When you’re screen printing, you can only use one color at a time. For most designs, this means using multiple screens and layering colors. But how do you know what colors to use, and in what order? With color separation software.
Good color separation software will split your image up into several colors without losing the integrity of the image. Splitting an image into individual colors manually is time-consuming and tricky, but software can automate the process and reduce how many screens you’ll need to use to get the right result.
What makes the best software is different for everyone. The features and price tag that are right for a busy business might not make sense for someone just getting into screen printing. Use this guide to find the software that fits your needs so you can get started on your next screenprinting project.
What is Color Separation?
Color separation for screen printing is the process where a program separates the different colors present in an image into individual images. Essentially, the process gives you a separate image for each color in the design.
When you layer the images, it gives you the full design. However, you can only screenprint one color at a time, and you need these separate images to make multi-color prints. How many images you end up with depends on the type of ink you’re using and the number of colors in your design.
For example, for a four-color print process, you’ll need to mix your four base colors to get all the different hues in your design. The color separation software will split your image into four different images, one for each base color. When you print all four images onto the same place, the result will look like your original image.
Other processes, like spot color index color, use more than four colors of ink. The spot process uses a separate ink for every color in your image, so color separation will split a spot process design into as many images as there are colors.
Why Do You Need Color Separation Software?
When screen printing a design with more than one color, you need to separate the colors before you print for the best results. While you could upload your images into a design program and separate them yourself, that is a long and painstaking process for even the most expert graphic designer.
Color separation software does this difficult process for you. It will cut down on the prep time for your screen prints and help you get good, consistent results.
Good color separation software can also help you reduce the number of screens you need per image. As part of the color separation process, these programs can figure out which colors to layer to create other colors. For multi-ink processes like index or spot color, this can save you even more time, energy, and supplies.
Using color separation software will expand your screen printing options. Without it, you’ll either have limited printing abilities or have to spend hours preparing every print.
Best Free Color Separation Software
Color separation software doesn’t have to be a major expense. Free color separation software can do a lot for you, especially if you’re printing for personal use rather than commercial. However, free color separation is limited in what is available and what it can do.
Many paid software options have a free trial available so you can find the one you like best before committing to it. If you want to use a truly free color separation software, the best choices are below.
Ink Seps is a good program when you’re new to screen printing. Their free color separation app is available now, and their browser version is coming soon. The website also offers video tutorials and training articles that will help you learn how to use the tool most effectively.
The biggest advantage of this software is that despite being free, it takes time to help you understand the process. Not only do the tutorials teach you about how to use the app, but they also teach about color theory and screen printing in general. Even if you don’t love the software, the resources are a great place to start.
T-Shirt Factory offers a free CMYK Color Separation tool. There are a few caveats with this software. First, it is a Photoshop Action, so you’ll need to own an Adobe Photoshop license to use it. You’ll also need to know how to use Adobe Photoshop.
Second, it only works for four-color processing. CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (black is represented by the K). Four-color processing is a very effective screen printing method, as these four colors can combine into an almost infinite range of colors.
However, if you aren’t using four-color processing, the T-Shirt Factory tool will not work for you. So, this is only a good option if you already have Photoshop and only use one four-color processing.
GIMP is an open-source program for image editing. Because it’s open-source, the whole thing is free. They have color separation plug-ins that are also free. Open-source also means that there are plenty of third-party applications and plug-ins you can use with the program for free.
Like Ink Seps, GIMP has an abundance of tutorials and information on their website to help you use the tools. The plug-ins for color separation are through third-party developers hosted on other websites. Make sure to use caution when you’re downloading plug-ins, and don’t download software from unknown, un-vetted sources.
If you choose to go the free route for your color separation software, GIMP is a good choice if you’re already tech-savvy and good with programming. Otherwise, it may be more frustrating than it is worth.
Best Paid Color Separation Software
Free color separation software options are limited, but there is an abundance of paid software for this purpose. Unlike most free options, paid software is user-friendly even if you aren’t familiar with graphic design or computer coding.
Packages for color separation come at various price points, depending on how you’re going to use them. Licensing software for a small business that does multiple images and printing runs every day will be more expensive than using it occasionally for a hobby.
The functions of the color separation software choices vary as well. Some are extensions for existing editing software, and others are entirely separate. The more experience you have with graphic design, the easier it will be to use most of these options.
Regardless of your experience level, you can find the perfect color separation software for your needs from the list below.
One of the most widely used options is Separo. It’s a web-based tool, so you don’t need to download anything or install anything to get started. It offers more than just separation, including underbases, which are colors (usually white) that you print over to help images show up on darker fabrics.
Separo has three different price points. Their standard starts at $49 per month, rising to $149 per month for their professional package. They also offer more customized expert packages, priced based on your needs.
All three price tiers start with a thirty-day free trial, so you can make sure this is the software you want. They also offer customer support, art enhancement, and other graphics services specific to screen printing.
Spot Process Separation Studio 4
Spot Process Separation Studio 4 is a user-friendly option for spot process or simulated process screen printing. Their stated goal is to make the process as easy as possible to help you maximize profits for your screen printing business.
They understand that the more time you spend figuring out the software, the less time you can spend making your products. To that end, many of its tools and processes can be automated. You have the option to use them manually to get the perfect result, but if you’re new to screen printing, the automated features can help you learn fast.
There are two price levels for this software. The first is $199 per year, while the other is a one-time $489 fee for a lifetime of use. They are both all-inclusive licenses, the only difference being the length of time you have access to the software.
If you are interested in more than one type of screen printing process, or you’re experimenting with them, then QuikSeps is a great choice for color separation. This software supports virtually every type of screen printing, from four-color to simulated processes.
It is a fairly basic program, and it is, in fact, the foundation for Ultra Seps. It’s priced at $149 for the program download and a two-hour instructional video. The package includes some sample images to practice with and a host of other image editing tools.
Like its precursor, QuikSeps, UltraSeps offers multiple color separation methods in a user-friendly interface. It’s built to be just as useful to beginners as to seasoned professionals.
UltraSeps has plenty of automated features that work on complex, photo-realistic images and simple graphics or logos. Ultimately, it is a faster and sleeker version of QuickSeps.
It has a much steeper price tag than QuickSeps at $699. Occasionally the developer runs sales that can discount it to $499, and it does have a 15-day free trial before you have to pay for the license. Due to the price, it is a better choice for a high-volume business rather than a hobby.
Unlike the first four programs on this list, Simple Seps is a plug-in rather than a separate software. It works with CorelDraw and PhotoPaint. You will need one of those programs to use Simple Seps.
Mostly this plug-in offers automated color separation. There aren’t many features beyond that, as the bulk of your image editing and processing is already taken care of in CorelDraw or PhotoPaint features. This is a good choice if you’re already familiar with either of those programs and only need to add color separation.
AdvancedTShirts sells Simple Seps, and they have a variety of packages to choose from. They start at $69.99 for a single license and go up to $199.99 for packages that bundle color separation with other CorelDraw plug-ins.
YRGBK is another plug-in-based software, this one for Adobe Photoshop. It uses up to seven separate layers to separate your image. One of those layers can be an underbase for darker-colored fabrics.
You have two purchase options for this software. The first is an $85 option that is just the color separation. The second is a bundle that includes color separation with three other plug-ins for $105. Both options require Adobe Photoshop to use them.
YRGBK is a fairly simple and straightforward piece of software. If you already have familiarity with Photoshop, this is an affordable option to get you set up with color separation. However, without prior knowledge of Photoshop, there will be a steep learning curve for this option.
Another Photoshop plug-in choice is T-Seps. If you want to learn Photoshop, then this is a good choice as the purchase of the plug-in includes Photoshop training. The color separation process is automated, so you don’t have to be a Photoshop expert to make it work.
A full license costs $199 for the original software or $299 for the newest version. Both versions offer a free twenty-day trial before you commit. However, you will not have access to the Photoshop training until after you pay for your license.
Both versions feature five different separation processes, so you can tailor the process to your image needs and printing setup. T-Seps also includes support, so you can get expert help if you run into issues with the software.
At $795, EZ-Screen is one of the more expensive options for color separation software. There is a free, downloadable trial version, but it does not give you access to all the features.
The key features that make it so expensive—and that aren’t available in the free version—are the preview and screen reduction features. Preview lets you see the difference between your original image and what the final image will look like after you screenprint it. This lets you make adjustments before you do a test run, which saves you time and materials.
The screen reduction feature is also a helpful timesaver. EZ-Screen works to minimize the number of colors of ink you need per image. It can reduce most images to three or four screens, even when you aren’t using four-color processing.
Because of the expense, this program is best for professional spot process screenprint businesses.
Xerio Sep 3
Xerio Sep 3 is a color separation software that specializes in complex images and spot process color separation. It also has functionalities for digital printing, so this is a great choice if you do both screen printing and digital printing.
You can download a free version to sample, but to get pricing on the full version, you must contact the company. They are based out of Italy but offer information and services in English.
The biggest drawback of this software is that it is only available for Mac. Their full range of color separation and image editing products is not accessible for PC users.
Which Color Separation Software is Best for Mac?
Separo is the best color separation software for Mac. It’s cloud-based and runs off the web, so it won’t run into the compatibility issues many color separation software programs have with operating system updates.
It has multiple price points, so you can find a package that fits your needs, whether you’re printing for fun or profit. Regardless of which you choose, they give you the same customer support and features, so you aren’t getting a subpar product if you don’t buy their premium package.
While it does require an internet connection to work, that’s a minor obstacle for most people. Unless you’re screenprinting somewhere truly remote, this is a great choice for Mac users.
Which Color Separation Software is Best for PC?
UltraSeps is the best color separation software for PC. It has some compatibility issues with the most recent Mac operating systems, so it isn’t a good choice for Mac users. However, it has no reported issues with PC systems.
It’s a comprehensive program without relying on an outside image editor like Photoshop. Hundreds of functions are combined in one program so you can make your image the best it can be before you begin printing.
The price makes it an investment, but the frequency of sales and discount codes makes it more accessible. It’s a great investment for a business, and its cheaper sister product, QuickSeps, is a great alternative for a hobbyist.
Best Overall Color Separation Software for 2021
Separation Studio 4 is the best overall choice for color separation software in 2021. The license fee comes with free support, so you get updates for new operating systems. It won’t ever become obsolete just because an operating system changes.
It also has good functionality for both beginners and experts. The automated features and interface work well for people who are new to color separation. At the same time, all of those features have the option of manual adjustment. This lets experts tweak the process to get the exact result they want.
The one-time fee is also very reasonable, especially if you plan to use the software for at least three years. Because it comes with free updates to keep it running, you won’t need to worry that it will stop working before the investment has paid for itself.
The combination of features, price, and longevity make Separation Studio 4 the clear leader of the paid color separation software options.
Color separation is an important part of screen printing, but it doesn’t have to be a hard part. Good color separation software can cut down on the amount of time it takes to print a design without harming the integrity of the design.
You don’t have to be a programming whiz to use it, either. Almost every color separation software choice is geared for beginners, so you can use the product successfully no matter what stage of your journey you’re on.
What is the best color separation software you’ve used for screen printing? Let us know in the comments!