Photos for Furniture

“Your home should be a story of who you are, and be a collection of what you love.”
    Nate Berkus

I have a friend who's very talented in a number of arts, one of which is designing and building custom wood furniture. For his and his wife's new home he designed a large console/bookcase system, which he had made by an outside contractor. The piece fills most of a wall, is made of a lovely dark walnut, and has a barn-door type of bay for a flat-screen TV. That space would hold a screen up to 60 inches or so. Closing the doors hides the TV. There are vertical book shelves on each side of the doors, and solid-front cabinets as a base.

Today there are no doors, so one sees the large black rectangle of the screen and the attendant wires and other attachments typically found on today's smart TVs. They have an idea to make a pair of doors and mount a photo on them. The original plan was to have a single large image split where the two doors come together in the center. When closed one would see the photo (and the book-laden shelves on either side). When open, the doors would cover the book shelves and expose the TV. They've asked me to provide the photo. It's an interesting challenge with several obvious solutions; I suspect there are some not-so-obvious ones, too.

My friends will choose the photo; I'm off the hook there, although I'd be happy to make suggestions from my catalog of too many hundreds. My job is to provide the print(s) in a form that will look good as doors. The overriding criterion is that it look good when the doors are closed, while not looking bad when they are open. I'd prefer they look great whether open or closed. To that end I've suggested a diptych, which could be matted and/or framed, or not, depending on the type of print. That avoids trying to have a near-seamless alignment when the doors are closed. Another criterion for the image is that it should help calm, or at least not heighten, the busy appearance of the books and “stuff” on the vertical shelf sections flanking the (closed) doors. This would dictate a simple subject, perhaps something quite minimal.

Testing, Testing...

As mentioned in other articles here, I'm a retired engineer, and I love to tinker, invent, find creative solutions to problems, and, uh, improve things, which sometimes creates its own interesting problems to solve. I experiment a LOT, trying things, testing, to get the desired result or, sometimes, just to see what happens. Always have. I was hell as a teenager.

I print on paper, using a variety of fine-art and other papers, with the paper selected per image for the best result, and, in some client cases, to best suit the end-use of the print. I've zero experience printing on other materials, and generally prefer photographic prints on paper over other media. Paper is unlikely to work well in this application, as the image(s) probably won't be protected under glass. I needed to test alternate media. Sounded like fun.

The Good, The Bad, And The Really Bad

Photo Tex is an adhesive-backed peel-and-stick printable polyester fabric. It's available in several varieties, and is commonly used for murals and other large installations. It's supposed to be removable. Other than the canvas-like texture of the fabric it sounded like a nice product for my purpose, and if the clean-removal claim is true, my friends would be able to change the picture now and then. I ordered a sample roll of their OPA product, which is opaque and made for ink-jet printing. My printer is an aging Epson Stylus Pro 7900; I downloaded from Photo Tex's site the appropriate printing profiles.

The sample roll is larger than my printer's 24-inch width, so I cut some small sheets from the roll and printed the test image I've used for many years to help evaluate papers and profiles. The resulting test print could have been worse. Maybe. Washed out (very poor contrast), muted color, weak blacks, just plain unusable. Photo Tex provides two profiles, so I tried again with the second, with only marginally better results.

The samples from Bay Photo

The samples from Bay Photo. Top row, from left: canvas, gloss metal, acrylic. Bottom row from left: sheer matte, sheer gloss, stain, mid-gloss (all metal). My apologies for the poor lighting. Most 'accurate' of the lot is the gloss metal (top-center).

Not yet willing to give up I made a custom profile and with that made another test print, only to get a result that proved it could be worse than the previous tests. No-go on Photo Tex. I wrote a blog post about this if you'd like a bit more detail.

I also wanted to look at prints on canvas, metal, and possibly on or under acrylic panels. I dislike photo prints on canvas; I've long hoped that was a fad that'd disappear, but it's become clear I should abandon that hope. I work to make sharp images and capture as much detail as my gear and abilities can. To print such efforts on a rough-textured surface seems ridiculous, so I don't. Of course, canvas prints, especially with eye-bleeding over-saturated color, are wildly popular and seen everywhere. At the outdoor art shows they sell like toilet paper during a pandemic. Clearly my opinion puts me in the minority. But for this application I decided to stuff my aversion and get a test print on canvas, along with the other media mentioned earlier. To that end I prepared an image file, a picture with a lot of detail, and placed an order with Bay Photo.

Giving up full control of the printing process is difficult for me. I've long worked in a color-managed capture (in camera)-to-print workflow, giving me full control over the process. If the resulting prints are sub-par it's entirely my fault, my problem to correct, with the goal of making the best print I can. If I farm out the printing I lose control of a major chunk of the process. It's that “box of choklits” thing: you never know what you're going to get. But I don't print metal or canvas or plastic panel, so I've no choice. And a good result is not impossible.

Bay Photo offers a sample pack of metal prints: six prints on aluminum sheets with different finishes. They also print canvas (of course) mounted in several different ways, and what they call “acrylic prints,” which are prints face-mounted on the back of clear acrylic panels with polished edges. I ordered all of these, 12 inches high by 8 inches wide (about 30 x 20 cm). The packages arrived about a week later.

And The Winner Is... Not My Call

1 / 5
Sheer gloss metal (left), Gloss metal. Sheer gloss is dull, lacks contrast. Gloss metal is the most accurate of all the samples.
2 / 5
Acrylic (left), Gloss metal. Acrylic looks great, but gloss metal is more accurate.
3 / 5
Canvas (left), Gloss metal. Canvas isn't bad but I hate the texture. Gloss metal is more accurate.
4 / 5
A close-up of the canvas showing how the texture damages the image. Just say 'no' to photos on canvas.
5 / 5
A close-up of the edge of the acrylic print. It's a nice presentation, but color's not accurate.

It's difficult to capture the differences in color, contrast, and texture in a photograph of the samples from Bay Photo. The canvas print looks nice except for the canvas part. The prints on the metals hold great detail and sharpness. My test image on the “sheer” metals, Bay Photo's name for metal with a bare-metal base (background), are flat and lifeless, especially on the one labeled “sheer matte.” The remaining three metals are simply called “gloss,” “mid gloss,” and “satin.” These have a white base and are quite contrasty and detailed, with deep rich blacks and bright whites. The metal prints did not include hanging hardware.

The face-mounted acrylic print is just a bit dark, very saturated, and not especially accurate, but it makes an interesting “package.” It's very nice looking but one might have concerns about the highly-reflective surface of the acrylic. It will also scratch easily. The panel included hardware for hanging.

Finally, the canvas panel: I ordered the “thinwrap,” in which the canvas is stretched across a quarter-inch thick solid panel with a rear block for hanging. From a distance the print looks quite good with color, saturation, and contrast all about what I'd expect. Upon closer viewing it's, well, canvas. Enough said.

The first three photos in the series of five above show the differences between the gloss metal, which I consider the most accurate of the bunch, and some of the other samples. That last two photos highlight the canvas and the acrylic samples.

I presented all of these (except the Photo Tex, which clearly is a loser in this case) to my friends, had a nice discussion about the various materials and options, the pros and cons of each, and (I suspect) left them with no better idea of what to do than before. I'm looking for additional print media, perhaps a laminated plastic or some other coated surface. I'm eager to push ahead with the project, but I think it should wait until my friends choose a picture.

March, 2020

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