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Is 4 color process the same as full color?

Color is an important part of graphic design and printing. When creating printed materials like brochures, posters, or magazines, designers have to determine what type of color to use. Two common options are 4 color process printing and full color printing. But what exactly do these terms mean and are they the same thing?

What is 4 Color Process Printing?

4 color process printing, also known as CMYK printing, refers to the use of four standard printing inks – cyan, magenta, yellow and black (key). These inks are combined to create a wide range of colors. By laying down overlapping layers of these colored inks on paper in different ratios, printers can recreate almost any hue imaginable. This allows full color images to be printed.

The 4 color process works by using dots of different sizes in each ink color. When these dots merge together in the eye, they create the illusion of new colors and continuous tone images. The size and spacing of the dots is varied to produce lighter and darker shades. This process is also called halftone printing.

Here’s a quick overview of what each color ink does:

  • Cyan – Adds shades of blue
  • Magenta – Adds shades of red
  • Yellow – Adds shades of yellow
  • Black (Key) – Adds contrast, depth and helps produce true black

By combining these primary subtractive colors together on paper, almost any color can be simulated. This makes 4 color process capable of creating millions of color combinations.

What is Full Color Printing?

“Full color” is a generic term used to refer to printing that uses more than one color ink. Unlike black and white or spot color printing, full color incorporates a range of hues to create more photographic, colored images.

Full color printing can be achieved in a few different ways:

  • Using CMYK 4 color process
  • Using CMYK plus spot colors (ex. Pantone Matching System)
  • Using RGB 6 color process
  • Using CMYK plus light cyan/light magenta

The most common type of full color printing is 4 color process CMYK. This four ink system can create a broad spectrum of colors by layering subtractive primaries. Most color images are printed using the CMYK process.

However, full color printing can also incorporate additional ink colors beyond CMYK. This expands the possible color range. Adding commercial spot colors like Pantone allows specific corporate colors to be matched. 6 color RGB printing adds light cyan and light magenta to achieve brighter, more saturated colors. The printing method chosen depends on the projects color needs and budget.

Are 4 Color Process and Full Color the Same Thing?

4 color process printing and full color printing are closely related terms, but they are not completely synonymous:

  • 4 color process refers specifically to CMYK printing using 4 inks – cyan, magenta, yellow and black.
  • Full color is a broader term that encompasses any printing with multiple colors. This includes CMYK, but also additional color options.

So CMYK 4 color process is one type of full color printing. But full color can sometimes refer to printing with more than 4 colors.

Here is a table summarizing the differences:

4 Color Process Full Color
Uses 4 ink colors – CMYK Uses multiple ink colors
Prints overlapping dots of cyan, magenta, yellow and black Can include CMYK but also additional colors like RGB or Pantone
Most affordable way to print full color Can be more expensive if using extra colors beyond CMYK

So in summary:

  • 4 color process is a type of full color printing that uses CMYK inks
  • Full color is a broader term that can include CMYK but also additional ink colors
  • CMYK 4 color process allows full color printing at the most affordable cost

Advantages of 4 Color Process Printing

There are several benefits to using the 4 color CMYK process for full color printing:

  • Cost effective – CMYK only requires 4 inks, keeping material costs low compared to printing with additional colors.
  • Quality – Modern CMYK printing produces vibrant, photographic quality color when used with high resolution images.
  • Wide color gamut – CMYK can replicate millions of visible colors by combining 4 process colors.
  • Standard option – CMYK is the standard and most common type of professional full color printing.
  • Compatible – CMYK works with both digital and offset lithography printing, two of the most common methods.

For most jobs, CMYK 4 color process offers the best balance of affordability and quality for full color printing. The range of colors is wide enough for photorealistic images. And the standardized process makes it easy for designers and printers to work together.

Disadvantages of 4 Color Process

There are some downsides to 4 color process printing to be aware of:

  • CMYK has a smaller color gamut than other color modes like RGB. Some vibrant neon colors are outside the range.
  • Converting RGB images to CMYK can cause color shifts. The colors don’t translate perfectly between color spaces.
  • Blacks can sometimes print with a slight hue or may not be truly black without adding extra black ink.
  • Gradients and dark colors may show slight banding instead of smooth blending.
  • Registration errors can allow tiny white gaps to appear between color layers if not calibrated correctly.

For most projects, the advantages outweigh these limitations. But for work requiring an extremely wide spectrum of bright, saturated colors, the smaller CMYK gamut can be restrictive. In these cases, adding extra colors beyond 4 may produce better results.

Should You Use 4 Color Process or More Than 4 Colors?

For most general commercial printing needs, 4 color CMYK process is ideal. It produces great looking full color prints at an affordable cost. However, certain types of projects may benefit from expanded color using additional inks:

  • Posters – Bright, vivid poster colors can sometimes be out of CMYK’s range. 5-6 color printing creates a wider gamut.
  • Art prints – Getting fine art reproductions to match the exact colors of the original may require additional ink colors.
  • Corporate branding – Specific Pantone spot colors can be matched when needed for company brand colors.
  • Photos – Cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta can improve gradients and skin tones.

The number of colors to choose depends on the content and the budget. Make sure to talk to your print provider to decide the right process for your specific needs.

Tips for Best Results with 4 Color Process

Here are some tips to help you get great looking full color prints using CMYK 4 color process:

  • Use high resolution photos (300dpi+) so dots and gradients print smoothly.
  • Convert RGB files to CMYK yourself before submitting files to avoid color shifts.
  • Add an extra black layer for rich, dark blacks if needed.
  • Avoid large areas of intense solid color which can oversaturate and bleed.
  • Choose paper with high opacity so inks don’t show through to the other side.
  • Request press proofs to check colors before final production run.

With a well-prepared file and a calibrated printing press, 4 color process printing offers an affordable way to achieve stunning full color results.


4 color process CMYK printing and full color printing are closely related. While full color refers to any printing with multiple colors, 4 color process is a specific type of full color printing that uses cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks. This combination allows thousands of colors to be reproduced cost effectively. For most projects, 4 color process offers the best balance of price and quality for full color printing. But for some jobs that require an extremely expanded color gamut, adding additional inks beyond CMYK may be beneficial. Overall, understand the strengths and limitations of 4 color process to determine when it is the right option for your full color printing needs.