Modern Process

The process of color separation starts by separating the original artwork into red, green, and blue components (for example by a digital scanner). Before digital imaging was developed, the traditional method of doing this was to photograph the image three times, using a filter for each color. However this is achieved, the desired result is three grayscale images, which represent the red, green, and blue (RGB) components of the original image:

The next step is to invert each of these separations. When a negative image of the red component is produced, the resulting image represents the cyan component of the image. Likewise, negatives are produced of the green and blue components to produce magenta and yellow separations, respectively. This is done because cyan, magenta, and yellow are subtractiveprimaries which each represent two of the three additive primaries (RGB) after one additive primary has been subtracted from white light.

Cyan, magenta, and yellow are the three basic colors used for color reproduction. When these three colors are variously used in printing, the result should be a reasonable reproduction of the original, but in practice this is not the case. Due to limitations in the inks, the darker colors are dirty and muddied. To resolve this, a black separation is also created, which improves the shadow and contrast of the image. Numerous techniques exist to derive this black separation from the original image; these include grey component replacement, under color removal, and under color addition. This printing technique is referred to as CMYK (the “K” stands for Key, a traditional word for the black printing plate).

Today’s digital printing methods do not have the restriction of a single color space that traditional CMYK processes do. Many presses can print from files that were ripped with images using either RGB or CMYK modes. The color reproduction abilities of a particular color space can vary; the process of obtaining accurate colors within a color model is called color matching.


Inks used in color printing presses are semi-transparent and can be printed on top of each other to produce different hues. For example, green results from printing yellow and cyan inks on top of each other. However, a printing press cannot vary the amount of ink applied to particular picture areas except through “screening,” a process that represents lighter shades as tiny dots, rather than solid areas, of ink. This is analogous to mixing white paint into a color to lighten it, except the white is the paper itself. In process color printing, the screened image, or halftone for each ink color is printed in succession. The screen grids are set at different angles, and the dots therefore create tiny rosettes, which, through a kind of optical illusion, appear to form a continuous-tone image. You can view the halftoning, which enables printed images, by examining a printed picture under magnification.

Traditionally, halftone screens were generated by inked lines on two sheets of glass that were cemented together at right angles. Each of the color separation films were then exposed through these screens. The resulting high-contrast image, once processed, had dots of varying diameter depending on the amount of exposure that area received, which was modulated by the grayscale separation film image.

The glass screens were made obsolete by high-contrast films where the halftone dots were exposed with the separation film. This in turn was replaced by a process where the halftones are electronically generated directly on the film with a laser. Most recently, computer to plate (CTP) technology has allowed printers to bypass the film portion of the process entirely. CTP images the dots directly on the printing plate with a laser, saving money, and eliminating the film step. The amount of generation loss in printing a lithographic negative onto a lithographic plate, unless the processing procedures are completely ignored, is almost completely negligible, as there are no losses of dynamic range, no density gradations, nor are there any colored dyes, or large silver grains to contend with in an ultra-slow rapid access negative.

Screens with a “frequency” of 60 to 120 lines per inch (lpi) reproduce color photographs in newspapers. The coarser the screen (lower frequency), the lower the quality of the printed image. Highly absorbent newsprint requires a lower screen frequency than less-absorbent coated paper stock used in magazines and books, where screen frequencies of 133 to 200 lpi and higher are used.

The measure of how much an ink dot spreads and becomes larger on paper is called dot gain. This phenomenon must be accounted for in photographic or digital preparation of screened images. Dot gain is higher on more absorbent, uncoated paper stock such as newsprint.


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