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Ink Saturation Guide

Ink saturation in offset printing is less precise than color reproduction on a computer monitor, so it’s important to avoid using extreme saturation values whenever possible. Follow the suggestions below to reduce ink saturation on your printed pages.

Saturation Extremes

The offset press has a hard time with extremely high or low ink saturations on a single color (under 10% or over 90%).  The extremely low ink saturations may not print at all, and the extremely high ones may be indistinguishable from a solid color (100%). This problem most often arises in black-and-white printing, so we’ll use examples from the blacK (Key) plate.

Extreme Ink Saturation Example Light Under Ten Percent Black

Too Light

In the example on the right, you can clearly see the grey line. You can also see from the eyedropper tool that the black ink saturation level is 8%, which is below the 10% recommended minimum.

If this file were to go to press, it is very likely that the line would not print at all.

Extreme Ink Saturation Example Dark Over Ninety Percent Black

Too Heavy

In the example on the right, you can clearly see the cross set within a circle.

The cross has black saturation values of 100%, which is as dark as the black offset plate can print.

However, the circle has a black saturation values of 91%.

While it's easy to see the difference between the two shapes on a computer screen, it will be almost impossible in the finished printed product; instead, both of these areas will look completely black.

Ink Saturation Scale

Most people that are new to offset printing often find that their final printed product comes out slightly darker than they think it will. Unless they opted in on a hard copy proof.

This is because even though your computer screen can show differences in colors with extremely high ink saturation, on the printed page most high-saturation colors end up looking very dark and muddied.

In the 4-color CMYK process, each pixel has an ink saturation level between 0% and 100% for each of the 4 colors – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black – meaning the maximum saturation for a pixel is 400%. That’s all 4 printing plates distributing the highest possible amount of ink onto the paper.

In the swatches below, you can see how your monitor displays 4 different browns from 100% total saturation to 400% saturation:

Total Ink Coverage Saturation Examples

Best Saturation Level to Use for Offset

However, this can be deceptive.

Based on your monitor, it may seem that 300% saturation still retains much of its character, but in practice as you approach the 300% total ink saturation level, your colors will all appear very dark in a way that is not obvious on your computer screen, because the amount of ink on the page prevents enough light reflecting to give the color its character. Your computer monitor is not subject to this limitation since it generates its own light, but ultimately the printed page will have to reflect light, and using too much ink keeps it from doing so.

We recommend when making your color choices, even your darkest sections stay in the 150%-250% range, since this area will still show a lot of color flexibility, but approaching 300% and above will appear very dark, even if you’re not using very much black (key) ink.

This is especially important to keep in mind if you’re converting your own colors from RGB to CMYK, since the ink saturation values automatically generated in conversion may be higher than optimal.

Remember, even a deep, rich black can be made with less than 200% total saturation, so use a bit less ink and let your colors really pop.