Digital Photo Printing Materials 101
Without question, traditional photo printing methods such as darkroom development or lithography carry a distinct, even intangible quality that is inextricable from the craft. But as digital printing rapidly advances, beautiful prints of all styles and sizes become increasingly accessible to photographers with every year.
There are many reasons why a photographer may choose to display or distribute their work on digitally printed mediums: ease of replication, cost, time constraints, display environment, or personal preference, to name a few. But the overarching advantage of digital photo printing is flexibility. With so many different materials, dimensions and finishing options to choose from, digital printing makes it possible to achieve the exact specifications that best suit your specific use case.
Whether you’re a seasoned professional or are just starting out as a photographer, a familiarity with common photo printing materials can help your work look its best when it comes time for display. Here are four of the most common materials for digital printing, their unique advantages, and best practices.
Foam board is often used as backing for framing photographs, but it also makes for a low-cost and versatile printing material by itself. As a sheet of thick paper mounted to a polystyrene core, foam board is lightweight yet rigid enough to lie flat on its own. This makes foam board prints exceptionally easy to transport and hang, even in the most low-effort scenarios. Without framing, foam board mounted prints are light enough that they could easily adhere to a wall with just some masking tape or tacky on the back.
Foam board prints are not typically meant to be sold or displayed as fine art, and their low price reflects that. But foam board prints can be deceptively attractive for how inexpensive they are, and this utility makes them incredibly useful for short-term displays and promotional purposes. Foam board is an excellent solution for teaser prints, meant to entice visitors into an exhibition where they can see the real thing.
Just like with photo paper, foam board photo prints typically come with either a matte or glossy finish. Which finish you pick depends upon the image and how you would like the photograph to be displayed. It’s important to keep in mind that, should you order foam board prints from a large format printer, chances are the paper color will be a standard, bright white.
A matte finish has the advantage of being resistant to finger prints and glare-free. It also has an appearance that is soft and subdued, which it retains through glass. Black ink tends to take better to matte paper than to glossy paper, so photographs with many dark elements with subtle differences will look best on matte-finished foam board. Matte finishes can, however, give certain photographs a grainier look than might be desirable – especially if the image contains many high-contrast elements. It is also important to keep in mind that the matte finish on foam board prints is closer to inkjet paper than it is to photographic paper – this means that it should not be exposed to moisture. Not only will water weaken the surface of the print, but it will cause the inks to run.
Glossy finishes are prone to finger prints and glare, so be mindful when handling and setting up your print. But the advantage is that the gloss will repel moisture rather than absorb it like a matte finish would. A gloss finished foam board print is a popular choice for high-contrast or high-saturation photos. Compared with the more subdued look of a matte finish, the glossy finish has something of an eye-catching, promotional aesthetic. The glossy look is ideal for any image that may otherwise be printed as a poster: to promote a film, band, book, event, or magazine cover, for instance.
Foam board is cheap and lightweight, but looks a lot better than its low cost would suggest. That said, photos printed directly onto foam board don’t look quite as sophisticated as those printed onto quality photo paper and then mounted onto foam board for framing. But for single-use and promotional scenarios, a foam board photo print will do the job and look good all the while.
Printed using professional grade, transparent plexiglass, acrylic prints are among the more high-tech methods for photo printing. These prints are strikingly clear and have a highly modern aesthetic, due in no small part to the vibrancy of the colors and the almost 3D-effect of the image. Due to its plastic pane, an acrylic print is among the most indestructible options for photo prints. Acrylic prints are typically mounted with metal standoffs at the corners and are meant to be displayed without a frame.
Acrylic photo prints can go where you wouldn’t dare hang any other artwork. Water-resistant, UV-resistant, and dust-repellent, acrylic photo prints can even be mounted outdoors. And being so hard to damage, acrylic prints can be a dream come true for photographers who frequently move their prints between gallery spaces. But the acrylic look isn’t terribly versatile. The ultra-modern aesthetic of this type of photo print lends itself to trendier environments, more so than cozy or vintage ones.
There are two methods of creating acrylic photo prints, direct print or face mount. Direct printing is achieved by printing an image onto the plexiglass itself. This method is best for the print’s longevity, but the colors aren’t as vibrant as with face mounting. A face mounted acrylic print is first printed onto archival photo paper and then mounted beneath the pane. While this method allows for a broader spectrum of colors and higher image clarity, it is a bit more susceptible to water damage than with direct printing. Face mounting is also a very painstaking process, and pricing reflects this.
Super vibrant images that have elements of translucence or depth really shine on acrylic. Acrylic can capture almost any color on the printable color spectrum, while materials like canvas can only reproduce a fraction of them. Acrylic can handle high saturation images that would look over-processed on other materials. Photos taken in or of water, long exposure shots, and night time cityscapes look especially striking on acrylic, where the plexiglass adds an extra dimensional feel. However, the almost surreal vibrancy of an acrylic photo print is not to everyone’s taste. Some find acrylic to have a synthetic appearance. Furthermore, the plexiglass surface is highly reflective, so beware the glare.
Acrylic photo prints are eye-catching, resilient, modern, and expensive. The aesthetic nature of acrylic is very present in these prints, enhancing the color and clarity of a photograph and giving the print a distinct polish. Be sure that the ultra-modern feel of this material is a good match for the subject of your photo and the display environment.
This classic and popular print method is achieved by printing a photo onto archival grade canvas, then stretching it over and stapling it to a wooden frame. The end result is a textured print whose image bleeds off into edges of the frame and resembles the look of original oil or acrylic paintings. Canvas prints are ready to hang by themselves, but can also be framed. Light weight and long lasting, these prints are also relatively inexpensive for their utility and longevity.
Because of their classic feel and ease of display, canvas photo prints have become a popular method for non-photographers to create attractive prints of family photos. Experienced photographers, however, tend to be a bit more sparing with their praise for canvas. On the one hand, canvas prints offer a distinctive look and ease of display that is unbeatable for the price point. On the other hand, canvas is simply not the best material for image vibrancy or clarity. Canvas can only reproduce about two thirds of the printable color spectrum, and the texture of canvas isn’t always ideal depending on the image.
But there are many scenarios in which a canvas print is particularly fitting. Since canvas photos do not require framing, canvas gives the most photo for the least amount of wall space. Canvas looks particularly good paneled, with an image printed onto multiple canvases hung side by side. Photographs that have painting-like qualities and rich, earthy colors are great fits for canvas printing. Matte canvas photo prints also work particularly well as photo large backdrops or huge panoramas, for example in a theater production, since the canvas is glare-free can be stretched to fit dimensions that would be prohibitively expensive with any other material.
When printing to canvas, be prepared to crop your photograph. The image will need to bleed off onto the frame, so experiment with different dimensions to ensure that you’re actually happy with the front-facing end result. It is also possible to print just the front-facing surface and leave the wrapped edges unprinted, but some find this look to appear “unfinished.”
When printing on canvas, pick your image carefully. The texture of the material can sometimes be distracting, and some fine details and shadows can lose their richness. Using high resolution files can minimize these problems considerably.
Canvas is among the most affordable methods for printing display-ready photography. But although the material definitely has its charm, especially for images with a painting-like quality, canvas is not ideal for color vibrancy or image clarity.
Dibond photo prints are achieved by printing an image onto a white-coated, aluminum composite panel mounted to a polyethylene foam core. Images printed to dibond come out vivid and clear, with the brightest areas of the photos maintaining a satiny shimmer – an effect that is striking and impressive. Because the core of dibond is polyethylene foam, and not aluminum, dibond photo prints are much lighter-weight than they look. The material is also archival and therefore suitable for long term use and display. Dibond prints can be hung frameless with integrated mounts, but can be framed without glass for a more finished look. Though a dibond print could save you the cost of a frame, these prints, especially larger ones, tend to be pricey due to the specialized equipment necessary for production.
Dibond photo prints look very sleek and bring sophisticated visual interest to spaces designed with a modern, minimalist feel. Though a matte finish cuts down on glare, the aluminum still casts soft reflections of light such that the print has a subtle glowing appearance. The industrial, metallic appearance of dibond prints looks particularly good in environments that utilize a lot of stone or brick, where canvas may appear very dull. Dibond is resistant to moisture and sunlight, so it can be displayed in most any indoor area without much threat of deteriorating over time. As a bonus, you can actually clean the surface as you would your kitchen counter tops.
When printing photos onto aluminum, it’s important to keep in mind that the material will have a huge impact on the appearance of your print. Black and white photos with drastic lighting, land scape photos with lots of white space, and modern architecture photography look especially good in an aluminum dibond print format. Bright and metallic areas of the photograph will literally shine on dibond. The kind of soft glow that dibond gives off, however, is not the best effect for images that have a lot of crisp details, which tend to become a bit blurred or subdued against the metallic surface.
Dibond photo prints certainly have a sleek, gallery-ready appearance and an eye-catching glow. While they can make some photos truly shine, particularly those with drastic lighting, this comes with the loss of some crisp detail and at a considerable fee. But as a subdued and sophisticated alternative to acrylic, dibond is long lasting and low-maintenance enough to be worth the investment.
Stuck trying to decide between two photo printing materials? The comparisons below can help you decide which material is best for your photo, display environment, and budget.
It would be hard to compare two photo printing materials that are more dissimilar than metal and canvas. For one thing, metal photo prints are much more expensive than canvas photo prints due to the special equipment they demand and the labor-intensity of creating them. Another point of distinction is the fact that metal prints can endure much harsher display conditions than canvas prints can. If you plan to display your print outdoors, in direct sunlight, or in a place where it may often be touched, a metal print is the longer-lasting option.
In terms of aesthetics, there are some important differences when deciding between a metal print vs canvas. The dibond material of metal prints will have a huge impact on the appearance of your print, making any white space in the photo shine. It is best suited for photographs with drastic lighting, stark contrasts, or that have modern architecture or technology as their subject. The metallic glow they give off does come with the lost of some crisp detail. If you want an ultra-modern looking print, a metal print is the way to go over canvas. However canvas prints are better suited for photos with lots of earthy colors and an almost painting-like quality, so opt for canvas if you desire a more classic look.
If price point is an important consideration for you, canvas prints are by far the less expensive option in comparison with acrylic prints. But if the longevity and durability of your print is important, acrylic is a material built to last. While canvas will degrade if exposed to too much direct sunlight, moisture, or curious hands, acrylic can take a beating from the elements and even be displayed outdoors.
When comparing acrylic prints vs canvas prints, it is important to note how different these two materials are aesthetically. Acrylic is favored for making colors pop and for giving prints an almost 3D appearance. If your intended display area is modern and colorful, acrylic could be the perfect fit. But if you desire a less flashy, more classic look, canvas prints have a much subtler and less in-your-face appeal to them. You should also be aware that acrylic is susceptible to glare, where canvas is not.
While both materials produce attractive and low-cost photo prints, canvas is the material we recommend for long term display. Not only does a canvas photo print come mounted and ready to hang, but it has a much more finished and professional look that lends well to being a permanent fixture in your home, business, or gallery. While foam board prints are deceptively attractive for their extremely low price, without a frame they appear unfinished and are extremely susceptible to damage. We recommend foam board photo prints for temporary displays only.
If you have money to invest in your photo print are seeking a bold and distinctive printing material and display solution, acrylic and metal prints are two of the best materials to consider. Both materials are long-lasting, durable, modern in appearance, and suited to frameless, floating display. Their differences come down to the appearance of the print itself, and how well suited your photo is to each medium.
For high-saturation photos that play with perspective, we recommend acrylic as your photo printing material. Not only do colors come out incredibly bright and crisp when printed with acrylic, but your print will have something of a 3D effect to it that can make your photo appear to be popping out at you.
For more minimalist or subdued photos where contrast is more important than saturation, metal prints are the better option. Printing photos on aluminum causes negative space to glow in a diffuse way, which looks especially great with monochromatic photos.