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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Book Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photographs

A long-standing consulting client of mine designs print books for the World Bank, the United Nations, and other governmental and non-governmental agencies. She pays me to review her designs over the phone with her, page by page. She started as an editor, and over the years I have helped her learn to also be a print book designer. She’s very good. Sometimes I look at her work and say to myself, “I wish I had designed that.”

Needless to say, in your own design work, it’s always good to have another print professional check your work. As I have learned from working with my consulting client, sometimes the reader does not immediately “get” why we have made design decisions, photo selections, or type choices, and being able to bounce these design decisions off another designer always improves the final product.

A Few Issues with My Client’s Photo Treatment

I thought it might be useful to discuss some of the overall choices my client made regarding photos. You may learn something applicable to your own print book design work from my client’s photo choices and my responses.

Last night’s two-hour design analysis session focused on a book about Bangladesh. All of the design issues (type, design grid, infographics) had been addressed, and my client’s client was happy. The only variables to address were photo selection and photo treatment.

First of all, in this book my client either presented the photos as duotones (brown and black, like old sepia-toned photos) or as full-color images. This choice depended on the placement of the photos (within text or within sidebars and such).

My client told me that she had screened back (ghosted) the 4-color images by 25 percent because they were not of professional quality (i.e., they were snapshots). She thought this reduction in image color saturation (I believe she had used the “Luminosity” control in InDesign) would make the flaws in the photos less evident.

I actually voiced some concern about this choice. I told my client that when I was an art director I used to do the same thing (ghost photos), but that I would only do this if I planned to position type over the ghosted image. The ghosting of the image made the reader see it as less important than the surprinted type. (The fainter-than-usual image appeared to be in the background, which made the type stand out more.)

In my client’s design, I thought that readers would view the ghosted (less saturated) images as less important, or as too lightly inked (i.e., as a flaw). So I suggested that she only “dial back” the intensity of the colors (their saturation) by about 10 percent instead of 25 percent. I said I thought her readers would be less critical of non-professional photography than of what appeared to be an error in printing (the overly light photos).

On a more positive note, I did tell my client that her duotones were outstanding. I think she achieved her goal (giving the images less of a journalistic feel and more of an artistic feel). Many of these photos were of stellar quality, and she made them quite large (a focal point of the design). I told her I thought this was also effective, just as I thought making the less professional images smaller might make their flaws less visible to the reader.

Design Motifs (and Considerations)

One of the design motifs my client used in her print book on Bangladesh was to stack horizontal strips of photos (duotones) one over the other on the divider pages. She then repeated these strips as running headers at the tops of all following pages (repeating the image on the left and right at the top of the page until the next section, when she would change to the next photo in the stack).

I said I thought this was a good way to set up a rhythm in the design. I also said that it provided a visual anchor at the top of the pages from which to “hang” the columns of type and photos. I said I also liked how she had reversed the folios (page numbers) out of these thin (maybe 1” deep by the width of the page) photos.

That said, I did note one potential problem. The top of the head of a girl alone on a roof in one photo came very close to the trim (head trim, or top of the page). I noted that printers’ trimming capabilities are not perfect. If the trimming knife came too close to the girl’s head (or cut into it), the reader would see this and consider it a flaw. So I suggested that my client re-crop the photo to give the girl’s image more head room.

The tight cropping of images in the running headers, particularly those images that contained a number of faces, posed challenges. I loved the motif, but I suggested to my client that she change the crop of one photo in particular. Everyone else’s head was either fully in the horizontal frame or cropped (somewhat severely) below the nose. However, one woman’s face extended off the top of the page, eliminating her eyes and forehead.

I told my client that severe photo cropping did add drama to her images. I liked the motif. I thought the reader would accept tight photo cropping as long as one or both of the subject’s eyes were visible. Cropping through the mouth was more acceptable, but having the woman’s face extend off the page and omitting her eyes would be seen as a flaw. Granted, I did note that tight cropping of such photos (to fit in the 1” tall strip at the top of the pages)–when they included numerous people’s heads at different levels–would be a major challenge.

Technical Difficulties

My client noted that she had been given the photos (as JPEGs) by her client and that she had to use them. Two of these were initially 72dpi photos. My client’s client had changed them to 300dpi images (also known as interpolation), inadvertently adding noise and other flaws to the images. I told my client that this had happened because interpolation “makes up” picture information that is not really there in the first place. The better way to address photos is to always request 300dpi images and then never enlarge them (i.e., reduce but never enlarge). In addition, my client’s client had overly sharpened one image in Photoshop before sending it to my client for use in the print book.

Since it was very late at night, and since the print book had to go to press the next morning, this is what I said. I told my client to use Gaussian Blur (under the Filters menu, under Blur) in Photoshop to “slightly blur” the dots all over the photo subject’s face (the result of oversharpening). Then I had her use Unsharp Masking (also under the Filters menu, under Sharpen) to make the photo appear crisper. (Photoshop does this by increasing the contrast between adjacent pixels.) I then told my client to only do this in an absolute emergency. I reminded her that starting with a 300dpi image is the “best practice.” She agreed.

I did however note that if you can reduce the size of an image or turn it into a duotone or even interpolate an image and then print it very small, as long as you are below the threshold of visibility, your reader won’t see the flaw.

I would even add to this caveat that producing a print book on highly textured paper will also minimize flaws in photos, because the paper will scatter the reflected light rather than direct it straight back to the viewer’s eyes (as will a gloss coated paper stock).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Be objective in judging your photos. Consider their technical quality as well as their content and aesthetics.
  2. Often you can minimize flaws in photos. Make them smaller than the better photos. Turn them into duotones (or use another approach that highlights the aesthetics of the photo and minimizes its technical flaws).
  3. Don’t come too close to the trim. Either bleed an image off the page or give it at least a 3/8” or more (ask your printer) margin of error. The trimming knife in the printer’s bindery is not always precise.
  4. Always use photos that are 300dpi at the final size (100 percent size). Then crop them close to the final dimensions (in Photoshop). If you don’t have this option, as my client did not, research Gaussian Blur and Unsharp Masking on the Internet. These image tools, in combination, might save your photo. But then remember to make the photo as small as you can, because interpolation is never a good thing.

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