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Digital printing refers to methods of printing from a digital-based image directly to a variety of media. It usually refers to professional printing where small-run jobs from desktop publishing and other digital sources are printed using large-format and/or high-volume laser or inkjet printers. Digital printing has a higher cost per page than more traditional offset printing methods, but this price is usually offset by avoiding the cost of all the technical steps required to make printing plates. It also allows for on-demand printing, short turnaround time, and even a modification of the image (variable data) used for each impression. The savings in labor and the ever-increasing capability of digital presses means that digital printing is reaching the point where it can match or supersede offset printing technology’s ability to produce larger print runs of several thousand sheets at a low price.
The greatest difference between digital printing and traditional methods such as lithography, flexography, gravure, or letterpress is that there is no need to replace printing plates in digital printing, whereas in analog printing the plates are repeatedly replaced. This results in quicker turnaround time and lower cost when using digital printing, but typically a loss of some fine-image detail by most commercial digital printing processes. The most popular methods include inkjetor laser printers that deposit pigment or toner onto a wide variety of substrates including paper, photo paper, canvas, glass, metal, marble, and other substances.
In many of the processes, the ink or toner does not permeate the substrate, as does conventional ink, but forms a thin layer on the surface that may be additionally adhered to the substrate by using a fuser fluid with heat process (toner) or UV curing process (ink).
Digital printing methods of note
Fine art inkjet printing
Fine art digital inkjet printing is printing from a computer image file directly to an inkjet printer as a final output. It evolved from digital proofing technology from Kodak, 3M, and other major manufacturers, with artists and other printers trying to adapt these dedicated prepress proofing machines to fine-art printing. There was experimentation with many of these types of printers, the most notable being the IRIS printer, initially adapted to fine-art printing by programmer David Coons, and adopted for fine-art work by Graham Nash at his Nash Editions printing company in 1991. Initially, these printers were limited to glossy papers, but the IRIS Graphics printer allowed the use of a variety of papers that included traditional and non-traditional media. The IRIS printer was the standard for fine art digital printmaking for many years, and is still in use today, but has been superseded by large-format printers from other manufacturers such as Epson and HP that use fade-resistant, archival inks (pigment-based, as well as newer solvent-based inks), and archival substrates specifically designed for fine-art printing.
Substrates in fine art inkjet printmaking include traditional fine-art papers such as Rives BFK, Arches watercolor paper, treated and untreated canvas, experimental substrates (such as metal and plastic), and fabric.
For artists making reproductions of their original work, inkjet printing is more expensive on a per-print basis than the traditional four-color offset lithography, but with inkjet printing the artist does not have to pay for the expensive printing-plate setup or the marketing and storage needed for large four-color offset print runs. Inkjet reproductions can be printed and sold individually in accordance with demand. Inkjet printing has the added advantage of allowing artists to take total control of the production of their images, including the final color correction and the substrates being used, with some artists owning and operating their own printers.
Digital inkjet printing also allows for the output of digital art of all types as finished pieces or as an element in a further art piece. Experimental artists often add texture or other media to the surface of a final print, or use it as part of a mixed-media work. Many terms for the process have been used over the years, including “digigraph” and “giclée”. Thousands of print shops and digital printmakers now offer services to painters, photographers, and digital artists around the world.
Digital laser exposure onto traditional photographic paper
Digital images are exposed onto true, light sensitive photographic paper with lasers and processed in photographic developers and fixers. These prints are true photographs and havecontinuous tone in the image detail. The archival quality of the print is as high as the manufacturer’s rating for any given photo paper used. In large format prints, the greatest advantage is that, since no lens is used, there is no vignetting or detail distortion in the corners of the image.
Digital printing technology has grown significantly over the past few years with substantial developments in quality and sheet sizes.
Digital printing has many advantages over traditional methods. Some applications of note include:
- Desktop publishing – inexpensive home and office printing is only possible because of digital processes that bypass the need for printing plates
- Variable data printing – uses database-driven print files for the mass personalization of printed materials
- Fine art – archival digital printing methods include real photo paper exposure prints and giclée prints on watercolor paper using pigment based inks.
- Print on Demand – digital printing is used for personalized printing for example, children’s books customized with a child’s name, photo books (such as wedding photo books), or any other short run books of varying page quantities and binding techniques.
- Advertising – often used for outdoor banner advertising and event signage, in trade shows, in the retail sector at point of sale or point of purchase, and in personalized direct mail campaigns.
- Photos – digital printing has revolutionized photo printing in terms of the ability to retouch and color correct a photograph before printing.
- Architectural Design – new media that conforms to a variety of surfaces has enabled interior and exterior spaces to be transformed using digitally printed wall murals and floor graphics.