Ensure Color Quality in Your Catalogs
Ensuring quality color reproduction in your catalog is not a black-and-white issue. To get the accurate, rich color you desire, procure the right combination of technology, equipment and skilled human labor.
And not just on press: The color process starts the minute your photographer sets up and lights the shot.
“Color is a dynamic issue. Every device from electronic to ink on paper, has a full range of color possibilities it can produce,” says digital photographer Glenn Martin, of Digital Outback in Reno, NV. Today, digital technology has added a new set of challenges and opportunities to the color-quality issue.
When it comes to production issues, every cataloger looks for the highest quality at the lowest price with the quickest turnaround.
But there’s a good deal more at stake when you’re talking color. To your catalog’s shoppers, what they see is what they’ll expect to get, so your color reproduction had better be on target. Otherwise you may be left with excess returns, or worse, unhappy customers.
There are three points in the catalog-production cycle in which color quality is impacted, according to Susan McIntyre, catalog consultant and president of McIntyre Direct: photography or image creation, prepress and printing.
At each of these stages, opportunities exist to create great catalog color—or get just so-so results. The outcome depends on how you choose to manage these processes.
Step 1: Photography and Image Creation
Starting with the creation of artwork, a series of control processes are needed to manage and monitor each step in the color process. “This begins at the digital photography or scanning stage,” Martin says.
In this step, great color requires great lighting, which requires a skilled photographer to set up the shot. McIntyre notes this is true regardless of whether the photographer is shooting traditional film or digital. “Digital will not change this. Somebody still must place and [accurately] balance the lights,” she says.
Step 2: Prepress
Once the shots are taken, image color correction requires a highly skilled color operator “adjusting the curves” and proofing to a high-end digital proofer.
“Raw color scans, whether from a drum scanner or a digital camera, require color correcting to become great color,” says McIntyre. “Digital captures present different color problems than drum scans of transparencies, but that’s all.”
A complicating factor in catalog prepress work is that a typical catalog page has a mix of logo files, images and text. Kenneth Elsman, color scientist for Global Graphics Software based in the United Kingdom, explains, “Logos must be a specific color and are separated into CMYK. Images may be photographs in standard film or digital format, or they could be flat art that’s been scanned.”
A decision must be made whether to work in an all-CMYK workflow or a combination of RGB and CMYK. RIP (Raster Image Processing) software allows you to get from one to the other.
Elsman notes that if you’re generating digital proofs in-house, it’s helpful to have the same software as your printer.
“As proofing has come down in price, more companies are using in-house digital proofs. You can buy a RIP printer for less than $10,000,” he says.
In deciding which prepress proofing software to use, first determine what kind of proof you need, Elsman advises. This may depend on what types of applications you’re using: Quark, PhotoShop, PDFs, etc. Also be sure the color house or printer can accept the file formats used in your design. “You want to use the same RIP for both,” he explains.
Traditionally, catalogers turned to prepress service companies—or color houses—to handle many of these tasks. Today, all of the larger catalog printers offer prepress, says Scott Stadler, a manager in catalog sales for Quad/Graphics, a full-service printing company. If you’re considering having your printer handle your color prepress work, the following questions should be answered:
• Does your printer have the necessary technology and equipment on-site?
• Is there a department or division dedicated to prepress services?
• What are the benefits in time or money saved?
Quad has a separate research and development unit called Quad/Tech devoted to designing, building and selling automated press and finishing controls. Quad/Tech developed a sophisticated register guidance system and recently implemented on all Quad offset presses a closed-loop control system that automatically monitors inking levels to maintain desired color throughout a web offset run.
One advantage to having your printer do your color prep work, says Stadler, is that, “Your printer will be the only one accountable for the color quality of the end product. If a color separator is doing the prepress, and the printer is doing the printing and a problem occurs, it can be tough to figure out whose problem it was.”
If a cataloger prefers to continue to work with an outside color house, that’s OK, too, says Stadler. The key to a successful relationship is communication.
“The printer needs to know what type of proof the prepress service uses and the type of files that are being provided,” he suggests. “The printer should be involved with the prep house on a regular basis to be sure everyone is on the same page. We are a big proponent of testing files before production to ensure color accuracy.”
When Quad supplies a color proof, that proof is calibrated to TR001 printing standards.
Quad also offers photography services. Says Stadler, “We use a method of photography and lighting called measured photography, which takes into account the printing window offered by web offset printing. We can better control lighting and photography, and our proofs better match the limitations of the press.”
Step 3: Printing
When it’s time to put ink to paper, color is at its most critical point in the cycle. Elsman says the first thing to do is to get on board with the printer. “Set up parameters that all parties will work under. You all need to use the same standards and control processes. If not, you’re shooting a moving target.”
Among the areas to discuss with your printer are the following: what the printer needs for digital imagery to work; the specific paper and ink used; plate- or film-making; and any printing standards used.
The printer must demonstrate that it has the process-control verification, Elsman stresses. Without it, “The drift in color will yield too much play,” he notes. All of these things affect the end result—the color your catalog customer sees on the page.
McIntyre argues that in web offset printing, “Great color still requires a skilled pressman to set color and registration controls.”
But it’s here that McIntyre believes digital technology has had its most positive and visible effect on catalog work. First, she says, computer-to-plate techniques have significantly improved on-press registration, yielding visibly improved color purity. And second, modern presses with real-time internal scanning of the printed paper are doing a better job of holding consistent press color, once the press is set properly.
McIntyre adds, “There’s no way to start with a great-looking product, end with a great-looking image of that product printed on catalog paper, and get there entirely without skilled intervention by human operators. You can get passable results with minimal human intervention, and each year the level of ‘passable’ improves.
“But,” she continues, “high-quality color still requires skilled human intervention.”
Managing the Mixed Workflow
A transition from an all-analog to a digital workflow is occurring, says Kenneth Elsman of Global Graphics Software. “Instead of film being passed around, there are CDs being passed down the hall.”
In the meantime, catalogers must work with the best of digital and analog systems in a combined workflow. Regarding the challenge, catalog consultant Susan McIntyre says, “With film, everyone is already decades down the learning curve, whereas with digital, everybody is still learning.”
For example, she explains that digital cameras capture a wider range of light to dark than a web offset press can reproduce, and digital operators have had to learn how and where in the digital workflow to cope with that.
Similarly, she says, “Anyone working with raw digital captures immediately notices how ‘blah’ they look until somebody works on them, and often the somebody doing the work is the photographer who is thrust into a role for which he or she was never trained—namely digital color correction.
“Sure, anyone can pump up the on-screen appearance of a raw digital capture with some quick contrast adjustments,” McIntyre continues. “But will that produce great color on press? I wouldn’t bet your bottom line on it, not yet.”
To successfully move into a digital environment without compromising quality, do it in steps, Elsman notes. Each step in the process has to work in order to get a quality end product.”
Elsman recommends that catalogers, take each component of the workflow and discern how the new technology can be implemented. “If your people are used to looking at matchprints, get a digital proof that looks like a traditional analog proof, not a press proof. It’s worth the extra step to be sure everyone is on the same page.”