In this simple guide to halftone, learn how to achieve an authentic vintage, pixelated, out-of-focus look for your images.

When it comes to digital art, creators play up the halftone effect for an unmistakable look. Originally exploited and popularized by screen printers like Andy Warhol, it became ubiquitous as a formal style in subsequent generations. Now it’s adopted where imagery is meant to be distorted or played with in media such as posters, zines, comics, and graphic novels; anywhere you want to use grungy, lo-fi, or distorted images. In fact, Halftone is a popular image treatment used in zines, one of the major trends identified in our 2019 Creative Trends Report.

In this article, I’ll explain the origins of the halftone style, and I’ll show you two easy ways to create the effect in Photoshop.


What is Halftone?

Halftone is originally a reprographic (printing) technique that uses tiny dots of colored ink to simulate solid ink coverage. When varied in size and spacing, the dots generate a smooth color and gradient effect. Instead of slathering on and mixing a bunch of ink on paper, halftone uses the precise placement of ink dots to create a smooth transition and to ensure the paper isn’t totally saturated.

Halftone is how CMYK (print color mode) is used so effectively. With just four ink colors, cyan (C), magenta (M), yellow (Y), and black (K), you can use dots of each in varying size and frequency to create any color with just a fraction of the ink.

Halftone can also be clean and uniform, creating a more geometric and organized look. Either way, creating a halftone effect in Photoshop can be your new technique for treating graphics. Nothing else looks like it and it can communicate specific genres, or be used as a layer to distort images for other styles completely.


1. Make a Color Halftone Effect

The first, most direct technique to make a halftone is in Photoshop. It also allows you to keep your image in color, which is a big plus.

Halftoning 101: How to Halftone Images in Photoshop — Color Halftone Effect

Image via Charles T. Peden

RGB images will use the tri-color spectrum to make the blended colors as well as black; meanwhile CMYK images will use the four colors in its name to create the tones, with black on its own channel. Experiment with both by converting the file to get the results you want.

To see how different images turn it in both color modes, check this out below. That’s RGB on the left, and CMYK on the right:

Halftoning 101: How to Halftone Images in Photoshop — RBG vs CMYK

Now check out the difference in how RGB turns into three colors of dots, compared to the four colors of CMYK. You’ll see now why you definitely want to experiment with both.

Halftoning 101: How to Halftone Images in Photoshop — Experiment with Both

Crazy, man. Just nuts. Anyway, let me show you how to do this to an image. . .

1. Make a new file or open an image.

2. Pick your color space by going to Image > Mode > [choice of color space], or just leave it as-is. For the halftone, go to Filter > Pixelate > Color Halftone to open the dialog box.

Halftoning 101: How to Halftone Images in Photoshop — Filter Menu

In the top menu, Max Radius dictates the size of the dots; the higher the number, the bigger the dots. You’ll have to try a couple sizes to get what you want, unless you already know how big the dots should be in pixels.

Halftoning 101: How to Halftone Images in Photoshop — Color Halftone Menu

I did sixteen because it’s a big image, about 5000 x 3500 ppi. The Screen Angles (Degrees) control how the individual dots align to make the blended colors. I advise leaving these alone. It’ll just make things weird. But, if you do mess around with them and need to get back home, open the halftone dialog again and hold the Command key. This will turn the Cancel button into a Default button, which will reset the values.

Halftoning 101: How to Halftone Images in Photoshop — Halftone Images with Photoshop

This is the best method for accurate and predictable halftone images. Photoshop really came a long way in revising the effect to give greater control with more choices. It used to be pretty limited, without the ability to convert color spaces among other limitations, but now you can get a far broader range of results with any image.


2. Use a Black and White Bitmap for Photocopied Grunge

This second method is a really good way to get more texture and a “grungy” Xerox-like result.

1. Once you have your art set up and your color gradients set, go to Image > Mode > Grayscale. This removes all color from the picture and sets your file up for bitmap.

Halftoning 101: How to Halftone Images in Photoshop — Black and White

Image via Jiri Sebesta

2. Repeat the same process, this time going to Image > Mode > Bitmap, which will prompt the window below. For this method, match the resolution to whatever you set your file resolution to. For example, mine is set to 300 ppi.

Halftoning 101: How to Halftone Images in Photoshop — Halftone Screen

3. Select the drop-down menu under Method, and pick Halftone Screen. Play around with the next menu a bit to get a style you like for your halftone pattern. For Frequency, the lower the number, the bigger the dots.

The Angle is the angle at which the dots are positioned. You can safely experiment with this, since all the dots are black. It just changes the angle of the pattern. Undo and set it back to 45° as default.

Halftoning 101: How to Halftone Images in Photoshop — Photocopier Look

Here it is up close. You can see how ragged the dots are – perfect for the grungier side of design.

Halftoning 101: How to Halftone Images in Photoshop — Grunge Design

4. Once you’re happy with the results, you can go back to Mode > Grayscale and then Mode > RGB or CMYK, which will let you add color: or create a Duotone image for more vintage looking options.


Cover image background via Charles T. Peden.

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