three basic methods:

Inkjet Printing on Coated Aluminum
There are companies out there that make a coating for aluminum that is suitable for pigment inks. One such company is Inkaid. It sounds very simple: stir, brush on, air dry, print. They supply videos of artists applying Inkaid to a variety of media including cloth and metal. To print on metal in this scenario, you use thin aluminum sheeting that will fit through the rollers in a normal Epson printer. First, you scrub off the anti-corrosion coating that comes on the metal in the first place. You'll need an orbital sander for that, followed by Mr. Clean scouring pads. Second, you coat the metal with the Inkaid and finally, you put the metal through the printer. You obviously must have a printer that has a straight-through paper path - the aluminum won't feed from the sheet feeder. You mount the aluminum on to a carrier sheet so that the printer has something to grip and away you go. There's an excellent video from Bonnie Lhotka showing how you print on aluminum flashing using a coating from DASS. This looks very interesting as a do-it-yourself technique and someday when I have a lot of time, I'll try it and report back.

MarcorMedia, the Toronto service bureau I mentioned above, showed me some prints that were made using this technique when I dropped in for a visit last week. There were a couple of issues that I picked up on: first, there is no white ink, so when you blow out the highlights on an image, the colour that shows through is a very brilliant silver. They showed me a picture of a horse where a white splash on the horse's forehead was very, very bright indeed. I didn't like this effect - it reminded me of bar mirrors with beer logos on them. The second issue was the thickness of the aluminum. It didn't seem all that substantial - certainly not in keeping with the hulls of lake freighters.

UV Ink Printers
Little did I know, but there is a large business out there in printing things on metal for outdoor use. Think of the number of metal signs out there and you'll quickly see that this is a large market. There are purpose-built, flatbed inkjet printers that print directly on large sheets of metal using special inks that cure when exposed to UV radiation for a split-second. This process is well-suited to large print runs because the ink dries so quickly. Commercial printers like the process because the inks are very environmentally friendly. They don't give off harsh, flammable gases when they dry, so printers don't have to make a large investment in exhaust fans. However, these puppies are very expensive - expect to pay $100K plus for one of these printers. There is a site dedicated to large format printers called and they have a good article on UV printers. Some of these printers actually use white inks, so the aluminum medium doesn't show through.

MarcorMedia showed me a metal print that was done on a Roland UV printer. It was a sepia-toned print of tall ships in the Toronto harbour and it had the look of an old-fashioned daguerreoptype about it. There were blown-out highlights in the clouds, but the metal underneath didn't overwhelm the print and was very effective.

Dye Sublimation Printing
The last category of printing has been used for a long time to produce things like photos on T-shirts and mugs. The idea is to use a special kind of dye ink that can be heated rapidly to form a gas (hence sublimation). The gas permeates the desired media and the image is infused into the medium. To print on metal, you first coat the metal with a resin of some sort. Then, you print a reverse image onto paper using these dye sublimation inks. Once the image on paper is dry, you mount the image onto the metal and put the two pieces into a heat press. Once the heat is applied, the dye forms a gas and infuses the plastic polymer coating on the metal.

One of the advantages of this method is the robustness of the surface. The ink goes deep into the polymer coating, so you can clean off the surface with a cloth. Another advantage of the process is the ability to print onto metal of any thickness, so you can transfer an image to a big chunk of iron if you want to. There is also no impediment to doing large works of art with this approach.

There are disadvantages. As with all dye-based inks, the artwork is subject to fading in direct light. It is also critical (and difficult) to get a completely smooth polymer coating. On a large work, it is not uncommon to get trapped dust particles in the polymer.

The Challenge
Both Bay Photo and ImageWizards seem to use variations on the dye sublimation technique. I asked their customer service folks and both confirmed that their methods are based on dye sublimation although they both stressed that they had developed certain proprietary improvements to the process. The owner of ImageWizards, Roger K Laudy, is reputed to be a genius in developing new printing techniques and has at least one patent to his name. Certainly, Scott Kelby was very impressed with the prints produced by ImageWizards.

I've now sent away for samples from both companies. ImageWizards sends out free samples (plus shipping) of photos on metal. Bay Photo charges you $22 for three 6x4 images on their various surfaces. With Bay Photo, you get to upload your own image. With ImageWizards, you get their own stock photo.

I'll probably get the metal photos back in a week or two and, when I do, I'll tell all. Stay tuned...


  1. No updates on the final product!?

  2. Agreed. Would love to know how the prints turned out.

  3. Thanks for this info. I'm trying to make an artwork on printed aluminum. Do you happen to know if the prints can be cut with a dremel, perhaps?

  4. Hi, i think the reason for not updating the print result is because aluminium leaves a "blotchy" residue on the surface. Some of the mentioned web-sites even state that there could be faults with the prints on delivery. Definitely not good enough for professional photography. If you would like your image to be embedded INSIDE steel then just go to . I am based in new zealand but will ship any where. If you don,t believe me then just click on my reviews or order a free, yes free, sample. If you are a professional photographer who would like their favourite image to be made everlasting with fantastic colours, then please write to me.

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