Dots Definitely Derail Digital Detail

This is a topic that probably hasn’t kept you up at night, until now.

The dynamics and detail of photographs that are reproduced on a printing press can get significantly compromised by the very process that produces them.

The reason the pictures in your magazines do not look as sharp in print as they looked on your computer monitor is because of tiny little dots. The transition between square pixels and round dots is not a seamless one. This is because the halftone process uses variable-size dots to portray the tones and colors found in photographs. The tones in between white and pure (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) colors are simulated by variable-size, solid color dots. The very enlarged picture below shows the process.


The illusion created by these dots is truly amazing and actually works quite well, but the dot matrix certainly presents problems. Notice that you don’t see much detail at this size. However, if you view your screen from about twelve feet away, you’ll literally see a different picture. In truth, the dots employed in the printing process are much too small to be seen by the naked eye, but smaller detail that is evident in the pixel-based computer file literally falls between the dots in the halftone process. There is a pretty severe limit on how much detail can be produced by somewhat symmetrical round dots. Dots definitely derail digital detail. Therein lies both the problem and the challenge.

But not all is lost. Innovative techniques have recently been developed that digitally enhance this process. The real magic happens in the post photography editing/enhancement stage by carefully massaging the four tone-zones of each image’s internal contrast. Professional image sharpening doesn’t happen by choosing the “Sharpen” command from the Photoshop menu, it comes from controlling zone contrast.


But this all must begin with a solid understanding of digital image processing and the pixel-halftone conversion process. Printed images from digital cameras can now produce detail not possible with traditional photo and lithographic processes.

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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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