Monday, November 16, 2009

Using a densitometer to measure plates

Despite what you may have heard from vendors - yes, you can use a densitometer to read offset plates. This can be especially helpful for the smaller printshops who may not have the resources to purchase dedicated plate readers.

Densitometer basics

Color reflection densitometers are designed to accurately measure Black, Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow colorants on substrates like paper. However lithographic plates usually don't have C, M, Y, K images on a white substrate, instead the plate material is usually brushed aluminum with a grey color. The color of the image itself will vary according to the plate type and vendor.

You need to be aware of these reflectance and color properties since they effect how you use your densitometer when evaluating your plates.


Because of plate color properties, the contrast between image and and non-image areas of the plate is typically less than half that of ink on paper, as a result it may not be possible to calculate dot area for some densitometer/plate combinations.

Aperture size

The densitometer aperture (measuring window) should be the largest possible for your brand of instrument - as long as it's not larger than the image area you are measuring. This helps average out the reading and minimizes the effect of random plate patterns.

Densitometer Status

The instrument should be set to "Status T" unpolarized in part because this setting has a wider response to the various plate coating colors.

Consistency is more important than absolute accuracy

Conventional and digitally imaged plates typically use the same aluminum base material. However the different types of mechanical or chemical graining that prepares them for lithography results in a different surface texture which in turn scatters light differently. In order to achieve consistent dot values. To help achieve consistent dot value measurements, you should try to maintain a consistent alignment of the densitometer to the plate. Perhaps using the base of the densitometer aligned to the edge of the plate. Also, zero the densitometer and read the 100% area on the same spot each time and take readings from the center of each target patch.

If you know that a patch on the plate represents a 50% tone (i.e. it is a checkerboard) but your densitometer reports the patch being, for example, a 54% tone while the plate prints correctly on press then 54% becomes the target for that patch on the plate. The idea is that you are controlling your plate imaging process by monitoring and minimizing variation. Your priority is to maintain consistency in the measured dot areas.

Alternatively you could change the dot gain calculation "N" factor. Densitometers use one of two formulas for measuring dot area; the Murray-Davies or the Yule-Nielson equation. They are the same equation however the Yule-Nielson equation utilizes an "n"-factor to "factor" out the optical dot gain (the Murray-Davies equation is equivalent to the Yule-Nielson with n set to 1.00). The n-factor is experimentally determined by adjusting it until the densitometer reads the ‘desired value’ at a known dot percentage. Typically a 50% tone is used because it is easy to spot. You'd print a number of tone values close to 50% (e.g.45% and 55%) then use a loupe to find the tone patch that ‘looks like' a 50% tone - a checkerboard. Next adjust the n-factor on the densitometer until that patch reads 50%. The n-factor is typically applied when a densitometer is used to measure printing plates since printing plates are assumed not to have any optical dot gain.


  1. Astonishing article! I never ever thought before to use my densitometer to check CTP plate linearity or a loupe to narrow down to 50% from a 45 to 55% midtone range, thanks for opening the eyes and minds of many a printer....

  2. Hi Gordo, its good to know the old "densitometer v dotmeter" debate is still going... certainly makes me think we should re-issue our white paper on dotmeters... might help a few to decide the best route. Having said that you are ABSOLUTELY right about consistency and that is a battle we had to fight from the beginning - having a stable number is much better than dogmatic this is "right" number - that can drift - and therein - as you know - can lay the problem with densitometers in the hands of the unwary - when users start dialling in their own "N" numbers consistency "can" easily go out of the window.

    So - you will not be surprised - that we still advocate a "real" dotmeter that doesnt require the user to have any sort of "eye" (uncalibrated or otherwise :-) ) and as we have bought the price of dotmeters down to sub £500 then they are clearly in the realms now of small print shops - and you are again right that it was not possible with $1000+ devices.
    Hope you keeping well
    Bob Leslie

  3. My intent with this post was not to advocate the use of a densitometer to measure CtP plates - it was to explain how to do it properly if one is going to try doing so, perhaps in anticipation of comparing the results with a dedicated dot reader. I first saw densitometers used to measure CtP plates was at the Heidelberg demo and print educational facility in Kennesaw Georgia. They were happy with the results compared with a dedicated plate reader. Some shops will get a reference plate measured by their plate vendor then use that information to calibrate their densitometer.