My Understanding of Photography Began in the Pressroom

The printing industry taught me valuable lessons about photography. And what I learned first, they don’t even cover in photography school, though it’s probably the reason why my images print right every time. You see, I learned about the photography process backwards.

I learned some very valuable lessons about visual communications from my many years in the printing industry both as a pressman and as a cameraman. Apprenticeship in the trade starts by an arduous process of observing (and involuntary servitude to) seasoned Journeymen in the trade. If you think hazing only happens in college fraternities…

Heidelberg KORS sharpened

Only after many months listening to and observing these Journeymen, and performing menial support chores (antiseptically cleaning presses, mixing inks, backbreaking work as a paper loader, and endless errands for coffee) are Apprentices allowed to actually run the equipment. In my case it started with a small, single-color press running line work. No halftones, no screen tints, no pointy scissors. Pressroom training doesn’t jump right in with color. It starts with basic black and white work.

Before a pressman is allowed to print full color images, he has to understand the structural tonality of black and white halftones. I still believe that the most demanding reproduction standards in the printing industry involve the accurate reproduction of black and white photos. Even more than printing four-color process. Seriously? Absolutely! Black and white images have no color to hide behind.


Persuasive Buffoonery. (Back away from your monitor about eight feet and view these three images to see the effective optical illusion known as a halftone)

Accurately reproducing black and white photos in print required that a photo’s tonality had to match the specified limits of the paper, the ink, and press they were to be printed on. Hmm, sounds a bit like color management disciplines doesn’t it? And when these guidelines were not honored, the whole world saw your folly- like thousands of bad report cards.

Good-Bad Eye HTEven today, there are many more mediocre-to-bad black and white photos in print than there are good ones. When you see a good one, you notice it! It’s almost startling. The image is so pure and precisely produced that it almost hurts your eyes! Why is this level of reproduction so uncommon and so difficult? Because there are so many production steps involved, so many gotchas lurking, and you only have to screw up one of them to irreparably affect the outcome. Murphy developed his famous law in the printing industry- and that’s a fact.

The process that I am about to describe simply doesn’t happen anymore. Because the imaging is all digital now. But I was fortunate to learn the sausage making process while it was all manual. I consider myself fortunate because I know the physics behind the process and I thoroughly understand the imaging process now. Very few people reading this post have ever had to perform every one of these production steps personally. But I did for years and because of that experience I understand tone reproduction quite thoroughly now.


Photo EnlargerThe manual halftone reproduction process started with the making of  the original photographic print in the darkroom. Although an image’s contrast could be controlled somewhat during the photo enlargement/print process, if those original tonal ranges were flattened, the shadows buried, or the highlights blown out, those tones were gone forever. Good prints came from good negatives, which started with good exposures. Correct camera exposures made for a more natural tonality in the prints. It all started
with a good print.

process cameraThe next rung in the production ladder was halftone production; the mystical process of transposing the photo’s tonal range into ity-bity dots. This stage is handled by the litho cameraman. Printing presses can’t print in continuous tone, there is no such ink; they can only print solid colors. In order to deliver the illusion of tone, a faithful translation of the photo’s tonal range had to be replicated by a smooth range of barely visible small black dots. The range started with tiny black dots that enlarged through an awkward Escher-like middle-tone conversion where the black dots mutated into increasingly smaller white dots.

In addition to this smooth ramping of tones spanning highlight to shadow was the essential “weighting” of middle tones needed to deliver each image’s contrast while compensating for the inevitable tonal dot gain on press. It took three choreographed exposures to produce each halftone. Each halftone was ideally calculated individually.
Negative HTAnd keep in mind that these halftone images were all produced in negative form, which made it nearly impossible to visually evaluate this tonal range (the films were transparent, in negative form, the processing took place under dim red lights and the dots were nearly invisible to the human eye). Note to all old pressmen: send a thank you note to your old cameraman!

Once the negative form of this halftone film was processed it was imposed on a page (a whole other story) and then burned onto a presensitized aluminum printing plate. Since the camera halftone dots were first-generation, they were usually soft (fuzzy-edged) dots, very susceptible to changing size under the bright arc lamps of the plate burning process. Plate making was a pivotal point. If the plates were exposed too long, the images would print too dark; if the burn time were too short they would print to light in the shadows. After exposure the plates were developed and prepared for press.

Plate CylinderThe plates were then wrestled through a cramped and inconvenient opening and clamped tightly onto one of three mammoth cylinders and on the press. Printing presses work on a grease/water counterbalance process. To get the image part of the plate to accept ink while keeping the ink away from the non-image part of the plate requires a careful ballet of chemical ph and balance on press. There are two warring systems on press; one applying ink and the other applying a countering fountain solution. The (acidic) ink is applied to the plate and sticks to the image burned onto the plate while the (alkaline) fountain solution cleans the ink off the non-image portion. If the fountain ph balance wasn’t carefully maintained, the ink became slimy (emulsified by the water), and lost its tackiness, resulting initially in a loss of opacity (blackness) and eventually a loss of ink control altogether; a process called scumming. When this happened, the entire operation stopped until the press could be cleaned up and the process started all over again. Controlling all elements on press in that era was akin to wrestling with an Octopus. Note to pressroom foremen: take your pressmen to lunch more often.


All this to say that it took the contribution of many disciplines: a great photographic print captured and transposed into a perfectly balanced halftone precisely burned onto a metal plate perfectly mounted and packed on a press, whose chemical balance and roller/cylinder pressures were meticulously set and monitored, in order to produce a great black and white halftone. If any one of those (or a dozens more) variables were improperly addressed, the result would have been a disastrous image; either too much or too little contrast.

When color is reproduced you can make minor adjustments on press to cover your sins, but when black and white halftones are printed- you’re naked. It’s either right or it’s unremarkable. Truth is, if you can print good halftones, you’ll automatically print better color simply because you understand the disciplines required to reproduce precision tonal ranges.

I started out in the Lithographic world as a single-color pressman. While I later moved up to large multi-color presses, I preferred to run single color. Not because it was easier, but because it was harder and it challenged me to stay on my toes. Running a single-color Heidelberg K-series (pictured above) was where I developed my respect for black and white photography. Long before I owned a 35mm camera, I learned how to reproduce photographic images in print.

When you operate a single-color press you quickly develop a solid understanding of the importance of image tonality. It is simply the backbone of visual communications. I was trained as an apprentice to be very quality-consious about my work. If I couldn’t make a halftone “pop” on press I took it very personally. I developed a reputation for refusing plates that didn’t print perfectly. Pre-press folks either liked me or hated me because I was a zero-tolerance press jockey.


Because I understood the quality reproduction food chain, I wanted to control the imaging process from start to finish. Since the platemaking process was simply a matter of paying attention to exposure gauges, I learned that chore pretty quickly.

The most obvious next course of action for me was  to learn how shoot dynamite halftones. After my day shift on press I hung out in the camera department for hours in the evenings learning the lithographic camera trade. These craftsmen were true artists and I soaked up as much of their expertise as I could.

I approached this camera challenge with the same dogged determination I had while learning how to run a printing press. I would learn every way possible to shape the tonal ranges in halftones by various exposure and development techniques. I learned to make those silk purses you’ve heard about. I got so good at this that I not only shot all my own halftones, but the other pressmen requested that I shoot their halftones too. I learned to shape black and white images with precision long before I ever picked up a 35mm camera.

As it turned out, being a fanatic pressman was actually a very smart way to learn about image tonality- from the backend forward. And besides, the acidity of the darkroom stop bath and hypo clearing agent chemistry kept my pressman hands clean. My wife appreciated that.

I wore two hats in the printing industry: cameraman (pre-scanner) and pressman. Both stations had to bring their “A” game every day to deliver crisp photos coming out of the delivery end of the press. The cameraman had to convert the continuous tone photos into halftones that proofed well and the pressman had to keep the cylinder pressures, ink tack levels, and dampener ph in perfect balance throughout the press run. There is nothing sweeter sounding to a pressman than the gentle crack of enamel paper peeling off the blanket when all systems are well balanced- (only you pressmen will appreciate that statement).

I learned about black and white photography a little differently than most photographers, but my education prepared me to produce photos that made both cameramen and pressmen very happy. As I moved more seriously into photography, my experience in the image reproduction processes served me well. Today as I shoot images with my camera and shape them as necessary for optimal reproduction, I know precisely what will work and what won’t because I understand it from the bottom up. I don’t run a press anymore, but when I show up for press checks now, the pressmen handling my projects have little to worry about. They understand quickly that they have a kindred spirit at the inspection table.

Here’s the bottom line takeaway: Any printing device, of any type, will deliver less image information than you give it. It’s a law of physics. Understand the limitations of these machines and produce images that not only look good on your monitor, but that will also survive the rigors of the reproduction process. Accurate placement of key tones and ranges for each process will pay HUGE dividends as a result.

That’s the way eye sees it. If you have any prior litho experience, let me hear what you learned from the experience. Thanks for joining me. If you enjoyed this, let me know and tell your friends.

Coming real soon: the Image Tonality and the Histogram series. Only followers of this blog can be guaranteed to receive it. Sign in now (top right of this page).

See you next time, Herb

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PS. if you have an iPad and are interested in learning about more about the fundamentals of digital photography, I suggest that you take a look at my Accurate Color iBook in the iTunes Store

About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook "Digital Color Photography: A Deeper Look" from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color Fundamentals video series at
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2 Responses to My Understanding of Photography Began in the Pressroom

  1. sweetcutspro says:

    Great article and illustrative presentation. My first job was in a darkroom that had 3 cameras for architectural, engineering and graphic arts image reproduction. We used the highest quality films and and chemistry available (lith) and rapid access for photographic paper. Nothing got pinched or plugged.

  2. peterjs842p says:

    That is how I started camera operator, eventually, line, half tone and so on through to colour separation. At the same time annoying the photographers in the dark room and studio’s to learn more on photography eventually going out on location shoots. I think that was to get me out of the way. I have been learning ever since. Thanks for the fascinating articles.

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