Acrylic, Metal or Photographic Paper? The Best Fine Art Print Mediums Explained
These days, you can have your photographs printed onto almost anything. Care to see your photos printed on a natural plank of wood freshly cut from a tree? No problem. A slab of cold steel? You betcha. How about a t-shirt, coffee cup or a backpack? Consider it done my friend. In fact, you can have it printed onto sequins, that when brushed in the opposite direction, reveal a kaleidoscope of metallic rainbows. Now you know you want to see that! Printing technologies have come a very long way in recent decades providing new and exciting opportunities for both artists and art collectors alike, but which of the mediums available are the best of the best? Keep reading to learn more starting with the more traditional and least expensive option, through a solid mid range choice and ultimately to what I believe is the very best your money can buy.
1. FujiFlex Crystal Archive Super Gloss | Traditional Photographic Paper Prints
What is FujiFlex Super Gloss? FujiFlex is a silver-halide digital photographic paper with a polyester-based coating. The Fuji website describes it as "A white polyester-based material for use with conventional and laser printers, FujiFlex Crystal Archive Printing Material produces rich image color and pure whites, with exceptional surface gloss and flatness." While there are many high quality fine art photographic papers available today, FujiFlex Super Gloss is my personal choice out of all photographic papers due to the high gloss surface and visual depth provided by the polyester-based surface material inherent of this print medium. Visually, the best way I can describe this paper is that it has the appearance of being wet due to the incredible high gloss surface.
FujiFlex is typically either framed traditionally, or face mounted to acrylic glass prior to being displayed. It is absolutely critical that some type of substrate be used to mount the print prior to framing. The reflective high gloss properties of Flex are absolutely gorgeous, but if hinge mounted or taped without any flat surface substrate prior to framing, the high gloss surface shows ripples in the paper that stick out like a sore thumb in changing light. For this reason alone, I have all of my SuperGloss prints mounted to 2mm styrene prior to shipping to my customers. I have experienced far too many subpar frame shops ruin prints trying to frame these pieces without dry mounting them first.
For many years, FujiFlex SuperGloss prints that had been face-mounted to acrylic glass were the go-to choice of high end photography galleries around the world. Many galleries still produce and sell face mounted Flex prints as their premium product. Face mounting Flex can be very challenging, as a single speck of dust or dirt adhering to the polyester surface will ruin the print when mounted. This is a very costly error at any size but especially so in large gallery level sizes of 45" or larger. Because of these challenges and the high operating and material costs, there are a limited number of consumer print shops who produce face mounted Flex prints.
While one of the most expensive photographic papers available, this type of print (prior to being face-mounted) is still far less costly than a finished, ready to hang metal or acrylic face-mounted print. The downside of course is that photographic paper prints like FujiFlex need to be mounted to some form of substrate and framed prior to being displayed. Especially true with larger photographic prints greater than 30" wide, this additional cost of mounting and framing brings the final cost up to or even in some cases surpassing the cost of a finished metal or acrylic print. As a result, photographic paper prints like FujiFlex make up less than 10% of my annual print sales. I would much rather see my customers spend their hard earned money on larger, higher quality artwork then to dump needless costs into expensive eternal framing.
2. ChromaLuxe Sublimation Metal Prints
A relatively new technology, sublimation prints produced with ChromaLuxe panels are a favorite of many photographers and there are good reasons for this excitement. By infusing dyes directly into specially coated aluminum sheeting, ChromaLuxe offers a print medium showing results that are outstandingly clear and vibrant with exceptional detail. They are fade, water and scratch resistant. ChromaLuxe prints are also lightweight and are produced with a float mount arriving ready to hang with no additional framing required. The ChromaLuxe Metal prints that I offer can be produced with an additional 2mm styrene backboard and black museum mount for greater weight and a more polished, gallery quality look.
The combination of all of these benefits is the reason I recommend ChromaLuxe Metal Prints to a large majority of my business clients. When artwork may come in contact with the general public, the durability of ChromaLuxe is hard to beat and the lightweight nature of this material makes display and transportation a breeze, even for non-professionals. That being said, ChromaLuxe prints make up just over 20% of the work that I sell to my clients around the world.
Unfortunately, there are a few undeniable issues that must be taken into account when using ChromaLuxe for your fine art prints. The first and most critical of these is the possibility of innacurate color reproduction. While most colors can be produced close to the original image file there are others, most notably the color green, that simply give poor results to the non-discerning eye. Extremely fine details are also lost in some cases during the sublimation process, especially apparent in smaller scale prints.
Because a transfer paper is taped down to the ChromaLuxe panel and a heat press used during production, minor slippage of the transfer paper and "overcooking" the print is possible. Due to the relatively simple printing process, there are many "quick print" photo labs out there turning out poor quality prints that often times aren't even looked over for quality control. Finally, due to the way the substrate is produced by the manufacturer, in rare cases, metal prints can chip and flake, ruining a beautiful piece of art with no possible way to repair it. Because of the potential downsides of producing metal prints as fine art, when asked which print medium I ultimately recommend, my answer is always Lumachrome Acrylic Face Mounted Prints.