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Book Print Quality

A Look at Lithographic Screening

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Tim Parkin

Tim Parkin

Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.

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We’ve included Dav Thomas’ book in this issue and one of our comments about it was how good we thought the print quality was. What do we actually mean by this? Well there are various aspects that make up the quality of printing in a book but one of the biggest influences is the way that the photographs are converted into plates for the lithographic print process.

We’ve all seen newspaper print, especially black and white newspapers, where you can see the individual dots that make up the picture. These output like this is referred to as ‘halftone’ because it can produce fractions of the ink color. This ‘halftone’ is used because newspaper ink is either black or white and there are no cost effective processes for diluting the colour to create ‘continuous tone’ prints.

The pattern usually used in halftone printing is a grid of dots, usually slanted at some angle. The image below shows an example of mono newsprint halftone.


As well as being referred to as halftones, the technique is also known as ‘screening’ because William Fox Talbot’s proposed process was based on photographic ‘screens’ referring back to the Chinese method of printing with silk screens.

A screen is then the pattern that is produced from a continuous tone original. This pattern is then typically etched into a metal plate which is then used to print the final product.

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  • John McMillan

    In fairness to Blurb, comparing one of their books with a Litho printed one is a little like comparing a photo taken on a compact by Mrs Smith in 10 seconds to Mr Cornish (or even DW cos he’s no bad too) spending an hour setting up his medium format and producing a considered and top notch image. The colours you have sampled from the blurb book (and I’m looking at them on an RGB monitor) look washed out and dirty. That will not be a fault of the process or the ink (which is made in sealed canisters by some very clever Israeli guys and doesn’t vary), it looks more like a simple case of poor operator or bad housekeeping. Screening has an effect (in my opinion ABS 200 line is the best overall performer), most modern litho inks are much of a muchness as are modern presses (Heidelberg XL though being a bit ahead of the opposition), biggest differentiator is still the man pressing the buttons, turning the keys and looking at the pulls. If your printing a book, always try to pass it on press.

    • breenster

      John, what matters with blurb for me is the same with any book, what i end up with in my hands to look upon. Clever inks, poor or great men on the buttons, a company of their size should not have the variances that they do. I stopped buying blurb books a while ago due to their lack of consistency. Even allowing for the print methodology I was still often disappointed. And then there is another huge discussion around their pricing… ;-/

      Totally agree with “pass on press” you have so much more control over the end result, and its difficult to explain just how much of a difference a few tweaks can make. We printed “With Trees” on a Heidelberg XL105, fully ISO colour profile controlled, but the shift master printers were still legendary in their attention to detail & devotion to the end product.

      • John McMillan

        Hi Breenster,

        My point was Blurb use an Indigo 5500, an excellent machine, I know because I have one, I also have a Heidelberg XL75 and the two are incomparable for so many more reasons than the screen rulings, but, given a good operator both capable of excellent results. ISO 12647 which I imagine the 105 was calibrated to print match to still has a colour tolerance far in excess of what I would imagine a critical photographer would find reliable enough to print without the tweaks, hence the press pass invaluable. Did I note your ‘With Trees’ was printed outside the UK? I’m certainly not pro-Blurb, just didn’t agree with the comparison.

        • Hi John – I’d love to chat more about the differences between the Blurb printing and litho printing if you’re up for that. I chose to include the Blurb printing because it was consistent with a few other Blurb books I own (admittedly most older than about 18 months) and they were actually better than a couple of the litho print books I own. So I don’t really see the issue with including them – especially when they are the accessible vs the aspirational for most of our readers.

          Regarding comparing screen rulings and the colour on the page, there may be many, many more differences between the machines but the only variables that the reader can access are these (or at least this reader).

          Would it be possible to discuss this and I can add what we chat about to an appendix to the article?

        • p.s. How does ABS look better than Sublima?

          • John McMillan

            Hi Tim,

            ABS (Agfa Balanced Screening) provides much smoother flat tint and vignettes, the Sublima tends to throw some unusual paterns in areas where colour is consistent. The other area where, in my personal opinion traditional screening surpasses hybrid is in the ability to produce the curves required in prepress to hold the correct amount of dot gain (ISO tends to like about 12%) on press consistently. Some people think dot gain sounds like a problem, it’s actually very necessary to compensate for the light that doesn’t reflect from the paper’s surface when trying to reproduce accurate colour. Blurb books are ok for the charge they make but suffer from a lack of TLC or human input. The screening of the Indigo is excellent, but, in common with litho to get the best results ‘tweaking’ still helps. If you ever fancy coming and seeing a rather old fashioned looking printers (since 1827) but with some pretty up to date printing toys both Joe C and David W have my email address.

        • breenster

          I am sure there are many, many people better qualified to compare blurb etc than myself, so I will bow to your vastly experienced know how on that.

          But I do know that having a Steinway piano will not make me a good piano player ;-)

          We printed “with trees” in Malta at Gutenburg Press.

          • John McMillan


            Your analogy with the piano is exactly my point, looking a screen rulings etc is all academic unless you have a good operator pressing the buttons (or striking the keys).

            • breenster

              absolutely agree, we had a wonderful moment on press in malta when we were about to sign off a sheet. The printer kinda twisted his face a bit and said “its a bit magenta” we looked again and shrugged, looked ok to us. He paused and said “let me try and prove it to you”

              He spent next half an hour, changed to gloss stock, printed 3 different settings, re loaded our stock, printed again, then put them all side by side – he was right! there was a lot of waste sheets in that time.

              He was well within ISO with first sheet, we thought it looked fine. He didnt want to let us sign off on it.

              We got a better print, he got to smile widely.

              True professionalism to me.

  • dsecrieru

    Hi Tim,

    Interesting article!

    The Glen Canyon book by Eliot Porter, which edition do you have?

    • I have a tatty 1968 edition… I’d love a better one as the printing isn’t great. I don’t know if this is the edition or just the book in general.

  • Re: pass on press…..

    Some printers encourage this, others will not even consider it. For many years I used to pass my postcards on press and I always got a better result than I otherwise would have done. Unfortunately the company went out of business a few years ago and I’ve been struggling a bit since then. One printer will allow it but you can tell they’re nervous about it. Everything is automated according to the standard settings they use, and they don’t like to over-ride them. The guy on the press is really just a machine minder now.

    • breenster

      an interesting point you make, and i suppose it depends on the size of order and importance of the image quality. Personally though when printing a book I would never work with a press where it was a problem in any degree to ‘pass on press”

  • Hi,

    I do take your point about passing a job on press if at all possible. I’m very fussy about the print quality of my “products”, but some printers seem to be able to do an excellent job on some things without my presence. The same printer on a different job can be pretty crap. I used to liken handing your job over to printer to taking a leap in the dark. Would you say that in recent years things have improved very much?

    I would also make the point that so much of the work on one’s images is done long before you get to press. Unless the customer/photographer has input during the earlier stages of the printing process passing a job on the press can be little more than a rescue attempt. But I agree with Tim, it is unlikely that even the most involved photographer will be able to get to grips with every stage of the process. The problems seem to start when your RGB image is converted to CMYK.

    On a general note, I always get a bit of a thrill going into the print shop and seeing my work on the press. I love the smell of the ink as well!

    • John McMillan

      It’s all in the proofing. If the proofing is good and accurate and the printers know what they’re doing then the requirement to press pass is pretty obsolete, that being said, I’m a printer (though wannabee photographer) and do encourage client participation, particularly with artists, photographers etc. When the client gets what they want first time everyone is happy.

      To Jeremy – Don’t leap in the dark, get a proof certified to the relevant FOGRA certification, if your printer won’t do this find another printer, if he does this and his print is different, give it him back and make him do it again, if he won’t, same solution, find another printer. A B2 FOGRA proof should be around £40, tinkering on press, £400-£500 per hour.

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