How To Distinguish Between A Lithograph and Photograph


What is the difference between a lithograph and a photograph? I get emails asking this question all of the time. It’s an important question because it makes all of the difference when valuing a paper image. Typically a lithograph is near worthless whereas a photograph has some value.

Before we start it’s first important to know exactly what each of them is:

PHOTOGRAPH: A photograph is an image captured by sunlight and imposed on some type of photographic surface. Typically it’s taken by a hand held camera and the image is imposed onto film. The image on the film is then printed on photographic paper. This process can also be done onto slides albumen’s, Polaroids and even tintype metal surfaces. What is important to note is that the image that is imposed is created actual light and not a machine.

LITHOGRAPH: A Lithograph is an image that is printed by an offset printer. It is not imposed by light. Rather the image is printed by plates that are covered by ink. Because they are made by a machines as opposed to light, lithographs are not as detailed as photographs. The image created is only as detailed as the laces that printed it. These machine plates leave several distinguishing features that can be used to identify a lithograph.

Difference between a Photo and a Litho:

Because litho’s are printed by machines as opposed to light, they are not as detailed as photographs. To tell the difference all you need to do is examine the image using a magnifier. When you examine a lithograph under a magnifier you will see small tiny dots left by the printer plates. They look like thousands of small dots. With photographs, when examined under a magnifier you do not see any such dots whatsoever. The reason is that the photo image is created by light with an exact imposition onto the surface. The higher the film quality and better the lighting the sharper and more detailed is the image.

In order to see the dots correctly in a lithograph you require a good quality magnifier. Typically a 10x magnifier is adequate. However for some lithographs printed using fine printing plates and quality inks, a more powerful magnifier is needed. For such micro-lithographic prints a 20x -25x viewer is recommended.

What’s the big deal if the image is a litho vs a photo?

The reason that it’s important to determine whether an image is either is a lithograph or a photograph has to do with price. Because lithographs were mass produced are of poorer quality, as a general rule they typically only have nominal value. In other words they are near worthless. Whereas a photograph of the same image has value because it is of higher quality. This is particularly true in the genre of nude images. A lithograph can be a page from a magazine which would have no value. A photograph of the same image would be more valuable because its of better quality. But when discussing nude images it is always important to remember that just because the image is a photograph does not automatically make it valuable. It just means that it is more desired than the inferior lithograph.