The Science Behind Metal Photo Printing: Techniques and Materials

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If you’re looking to display your photographs and art pieces with high quality, then metal photo printing is your best recourse.

Unlike traditional paper photo printing techniques that produce dull images, metal photo printing infuses pictures onto metal surfaces, giving them an almost ornate appearance.

The resulting metal photo panels are also often superior to traditional paper photo and acrylic prints, as they do not fade easily, or suffer damage from sunlight and dirt.

The unique superior quality finishes that result from metal photo printing are made possible through a variety of sophisticated techniques and materials.

Today, we’re going to explore the science behind the techniques and materials used in metal photo printing.

This is meant to give you a better understanding of how metal photo printing:

  • Permanently bonds ink to a surface to infuse depth, clarity, and brightness
  • Uses scratch-resistant materials to maintain the integrity of your art pieces
  • Gives your art pieces a clean, modern, aesthetic look

Let’s go.

1 – Printing Techniques

metal photo art with fish images on display at restaurant

As an artist, it’s important to understand the metal photo printing process because the beauty of your metal photo art piece largely depends on it.

Generally, there are three major processes to choose from in order to meet your professional and artistic needs:

  • Direct printing
  • Photo mounting
  • Dye sublimation

Direct Printing

With direct printing, inkjet printers are used to print your images directly onto a metal sheet.

This process is usually fast.

However, it doesn’t produce vivid and durable images, since the ink is not fully absorbed by the metal substrate.

Photo Mounting

With photo mounting, your image is printed on a paper substrate, then laminated directly on the metal.

This process is quite versatile, as it can be used to produce traditional photo prints and digital face mounts.

However, it suffers from the same challenges faced by direct printing. The resulting metal wall art fades quickly as the ink hasn’t been bonded to the metal substrate.

Dye Sublimation

Dye sublimation is by far the best method that can be used to produce vibrant and crystal-clear metal photo art pieces.

It involves a two-step process:

In the first stage, your image is printed onto a highly specialized paper substrate which can handle a high ink capacity—sublimation paper.

Next, the paper substrate is placed in a dye sublimation printer with a heat press and placed on top of a metal substrate.

The resulting heat and pressure cause the ink to sublimate, or turn into a gas, and solidify directly onto the metal substrate.

As the dyes cool, they infuse beneath the surface of the metal photo panel, causing the image to bond permanently.

This entire process takes ten minutes. However, the results are far from ordinary—you’ll have a vibrant, crisp, and clear piece of art that will last for decades to come.

Pro Tip: For the best results, always ensure that the printing company you choose is using proper sublimation line printers. Many labs are using converted inkjet printers to cut costs, which produce poor-quality metal photo art.

At Shiny Prints, we only use top-of-the-line Epson F series dye sublimation printers, such as the Epson F7200 as they offer much sharper prints with a larger color gamut.

2 – Materials Used in Metal Photo Printing

metal photo print mounting system

There are different kinds of materials used in the metal photo printing process, each of which can determine the overall look, feel, and durability of your art pieces.

These include:

Metal Substrates

The most important dye sublimation component is the metal substrate—the base material onto which your images are printed.

There are several metal substrates used in the dye sublimation process. The best ones are made from:

  • Aluminum
  • Steel
  • Copper
  • Brass

If you’re looking for a metal panel that will make your painting pop, then a steel metal substrate might be just what you need.

Steel metal substrates have a very thick coating, which gives them enhanced optical features, perfect for images with thick glossy finishes.

maintaining metal photo printing

Their tough coating also makes them impenetrable to ultraviolet (UV) rays and scratches. As a result, they’re very durable.

Sadly, their hard coating comes at a cost—low ink absorbance. Because of this, they might require a higher temperature and extra pressure to produce decent results for areas with light strokes, and they do not work well for glossy or semi-glossy materials.

They’re also relatively more expensive than other metal substrate options.

Another great option for dye sublimation is copper metal.

Copper metal substrates are thin. So thin that they feel like fabric. This makes them very receptive to ink.

The only disadvantage of using copper metal substrates is that they’re not very scratch resistant.

If you’re looking for sturdy metal wall art finishes, then brass metal substrates are the ones for you.

Brass metal substrates have low oxidizing rates, which means they won’t tarnish when exposed to air for a long time. Great for the outdoors, don’t you think?

Unfortunately, they’re very expensive, so you might have a hard time finding a printing company that uses them.

Aluminum metal substrates are by far the OG of dye sublimation due to their high durability and a few other features. 

They have a thin coating that allows them to work well with both gloss and matte finishes. Additionally, they’re dust resistant and won’t tarnish easily, so you can enjoy your prints for years to come.

Aluminum metal is also quite inexpensive. That’s why you’ll find it everywhere; think of the soda cans you use every day.

Finally, they’re very easy to clean. You can erase stains on aluminum panels using mineral spirits.

Even then, not all aluminum metal substrates are equal.

By far, the best aluminum metal panels come from ChromaLuxe.

ChromaLuxe aluminum panels are highly efficient at absorbing ink and producing deep, rich, and intense colors because they’re made from high-grade aluminum.

Their special polyester coatings also ensure your metal picture prints are well protected from UV rays, chemicals, and scratches.

Finally, ChromaLuxe aluminum substrates have thicker polyester coatings than other brands. This gives your artwork a slight, but noticeable, life-like 3D quality.


Another important component of the metal photo printing process is the sublimation ink.

Dye sublimation ink is thicker and more durable than inkjet and giclee inks, since it’s made from several special polymers, including polymeric amides, acetate copolymers, distillates of petroleum, acetate, propylene glycol, and color dyes.

Each ink company mixes these compounds in varying amounts. So, the quality of the ink used may differ depending on the brand.

Presently, the best dye sublimation ink comes from Epson OEM.

It lasts longer, produces vivid, bold colors, and is compatible with the Epson F line of dye sublimation printers.

At Shiny Prints, we use Epson OEM inks. You can always rest assured that your metal photo prints will be of superior quality when working with us.

Advantages of Metal Photo Printing

metal photo prints

As an artist, there are many advantages of using metal photo printing over traditional photo printing methods.

First, metal photo printing uses a mixture of pressure and heat to bond ink pigments to shiny solid metal surfaces. This has the overall effect of giving your metal photo panels deep, vibrant colors necessary for near life-like images.

Secondly, unlike paper, metal photo prints do not oxidize easily or suffer damage from sunlight exposure. This makes them highly durable and resistant to fading.

Thirdly, metal photo prints are resistant to humidity and moisture.

Unlike paper, metal won’t get soggy when exposed to water. Any water that does come into contact with your metal photo wall art can be wiped away without damaging it.

Finally, ChromaLuxe aluminum metal substrates have thick polymers that create a visually appealing effect. This makes them great mediums for showcasing your professional art pieces.

Maintenance and Care of Metal Photo Prints

3D Santa Claus metal photo print

Maintaining metal photo prints is the best way to ensure your art pieces retain their vibrance and pizzazz.

Luckily, metal photo prints are very easy to clean.

Simply use a soft cloth, such as microfiber, dipped in a cleaning agent to remove smudges or any dust that might have accumulated. A microfiber cloth is highly recommended as it won’t leave scratches on the surface.

For stubborn stains, adhesive-removing liquids, such as denatured alcohol and acetone, can serve as the cleaning agent. Spray or apply a little on a microfiber cloth and gently wipe off the stain.

The Medium Is the Message, so Choose the Best

Your art is more than just an image on a digital device—it’s the true expression of your conscious will.

So, if you want to show your audience that you cherish your thoughts and ideas, you must find the best way to display your art.

Metal photo printing can produce vibrant, life-like art pieces that won’t fade easily, and that will last for a long time.

Here’s a table showing how metal prints compare to paper and acrylic:

Feature Metal Photo Panels Acrylic Sheets Acrylic Sheets
Durability Lasts 40+ years Relatively durable Lasts for approximately 3 years
Water resistance Highly resistant Not resistant Not resistant
Fade resistance Does not fade Fades Fades
Appearance High-definition, life-like images, with glossy coating Soft, glossy appearance Basic 2D look

Even then, the quality of your metal photo art panels will depend on the techniques and materials that your printing company chooses for you.

At Shiny Prints, we use high quality tools, materials, and techniques to preserve those special memories for you.

Here’s what some of our customers have had to say about us:

“Shiny Prints are extremely knowledgeable, and their customer service is top-notch. Their metal prints are of the highest quality and I’ve always had incredible results with them. Highly recommended!” Sam Farkas

Feel free to reach out to us by phone at 866-236-7035, and we’ll make your dream a reality.

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