Showdown: Press Printed Books vs. Photo Printed

All photo books might seem the same to you if you’re just getting started with them.  There are actually a few fundamental differences, though.  Layflat pages is one.  “Press printing” is another.  Most people never even hear the term, but it’s a significant factor in the quality of the albums you end up with.  Here are the main differences:

  • Press printing is a CMYK process – the inkjet printers use Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black inks on regular paper, just like they do for brochures and magazines (“press” – geddit?).
  • Photo printed books use RGB (Red, Green, and Blue) colors, just like your computer screen uses, and they are printed on real photographic paper using a chemical process.

What does this really mean?  The colors in a photo printed book are going to better match the colors on your screen.  More importantly, they are also going to appear sharper and smoother, while press-printed books can sometimes appear grainy.  Why?

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Press printing has trouble with large areas of similar color, like this green wall behind the baby.

Press printing is a halftone process – it uses lots of tiny dots of ink close together to give the appearance of smooth transitions (a full-on Monet, if you will).  This is very difficult to do well, however, hence the grain you sometimes see, especially in areas with a large swath of the same color, like a blue sky.  True photo printing uses a chemical process of exposure, which allows it to more accurately represent all the various tones and gradations in your photos.

For me, I don’t mind grainy skies and walls as much as I do grainy skin tone.  My baby’s skin is smooth and beautiful, and I want my albums to reflect that.  Look at these two examples, both photos of albums I had printed in the last year:

Notice the grainy, uneven skin tone on the baby

Press Printing: Notice the grainy, uneven skin tone in her forehead and cheeks

Notice the even coloring across her forehead and cheeks, and the smooth transitions between shades of yellow and green behind her.

Photo Printing: Notice the even coloring across her forehead and cheeks, and the smooth transitions between shades of yellow and green behind her.

There is, of course, one area in which press printing is often a better option than photo printing, and that is price.  It is almost always a cheaper process, and that makes it a better one for some consumers.  Popular sources for press printed books include Shutterfly, Blurb, and Snapfish.  The best source for photo printed books is, of course, me 🙂

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