Digital is Faster But Not Always Better

By Howie Fenton

Digital technologies are hot. You canít watch the evening news or read a newspaper or magazine without being exposed to a story describing a vision of how much better our lives will be due to digital technologies. But not everyone understands the advantages of digital technologies. Some believe that the advantages of digital technologies are associated with quality. Although this is occasionally true, in general it is not true. The advantage is speed. If this is something you think about, then read on - because this is the first issue we will tackle in this hi-tech column. Today we will discuss how digital technologies are faster, sometimes but not always better and illustrate this with digital cameras, digital proofers and digital presses.

Digital Cameras

Digital cameras are very popular for newspapers and catalogs, but less popular for magazines. The advantages are speed. Digital cameras allow you capture images faster then a film based camera, does not require the overnight processing, oil mounting on a drum scanner and the time to set your highlight and shadow dots in your scanning software.

An inexpensive digital camera can be purchased for $300 while an expensive digital camera could cost $35,000. A cheap camera would not be inadequate for most magazine work because of resolution, dynamic range, CCD (charged couple device) chip and a host of other considerations but would work fine for images posted on web pages. That is because web pages require the least resolution, newspapers more, magazines more and high quality catalogues even more.

On the other hand if we go to the far end of the price / quality spectrum for digital cameras we find products with exceptional quality. In fact, there are some magazines and catalogs that have already adopted high end cameras such as the Leaf and Dicomed.

Digital Proofers

If your printing pages to a digital proofer then the proof will be created faster then if you created a film based proof after outputting film. The proofers range from the inexpensive $300 HP or Epson inkjet you bought at CompUSA to the $150.000 state of the art equipment made by Kodak, Polaroid, Imation, Creo and Screen.

These state of the art devices are called DDCP (direct digital color proofers) and achieve higher quality then the traditional film based proofs such as Matchprints and Chromalins (but that is another story). Again we find that all the digital devices are faster but only the highest price/ quality devices provide comparable or better quality.

Digital Presses

In writing 2 books on digital printing I considered defining a digital press as anything that can print from a computer file. Under this definition we would include everything from a inexpensive 6 page per minute copier to the high end copier-type devices (Docutechs, Xeikons, Indigos) and offset presses that use direct imaging on the press (Heidelberg DIís). What differentiaties different printing technologies is not only quality but also speed and cost effectiveness.

If you wanted to walk into a print shop at 9AM and walk out by noon with 35 copies of your magazine, you would have to use a copier-type digital press. If you wanted to walk out at 9 PM with 3,000 magazines you would use a digital press with direct imaging (DI) technology. If you wanted to ship 35,000 magazines, in two days you would use a traditional press.

Your Future

What is the impact of these technologies on magazine production today and tomorrow? The technology that has received the greatest adoption rate today are the digital proofers. Many publishers own inexpensive devices and many accept DDCP proofs as contract proofs.

Digital camera are the second most popular technology and digital presses are the least. The issue for digital cameras are the highest quality cameras work best for still photos. The issue for copier based digital presses is one of lower print quality and the run lengths required for magazines is more cost effective with traditional presses.

What about tomorrow? The current adoption rate of these technologies is predictive of the future adoption rate. With digital proofers increasing in quality and decreasing in price digital proofing will move from popular to ďmust haveĒ technology.

As spy camera technology becomes declassified and Los Alamos National Laboratory wavelet compression technology becomes mainstream (JPEG 2000) expect digital cameras to move from moderate acceptance to popular usage.

The least relevant technology today for publishers is digital printing.

Only the pioneers today are testing the viability of the new 74 inch direct imaging presses for publishing applications. Although used effectively for direct marketing campaigns, books and short print runs most publishers do not want to be the digital pioneers who get the electronic arrows in their virtual backs.

Howard (Howie) Fenton is a senior technical consultant responsible for digital technologies for the NAPL (National Association for Printing Leadership). A well known consultant he consults with printing and publishing companies and conducts management and training seminars worldwide. For more information write

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