Photo Typeface?

Hi All!! So happy to have just joined! Hopeing to pick some brains on my journey.. first question for you - does anyone here know what a ' Photo Typeface' is - I 've seen it mentioned on fontsinuse.com when researching font histories - and I can't find a definition on google or anywhere for that matter. I've also seen the term Photo-lettering - and I'm just clueless - please help??
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  • George ThomasGeorge Thomas Posts: 596
    edited November 2021
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phototypesetting
    Photo lettering is a generic term but was also the name of a large firm in NYC.
  • Ahh! Thanks  George! Clearly I have a load to learn on type origins!
  • Photo Lettering was a company, and I would not use it as a generic term. Phototype is a generic term one can find in dictionaries. This is like the difference between the original Linotype and hot metal type. One is a brand and specific make of machinery, and a subset of the other.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,879
    Not all photo-composition was from glyph images on film fonts.
    The first wave of digital fonts in the 1970s (CRTronic, Digitek, etc.) used various methods to burn glyph shapes onto light-sensitive paper, such as arrays of miniature LEDs or beams of light directed by rapidly-moving mirrors.
    For those of you who want to go deep into this, and I mean a mind-boggling bottomless abyss, there is Frank Romano’s History of the Phototypesetting Era.
  • It's fascinating how often phototype is omitted from design history education (at least in the US). So many are taught that we went straight from metal/wood to digital, ignoring the 1960s–1990s when a good percentage of printed material was produced with phototype. (And also transfer type, AKA Letraset.)

    One reason, I suppose, is that it is a complicated history. As Mark and Nick allude, there were hundreds of phototype machines produced over this short stretch, most of which required their own font formats. But this transition was super important, both in terms of typesetting (size agnostic, spacing flexibility, effects, etc.) and type design (there was an explosion of new typefaces, many of which never made it to digital).
  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,478
    edited November 2021
    I started out as a designer right in the middle of the phototype* era. At the time, it was just the way things were. Looking back, it was really just a brief transition period between metal and digital. We've already been using standardized, interoperable digital fonts (PostScript/TrueType/OpenType) for longer than any format from the phototype era. I could be wrong, but I don't see anything replacing OpenType the way digital fonts replaced analog phototype for the foreseeable future.

    * Phototype is so forgotten that spellcheck doesn't even recognize it as a word, suggesting "prototype" instead. 
  • It's fascinating how often phototype is omitted from design history education (at least in the US). So many are taught that we went straight from metal/wood to digital, ignoring the 1960s–1990s when a good percentage of printed material was produced with phototype. (And also transfer type, AKA Letraset.)

    One reason, I suppose, is that it is a complicated history. As Mark and Nick allude, there were hundreds of phototype machines produced over this short stretch, most of which required their own font formats. But this transition was super important, both in terms of typesetting (size agnostic, spacing flexibility, effects, etc.) and type design (there was an explosion of new typefaces, many of which never made it to digital).
    Another reason, I'd guess, is that in the digital era the letterpress infrastructure has stuck around in a way the phototype machinery hasn't (e.g. in printing shops, university design dept. basements, etc.). Metal/wood type is still more physically present today than phototype, surely in part because it doesn't break down as easily, and maybe even also because it's easier to put a Filmotype setter out on the curb than a Heidelberg press! And people are more interested in the history of what they see around them.
  • ... it's easier to put a Filmotype setter out on the curb...
    Some days I do wonder what happened to all the Linofilm's, Alphatype's, Compugraphics, etc. Where did they all go?

  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,478
    edited November 2021
    Part of the problem with phototypesetting machines is that you can no longer get the consumables (paper, film, developer chemicals, etc.). Theoretically, they could be resurrected, à la Impossible film for Polaroid cameras, but the market would be much smaller. With letterpress, you just need readily available things like ink, paper, and machine oil.
  • For those of you who want to go deep into this, and I mean a mind-boggling bottomless abyss, there is Frank Romano’s History of the Phototypesetting Era.

    I see that this book is not only out of print, but used copies appear not to be easy to find. There is material online to at least give glimpses into some of this history, though.
  • It's fascinating how often phototype is omitted from design history education (at least in the US).
    I'm late to the discussion, but it caught my eye.

    I started in the late '70s in the middle of that era, but I don't remember hearing designers using the term phototype. I'm not sure many of us thought about the processes behind the paste-up galleys we got back from the type houses. Instead, it was simply the way we were taught to do things.

    It's been quite some time since I was in design school, so I can't be sure what's taught about that period. However, I do interact with many formally educated young designers. I've not noticed them being unaware of the paste-up era, even when phototype isn't in their vocabularies. They're mostly aware that graphic design production involved cutting and pasting up type. They're even less clear about what came before paste-up, besides knowing it often involved metal and (the now-trendy) letterpress.

    My experience is that design schools spend a great deal of time on typography, but the emphasis is on using typography as a component of graphic design. The history of type technology is quickly covered but mostly ignored in favor of what's relevant in the present. Perhaps this is similar to carpenters knowing a great deal about nails and screws while knowing relatively little about their history or how they were made over the years.


  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,413
    edited February 10
    we very much used the term "Phototype" and "Photocomposition" and the big green book. But I am 78.

  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,478
    Another common term for phototype back then was "cold type".
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,413
    The term "cold type" always got strike-on type confused with phototype for me.
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,413
    No worries about smeared lenses and weak chemicals.  Dirt was a killer
  • James PuckettJames Puckett Posts: 1,866
    Threads like this could make a cool book. Create commentaries on Frank Romano’s books from the anecdotes of people who lived it.
  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,278
    I thought I remember hearing "cold type" referring to foundry type (vs. Linotype/Monotype, which is cast right there in the print shop). Has anybody else heard that? 
  • James PuckettJames Puckett Posts: 1,866
    I’ve seen foundry type referred to as cold type and hot type. Some authors just don’t know the difference.
  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,478
    "Hot type" definitely referred to type from Linotype and Monotype casters. My recollection is that the foundry type was called "foundry type" or "hand-set type". "Cold type" was basically anything that wasn't metal type, mainly phototype and strike-on type.
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,413
    @James Puckett Frank Romano used to run an annual Quark Users conference. One year, he asked me to be a speaker.  I followed the Playboy Magazine  guys.
  • I know it's off-topic, but this is the original title page from the same book (just remembered I had an image). A copy of the original sold at auction for $6500 in 2017.

  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,478
    I used to do something similar using a stat camera. You could get photostat material with a clear film on adhesive backing. I would make photostats onto this material from metal type specimen books in order to make my own Formatt-style sheets of typefaces that were otherwise unavailable to me.
  • Stephen ColesStephen Coles Posts: 948
    edited February 13
    In our research for Fonts In Use, we’re learning that “photostat typography” was more common than I realized. By the 1960s, many designers used stat cameras to shoot specimens or alphabets, using them as source books for type, rather than using fonts. One prolific source is the Lettera series which contained many alphabets that were never produced as fonts, but were essentially treated as type in this way. Michael Bierut, for example, revealed that when he worked at Vignelli’s studio their main source for Didot was Lettera’s sample.


    Lettera 1–4, 1954–1972, Image: Letterform Archive
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,413
    Stat cameras were required equipment for a design studio. You could use an outside vendor, and I often did.  Just for scaling, it was a must-have until the Mac came along.
  • We would use a stat camera at the newspaper where I worked to enlarge type for big feature story headlines. I don't remember ever copying letters out of a specimen book. Instead, we typically enlarged Letraset or Chartpak type, then used X-Acto knives and technical pens to clean up the letters and square off the corners.
  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,478
    In 1977, in one of my first jobs, I worked at a weekly newspaper. I was production manager, which meant I was at the very end of the process of producing each issue, and was often the last person to go home on the night an edition was printed. We sent out for photostats, which ate up a lot of time. So I lobbied to get them to purchase a stat camera that I could use on-site, thinking it would save enough time that I might actually get to go home at a reasonable hour on press night. What actually happened was everyone ahead of me just got their stuff to me later. 🙄
  • Dedicated stat cameras were generally vertical machines, with copy board at the bottom and the lens and media holder above. The quality of the optics varied quite a lot and to shoot a book, especially one with a stubborn spine, you had to place a heavy glass over it in order to flatten the book, which didn’t always work well. The superior cameras were horizontal, in which the camera was housed in a darkroom, with the lens protruding outward; the image holder was a vacuum frame that moved forward and backward on a track. These were used to make negatives for offset printing (and color separations, too), but also made superior stats. The problem was that these frames could not hold thick books (no 1923 ATF catalogs, unless you were willing to cut the pages).

    My Konica photocopier could reduce and enlarge, but only within a restricted range, about 60% to 165%, as I recall. For further reductions, you could reduce the image and then reduce it again, but only types with low details, such as wood types, permitted that. You could push a book down on the glass by hand, to flatten it. In Boston, in the late 1970s, stats cost about $2-$5, depending on size. The process was slow, especially if you had to send the work to a stat house. And because the photo paper was thick (approx. 100# [270 gsm] text), you had to use white-out paint on the edges to avoid a lot of opaquing work on the negatives. The photocopier worked on ordinary paper (I used 24# [90 gsm]) and cost was just pennies. Dry transfer lettering (Letraset, et al.) was very expensive, about $7 per sheet, and I never liked the way that many designs were interpreted. The late type designer Freda Sack, who had worked for Letraset in London, and may well have been the finest cutter of rubylith film ever, told me that Letraset often assigned the least talented people to work on classic types, because of their low-detail shapes, and the experienced ones like her to work on complex decorated designs.

    I realize that this is very boring info, but I write it here for the historical record!

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