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You've Gotta Give It To Digital

Today, the old order just conceded to the new way of doing things. Quality, the final refuge of the old way of doing things, finally lost its high ground so now it's time to obsess over fast and cheap.

Conversion to digital

The clear theme cropping-up everywhere this week has been my conversion to digital. This may sound incredibly behind the times so let me put the comment about me and digital this week in its proper context.

I spent a glorious afternoon and evening [cite] with John Larkin at DWP Imaging on Tuesday this week, copying medium format film negatives which Dad shot in the '50s. A tight crop of one of these prints appears in this blog's header - find more by following the link to Dad's London Goes To Work photo gallery.

Using Photoshop, the photographer's digital darkroom of the day, John has been able to extract and emphasise a wealth of shadow and highlight detail that Dad could only have dreamed of 60 years ago. Great photographs were turned into outstanding photographs by being able to give each photograph individual care and attention. John's abilities, his attention to detail and the level of quality achieved with digital photo retouching came as no surprise. Nevertheless, the repro and retouching represented the start of my digital print conversion this week.

Digital print conversion

The week's digital conversion came out of the blue this morning in the form of a parcel from Bedford. I'd designed and created the artwork for a Customer's 6 page DL roll folded leaflet and had given the job of reprinting it to Newnorth Digital in Bedford. Upon inspecting the file copies which accompanied this morning's delivery I found myself compelled to call Newnorth, to thank them for the excellent job, printed on their HP Indigo press, and that I'd soon be back for more.

I started out in business as an apprentice litho minder and habitually refer back to this origin because that world of print was almost completely analogue. Print now serves me as a rich source of contrast - how business used to be done -vs- the way business gets done today; analogue -vs- digital. Litho printing, once wholly analogue, now employs a huge battery of digital processes to produce the aluminium litho printing plates which transfer cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink to paper. Yet this doesn't make litho 'digital'. To be digital is to be somehow better than this.

Steve Whiting, Apprentice Litho Minder, White Crescent Press, Heidelberg GTO 46NP

Good, fast, cheap. Choose two.

Since digital printing first hit the printing industry back in 1993, digital print quality has struggled (in the eyes of litho minders like me) to compete and always came third to digital's speed and price. Today that reprint quality surpassed what litho print had been able to achieve. The quality result, however, had just as much to do with the production process as the print technique. The 6 page roll fold leaflet would have originally been batch printed with other jobs of a similar nature on a far larger sheet in order to get the unit cost down and compete with digital print run lengths. The trouble is, in this batching approach, one litho job loses its significance and merely becomes one of many. The digitally printed approach, where one job is printed at a time, means that each job has the potential to be made the best it possibly can be.

Digital print has been with us for nearly 25 years

What pushed the quality of digital ahead of litho today was not the the print process itself but the level of care executed by the print professional. Whether copying negs or printing PDFs, what gives digital its edge is the ability to exert a level of control which, in the hands of a professional, is capable of delivering things of immense beauty.

Dad would have turned 80 tomorrow and, had he the opportunity of seeing what the digital's darkroom's capable of printing, I'm certain that he too would have recognised and values the attention to detail and, finally, become a digital print convert. Like me.