Lith printing in the digital age

An extract from Tim Rudman’s book World of Lith Printing discussing the values of using digital equipment in lith printing.

Writer and Photography / Tim Rudman

Digital technology in photography has been akin to the industrial revolution of the 1800s. Liberating for some and threatening to others, digital imaging has caused a degree of polarization within the photographic community, not previously witnessed in our lifetimes. It is a worrying time for all Black and White darkroom workers, who are seeing the availability of both materials and equipment dwindling as the world ‘goes digital’. In due course a balance will emerge as market forces prevail. I hope to continue making prints in my darkroom, but I understand that many prefer to print digitally for very sound reasons and of course some like to simulate lith printing this way, and it is perfectly right that they should. However…

It is no longer an ‘either-or’ world

Digital technology is becoming increasingly relevant to the darkroom worker, who can now harness some of its undoubted advantages for their preferred analogue1 practices. As digital advances continue to be made ever faster and their applications become cheaper, symbiotic alliances are likely to become more common.

Several ‘hybrid’ technologies are currently in widespread use. Most are too expensive for the average individual to own but they are widely accessible commercially. Well known examples of these are: Digital-to-film writers; LightJet laser printers that print with red, green and blue lasers onto type C or B&W silver gelatine photographic papers; and more recently digital enlargers using ‘virtual’ negatives to print onto conventional silver halide papers. Ilford Photo is currently researching new digitally sensitive silver halide papers for production in the near future. Maybe we will one day see these technologies become widely affordable, in the same way that quality digital cameras are.

Affordable digital technology however is now already widely used by the ‘man in the street’ and has an application to lith or digital lith printing: In this chapter, with some input from my three ‘digital lith’ guests, I would like to look at the following:

Digital for the ‘wet’ (darkroom) Lith printer:

  • Flatbed scanning – as an ‘analogue-to-digital bridge. (‘Analogue’ is often used in this context to mean non-digital, or traditional darkroom practice.)
  • Digital negatives for contact printing – a digital-to-analogue bridge.

Digital for the ‘dry’ (lightroom/inkjet) Lith printer:

  • Plug-ins and ‘actions’ for automated simulation of lith prints.
  • Some individual techniques for creating different digital lith print simulations

Flatbed scanning traditional Lith prints

Skip SmithThere can be a number of advantages to scanning traditionally made photographic artwork and converting it into digital form. Firstly, at an administrative level, it is useful to have a digital catalogue of your work, either to put onto a website or to email to interested parties for promotion or sales. Secondly, it allows you to use the work as a basis for other digital work. This might be either by editing and correcting aspects that could not be done in the darkroom, making montages, changing colour or contrast etc., prior to outputting as an inkjet print or negative (see further below), or to select aspects of the image for use in other images, be they lith or mixed media – combining lith with other alternative process imagery for example.

Image right: Skip Smith with examples of digitally printed images prints, derived from his original darkroom-made lith prints. A large print made on thick watercolour paper and float-mounted inside a window matt and frame.

Skip Smith is one of my portfolio guests. He utilizes digital technology not to change his darkroom lith printed images at all, but to expand the ways he can display them on different materials, at different sizes and in other formats. Skip explains: 

Using digital technology for alternative presentations of my Lith work

By Skip Smith:

It was the ability to print on a variety of different materials and to easily adjust image size that prompted me to explore digital printing, as an extension of my darkroom work rather than as a replacement for it.

I work in collaboration with Tim Dussault of ArtSmart in Anacortes, Washington State.  Our procedure is to scan my original lith print and then to reprint it digitally, with no computer manipulation of the image.

Lith printing
A small delicate accordion book printed on silk.

We print still life work on heavy watercolor paper and although we could print any reasonable size, we choose to print in two sizes: 8″ x 8″ (the size of my original lith print) and 18″ x 18″.  These larger images have a deckled edge and are presented ‘floating’ on a mat board and are then surrounded by a floating ‘window’ mat.

The same photographs are printed sequentially on satin cloth. These are much smaller, 3″ x 3″, and used to create accordion books.  I use these accordion books to promote my work, give as gifts, or to sell.  The satin cloth gives a somewhat sensual feel to the photos and provides added dimension to the final images.

I also have made a custom bound book of my still life work, which was printed, on thick watercolor paper.  Such books can go on the coffee table or be left to my children.

We use a Umax 3000 flatbed scanner and print with a Roland 6 color pigment printer. Hahnemuhle makes the Archival rag watercolor paper that we use. The satin cloth is made by Lexjet. It is water-resistant and is made specifically to accept pigment inks. The combination of pigment inks on archival paper provides maximum archival quality of over 120 years.  The prints on satin are not as long lasting, but they are good for at least 70 years.

framed lith print
Picture right: This A3+ digital negative was produced on Permajet Digital Transfer Film using an Epson 2100 inkjet printer. It is seen here in one of Freestyle’s new contact printing frames. I use this size as it is large enough to take an A3+ negative, which of course a 12×16 frame cannot.

Making digital negatives

A major contribution that digital imaging technology has brought to the darkroom in general and Lith printing in particular is the ability to produce large format negatives digitally. As the technology improves, it is now realistic to do this on your own desktop, using the same printer that you may be using for inkjet prints. The darkroom worker can now have a foot in both camps and combine the flexibility, accuracy and repeatability of digital imaging with the craft, beauty and permanence of traditionally made fine art prints, be they silver, platinum or iron based.

The advantages are obvious – digital editing to add or remove content, making contrast adjustments, either local or general, and the production of a master negative for all future prints. But why is this particularlyuseful to the lith printer?

Tim is a UK based photographer and author of several books, including “The World of Lith Printing”.

Learn more about lith printing
The World of Lith Printing: The Best of Traditional Darkroom and Digital Lith Printing Techniques

The World of Lith Printing: The Best of Traditional Darkroom and Digital Lith Printing Techniques

by Tim Rudman

World-wide collection of lith printing works.


3 thoughts on “Lith printing in the digital age”

  1. I used to print a lot of my work on sterling with paper which i believe is no longer available. iw onderedif it has been bought out by someone and is now available under a different name. this seems to be common in the darkroom world.

    david m

  2. I am looking to purchase a lithprint, I believe, from artist Tim Dussault, of Cap Sante in Anacortes, WA, with Jesus in the clouds. Could he please contact me? Thanks so much! Denise at 360.293.8044

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