What’s the Difference Between Wide Format Printing and Plotter Printing?

1800 Office SOlutions Team member - Elie Vigile
1800 Team

Are you confused about wide format printing and its functions? Maybe you have a poster or architectural drawing that you need to have printed but aren’t sure what type of file to save, or how high your image resolution needs to be.

Wide format printing production is technical and complicated and requires solid knowledge to be generated correctly. You must know about image resolution, file formats, and fonts. You also need to know what color space the printer uses, what kind of material it will print on, and what finishing options you can choose.

Never fear. Keep reading to get a clear understanding of these capabilities and how to choose the printing process that’s right for your project.

Wide Format Printing And Plotter Printing

The Language of Printing

Here is a quick glossary to help you understand the terms we will use in the rest of this article.

Raster image: A raster image is made up of pixels, or dots that form the image. Photographs are always raster images, as well as much of the art you encounter on a website. Raster images are resolution-dependent and will lose image quality when enlarged to less than twice the printer’s resolution.

For instance, say a printer lays down 150 dots per inch. Your raster image needs to be 300 dpi to look good on the printed piece. If that image is enlarged, its resolution decreases proportionately. Say you try to print it at 200%. That would decrease the image resolution to 150 dpi and would look very blurry. Applications like Photoshop create and edit raster images.

Vector image: A vector image is created from shapes drawn with paths to define the edges. Vectors are resolution independent which means that they can be enlarged with no limitation and without loss of image quality. Sharp edges stay sharp. Designers use applications like Adobe Illustrator to create and edit vector images.


There are two types we will reference in this article: printer resolution and image resolution.

Printer resolution: how many dots of ink per inch the printer produces. This term can also be applied to small format printers and printing plate imagers, but for our purposes, we’ll just refer to ink dots per inch. Wide format printer resolution ranges between 75 and 150 dpi. Since large prints are generally viewed from a distance, the quality can be very forgiving.

File sizes for wide printing can become exceptionally large and difficult to work with, so it’s important to check with your print vendor for a recommendation.

Image resolution: As we mentioned above, raster images are resolution-dependent. This resolution is not in ink dots per inch but color pixels per inch. In most printing contexts, the resolution of the image should be twice the resolution of the printer, but wide format printers are more forgiving.

Color space: There are only two you need to understand in the printing world: CMYK and RGB. Most raster images are edited in the RGB color space, which has millions of colors and affords great flexibility for image editing. Once the image gets to the printer, it should be in or converted to the same color space of the printer. That color space is usually cyan, magenta, yellow, and black: CMYK. The printer’s inks are those colors, and your photos are reproduced much as they are on a printing press.

File Types

Raster file types: .tif, .jpg, .png, .psd, .bmp

Vector file types: .eps, .dwg, .cdr., .ai

Files that contain both raster and vector: .eps, .ai, .pdf

Again, check with your print vendor to find out what kind of file they prefer to print from.

Wide Format Printing Options

There are several types of large-format printers that are designed to produce everything from simple prints to huge transparencies. In this article, we are examining the differences between wide-format printers and plotters.

Some people use these printer names interchangeably, but they are very different machines. Here’s a little history:


These were the first of these large-format printers. The first plotter was created in 1959 and could plot paper sizes up to eleven inches. From then through the 1980s, plotters were the only machines capable of reproducing high-resolution vector images.

Plotters can only print vector images. These machines are used primarily to reproduce CAD drawings and architectural plans, and they print in very high resolution. Plotters that put ink on paper are called pen plotters and are capable of producing very highly detailed drawings.

Modern pen plotters enjoy resolutions of up to 1,000 dpi. Another type of plotter called electrostatic can create single-color images at 400 dpi.

Finally, cutting plotters use a knife to cut vinyl applications for vehicle wraps and buildings. The materials come in sheets or rolls and can range from paper to plastic.

Wide Format Printers

These printers came about from a need to print high-quality raster graphics in high resolution. The Iris 3047 Inkjet printer was introduced in 1985 and was designed for prepress proofing. At this time, offset printing companies made proofs using the printing film to generate layers of CMYK keys that they laminated together to show what the press will print.

This proofing method was costly both in time and materials and printers began to demand more efficient ways of generating press proofs. Along came the Iris; operators could print their files, and the printer could generate a press sheet accurate enough to gain customer approval.

Presently, a few companies manufacture wide-format inkjet printers. Hewlett-Packard makes a popular line of inkjet proofing printers, and Canon is in the market for higher-end art prints.

How to Choose Your Wide Format Printer

Your end use dictates which type of printer is best for you. If you are printing layouts with images for client approval or art posters, choose wide format printing.

If you are looking for detailed line work or architectural drawings, a plotter is going to be your best choice. Now that you have the tools to make an informed decision, contact our team to make sure you are making the correct choice for your company’s needs.

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