Paper, Metal, Canvas, Acrylic...there are a lot of choices nowadays for photographic print mediums and it can be hard to decide which is best when placing an order! Many people aren't sure up front what will best fit their needs and budget, so in this post I'm going to detail the relative comparisons for each material against several different criteria. Note that due to web host limitations only paper and metal prints of common sizes are available for purchase on my website. But I am happy to print custom sizes, canvas, or acrylic on request - just use the Contact form on my website to let me know which image, size, and material you require!
My general "quick recommendations" are, in order of my personal preference:
- Metal: Choose metal if you want the greatest "bang for the buck" in terms of print quality and durability.
- Acrylic: Choose acrylic if price is no object and the print will not be touched/handled/brushed against once it is hung.
- Paper: Choose paper if you want the traditional matted & framed look or to match other matted & framed artwork in your space.
- Canvas: Choose canvas if you want a large print but metal or acrylic are not within the budget.
If the above recommendations are enough to help you decide, read no further! For those who really want to dive into the lengthy nitty-gritty comparisons, then grab a nice cup of tea (or coffee if that's your thing, but I prefer tea) and continue on...
Traditional Paper Prints
Inkjet printing on a good photo paper produces a high-quality print which must then be matted and framed for display. I typically print on a smooth photo paper with a metallic satin finish. This paper shows a lot of fine detail and has a bit of luminescence which accentuates the light within my photos.
- PAPER PROS:
- Results in a high-quality print retaining a lot of detail.
- Provides the least expensive option for the print itself (though framing options determine the final cost).
- Mat and frame color and style can be selected by the buyer to accentuate both the photograph and the space in which it will hang.
- Frame glazing can be reflective or anti-glare to fit ambient lighting.
- Tends to present a clean, classical, traditional presentation for those who prefer that style.
- PAPER CONS:
- More prone to fading due to UV exposure than the other types of prints unless framed with UV-blocking glass or acrylic which can be quite expensive.
- If framed with high-quality materials the price of a finished piece can be just as expensive as a metal or acrylic print.
- Both the paper and its matting can warp or mildew if exposed to steam or humidity. In these cases the frames should be sealed with moisture barrier, further increasing cost. Likewise, dust can get between the glazing and the print surface unless the frame is sealed.
- If glass is used for the frame's glazing, it can shatter (and potentially damage the print surface in doing so). If acrylic is used instead, it will scratch easily.
Canvas Gallery Wrap Prints
The photo is printed by inkjet onto a sheet of canvas, which is then stretched around a lightweight wooden frame so that the edges of the print display wrapped around the sides of the frame. The canvas is typically coated with a spray that provides a degree of UV-protection, and can have a matte, satin, or shiny finish applied.
- CANVAS PROS:
- Canvas wraps don't require framing but also aren't as expensive as metal or acrylic prints, meaning canvas is the most economical way to print large.
- A UV-protectant is sprayed onto the canvas to help delay fading.
- Canvas printing lends a more "painterly" feel to a finished piece, for those who prefer that style.
- Canvas prints are the lightest weight of the options for any given size.
- CANVAS CONS:
- The texture of canvas tends to compete with detail in a print. The picture quality of a canvas print won't look as "crisp" as the same print done on one of the other options.
- Canvas also isn't as reflective and can "eat light"; therefore it needs a well-lit space in order to pop. Even a glossy-finished canvas is not going to be as bright as the other options.
- Like paper, canvas can warp or mildew if exposed to moisture and is therefore not a good choice for places like bathrooms or kitchens where there may be steam.
- Stretched canvas can also puncture or stain.
- While UV-protectant spray will extend its lifetime, canvas is still more prone to fading than metal or acrylic.
A "mirror image" of the photo is printed by inkjet onto a heat-safe sheet of transfer paper using specialized sublimation inks. The transfer paper is then faced down onto an Chromaluxe aluminum blank which has a polymer coating bonded to its surface. That package is then put into a heat press at about 400 degrees. This process vaporizes the inks which are absorbed into the coating on the aluminum. Metal prints can have either a high-gloss, satin, or matte finish.
- METAL PROS:
- Metals can be either mounted to a frame block which floats it off of the wall for a modern look, or unmounted so they can be inserted into a frame.
- Print quality is very high. The smooth surface of metal shows all the available detail from the print and has a vibrant, high-contrast look. People often describe metal prints as appearing "high def" or assume that they are backlit.
- Metal is also highly reflective and can look great even in dimly-lit spaces. Choice of glossy, satin, or matte finishes can further optimize the print for the lighting in its space.
- Metal prints done on Chromaluxe blanks (this is what I use) are extremely resistant to fading or discoloration. ***Note that cheaper metal prints such as those done at Costco are done with a different brand of aluminum. These cheaper blanks do yellow over time - you get what you pay for!***
- Metal prints are very durable. They will not warp or corrode in humid conditions so are good choices for bathrooms or kitchens. They are more scratch-resistant than the other print options.
- Cleaning metal prints is as simple as using a microfiber cloth and a little water if needed.
- METAL CONS:
- Quality metal prints (using Chromaluxe blanks) are more expensive than the same-sized canvas or a cheaply framed paper print.
- Edges of the print can be bent, or the coating can be nicked if dropped.
Acrylic Face Mounted Prints
Acrylic prints start out as a regular paper print. An optically clear adhesive is applied to the front surface of the paper, and this is then adhered to a clear sheet of UV-blocking acrylic. A backing material is sealed to the back of the paper to protect it from moisture. It's like a sealed framed print, without the mat or frame!
- ACRYLIC PROS:
- Just like a paper print, the print quality is very high and shows a lot of detail.
- Like a metal print, acrylics can be mounted off the wall for a modern, "floating" look, or can be inserted into a frame for a traditional look.
- A choice of glossy or anti-glare acrylic lets the buyer optimize for the lighting conditions of the room.
- The acrylic facing blocks most UV, so the print is going to be extremely resistant to fading or discoloration.
- Because the print is sealed, it can also withstand humid conditions.
- The acrylic facing is thicker than a metal print, giving it a more "high end" feel compared to metal.
- ACRYLIC CONS:
- Acrylic is the most expensive of all the print options, costing on average about 30% more than the same-sized metal print.
- The surface of an acrylic print scratches *extremely* easily - even fingernails can scratch acrylic. Extreme care must be taken when handling or cleaning the print to avoid scratching it! (Incidentally, this is why I do not display acrylics in my booth at shows - the potential for damage is too high.)
- Acrylic can also smudge easily. For cleaning, you have to use a product formulated especially for acrylic such as Brillianize.