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Lithographic vs. Photographic Reproduction

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You may have seen some ads offering reproductions of your headshot for less than half of the normal rate. Read the ad carefully, and you will probably see the word "lithograph" somewhere. What's the difference? Back Stage asked Ken Taranto, of New York City's Taranto Photo Services, to explain.

A photographic print is made from a negative projected onto photographic paper with sensitized silver emulsion, so that it has continuous tones from white to black. A lithographic print, however, is printed with ink on coated (glossy) paper, from a "screened" negative--a negative broken into little black dots, so the tones from white to gray to black depend on the density of the dots. The higher the "line screen," the more dots per square inch. A newspaper such as Back Stage generally prints with a screen of about 85, because on the more porous newsprint paper, dots spread, and would blur. A photo used for an illustration in a book might be screened at 133; a very high-quality print might use a screen as high as 175, and screens can go as high as 300.

The setup for the first copy of a lithographic print involves making the negative, burning a plate, and then setting up the press. However, once the plate is made, the cost per print is drastically reduced, because the cost of paper stock is only $.02 per sheet as compared to $.30 per sheet for photographic paper. This is why you can buy as many as 500 lithographic prints for the cost of 100 photographic prints.

If you hold a photographic print next to a lithograph, the difference is easy to see. The lithograph looks flatter, and probably muddier than the photo; you can tell from the finish on the two papers, also. The quality of a lithographic print depends on the line screen, and on the number of inks used; a "duotone" would use two inks, and a "tritone" would use three inks. A lithographic print with a high line screen and using a duotone or tritone can look almost as good as the original photo, in fact, "a very good lithograph can look better than a poor photograph," says Taranto. But to get that quality would probably cost as much or more as photographic reproductions. In general, the cheaper lithographs don't compare to the same headshot reproduced photographically.

But 500 prints for the price of 100? Can it really matter that much? Well, yes, according to several sources in the industry interviewed by Back Stage.

"Your picture is your calling card," says Yvonne Kenney, an agent with Harden-Curtis. "You wouldn't get shabby business cards; you'd consider the texture of the paper. It's like the difference between Baccarat crystal and Noritake. I prefer traditional photos; I think you're making a statement, 'I'm a player here.' Put your best foot forward. If you're doing a mailing, it might be all right to use a lithograph, but for going into a meeting with an agent or a casting director, you need the real thing."

Taranto thought that lithographs were "more of an L.A. thing," so we checked with L.A. casting director Darlene Kaplan. She agreed with Kenney, however: "It's your one tool, your calling card, so make sure it's good. People still use the standard photo over lithographs. It doesn't really matter whether the finish is matte or glossy, or headshot or portrait, although the big borders are popular now. We get lots of submissions from New York as well as L.A., and there's not a big difference in pictures." --J.C.

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