Dry lab printing, also known as digital photo labs, refers to a variety of photo printing methods including dye sublimation, thermal printing, solid ink printing, and electrophotography. It’s considered a “dry” process in comparison to other types of photo printing methods (known as wet lab printing) that use light exposure on reactive paper developed in chemical baths to produce images. Instead of using “wet” processes like those found in an old photo lab, dry lab printing uses other types of printing technologies like specialized inks and printers that don’t require a long list of chemicals or a dedicated darkroom.

Why is dye sublimation best & how does it work?

The most common type of dry lab printer is a dye sublimation printer where an image is printed to transfer paper which is then applied to and heated onto the desired medium. This two-part process includes precision printing onto a transfer sheet and the use of heat to transfer solid dye pigments onto the medium.

It’s referred to as sublimation because the solid dye pigments on the transfer paper turn from being in a solid state (dried ink) directly into a gas without being a liquid as a step in between. This occurs due to the high temperature of the heat press. As the temperature decreases, the gas reverts to a solid state, resulting in a permanent, high-quality image transferred onto the substrate. Once cooled, the printed substrate retains the colors and details from the original image, creating a durable and vibrant print.

With dye sublimation’s wider color gamut, you can produce high-end photos that are sharper and more vibrant than traditional wet lab printing methods. Specialized inks, paper, and technologically advanced printers use a six-step process to produce perfect photo reproductions with dye sublimation:

  1. Image Preparation – The image file is edited to optimize for color, resolution, and size scaling for printing.
  2. Printing – Using a specialized paper called transfer paper, the image is printed using a special dye sublimation printer and dye ribbon.
  3. Aligning Transfer Paper – The printed transfer paper is aligned with a substrate (most commonly a specially coated paper or polyester fabric) and placed into the heat press.
  4. Heat and Pressure Application – The heat press applies the exact right amount of high temperature and pressure for the requisite amount of time to the transfer paper and substrate.
  5. Dye Sublimation – The gas, from the previously solid ink, penetrates the surface of the substrate. This embeds it within the coating of the paper or the fibers of the fabric.
  6. Cooling and Finishing – After the transfer process is complete, the substrate is allowed to cool and any encapsulation or sealant is added.

What are other dry lab printing methods?

“Dry lab” prints refer to an array of other printing methods aside from dye sublimation. While they are all different in their methodology and technology, they all avoid using harsh chemical baths to produce top-quality photos.

  • Inkless Thermal Printing – Becoming more common in smaller commercial applications, this method uses heat-sensitive paper that changes color when exposed to heat. It uses thermal exposure instead of the traditional wet lab’s use of light exposure.
  • Solid Ink Printing – Specialized ink comes in the form of hardened sticks then is heated to a liquid state, applied to the printing medium, and heated to set solid again. This is most similar to dye sublimation but it uses solid ink blocks instead of a dye ribbon.
  • Electrophotography – Also known as electrostatic printing, these printers use electrostatic charges and toner particles to create an image. Very similar to laser lithography but with electricity instead of laser beams.

Why use dry lab prints over wet lab prints?

When comparing wet lab vs dry lab it’s important to note the ongoing advancements in photo printing technology that continue to push the quality of prints up while keeping the prices down.

Dry lab prints are the next generation of photo prints in that their quality and lower impact on the environment are far superior to traditional wet lab prints. Dry lab printing offers several advantages over traditional methods, including faster printing speeds, consistent output quality, and the ability to print on a variety of surfaces and sizes.

It’s widely used in professional photography studios, print shops, and photo printing services due to its efficiency and ability to produce high-quality prints.