Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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What are ways to get a trouble-free photo-quality image on a large hard surface?

It's been a while I am considering selling panoramas between 6 and 12 feet wide on Neoluminance but I have been troubled by difficulties creating a product that is:

  1. Photographic quality equal to professional prints. At least 240dpi with a full color-gamut and tonality range.
  2. Rigid but not too heavy for easy hanging and handling.
  3. Smooth and bubble-free.
  4. Durable as professional prints.

Most of my efforts involve getting a print done by a large-format printer and fixing it to corrugated plastic, acid-free foam-core, cardboard and the like. Troubles spots:

  1. Fixing the photo perfectly to the backing without creating bubbles or folds.
  2. Insufficient rigidity. Corrugated plastic was good, the other backings no.
  3. Too heavy. Lamination is not available at the needed sizes, but already too heavy at smaller sizes.
  4. Some places were not capable of cutting to exact dimensions and only supplied fixed aspect-ratio media.
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3 Answers 3

Go to the signage printing industry

Sometimes technology intended for one industry is perfect for another industry and this is a case in point. Find a small business near you that specialises in printing large vinyl signs for the advertising industry. Their rates are usually significantly cheaper than photographic printing and the results are every bit as good. And they have some advantages. The printed surface is waterproof, abrasion resistant and fade resistant in direct sunlight for five years.

Normally printing is done using a printer such as the Roland Versacam 540 on self adhesive vinyl rolls, from a company like Oracom, with a peel off backing layer.

Once printed, the backing layer is peeled off and the print is adhered onto a suitable substrate. I mount my panoramas on white 0.9 mm ABS plastic. This is commonly used in the advertising industry for mounting large display adverts. It is easily cut and mounted. This avoids the formidable costs of framing and mounting.

The scary part is trying to adhere a self adhesive 2m long panorama without wrinkles or bubbles. In fact it is amazingly easy once you know the tricks of the trade. Your signage company will be happy to show you. In outline, you peel away the backing and spray on a very dilute water/detergent solution (very dilute!). The adhesive is no longer sticky and you can easily position the print on your mount. Now you squeegee the excess water out until you have a wrinkle and bubble free result. The print is now firmly bonded to the substrate. Oracom make an excellent fabric squeegee and this is what makes all the difference, don't use anything else.

I printed and mounted many large panoramas in this way (to the dismay of my wife who is reluctantly conceding all the wall space) and can attest to the fact that it is inexpensive, quick and simple to do.

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Will a sign printer support wide color gamut and 240ppi though? I've had some signs printed in the past, and they probably had at best 150ppi (probably more around 100ppi), and the color was rather limited (they were signs, after all, not fine art prints.) –  jrista Mar 28 '11 at 21:05
    
The results I have had are stunning with 1440 x 720 DPI. The new generation of signage printers produce good results. I have compared it with conventional photographic printing and could see no difference. Here are some specs: rolanddga.com/products/printcut/versa/… I can assure you that signage printing is not what you think it is. –  labnut Mar 28 '11 at 21:17
    
Now, you stated DPI. DPI and PPI are not the same thing. When you say 1440x720 DPI, what exactly is that referring to? What was the actual resolution printed at? I can't imaging anyone printing at 720ppi for a sign of multi-foot dimensions...that would be an astounding waste of ink, to say nothing else. ;) At 1440x720 dpi, that would mean you could have a maximum resolution (PPI) of about 360, for a moderate tonal rage, or 180 for a more useful tonal range. I'm assuming this printer halftones images? –  jrista Mar 28 '11 at 22:16
    
@jrista, please read the printer specs, they say DPI. Please explain how you arrive at your number of 360 PPI? –  labnut Mar 28 '11 at 22:34
2  
The printer specs do state it is a wide gamut printer, so I am assuming that its normal print resolution is probably around half the 720x360 sated before, or 360x180. That should allow enough dots per pixel to support a decent color gamut. To contrast this with the print gamut kings: Epson's DPI is 2880x1440, with a max resolution of 720ppi. Canon's DPI is 4800x2400, with a max resolution of 600ppi. Epson and Canon achieve extreme gamut due to both DPI and range of ink, which tends to be 9-12 distinct ink colors. –  jrista Mar 28 '11 at 22:43

You might want to look into "Art Block Mounting" or "Plaque Mounting". Both are different forms of hard surface, laminated art mounting, wherein the print is glued to the smooth (nearly polished, but not quite so) surface of MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard), then the whole print is laminated to seal it and provide some permanence. The print itself should be whatever you want it to be...so you should have the freedom to print at any resolution. Printing at 240ppi should be perfectly doable for a 6x12 foot print, but anything from 150-720ppi, depending on the printer, should be possible as well...since you are simply laminating a print to an MDF base.

There are a few professional landscape photographers I know of (can't remember their sites at the moment, I'll try to dig up the links later today) that only provide their prints mounted in this fashion. It works for very large prints (I've seen 4x5" large formats for sale up to around 6 feet or so, however I don't see any reason laminated MDF mounting wouldn't work up to 6x12 feet.

I don't really know of any professional print labs that actually do the MDF laminating for you, that part, as far as I know, is up to you...unless you can find a print shop that does offer such a service.

As for your requirements. A laminated print mounted on MDF should be fairly bubble free, however there is always the chance of a few small bubbles when laminating. At 6" x 12", an MDF base is going to be fairly heavy, unless you choose one that is very thin (less than 3/8ths of an inch), and you are going to lose some rigidity that way. The panoramic nature of your prints is going to make it difficult to find any kind of ideal balance between weight, rigidity, and safety...thats a monstrous print. Most of the time, I think these art block type prints are hung from wires in the ceiling and hooked to maintain the right amount of support.

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Plaque Mounting is promising. I found several places that go to 8' wide and they either accept prints or do their own on photographic paper of various types. No such luck with Art Block Mounting. I'll report back when I get the first results. Given pricing though, I'm starting smaller to see the quality and finished product. –  Itai Apr 2 '11 at 3:32
    
Art block mounting is just a variation on a theme. You still mount the print to MDF, but the border is usually higher quality wood with nice grain, maybe 1/2" thick possibly less, mounted to the sides of the MDF. Sometimes the wood is painted, but the general idea is to get the nice wood grain. Art block mounts are usually deeper than plaque mounts...usually an inch or two, where as plaque mounts are pretty thin. –  jrista Apr 2 '11 at 5:05

You might want to check out White Wall. They can print to these hard surfaces, in wonderfully large sizes.

I originally found out about this site from this answer.

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1  
Sadly they stop at 70 inches... Their products do look nice and very polished. –  Itai Apr 1 '11 at 21:19
    
Aw! Bummer!!!!! –  BBischof Apr 2 '11 at 3:04

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