How-To: Go beyond OS X Photos + make amazing wall art from your Mac’s pictures (Part 3)
History will remember the early 21st Century as a turning point for photography — the point at which mainstream photos transitioned from chemical to digital, thereby becoming “print optional” for the first time. Although digital photography has taken small annual steps for 20 years, those steps have collectively evolved early, uselessly low-resolution digital cameras into superior alternatives to their film-based predecessors. Even the tiny cameras built into iPhones take much better-quality photos than Kodaks and Polaroids, and more of them, too: the days of 12-, 24-, or 36-exposure film cartridges and fading exposures are long gone, replaced by all but infinite burst-mode photos that can live on your computer forever.
But some photos deserve a more prominent display in your home than a vault in your computer’s photo library. Apple has known this since the dawn of digital photography. Since iPhoto launched in 2002, Apple has offered photo and book printing services, a feature later added to Aperture and OS X Photos. Yet even though Canon, Sony, and Nikon have introduced high- and ultra-high-resolution cameras capable of creating huge prints, Apple hasn’t updated its apps with new large-format print options. That’s where this How-To series comes in.
It’s possible to use Photos to create large paper prints, but there’s a lot of exciting large-format photo printing work being done now with other materials, including metal, glass, and canvas. Part 1 of this How-To guide looked at large-format metal prints, and Part 2 looked at canvas and glass prints, with tips on composing large-format images. This third and final part looks at several additional options: turning your photos into hand-painted art, printing on brushed silver aluminum, and large-format “behind acrylic glass” photo printing. Each is different from the prior prints we covered, and one is the most beautiful large photo-to-wall art process I’ve yet seen…
Turn Your Photos Into Hand-Painted Art on Canvas
In part 2 of this guide, I looked at a process that uses computers to print latex paint onto a canvas — effectively a giclée, turning a photo into something that’s more organic but not quite a painting. Although I really liked the giclée-style result, I wondered how different a hand-painted canvas based on a photo would actually look. So I reached out to Nations Photo Lab, which offers “Genna Effect” hand-painted canvases ranging from 8″ by 10″ ($110-$140) to 30″ by 30″ ($360-$440), with the lower numbers representing a 1.75″ frame depth versus the higher numbers at a more dramatic 2.5″ frame depth. Nations’ Genna Effect begins in a giclée-like way, printing your photo on a canvas, but then an artist goes through and hand-paints over the photo with latex, creating a truly one-of-a-kind piece of art. The result looks unlike a photo — and in my opinion, much more beautiful.
Nations has a special standalone desktop app called ROES, which is — according to the company’s web site — required to set up your hand-painted canvas. Although it could use a little streamlining, the app allows you to upload your image, choose its cropping for either wrap-around photo edges or black/white borders, and select which edge the hanger will be on. If you choose the hand-painted canvas option, you may or may not see it under the app’s list of choices; in that case, you can use live online chat or contact the company via the phone to finalize your order.
I deliberately chose a somewhat challenging image because I wanted to see how abstract or realistic the end result of an artist’s hand-painted work would be. After going through a collection of possible photos, I selected a street scene with a variety of fine details, gradients, people and objects that could really be rendered in a variety of ways by an artist. And I was blown away by the end result — so much so that I just kept saying “wow” after opening the box.
While super-fine details were preserved through the photo transferring process, so much of the piece was composed of fine, medium, and large human brushstrokes that the image truly and completely looks like a painting. If anything, the photograph actually comes alive to a greater extent under the artist’s hand, as the gradient of the sky becomes more interestingly uneven, while the rest of the scene — shot in 2013 — looks like it could have been painted a half-century ago. It’s a unique way of making an image look both timeless and museum-worthy.
The hanging hardware and 1.75″ box framing also are gallery-quality. Nations includes two rubber pads to protect the bottom of the canvas when hung on the wall, as well as a solid wire mount that will work with a self-provided wall screw. I’d call the overall package of large-format imaging, hand-painting, frame design and mounting hardware on par with the very best of the other prints I tested.
While the total cost of Nations’ hand-painted canvases is higher than some of the rival options I’ve tested, the results are simply spectacular — truly a case of getting what you paid for. The company also does a good job of providing advance information on the turnaround time from image submission to delivery. Expect the painting to take two or three weeks due to the significant human involvement in its creation. When it arrives, I’m confident that you’ll be as impressed as I was with the results.
Metal Prints That Actually Look Like Metal
In Part 1 of this Guide, I looked at metal printing processes that produced large, glossy prints — ones that turned out to be extremely similar in detail and appearance to the glass prints I featured in Part 2, but noticeably brighter. I wondered what would happen with an image that was itself very metallic, if it was printed using a process that was designed to look like metal, not glass. The test image I chose was of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (above), famously designed by Frank Gehry from titanium and stone.
For this service, I tested AdoramaPix, the printing division of the popular photography and electronics retailer Adorama. AdoramaPix has some very unique metal photo printing options, including eight different metal shapes ranging from boxes to circles, hearts and “designer shapes,” as well as four metal finishes: glossy white, white satin, glossy silver, or silver satin. Its web site makes selecting a shape, finish, size, and price extremely easy, and I was thrilled by both the speed and the cropping of my print: Adorama has the fastest (several day) turnaround I’ve seen, and my image wasn’t cropped in any way from what I submitted. The only issue: there’s no way to easily preview how a photo would look with each of the finishes. What you see above, mainly text, is the only guidance you get before making a purchase.
I knew I didn’t want to go glossy for this metallic print, but didn’t know whether “white satin” or “silver satin” would be better based on the cartoony material renditions on the AdoramaPix site. As the choices suggest, I could have picked from neutral white or silver tones, but really wanted to see how a “silver satin” metal print looked because so much of the image was metallic. The result — my fault for choosing silver — was to turn blues into blue-grays and cool the gold tones in the original image, among other color accuracy issues. In retrospect, “white satin” would have been the better pick if I wanted a non-gloss surface, and glossy white for something comparable to the glossy prints I tested.
Although the silver satin process doesn’t pop with color, it provides a surface finish that’s distinctively metallic, akin to brushed aluminum. You can see the brush lines running through the image, reflecting light in a manner that is far more characteristically metallic than the glossy metal prints I’ve seen. Viewed up close, pixel-level detail preservation is generally good, though fine color distinctions can get lost in favor of flattened shades, a change Adorama discloses ahead of time by referring to the process as producing foil-like results. In short, this particular finish might not be ideal for the sample photo I used, but it would be my first choice if I was producing collectible movie posters for a Terminator movie.
AdoramaPix’s prices are even more aggressive than Mpix’s, starting at $20 for your choice of a 5″ by 5″ or 5″ by 7″ print, $25 for an 8″ by 10″, all the way up to $200 for a 30″ by 30″. The price for the 20″ by 30″ sample shown here was $135, or $20 less than a comparably-sized Mpix print. But whereas Mpix included mounting hardware, the AdoramaPix print I received was a simple sheet of metal — a bummer as I had to find a way to mount it on the wall myself. Once you add the costs of a 20″ by 30″ foam core board, a hook, and a wall screw, the prices are a lot closer.
This particular version of metal printing isn’t for everyone, and the low price does come with a caveat or two, but the results are so entirely different from glossy metal printing that some photos could really benefit from the process. My advice would be to consider AdoramaPix’s white satin if color accuracy is a concern, going with silver satin solely if you want a heavily metallic end result.
Last But Not Least: Acrylic Photo Printing
The last of the prints I tested was from WhiteWall, which produces (and quickly ships) large-format photo prints in Cologne, Germany. Originally, my plan was to test the company’s “Direct Print Behind Acrylic” service, which does a six-color printing directly on clear acrylic glass — currently at prices starting at $7 (4″ by 4″) and going up to a gigantic 66″ by 44″ ($697). But after looking over the numerous acrylic options WhiteWall offers, I decided to try something else: “Original Photo Print Under Acrylic Glass” ($13-$889). The 20″ by 30″ print above normally retails for $225, but can be had for under $185 with one of WhiteWall’s common coupon codes. Reflections near the bottom are from the acrylic top surface.
I switched from the direct acrylic print to the more expensive option after contacting WhiteWall for guidance. There’s no single “right” answer when choosing between the aforementioned options or two others — printing under matte acrylic or a “special resin” — but WhiteWall noted that (1) the glossy acrylic is very reflective, and has greater depth if you switch from 1/16″-thick to 1/4″-thick acrylic, (2) the matte acrylic does reduce the “pop” of an image, and (3) direct printing on acrylic, rather than a photo print under acrylic, actually reduces the color accuracy of the image. For the sample print here, I opted to go with a middle of the road option: glossy rather than matte, thinner rather than thicker acrylic, and superior color fidelity. You can upgrade or downgrade your print based on the options you prefer.
Overall, I was pleased by the quality of the WhiteWall print, and very impressed by the quality of the mounting hardware. On a positive note, the print offers strong pixel-level detail, more than doing justice to a source image that was taken at night and could have easily looked grainy in spots. Color fidelity is fair: though the image looks great when considered in isolation, some of the original image’s rich golden tones were softened into light oranges. The comparison sample image above is most different from the original in reflectivity: the extra light at the top left and ghosting you see to the right are all just reflections, not problems with the print. Just as WhiteWall said, the glossy surface is really glossy, so if you’re planning to hang your print in an area with lots of light or other reflective potential, go matte instead.
WhiteWall’s mounting hardware is really special. Beyond the thickness of the acrylic, the photo behind it, two layers of metal and the white backing, there are metal rails on all four edges that enable the print to be hung on any edge, or given extra support on a wall should you need it. I’d call this the most deluxe mounting hardware of any of the prints I tested, and certainly worth considering in the overall value equation when placing an order.
Which Should I Pick?
As you can see from the variety of options I’ve covered here, choosing a large-format photo printing process is a highly personal decision: it’s as much about the photo you start with as the type of result you want to achieve. If your source photo is low-resolution or a little blurry, but otherwise worthy of being enlarged, my advice is to consider either the hand-painted canvas or print-on-canvas options — soft paints have a way of making these images look great, regardless. For hyper-realistic printing, it’s hard to beat the glossy direct printing on metal I originally spotlighted. And if you like the look of glass, my advice would be to aim for either matte acrylic or thick glossy acrylic depending on the look you prefer, and the reflectivity of the room where the print will be hung.
There are plenty of great ways to free your favorite photos from the confines of your Mac’s photo library. Regardless of the option you pick, give (at least) one a try so you can see what a difference it makes in your home or office. There are other ways to decorate the room where your Mac lives, but none with as much personal value as an image you made yourself.
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