Dye sublimation on clear base aluminum

Stockdale order 31861 06-03-20 side-by-side

My experimentation/play series of organic abstraction during the COVID-19 pandemic has also included some printing evaluations using dye sublimation printing process on clear base aluminum. I have been working with three west-coast California print labs on this printing project and they all have a slight variation on what to call this process and medium such as HD Metal, Silver Aluminum, or Clear Base Aluminum. The alternative to the Clear Base is usually called ‘White’ Aluminum for which a white coating is applied to the aluminum substrate before the ‘HD photo transfer’ process is completed.

I was printing my new organic abstraction series on the Hahnemuehle Photo Rag Metallic, as I had the Memory Pods photographs, and I started thinking about the what-if for this new series as to how these might look on Aluminum? My initial curiosity was how the clear coat aluminum might compare to the H. Rag Metallic; would the clear base aluminum provide a similar shimmering effect?

Another option you need to choose is the finish, so I chose the glossy finish versus the matte or luster finish. Again, thinking about the potential comparison to the glossy appearance of the H. Rag Metallic.

I created a digital file for evaluation that included a ‘clear’ border, otherwise the labs would try to print the image full bleed on the aluminum substrate. With my H. Rag Metallic I was leaving some of the  paper unprinted to function as a pseudo-mat and then framing flush with the print. Thus I had envisioned that for the dye-sub printing on clear base aluminum that I would also have a floating image with the unprinted aluminum as a border (apparently not a common thing to do per the labs).

Above is the resulting dye-sub clear base aluminum print (left side) next to the image printed on the Hahnemuehle Photo Rag Metallic (right side). I left in the Kodak color and black scales if you need to adjust your monitor. As you might suspect, if I had included a side-by-side of the clear coat aluminum to a traditional white paper, such as the Hahnemuehle Photo Rag Pearl, the differences in color and contrast would be even more pronounced.

One initial issue I encountered is that none of the print labs wanted to provide an icc profile for the clear base aluminum printing. Apparently they have found that it does not help most artist and photographers to create a soft proof in their studio to anticipate the final results. Second, they state (mostly after the fact) that the dye-sub clear base aluminum is essentially a different beast related to the viewing conditions. I will agree with that second part; the clear base aluminum printing is really different. So this is going to be a hit or miss proposition with the file you send to print on the clear base aluminum.

All three of the dye-sub on the clear base aluminum prints from the print labs appeared essentially the same, with the metal print from MagaChrome having just a bit more color saturation. As Mark Hanson stated, ‘it all depends on where and how the light illuminates this print’. I found this to be true, placing the clear base aluminum in various places within my home drastically changed the appearance of the print. The images above were photographed in pretty flat and balanced lighting that I use in my studio to re-photograph books for PBJ. I have the umbrellas offset to further ensure this two-strobe lighting set-up will provide flat lighting I need for copying.

I also found that the direction of the light brushing of the aluminum has a small visual effect, obtaining both a vertical brush stroke and a horizontal brush stroke samples from Hanson Digital. The vertical brush stroke on the aluminum does create a slightly more contrasty image, although most of the labs will defer to the horizontal unless you specify otherwise.

So as far as the dye-sub on clear base coat aluminum compared to the H. Rag Metallic, I found the H. Rag Metallic had better resolving power (images are not as sharply defined, some softening is occuring), better dynamic range and better color renditions (all had some big color shifts to the oranges, yellows and green values). The metal prints on the other hand are not delicate and can take a lot of handling, thus no glass required for framing. It’s a different look and a different beast, with a printing process that might take some experimenting to tweak out what visual effects you want. I am also thinking that the clear base coat aluminum might be an interesting medium for black and white images; could create some moody darker images.

Finally, I found that the dye-sub on clear base coat aluminum did not provide the visual effects that I had pre-visualized and for my current organic abstractions I prefer the appearance of these new images on the H. Rag Metallic. I think in part of my disappointment was that the clear base aluminum translates what would be ‘paper white’ in an image to a light/middle gray (Zone VI?). Thus I am missing the highlights in the resulting image, while the H. Rag Metallic is similar in translating the ‘whites’ to the metallic base but provides a higher value compared to the clear base aluminum.

That said, there is the White Aluminum option, which will provide you with a print that appears very familiar to your regular white printing papers. I have started my testing with the White Aluminum as another alternative and the first sample looked pretty amazing. More about that later during our pandemic as I have a few more print samples to obtain.

Btw, the three print labs I evaluated were ArtBeat Studios (Irvine, CA), Hanson Digital (S.F., CA) and MagaChrome (Concord, CA). Personal I found all three to be very professional but I enjoyed my exchanges with Mark Hanson at Hanson Digital and Joshua Lutz at MagaChrome as being the two most responsive.

Note: Since this experimentation is complete and I do not plan to print this image again on the clear base aluminum, I will be selling three of the four of dye-sublimation aluminum prints. Please inquire if you are interested; print size is 8 x 10″.

Cheers & stay safe,



My other exhibitions and workshops:

The Photographers Eye’s gallery exhibition, Living and Photographing in the Time of COVID-19group virtual exhibition that includes two of my diptychs from the series A Developing Crisis. This online exhibition is from May 8th through August 1st, 2020.

Medium Photo 2020 Workshop: Developing a Creative Book workshop that I will be leading, is now rescheduled for September 24 – 27th, 2020, a four-day extended weekend workshop in San Diego.


Featured artwork; Untitled #6001, copyright 2020, Douglas Stockdale


One thought on “Dye sublimation on clear base aluminum

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  1. Fascinating! All thoughts I have been wondering about myself.
    Thank you for running these test. I trust your judgment completely and agree with your assessments, according to a few tests I’ve done myself. Nice work:)

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