Header image for litho vs digital

What’s the difference between litho and digital?

What are the pros and cons and which should you use?

The old meets the new and mostly the two get on well, each filling a certain requirement.  But what are the differences in the mechanism and the result?


‘Litho’ stands for offset lithographic printing and is the traditional method of printing, named after the Greek for stone: ‘lithos’.

Johannes Gutenberg

In modern litho work, printing plates are created using a CTP (Computer to Plate) system.  The plates are installed on the press and inked up.  If a mistake is spotted then new plates must be made.

Turnaround times for a litho job can range from a day to a week, due to the setup of the plates and drying time of the ink.

Litho presses can print up to a maximum size of B1 (700x1000mm), including print marks and bleed.


  • Mistakes will require new plates to be made
  • Maximum size: B1 (700-1000mm)
  • Longer turnaround times


Colours in litho

A plate must be produced for each colour used in your design.  How about photos?  Well, a photographic image or other full-colour graphic is made up of the four print primaries: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (‘Key’), otherwise known as ‘CMYK’.  The image is broken down into its constituent elements based on these four colours and a plate is made from each.  When overprinted, they combine to produce the colours you see in the original image.  This is similar to the Red, Green and Blue (RGB) in an on-screen image.  See our previous post for more details on the difference between RGB and CMYK.  The plates must be aligned perfectly (‘registered’) or the image will appear ghosted or blurred.

If you are just printing in, say, two colours—because they are your corporate colours and you are just printing a letterhead—then only two plates need be made.  This costs less in setup than a full-colour print job.

Some jobs require a specialist colour or ink, such as gold metallic or fluorescent orange, not reproducible using the standard CMYK colours.  In this case, a plate is produced specially for the colour required and the ink ducts on the press are filled accordingly.  Some presses are only two-colour machines and the job has to be run twice, once for C and M, once for Y and K; some are five-colour and can run a full-colour job plus a specialist ink if necessary.

Inking up the yellow duct

Individual inks other than CMYK are called ‘spot colours’ and are prepared according to international standards (usually the Pantone Matching System).  A corporate logo which uses Pantone 259 will look—within reason—the same printed anywhere in the world.  Again, a plate is prepared and a duct filled for each separate colour used.

N.B. Pantone colours are fairly reliable but WILL change slightly on different stocks and even in different atmospheric conditions.

Swatch book


  • A plate is required for EVERY colour used
  • Full colour is made from Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK)
  • Good coverage over large areas of single colour
  • Reasonably consistent colour across your brand and internationally



Digital printing does not use plates and the colour (either ink or toner) is applied directly to the paper.  Digital printing technology has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years and it is now becoming difficult to spot the difference between litho and digital, although litho still gives a sharper print and more consistent colour coverage across large areas.

The primary benefit of digital is in shorter runs, because it does not require such expensive and complicated setup.  It also allows one to alter the image for each ‘impression’, so personalised prints are possible (invitations or certificates, for example).  A litho press will print the given image multiple times, exactly the same; each new design requires new plates.

Obviously, if a mistake is spotted just before or shortly into the print run, it is far easier to correct it and supply a new file.

Digital printing is much more cost-effective for smaller amounts but becomes more expensive than litho after a threshold number of prints.

The digital process can be used for large-format prints, such as large posters and banners, only limited by the size and specialism of the machine used.


  • No plates used
  • Potentially lower quality (negligible now)
  • Shorter runs
  • More cost-effective for small amounts
  • Personalised/variable prints
  • Mistakes easy to correct
  • Larger formats possible
  • Quick turnaround



If you have a new staff member and want a hundred business cards to get them settled in, go digital; if you want to print invitations for a party and have each name in the design, go digital; if you want a bound document and a couple of A1 posters for your presentation, go digital.

If you have five thousand letterheads and a thousand brochures to distribute around the country, litho is the way.

At FirstpointPrint we have both capabilities across our three centres—Victoria, Clerkenwell and London Bridge—and will find the most cost-effective method for your print job.  Firstpoint can turn a digital job around in 24 hours or even whilst you wait, within reason.  For litho runs, we will advise you on your artwork (or do it for you) and keep you up to date every step of the way.