Digital Printing and Lithographic Printing Explained

When it comes to printing, there are two main popular options – digital print and lithographic (litho) printing. There are various pros and cons with both methods, and the best option largely depends on the specific printing job. We often get asked what is the difference between digital and litho so we’ve prepared this handy guide to help you understand more about both and help you decide which is the best print production solution for you.


Digital Printing


Digital printing is still a relatively new technique in terms of the print industry having only really begun in 1991.

Unlike litho printing, there is no set up required to producing printing plates. Instead inkjet and laser printers deposit pigment onto a variety of materials including canvas, glass and metal.

There are two common digital printer types: laser and inkjet. Laser printers use laser beams, electrical particles, heat, and a plastic particle called toner to create the image, whereas inkjet printers spray ink from cartridges directly onto the paper.

With laser printers, because of the heat involved in the process, there are fewer paper stock options as some paper stocks don’t react well to the heat, so this is something to consider. However, options are continuing to improve as digital printing technology advances and most new digital presses can run most stocks and weights so it’s worth checking that your preferred choice of stock and weight is suitable should you opt for digital printing.

One of the benefits of digital printing is that it is well suited to low print volumes. As there are no plates to create first, new jobs can be set up in a much shorter time compared to litho, making it cost effective for short runs. It is worth noting though that, unlike litho, the cost per sheet does not improve as each sheet produced costs the same no matter how long the run.

Digital printing also has a much shorter turnaround time as there is no drying time required.

Digital printing uses process colours, most commonly this tends to be the four-colour matching system (CMYK). When reproducing the colour image, the file is separated into Cyan (C), Magenta (M), Yellow (Y) and Black (K). This is different to on screen colour (RGB) which produces a different range of colour. This means that when artwork is prepared for print, there may be some differences in colour if the artwork has been prepared in RGB and then converted to CYMK. Similarly, on-screen colours will look somewhat different to the final print.

Producing proofs is straightforward however and all proofs will be accurate to the final job.


Litho printing


Compared to digital printing, lithographic print is long established. The term derives from Greek – “lithos” meaning stone and “graphein” meaning to write. It was invented in 1796 by German author Alois Senefelder as a cheap way to publish theatrical works.

Traditionally, litho involved drawing the image with oil, fat, or wax onto the surface of a smooth, level lithographic limestone plate.

Modern lithography involves the image being made of a polymer coating applied to a flexible plastic or metal plate and then the image is printed directly from the plate. If it is offset, the image is transferred onto a flexible sheet (rubber) for printing.

For each new job, the preparation required is totally unique to that specific project with plates created in separations for the colours being used. Should the parameters of the job change, this will impact on the costs, as new plates may have to be made.

With litho printing, most of the costs are incurred with preparing the presses for print and producing the plates. Therefore, litho print is intended for longer print runs. Proofs are also more expensive to produce as essentially the presses will have to be set up in the exact same way as they would need to be for final production.

When considering litho, it is good to be aware that there will be a longer turnaround due to factors such as drying times, which can vary depending on the stock and weight used.

Unlike digital printing, litho printing uses the Pantone reference guide. These colours are referred to as spot or solid colours. Each of the spot colours in the Pantone mixing system has its own individual ink mixing formula. The precise nature of this system means that colours stay consistent and the printer can achieve that exact colour.

We hope this print production guide has helped, however should you have any questions or need some advice regarding your specific project, feel free to contact us on 01202 727070 and we’ll be happy to help.