Thursday, August 16, 2012

The eternal conflict - ink/water balance - the tale of the tones

An AM/XM halftone screen has a builty-in conflicting ink/water balance requirement on press. The highlight dot and quarter tone range from 1-35% requires minimal water and maximum ink in order to prevent those dots from being washed away. The three-quarter tone range from 65-99% requires the opposite - a larger volume of water in order to prevent the shadow dots from filling in and disappearing. On the other hand, the mid-tone range from 35-65% is more of a balance between ink and water.

Halftone dots and the tones range they represent are affected differently by the condition of the ink on press - assuming of course, that the plate, press, and chemistry are set up correctly. Unfortunately, if the press operator attempts to fix tone reproduction in some areas, that built-in difference in ink/water requirement can exaggerate the inherent conflict and cause problems in other parts of the tone range.

1 - 1-35% This tone range is primarily affected by the body/viscosity of the ink. If the body is too soft the highlight area will print too full which may cause the press operator to decrease solid ink density in order to reduce the dot size. Alternatively the fountain solution may over-emulsify this tone range causing poor ink transfer and loss of highlight detail. If the ink body is too heavy the dot may print too sharp causing the press operator to increase the density or blanket pressure.

2 - 35-65% This tone range is primarily affected by the strength (pigment load) of the ink. If the ink is too weak the press operator will increase solid ink density which will cause increased dot gain and result in presswork that appears too full. If the ink is too strong the midtones may print too light. Also, the strength of the ink also impacts how well the inks trap, which in turn affects the color gamut the press should be able to achieve. Varying the strength and stiffness of the ink to achieve good tone reproduction in presswork is a method press operators, who don't have good communication with prepress, often employ. It's almost always better to use tone reproduction curves applied in plate imaging than to modify inks.

3 - 65-95% This tone range is most strongly affected by mechanically induced dot gain or chemistry issues i.e. (poor ink water balance). If the tone range from 1-65% is evenly balanced then excessive gain in the shadow tones is usually caused by running excessive water, too much blanket pressure, and/or mechanical slur.


  1. Having all these screen ranges on the plate, in line in the machine direction, leads to the conclusion that one should not modify inks and one should adjust curves in prepress based on some standard dampening, packing, etc operating conditions.

    You make it sound so complicated. :-)

  2. Having the correct ink formulations to start with and by working with as little water as necessary is always best. Plate curves are to adjust tonality, not to correct ink/water issues.

    1. right correct ratio is the most important factor...

    2. Gordon,

      What do you think? Are plate curves just useful for adjusting tonality?

    3. Yes. While adjusting curves affects tonality it also does affect the color you see. However, the function of adjusting curves is to adjust tonality, not color.