Digital Photography Shortens Production Cycle
As a cataloger, you’re probably using digital photography for some, if not all, of your image creation. Digital photography offers great color and cost savings without the negative environmental impact of traditional film photography.
Indeed, digital photography is fast and flexible. It helps you meet your customers’ changing preferences quickly, while shortening your time to market—whether you’re selling from a printed catalog or online.
Is Technology the Problem?
Early digital cameras were difficult to use, and quality was suspect. In a side-by-side film/digital test in the recently released Graphic Arts Technical Foundation’s (GATF) “Digital Photography Study,” the results show the latest generation of digital cameras has closed the quality gap.
“In comparing the images on the press sheets, it was found that the digital photos actually had fewer defects than the scanned images,” writes the study’s authors, Gregory Bassinger, GATF’s manager of process controls, and Deanne Gentile, information officer for GATF’s Technical Information Group.
Interestingly, the study found that catalog pages were the primary printed product for which digital photography is being used, followed by direct-mail pieces, Web site images and brochures.
The GATF study also indicates improved highlight/shadow detail and greater color fidelity with the digital shots. And digital images bring greater color consistency—from something as simple as an 18-percent gray card (used along with color charts to provide downstream processing control for color reliability) in the shot, to ICC profiling technologies. (ICC profiles are tables used by imaging software to preserve color consistency when the image data are captured, viewed or output on various devices.)
Digitally capturing the image also avoids film variables, such as emulsion, processing and temperature that create potential inconsistencies in image color.
The greatest advantage of digital photography is the time it saves—and with it, the image-production process is cut from days to hours. A few decades ago, separating a transparency or a photographic print on a process camera took an entire day. With a digital camera and a copy of Photoshop, the same process takes a few minutes.
Film scanning also is eliminated, and the image file is quickly converted from RGB (red, green, blue) to CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) and entered into the proofing cycle. The workflow becomes measured in days instead of weeks. For one customer, re-engineering the workflow, including the move to digital photography, reduced the length of its schedule by 30 percent.
And if the imagery is for Web use, turnaround can be measured in minutes. Shoot the image digitally; send it to the art director for approval via the Internet, crop it to size, and place it on your Web site.
The Technology Looks Good, But …
A few things are holding back complete acceptance of digital photography. For example, most professional-grade digital cameras must be tethered to a computer. Those location shoots in Belize just are not as much fun with a wire hanging off the camera and the assistant getting sand in the CD drive.
In on-figure fashion work in which single-shot, digital cameras are used, moiré is a potential problem. Fortunately, moiré, which also occurs in traditional photography, can be corrected in the prepress process.
Film transparencies can be scanned to a much-larger size at a higher resolution. With digital photography, enlargements greater than 200 percent run the risk of pixelation. If the image will be for a billboard or the side of a truck, film will give you a better reproduction.
The good news: These issues are being addressed, and improvements continue rapidly. Wireless transmission from camera to local computer will combine with on-camera data storage to free the shooter from the digital tether. Single-shot cameras will continue to improve and provide greater capture resolution. Equipment costs will continue to decrease.
Are People Holding Digital Back?
To maximize the benefit brought by a change, it’s vital to connect with all of your staff in the workflow. Today’s professionals understand and accept the value of technology—they see it as another tool to enhance their creative skills.
In the past, the number of digital images that could be shot in a minute was much less than the average one-shot-per-second rate of today’s technology. For a fashion photographer who wanted to shoot digitally, this meant adapting to slower shot speeds. A few years ago, this was painfully obvious when testing a new digital camera. Each shot required a long pause before a new shot was taken, throwing off the timing and, in turn, the magic between the model and the photographer.
For today’s art directors, moving from Polaroid to on-screen review can be both a shock and a savings. Not only are costs reduced, but with remote art-direction technologies, an art director can review the shot from his/her office via the ‘Net. The art director also can enlarge images and view them at different ratios, ensuring they get the look they want as quickly as possible.
Even the stylist is able to get immediate feedback via the monitor, as opposed to waiting the few minutes for the Polaroid to develop. The stylist can enlarge the image to look for styling flaws and make quick corrections before the final image is shot.
Getting the Color Right Still Requires a Pro
Image conversion is not a straightforward process, and color can be affected throughout. For example, different processes require different files. A high dynamic range file (48 bits per pixel) from a Leaf digital camera could become an RGB file (24 bits per pixel), and finally a CMYK file (32 bits per pixel). Each of these conversions to different colorspaces requires a different approach.
Many software packages, including ColorShop, LinoColor and PhotoShop, can help art directors move from a high-resolution RGB image file to a low-res, compressed, color-restricted RGB image file for Web work. Each package requires a great deal of color expertise to maximize results.
While ICC color profiles hold great promise, keep in mind the image that was captured, either digitally or on film, is seldom the image that will be reproduced. Color adjustments, retouching, cloning and color alterations still are requested by art directors and production managers.
While profiles do reduce the complexity of color conversions, even with a tightly calibrated profile for a camera or a scanner, and an equally managed profile for an output device, the transformation from RGB to CMYK may not always produce the expected results. In short, to maintain color quality, high-level color skills must be brought to bear on the process.
Digital Asset Management
In the past, output determined input. That is, if art was destined for offset printing it was separated one way; for gravure, another. If the art was needed again for another process, or at another size, the original transparency was scanned again. Today, assets must be flexible, usable in both printing processes and electronic media.
Digital images—that is, digital assets—must be managed so they’re available where and when required, in the right format, the right color and for the right customer. A digital asset management (DAM) system and someone to run it is a necessity.
In the past the original, physical transparency was the starting point. Today, it’s the original digital capture. Keep it safe; knowing where to find the original version is critical. A DAM provides new opportunities for cost reduction and facilitates reuse in multiple arenas, such as customer service, shipping and receiving, as well as the Web and other print events.
Digital photography is useful; it improves all corners of the basic triangle of cost, schedule and quality. It’s affordable, it shortens the workflow, and the imagery is surpassing film (in terms of color) for many catalog applications.
So the question isn’t why to go all digital, the question is when? The answer, as expressed by many catalogers reaping the benefits of digital photography, is “soon!”
Lee Webster, product manager at Premedia Technologies, an R.R. Donnelley company, has more than 20 years of experience in prepress operations. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nicole Michels, product leader/photography at Premedia Technologies, manages the transition from film to digital photography for clients and R.R. Donnelley-owned studios. You can reach her via e-mail at email@example.com.