AM vs FM

In my Topps Archives Snapshots post I had to write about duotones and include a brief note about how printing works in general. I’ve come to realize that this should be a much longer post of its own. I’m not enough of an expert on pre-war cards to cover the way they were printed,* the post-war era where cards are mainly printed with process inks and offset lithography is pretty standard.

*While I can write about photography on old cards, printing is much harder to discuss without being able to actually see the card under a loupe.

CMYK Process

Printing at its basic level involves putting pigment on paper. We’ve standardized to using CMYK process—four different ink colors, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK—in order generate all the other colors. Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow are the official versions of the blue, red, and yellow primary colors we all learned in grade school (black is referred to as K because many people will refer to cyan as “blue”). Any color can be broken into CMY components or separations. Because of the nature of how the inks don’t combine into a true black and how putting three full layers of ink on a piece of paper can cause issues with drying or wrinkling or sticking, we also use a distinct black separation to provide the full contrast and tonal range of the image.

The black separation in particular is also very useful for text as text will be printed in just black ink, often overprinting the other colors so there aren’t any issues with registering it and it’s easy and crisp to read.

This is why when the black separation is missing or damaged we have variations like the 1990 Frank Thomas missing name or the 1982 no-autograph cards. Those are technically print defects which would normally indicate a below-grade card that should’ve been destroyed in the factory. However, due to the nature of how the black separation behaves, they ended up being desirable errors because they only look like printing mistakes to those of us who are print geeks.

The black separation is also one of the common tells of a forged card. It’s very difficult to generate the correct black separation from a scan so black text on forgeries is frequently printed as CMYK instead of just black. The results are often obvious due to the absence of a crisp black edge on the text when you look closely.

Spot colors

Sometimes the card design will use what’s called a spot color in addition to (or instead of) the process colors. Topps’s card backs until 1992 were always printed as spot colors. The silver inks used on early-1990s Leaf are a spot color. The neon orange in the logo on early-1990s Stadium Club is also a spot color. The border colors in a lot of early 2000s Topps cards are spot colors.

Usually spot colors are printed at 100% and used to create a solid color which either can’t be printed with CMYK process (like metallics or fluorescents) or which if printed in CMYK would be hard to keep consistent over multiple print runs (eg 2001 Topps and that grey-green border). Sometimes though they’re used for images and photos. If it’s used by itself the result is called a monotone. If it’s mixed with other colors—typically black—we have a duotone (or tritone, etc. depending on how many inks are being used).

Duotones can either look like tinted black and white images or they can look truly black and white with more depth and contrast. Each ink you add allows for additional levels of depth and contrast in the resulting photos.

The downside with spot colors is that each one you use requires a special setup on the press. Process inks are standard and you can go from one job to the next pretty easily. Spot inks? You have to set up another print station before running the job and thoroughly clean it up before you can move on to the next one.


Which brings us to screening. While the rise of spot inks through the 1990s and 2000s is noteworthy, one of the biggest changes in recent years has been that the pattern of dots used to print the cards has changed. I did a quick loupe at my cards and found that until 2008 traditional screening was pretty universal.

Traditional screening involves lines of dots which create a pattern called a rosette on the printed page. Since the size of each dot is what changes the color traditional screens are also called AM (Amplitude Modulation just like on the radio).

After 2008, Topps increasingly used Stochastic screening. Stochastic screening is unpatterned small dots where the number of dots changes the darkness of the color. Yup this is also called FM (Frequency Modulation) screening. Because it’s only really doable with computer-generated printing plates there’s a reason it only started showing up en masse in the late 2000s.

FM screening results in images which look more like photographs and are less prone to showing misregistration. It allows printers to use less ink and is generally a higher-quality result. The downside? It does weird things (to my eye) in graphic elements like lines or solid blocks of color because the random dots are more visible there.

Anyway, I’d made the assumption that by now Topps was printing everything with FM screens. Then, when I was looking at some of my cards with a loupe* I discovered I was wrong and went down the rabbit hole of louping ALL of my 2017 Topps cards.

*I was curious how they were printing the black and white cards as well as some of the monotone-looking parallels.

Since that rabbit hole was too good for me to keep to myself, here it is on blog form for everyone else to enjoy too. My apologies for the fact that these are almost all Giants cards but it’s what I collect and most of these products are not interesting to me outside of those cards.



Flagship_PoseyScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

We’ll start with flagship since I always refer to it as the card of record. This crop shows exactly what to expect from FM screening. Lots of random dots which are all the same size. No crisp edge on the graphic elements.

You can see the distinct CMYK dots in the mix here and how what looks like a neutral grey color in in fact made up of multiple different colors.

Opening Day


OD_BeltScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

Opening day is exactly like Flagship. I considered excluding it from this post but I realized I should include it once I saw Chrome. Anyway in this crop you can tell how not even the white section of the design is completely without printing.



Chrome_BeltScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

This surprised me. A lot. I found myself wondering is the chrome paper couldn’t be printed with FM screening. Anyway, the crop is from about the same portion of the card as the crop of Opening Day and demonstrates how different the dot pattern is.

You can see the halftone rosettes and how crisp the edge of the graphic is here. You can also see how regular the ink pattern is in the graphic elements. And you can see how the dots change size depending on the darkness of the image.



Heritage_CrawfordScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

That Topps uses FM screens for Heritage is one of the reasons why I thought they were using it everywhere. The rosette pattern is part of the look of old printing. It’s what we expect to see and there’s something comfortable about it. Topps even recognizes this and has been adding it back in to the Heritage photos. That grid in the sky is designed to look like a halftone rosette and be part of the retro feel of this set. Rather than being a rosette though in the crop you can see it’s just denser clusters of cyan dots.



Archives_BeltScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

Topps isn’t faking the rosette pattern here but you can still see how different FM screening is in the solids. On the original 1960 cards most of the bright colors are solid and won’t show any dots. The red for example should be 100% magenta + 100% yellow and as a result look totally smooth. You won’t see any random blue or black dots in it.

Similarly the 1960 design would be a traditional black-only screen for the small photo. With the FM screen however you can see that it consists of the other process colors too.

Allen & Ginter


AG_PenceScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

Where Heritage and Archives are copying cards from the 1960s, Ginter is aping a look from over a century ago. Those cards predate the standard CMYK process colors and were often printed in many more inks.

That they also predate traditional screening and are artifacts that many of us are not entirely familiar with gives Topps a bit more leeway here. The oval graphic and the text are not in the crop but neither of them are printed in solid ink the way they would’ve been a century ago. I chose instead to crop a section which shows how the blue ink splash in the background  has a pattern which is meant to look like engraving lines in it.

Gipsy Queen


GQ_SamardzijaScreening: Stochastic
Colors: CMYK Process

I’ve not much to say about Gipsy Queen except to point out how the FM screen makes up the graphic elements. The lack of a crisp edge really bothers me although with thin curly elements like these a traditional screen isn’t the best choice either. Ideally these would be in their own spot color but that’s a lot more setup than I’d expect from Topps.



Bunt_BeltScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

Another with traditional screening, I was not surprised to see it in a low-end product. The orange panel in this crop really shows off exactly why we call traditional screens “line screens.” The patterns of dots are all set in a grid, each color at a 30° difference from the others (yellow is 15° off) so as to minimize moiré. It’s these 30° angles which create the rosette pattern.


Bunt_Blue_CrawfordScreening: Traditional
Colors: Cyan, Black, spot blue tritone

The Bunt blue parallels are very interesting. I think they‘re tritones. I also think that Topps is using two of the process colors and only adding one new color to the mix. But it’s hard to tell for sure.

I can see that the black dots are at a distinct angle from the blue dots. And I think there are two distinct shades of blue in this image. Anyway this is an example of what non-process inks look like up close.

Stadium Club


SC_SpanScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

I was surprised to se that Stadium Club uses a traditional screen since it’s supposed to be the photo-centric product. That it still looks great shows how little a difference this stuff can make to the naked eye.

Still that Stadium Club might have have looked even better with FM screening is something to wonder about.


SC_Sepia_SpanScreening: Stochastic
Colors: Spot Sepia monotone

The Sepia Parallels though are printed completely differently. Compare this to the crop of Bunt and it’s worlds different. The FM screen here makes the sepia parallels look a bit more photograph-like than they would if they were printed in a traditional monotone. And the way that Topps has gone with a lower-contrast look means that the single ink isn’t limiting.


SC_WilliamsScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

One more Stadium Club note. There are a number of “black and white” cards in the set. None of the are actually black and white. As is visible in the crop they’re all printed in all four colors and have been carefully balanced so the results look neutral.

Archives Snapshots


TAS_BaergaScreening: Traditional
Colors: CMYK Process

As with Stadium Club, it’s a bit disappointing to see these printed traditionally. Although as a more nastlagia-feeling product the line screens here aren’t out of place. Also, with the crisper graphics, even while they’re small, the traditional screens are preferable. I still wish it were easy to do FM screens for the photos only and let traditional screens do the rest of the graphics.


TAS_GlasnowScreening: Traditional
Colors: Black and grey duotone

And a proper duotone. Where Bunt is heavily tinted and the black and white Stadium Clubs are really just process, the Archives Snapshots black and white cards are printed with black and a neutral grey ink. This gives the images a much-better tonal range of good shadows and highlight detail while still maintaining midtones and contrast.

The crop is indeed in color. I chose this particular section because you can make out the distinct screens by the angles of the dots. Other sections are more interesting under a loupe but on screen it’s nearly impossible to see the different inks.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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