Goodbye, Halftones; Hello, Stochastic?

While many magazines use stochastic screening, catalogers have been slower to catch on. Those marketers that use the technology, however, insist that its benefits make up for the long learning curve.

Most catalogs are printed using AM screening, which uses halftones. The screen consists of a grid of dots that are made smaller or larger to achieve the desired color and contrast. Stochastic printing — which is also called staccato, diamond, or FM screening — achieves color and contrast by clustering the dots rather than changing their size. Where the dots are dense, there is more color; where they are sparse, there is less color.

Advocates of stochastic printing praise its color accuracy and crisp images. Clay Ide, vice president of creative services at San Francisco-based home decor cataloger/retailer Pottery Barn, says that stochastic screening allows the company to more clearly illustrate the intricacies of its products, “especially for rugs and textiles.”

Lori Hornung, co-owner of Fond du Lac, MI-based Hornung’s Golf Products, a wholesaler of golf supplies, says that since her company switched to stochastic screening four years ago, the clarity of items such as golf shirts and bags offered in different materials and textures has improved significantly. As a result, color-related returns have dropped significantly. What’s more, the lack of the halftone grid means that Hornung’s no longer struggles with moiré in its photos of herringbone fabrics and other patterned items.

Another user, Jagged Edge executive vice president Paula Quenemoen, says that images printed using stochastic more closely resemble the original photography. That’s important for Moab, UT-based Jagged Edge, she adds, because the catalog’s action photography helps distinguish it from other marketers of outdoor gear.

Technically speaking, other benefits of stochastic include faster ink drying times, due to the small size of the dots. This in turn, says Dan Blondal, stochastic screening product manager for Burnaby, BC-based Creo, a supplier of prepress equipment and software, enables your catalog to get to the bindery faster, saving precious press time. It also means you can avoid using printing powder to prevent damp, tacky pages from sticking together.

Some even argue that stochastic’s higher ink density — again due to the small size of the dots — can enhance the look of your paper. “You may be able to lower either the grade or the basis weight of your paper to save money without sacrificing the perceived value,” says Craig Beedy, vice president of technology for New Berlin, WI-based Sells Printing.

Now, about those drawbacks

Stochastic screening isn’t without its faults. For one thing, you need to relinquish some control on press when you use stochastic, because corrections cannot be made after the plate is struck. Instead, you have to approve pages using halftone proofs such as Iris or Epson prints.

For Pottery Barn’s Ide, this meant spending more time getting the plates ready and at the color separator proofing color. “But now that we are used to the differences in proofing,” he adds, “we print all of the Pottery Barn catalogs stochastic.”

Some critics also note that stochastic printing can produce optical gain, with pages ending up as much as 10% darker than desired if the printers aren’t careful about calibrating the presses. Carelessness, adds Jagged Edge’s Quenemoen, can also lead to black text that is either grainy or dull.

And on heat-set Web presses, FM screens can increase or intensify press problems such as emulsification and piling, Blondal says. This is beyond catalogers’ control, but it can still be costly in terms of press time if you need to constantly stop the press.

Speaking of costs…

Printers will generally charge somewhat more for stochastic than for AM screening, but the increase varies, depending in part on how much of an investment in equipment the printer has to make. Ide notes that Pottery Barn’s two printers and its color separator both had to invest in equipment.

For her part, Quenemoen didn’t end up paying more to go stochastic. Instead, Jagged Edge switched to a printer that matched her contract from the previous year, when the catalog was still using AM screening.

Hornung says that the price for her print runs of 60,000 136-page catalogs went up “a few thousand dollars.” But she considers it a “modest increase” given what she is seeing in savings from avoiding retouching images during the production cycle.

In fact, Hornung is an unequivocal fan of the technology. “After trying stochastic and seeing the results, I would not think about going back to standard printing unless it was an absolutely huge cost savings,” she says.

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