Digital vs Lithography Printing - What should I use?

Digital printing, similar to an office printer, uses toners on a press to print an image onto a surface or canvas. Offset Lithography printing (Litho) uses wet ink and printing plates to end up with a similar result.

What’s the Difference Between Digital Printing and Litho Printing?

Litho printing uses rubber rollers which transfer the ink from the metal plates to the paper. Each process has their advantages and disadvantages depending on what it is you want to print.

What is Litho Printing?

Litho printing is a traditional method of printing and was the most common form of print until recently. Due to faster and cheaper alternatives, like digital, litho printing has become less common. However, over the last five years, lithography machines have improved in terms of quality, capacity and speed.

What is Digital Printing?

Digital printing is a much newer process involving complex computing which tells the machine how to create the image onto the paper. The image on the screen is analysed and then converted into a format which can then be printed directly onto the surface required.

Which is Faster, Digital Printing Or Litho Printing?

Digital printing is far quicker on short runs because the process requires minimal setup. Files are still prepared and checked, but digital print runs get rid of all the unneeded print plates and inks.

Additionally, there’s no drying time, so the printed sheets can be sent straight for finishing, binding, and lamination.


Differences in Cost

Digital printing delivers substantial savings through ‘print on demand’, so customers need only buy the exact print quantities they need. Lithographic printing must always have a minimum print quantity to make it viable.  With lithographic printing, the more you print, the cheaper it works out. All costs are upfront with one set-up cost, rather than a cost with every item.

So essentially, if you want low volume or highly personalised print jobs, digital printing will be cheaper and far more cost effective. If you require more prints, litho could be the way to go.


Flexibility & Personalisation Advantages

Digital print data is easy to change and update, meaning an infinite number of personalised versions can be sent to the printer. This means greater flexibility and there is very little point in holding a bulk print stock for regularly changing items.

Quality Comparison

Litho printing has traditionally provided the best results. However, Digital print quality is vastly improving to the point where it’s hard to distinguish. Digital is better at producing a high-quality print from a low-resolution image as it can upscale images more effectively. With litho, you’d need a high-resolution image.

Stock type and weight

Digital machines will typically run stock from 70-300gsm (sometimes 350gsm), whereas litho is more flexible and can run pretty much any paper or card (usually between 60gsm and 500gsm). This is because the machine generates minimal heat.

Range of Colours

Although digital presses are now good at matching certain Pantones, if you require a high level of colour accuracy, opt for litho. Litho printing can make use of metallic inks such as gold and silver, so if this is the finish you’re after, litho printing is the way forward.


Overprinting is when you reprint over the top of a previously printed item. If overprinting is necessary after using the digital process (especially if you’re using a home laser printer), be careful as some machines will melt the image that has previously been produced. Litho produced prints are usually more tolerant, but it’s probably best to ask a member of our team before trying any overprinting.

Run Length and Lead Time

Digital printing is better suited for shorter run prints, due to having a low set-up charge. This means you’re only paying for what you want rather than the high cost of setting up a litho printer. Digital can handle anything from a single print to around 500-1000, depending on what you’re printing. Litho, on the other hand, doesn’t so much have a limit and can start for around 500.


The finish of the digital print process is sharp and precise. Alternatively, if you’d prefer a softer finish, Litho will help you achieve this. Certain finishes are possible with each type of printing. For example, if you require UV varnishing, putting it through a lithographic printer is a much more economical option.

Advantages of Digital Printing

Cost effective for shorter print runs.
Quick turnaround – produced in the finished format.
Easily personalised

Disadvantages of Digital Printing

No protective coating – more likely to scuff
Toner rather than ink – more liable to crack when folded or creased
Lamination – May cause bubbling and not adhering properly

Advantages of Litho Printing

Cost per copy is lower than digital (set-up charge)
Not limited to four colour process
Solid, single colour – smoother (no pixels)

Disadvantages of Litho Printing

High start-up cost (making the plates)
Not suitable for short print runs – due to expense




Digital Printing

Litho Printing

Speed of print

Faster process



Easy to personalise or change

Not very time or cost effective.

Cost per print

Cheaper on small runs

Cheaper the more you print


Sharp & Precise



Risk of melting

Usually OK – check first

Range of Colours

Good at matching some Pantone colours.

High accuracy – Pantone colours

Run Length

Shorter runs

Longer runs

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