Catalog Doctor: Digital Remedies for Print Profits
We’ve refocused the Chronicles/Adventures in Cataloging column to a “problem/remedy” format and renamed it The Catalog Doctor.
Do your photos look off-kilter? Is your printed catalog not as vibrant as it used to be? Is your image quality erratic? Just as good design and good copy increase sales, good image quality with bright, true colors will improve sales for most catalogs.
Since the switch from film to digital photography, many catalogers have experienced inconsistencies or a decline in image quality. Digital doesn’t mean you have to accept lower image quality. You can capture and print great digital images, but you need to understand how to manage the digital process.
Why Is My Catalog Dull?
Problem: “All the photos looked clean and bright on the photo studio’s monitors, but my catalog printed dull and gray. What went wrong? Can I fix it next time?”
The Doctor’s Remedy: Yes, you can fix it. And even though the digital photo workstream involves very complex technology, you don’t need to become a digital photo tech to improve your catalog’s color. Here are some key facts and tips to get you started:
1. Don’t trust monitor color. A monitor’s color works on entirely different principles than ink-on-paper color. There’s a complex translation process to get from a monitor’s light-based color to paper’s ink-based color.
2. Don’t trust monitor color range. Computer monitors have a huge range of colors available, much bigger than a Web offset press actually can print. So there’s a second translation process from a monitor’s huge color gamut to a press’ smaller one.
3. Focus on the translation process. When a translation is handled properly, every pixel you see on the screen will have been generated by a program to say, “This is pretty close to what the color will look like when printed ink-on-paper.” Consider how and when that can happen, and how you can take control.
Our Monitor and Printer Are Calibrated, Right?
The Doctor’s Warning: Don’t rely on your photographer’s assurance of a color-calibrated image chain.
Digital studios create “color profiles” for every component in their studio equipment chain. What you see on the studio set, what you see on the calibrated studio monitor and what you see emerging from the studio’s ink-jet color printer will all seem to match.
But even if it all looks great in the studio, studio color-calibrated images often won’t look good on a printing press. Web offset printing presses have a set of calibration standards called standard Web offset process (SWOP). The missing element in most photo studios is that they haven’t properly included a SWOP standard in their calibration chain.
Our Proofs Don’t Match
Problem: “The printed catalog doesn’t match the proofs I approved. Why?”
The Doctor’s Remedy: Before printing your catalog, proof to an output device (e.g., your printer) that is calibrated to your press (SWOP standards) to see what your color actually will look like on press. Does that mean you must proof to a traditional high-end (and costly) laminating proofer? Not necessarily. Some drop-on-demand (ink-jet) proofers have become capable of matching the results of laminating proofers.
Problem: “How can I see accurate SWOP proofs? What are my options?”
The Doctor’s Remedy:
Option #1: If your photo studio has the right kind of printer, and if it can calibrate to SWOP, it can provide you with loose (or “scatter”) proofs. Work on calibrating with your print vendor.
Option #2: If your design studio or agency has the right kind of printer, and if it can calibrate to SWOP, it can provide you with both loose proofs and composed page proofs. (It should also work with your print vendor on calibrating.)
Option #3: Install your own SWOP-calibrated printer.
Option #4: Send all your images to a color house, which already has high-end, calibrated equipment.
Option #5: Have your press vendor generate your proofs.
In all cases, you’ll need to review proofs, correct color, and then keep re-outputting proofs until all the colors are right. Who should correct the color?
Problem: “I learned Photoshop, so can’t I correct color in the studio?”
The Doctor’s Remedy: Photo studios have gone through a technological learning curve (and equipment investment) over the past decade. They’ve learned new skill sets, including color correction.
Back when catalogers shot film and always used a color house, color correction was done by highly skilled folks. Good color correction was — and still is — a complex, detailed operation.
Do you have to keep using a color house even though you’ve switched to all-digital photography? No. But be sure that wherever your color is getting corrected, it possesses the following: a high-end SWOP-calibrated monitor and printer/proofer; and a highly skilled color correction person.
Why Aren’t My Digital Photos Sharp?
Problem: “Back when we shot film, all our shots were sharp. Now that we’ve switched to all-digital, our shots all look ‘soft’ or ‘unfocused.’ Do I have to give up sharp, crisp images?”
The Doctor’s Remedy: No, you don’t. But you do have to take steps to regain sharpness in your digital imaging process. Research has shown that the human eye doesn’t just passively capture an image on the rods and cones of the retina — our brains enhance the retina’s images by elevating all contrast differences. And that’s exactly what the strangely named “unsharp masking” function does in PhotoShop and other digital image processing programs.
The solution is proper application of sharpening, which isn’t a simple thing to get right. It’s also not something your photographer can necessarily optimize just by looking at a monitor. So pay close attention to “unsharp masking,” learn its appearance, what too much of it looks like (things begin looking as if they’ve been traced), and make sure your digital professionals are applying it optimally.
Susan J. McIntyre is president of McIntyre Direct. Reach her at (503) 286-1400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.