A Comparison Guide: Digital vs Litho Printing

The difference between digital and litho printing is simple. Litho printing is a traditional method utilising metal plates or stone. In comparison, digital printing uses complex computers to print images onto paper. The image on the screen is analysed and then converted into a format that can then be printed directly onto the surface required.

Speed of print

Litho printing can produce 18,000 prints per hour. To use this method, however, you need to create the design on printing plates. In comparison, digital printing can only print 4,800 per hour, but there are minimal setup requirements.

Overall, digital printing can be quicker in shorter runs. This is due to the setup time, but also because the prints do not need time to dry and can be sent straight for finishing, binding, and lamination.

Difference in cost

The lithographic process must always have a minimum print quantity to make it viable. With litho 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.

In comparison, digital delivers substantial savings through ‘print on demand’, as customers are able to buy the exact quantities they need.

If you’re searching for low-volume or highly personalised print jobs, digital printing will be far more cost effective, with a better quality finish on the personalisation. If you require more prints and they are generic, litho could be the best option for you.

Flexibility and personalisation advantages

Overall, digital printing data is easier to change and update. This is because an infinite number of personalised versions can be created at any given time. In comparison, litho printing uses printing plates that need to be physically replaced between changes.

Quality comparison

A litho printing machine has traditionally provided the best quality results. In recent years, however, digital quality has vastly improved to the point where it is hard to distinguish between the two.

A digital printing machine is more likely to produce a high-quality print from a low-resolution image. This is because it can upscale images more effectively. To produce the same quality product with litho printing, you would need to use a high-resolution image.

Stock type and weight

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

Range of colours

If you require a high level of colour accuracy, we recommend that you choose litho. Litho printing can also make use of metallic inks, such as silver and gold. Digital presses, however, are generally good at matching certain Pantones.


Overprinting describes the process of reprinting over the top of a previously printed item. If you would like to replicate this process after using digital printing (especially a home laser printer), be mindful that some machines will melt the image that has previously been produced. Litho-produced prints are usually more tolerant, but we recommend asking a member of our team before trying any overprinting.

Run length and lead time

Litho printing has a high set-up cost. Digital printing, however, has a low set-up charge, so it is better suited for shorter run prints. This means you’re only paying for what you want.

Litho printing doesn’t have a maximum limit, but it will start at around 500 prints. Colour Digital can produce a single print but is best suited to around 500 to 2,000, depending on what you’re printing.


Litho printing will deliver a softer finish. In comparison, digital printing produces a sharp and precise product. Certain finishes are possible with each type of printing. If you require UV varnishing, for example, litho printing is a much more economical option.

Advantages of digital printing

  • Cost effective for shorter printing 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 (subject to set-up charge)
  • Not limited to four colour process
  • Solid, single colour – smoother and 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

Want some more help?

Our account managers team can work with you to understand your project and advise you on the most appropriate options for the best results.

Get it touch with the Washington Direct Mail on 0191 487 5148 or contact us using the 30-second form on the right.

WDM… We Do More to help you!

We’re experts in what we do

Delivering world class mail and print solutions since 1983, we know a thing or two about the industry. Read our latest news and insights to learn more about our experience and expertise.

Request a Quote today!

Complete the form and one of our mail and print experts will be in touch with your quote.

    Proud to be an ISO certified business

    • ISO27001:2013

      Data Security & Business Continuity

    • ISO9001:2015


    • ISO14001:2015


    • ISO45001:2018

      Health & Safety


    Certificate Number 10515

    Get a quote today, call 0191 487 5148 or email info@wdmonline.co.uk