The standard way to print photos is on paper, but I'm noticing in particular two alternatives that are starting to make a bit push, namely Metal and Canvas. So, my question is, why would I want to print on any medium besides paper, and what types of prints are suited for these and any other alternative mediums that might exist?

EDIT: I'm looking for something to hang on the wall, so feel free to ignore any kind of merchandise, cake, or whatever else might be around. Thanks!

  • 1
    mugs are a common support as well.
    – mouviciel
    Feb 23 '11 at 14:32
  • They do glass printing here and you get to choose a background and foreground image. I've never seen metal.
    – Itai
    Feb 23 '11 at 14:41
  • 1
    Printing on vinyl is possible too. It is used for very large prints, since it makes it easier to stick on a hard backing than paper (which I tried without success :( several times, unrolling 8 feet of paper perfectly flat is not easy).
    – Itai
    Feb 23 '11 at 14:43
  • 3
    Is it bad that I immediately thought 'alternative media' instead of 'mediums'? Maybe too much Latin in high school...
    – mmr
    Feb 23 '11 at 17:39
  • 1
    @mmr — yeah, I'm changing it. Mediums are for communicating with dead relatives. :)
    – mattdm
    Mar 6 '11 at 6:51

Canvas prints, sometimes also called Canvas Giclée, are very similar to traditional pigment on canvas paintings. So any time you're trying to fit into an "old world" type of environment, they are a very attractive option. The traditional stretched option lines up well for framing just like an old painting would, and the gallery wrap options mimmic more modern applications of canvas by painters. Plus the newer "thin wrap" style of canvas gives a smaller and lighter hanging/mounting option, while preserving the traditional canvas look. (In theory I suppose you could say it's comparable to the old masters that glued their canvas to planks of wood before painting them... so we've gone full circle.) I should also note that there are places that will transfer emulsion onto canvas as well, printing on paper, then wet stripping the emulsion layer and bonding it to a layer of canvas.

As ahockley noted, the ink bleed from the printing process can sometimes lower the sharpness of the image, so this shouldn't be used if you have to have an absolutely razor sharp image, especially up close or for a small print size.

Metal prints have a very industrial feel to them. One of the first places I've seen these become popular was in shops and garages of racing folks. When you think about it, they're very similar to a car body panel... thin metal (usually Aluminium) with a layer of image (special dyes instead of paint) covered by top coats of clear protectant (pretty much the same stuff the high end car painters use). In the US, BayPhoto are the masters at this IMHO, I have a few here in the house from them, have seen a number of them, and have sold a couple.

They generally are "ready to hang", you take them out of the box and put them on the wall. No framing, etc needed. Combine that with the very sleek industrial feel and they're quire popular with a lot of folks that don't want the same old same old.

There are a number of finishing options with metal prints, but to me, the "prototypical" example is the high gloss finish. This really gives a huge pop to high contrast images like fireworks, or deeply saturated images.

Another alternative "media" you didn't mention is Acrylic. fotoflōt do these very well. It's kind of like the float mount metal prints above, in that it's a sheet of acrylic with your photo bonded to it and the edges laser cut. They have an additional flair in that the acrylic then is mounted to the wall with magnets. Now, having said all that... it isn't really an alternative media. At best it is alternative mounting/framing/presentation... as it involves printing on traditional emulsions on paper first. Then bonding that to the acrylic. But really, you'd never know it to look at it, and everyone seems to consider it a media. Personally, I don't own any fotoflōts, but the ones I've seen have really looked great, seemingly no mater what the image was. If it looks good printed it will look good mounted that way.

A forth option, and I can't believe I didn't think of it before: duratrans in a lightbox. I believe DPI-SF does the lightboxes at our HQ building, which includes a number of amazing lightbox images. This makes for literally glowing images. I'm not sure exactly what would be the ideal image profile for this, but lots of stuff seems to look good so far. (There's another lightbox at HQ that's even better than those three, but I can't seem to find a shot of it online.)

  • I don't think giclée is usually specifically meant to apply to canvas prints. It's a word used to make high-quality inkjet prints sound fancy and artsy. Unfortunately, it's also French slang related to its meaning of "spurt", which may be one reason the term has fallen from favor after a brief period of popularity.
    – mattdm
    Mar 6 '11 at 7:01
  • very good point @mattdm, adjusting to account for that.
    – cabbey
    Mar 6 '11 at 7:08
  • There are places that print on wood now as well. woodsnap.com
    – camflan
    Feb 6 '13 at 13:52

To address the two specific materials you mentioned:

Canvas is a great way to show larger works. Canvas is often best viewed from a distance; the textured surface means that things will look a little fuzzy/funky up close. On the other hand this can be a bonus in that a tack-sharp image isn't always necessary.

Metal prints work well for images of all sizes. Unlike a large paper print that's matted and framed under glass, a metal print is usually done on aluminum and is very light weight even at larger sizes such as 16x20. Metal prints are available in a variety of finishes including a high-gloss surface or a matte surface.

I've recently started pushing metal prints for my friends/clients who want to do wall displays - they're light weight, don't require framing, and are pretty easy to clean (my Bay Photo rep indicated one can just use glass cleaner).

  • Metal printing looks really interesting. I am keen to try it out.
    – labnut
    Feb 23 '11 at 18:29
  • I searched for metal prints and found Bay Photo; how has your experience with them been?
    – Evan Krall
    Feb 24 '11 at 6:20
  • 1
    I've had good experiences with Bay Photo both direct and via SmugMug - never had a problem w/ an order.
    – ahockley
    Feb 24 '11 at 15:54

You can also print on t-shirts, mousepads, jigsaws, tablemats...

In terms of wall hangings the main options are canvas and acrylic.

Canvas suits more abstract photos and to some extent covers up for detail lost through enlargement etc. that is to say it's less demanding on sharpness to look good. You can also print on the sides and give the price a chunky 3-D quality. Being able to print right to the edge negates the need for a frame. The overall effect is very modern, quite unlike a canvas painting in fact.

Acrylic (plexiglas) prints are sharp and very vibrant which suit photos with saturated colours. They also go up with out a frame and have a crisp modern look. This sort of print also benefits from the fact it can be backlit for even more contrast / strong colours.

  • 1
    It took me a minute to realize you were talking about jigsaw puzzles, not actual jigsaws.
    – Evan Krall
    Feb 24 '11 at 5:08

Canvas gives an "arty" feel to a photo, like someone took the time to make a very lifelike painting.

Another printed medium is cake, for birthdays etc. People print on cake so they can eat it. :-P


you can print on anything on which you can spread an emulsion. Paper is simply the most convenient.

Do a quick search for "liquid light" to get you started.

If you're asking about inkjet printing, I would think you'd need specialty printers and inks for different applications.


You can also print on self-adhesive vinyl, as the signage industry does.
See this answer for more details


I print a lot on Canvas, with really thick frame using the Gallery Wrap approach.
It looks great, in my opinion it is the best way to display photographs.

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