Screen Printing Color Separation Software: Do You Really Need It?

Screen printing color separation software: do you really need it?

Color separation is the process of separating the various colors within a design. In the Screen-Printing process, color separations are essential. For a T-shirt or other product to be printed properly, the colors that make up the design must first be separated.

When it comes to screen printing, color separation is handled by either multi-purpose design software or dedicated color separation software, which will be the focus of our discussion in this piece.

What is Color Separation Software, and Why is it Used?

Bird's eye view of rows of pots with different colored inks in them.

The general purpose of the color separation process is to prepare the art file so that a film positive may be printed properly. Color separation software breaks down images into the constituent parts required to duplicate an image. The components in the files may be printed in four colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, abbreviated as CMYK. Or, perhaps more commonly in screen printing, they are separated by any variation in colors such as pink, red, light blue, dark blue, etc.

Separating the colors for screen printing involves two major processes: isolating the colors and generating Halftones to simulate the colors after separating them. Isolating the colors simply means separating different colors in an image. This way, the portion of the image with a specific color is printed out separately. In screen printing, each color must be isolated and printed onto a film, then burned into a screen before it is eventually printed onto a garment with ink.

On to the second process, generating Halftones to simulate the colors. You’ll see right away if you inspect a printed object with a magnifying lens that what appears to be a single picture is made up of a series of smaller ones. In newspaper images, for example, you can see this effect is real, sometimes with the naked eye. The reality of the situation is that we can only print dots. When printed on surfaces with the appropriate size and frequency, our senses (the brain and eyes) process these dots to form a continuous image with complete colors. This is practically what halftones are all about. They are basically small dots of color next to each other, used to simulate these images with continuous colors. Screen printers use halftones to simulate gradients in the design.

An image of what halftones look like up close, with pink and yellow circles.

It is at this point that color separation software comes into play. The process of separating these colors is carried out automatically by the color separation program. However, color separation software isn’t necessary. You can separate colors manually in design software, you would just have to select each of the colors and then separate them manually. It is definitely faster to figure out color separation in a specialist software than to carry out the same task manually in typical design applications, such as Photoshop, Illustrator, Gimp, Inkscape, etc. Another major advantage of color separation software, compared to normal design software, is that it may come with easier methods to halftone. They can be used for complex images with many different colors, gradients, and fine lines. Let’s take a look at some of the best color separation software.

Best Color Separation Software – Free & Paid

So, given these advantages, let’s explore color separation software more. In the coming segments, we will provide recommendations on the best-paid color separation software and the best free color separation software.

Separation Studio

Logo of Freehand Spot Process Separation Studi NXT, a color separation software designed for screen printers.

Our pick is the Freehand Spot Process Separation Studio NXT for the best-paid software. We believe that the features of this product make it stand out among others in performing intricate and complex color separation processes. Separation Studio NXT is specifically designed for screen printers instead of general multi-purpose design software products. There’s more productivity and efficiency when the product is specifically made for the task at hand.

In addition to being specifically made for the task, Separation Studio NXT is also equipped with some of the best User Experience (UX) features. It is user-friendly and easy to use. As a user, the drag and drop functions and the toggle buttons make it super easy to navigate the product. In a nutshell, the product has a layout that feels welcoming to the user, which improves eventual productivity. The software also auto converts process colors to spot colors when users open the files. Another benefit of Separation Studio is that it makes it very easy to create and edit the under base, including slightly reducing the width of (i.e., choking) the under base.

The flexibility of this Separation Studio is also reflected in the fact that it supports files of different formats, including AI, PSD, and Corel files. It also supports files in RGB, tiff/jpg/png, vector, RGB/CMYK, and pdf formats. However, printing directly from Separation Studio will require that you export your document to a RIP software. The pricing of this product is also flexible, giving users the option to select pricing plans that work well with their budget and needs.


InkSeps logo with the tagline 'the art of color separation software' underneath.

For the best free color separation software, our suggestion is the InkSeps color separation software. For a free product, it has some amazing features that help get the job done – completing your simulation and color separation process. The first attractive feature is that it is a free software product, both as an application and in-browser. The developers of this product also added a massive benefit to the website, creating an entire section for tutorials and training articles on the use of their product and the general process of color separation and screen printing.

One notable difference between the use of this product and the Separation Studio is that on InkSeps, after separating the colors, you will have to download the file and load it into Photoshop or CorelDraw for printing. You will also need to download dedicated (free) importers to aid the upload and printing. These importers help with functions like choke and spread and the settings for printing halftones, such as maintaining a certain LPI (lines per inch) level and controlling dot gain. As a result, you’ll be able to receive an accurate image of what the finished print would look like when splitting the art into channels. InkSeps is also compatible with SimpleSeps, a paid RIP software.

Costs and Considerations

Close up of a keyboard with a blue subscribe button.

As you consider your options and determine whether you should go for a paid separation software, you need to calculate your total costs. In screen printing and color separation, you need a couple of software (and other) products to execute the task completely. It would help if you considered all expenses along the way before making your choice. Considering the cost of Separation Studio alone will do no justice to your budget.

Therefore, one should calculate the costs of other design software products to be used in addition to the separation software. For example, the cost of Illustrator + Separation Studio (subscription bundled with AccuRIP) could go as high as $778 annually, while the price of CorelDraw + Separation Studio (bundled with AccuRIP) could cost as much as $808 – and these prices are only for 2 activations of Separation Studio. If you need more, you’ll have to buy more licenses. You should also consider additional costs such as a one-time cost for a dongle for using Separation Studio, which costs about $44.95. Plus, if you decide to use a RIP software other than AccuRIP EMERALD, you’ll have to pay for that too. The price of using Separation Studio is relatively high compared to using a free separation software and Photoshop/illustrator, which costs $20.99 monthly or $239.88 annually, or a free separation software and CorelDraw, which will cost $269 yearly. 

Calculations comparing the cost and savings of using paid color separation software.

Also, ask yourself how fast you can churn out print-ready designs with separation software. Will it be significantly faster than your current rate, and will you be gaining more than you have spent overall? These are vital considerations before opting for paid software.

To cut down your costs, you can also consider a different option: color separation without additional tools. Let’s briefly explain how:

Color Separation Processes: Your Options Without a Separation Software

Rows of colors pickers of many different colors against a grey background.

In any case, color separation remains a two-step process; separating the colors and creating halftones (if the design requires), as we have established earlier. You can do those without a dedicated separation software with these two methods:

  • Separate colors and create halftones in your design software e.g. Photoshop.

The first step, color separation, can be achieved on design software you probably already have, such as Photoshop. Sure, it may not be automated, but color separation on Photoshop for a few solid colors might take about 10-15 minutes, depending on the number of colors. There is barely any massive difference between this and a color separation software, which takes about 5-10 minutes. The second step, creating halftones manually, can also be done in Photoshop but may take a bit more time, extending to about 30 minutes or even an hour if the image is complex or photorealistic. However, there might be a way to reduce your overall time spent while still saving some costs.

  • Use Photoshop to separate colors and a RIP software for halftones

Since the two processes are done separately, you can use Photoshop for the color separation step and create halftones using a RIP software; therefore, you’ll only be paying for Photoshop and a RIP software – which is more wallet-friendly as if you were to get Separation Studio, you’d still be needing that RIP software too.

However, if your budget allows, and you can fork out money for separation software and a RIP software, you can use Separation Studio for both color separation and halftones. While it may cost quite some money, it saves time. Separation Studio takes only about 10-20 minutes for both color separation and halftones (even for complex images).


A pot of red ink, a pot of blue ink, a pot of yellow ink, and a pot of green ink are next to each other on a grey surface.

Given everything we have discussed so far, here are our recommendations:

It is definitely possible to do color separation with your existing design software, and you don’t need a dedicated color separation software. As we stated earlier, Photoshop, or other design software tools such as GIMP (free) and Illustrator, can be effectively used for color separation. You can also adopt a free color separation software (InkSeps, as we suggested) if you personally find it easier to use and considerably faster than your manual design software. The separation can be opened and viewed on your design software (although InkSeps separations do not have an importer for Illustrator). For these reasons, a paid color separation software is not absolutely necessary.

Regarding paid software, our recommendation is that you weigh the factors important to you; the eventual costs, the time spent, and how they affect each other. Compared to other free or lower-cost options, a paid separation software should only be used in certain circumstances. For example, if your tasks are time-bound and quite voluminous, or if you often print complex images with many colors. If your business model does not regularly require working in such situations, then using free separation software or design tools like Photoshop is more than enough for you.

You must always consider your budget and ensure you’re not losing capital at the end of the day. Ask yourself the vital questions; what is your business model? Can your business thrive without paid software? Are your customers always demanding more complex designs?

Remember that after all is said and done, the quality of your output is what matters above all else and what your customers care about, not how expensive your software is.