Digital Printing Basics

A faster and (sometimes) cheaper alternative to offset printing

While offset printing is the gold standard for low-cost, high-volume, high-quality output, digital printing offers greater flexibility. If you have a major printing job, consider the pros and cons of digital printing over offset for HDR photos.

What Are the Benefits of Digital Printing?

Unlike offset printing and other commercial printing methods that require printing plates and presses, digital printing produces copies directly from a digital file sent to an inkjet, laser, or other types of digital printers. Benefits of digital printing include:

  • It can be less expensive and less time-consuming for producing short runs and doing smaller print-on-demand jobs.
  • It eliminates the expense of plate-making and setting up the presses.
  • It's easier and less expensive to make last-minute changes to a print job or print multiple variations.
  • File preparation can be less complicated for those unfamiliar with commercial printing methods.

The only drawback is that digital prints are of slightly lesser quality than offset prints, but the difference is often negligible.

Worker preparing digital printing equipment in print workshop
Arno Masse / Getty Images

Types of Digital Printing

Inkjet and laser printers may be the most familiar and most prevalent, but there are other types of digital printing methods:

  • Dye sublimation is favored by some graphic designers for high-end proofing and by businesses that want to produce materials in-house using the best possible color standards.
  • Solid ink is low-cost (no inkjet photo paper needed) but not as ​high quality as inkjet or laser.
  • Thermal autochrome is aimed primarily at digital photographers.
  • Thermal wax works well for businesses that need to produce large quantities of transparencies for colorful business presentations.

What Can You Make With Digital Printing?

Digital printing can be used for just about anything that is done using offset printing. For example:

When to Use Digital Printing

While you can choose digital printing for almost anything, there are some types of projects that lend themselves especially well to digital printing:

  • Personal, low volume projects. Consider using a home printer.
  • Proofs. Even when you go with offset printing, you can get digital proofs.
  • Signs, posters, fine art prints. You'll probably need a commercial printer, and digital is usually the cheapest option.
  • Books. For limited runs, turn to print-on-demand digital printing services.
  • Business cards, letterhead, envelopes. Other processes like offset, engraving, lithography, and gravure may produce more elegant results, but digital printing is generally less expensive.

Digital Print-on-Demand

Print-on-demand uses digital printing to produce as few as one or two copies at a time. Although the cost per item is higher than it might be with larger runs, it is more cost-effective than offset or other plate-based printing methods when doing small runs. Self-publishers, vanity presses, and small-press publishers often use print-on-demand.

Full-Color Digital Printing

Unlike offset printing, you don't have to deal with color separations and plate-making when doing digital printing. However, things like color calibration and using printed color guides can be important for obtaining the kind of results you want. Some problems could be handled by your printing service at an added cost.

Preparing Files for Digital Printing

You can do most of your digital printing at home if you have the right paper and an inkjet or laser printer. Some digital-print jobs, like sample copies of books, cannot be printed on a home printer. In such cases, you'll need to develop a file for the commercial digital printer.

Improper file prep can result in delays and added costs if the printing service has to fix your files. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Find out if your printer prefers PDF or whether they want your original application files. The printer may also need a proof or mockup.
  • Make sure any graphics meet the appropriate color and compression requirements.
  • Include all the necessary fonts, and make sure they are properly embedded.