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Printing Industry Exchange ( 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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Custom Printing: Addressing Problem Photos

I may have mentioned this before. I’m brokering the custom printing for a job with problematic photos. They’re from World War II. The job is a short-run book, but this is really irrelevant because the information I’m sharing here can be used for any commercial printing job involving photos: a brochure, a book, a calendar, anything.

The Problems with the Photos

I like to call my approach “triage.” It’s a medical term. In this case, it means identifying each photo’s problems and making a decision as to whether to use the photo or find a better one.

There are approximately 1,000 photos from which the designer can select images for this book. They fall into categories (given my “triage” approach). Some are photos of people, some are of objects (World War II trains, buildings and such), and some are of documents (passports, letters, and so forth).

  1. Many of the photos of people and buildings have dark shadows and blown-out highlights (i.e., bright white or heavy black with few levels of gray).
  2. Many of the scanned photos of people and things have patterns in the background: either a disintegration of the emulsion of the photo or a reproduction of the pattern or weave of the paper on which the photographic print had been produced.
  3. A number of photos of documents have the pattern of the document within the photo (the background of the passports, for instance). This may cause undesirable moire patterns when the printer applies halftone screening to the images. Folds within the paper documents are unsightly as well.
  4. A number of photos are of military insignia from World War II. Their backgrounds can be irrelevant or distracting.

These are just some of the flaws.

The Solutions I have Proposed

Here’s how I have encouraged the author, commercial printing vendor, and designer to proceed:

  1. I have suggested a cream uncoated stock for the custom printing job. The cream color of the paper will tone down (or minimize) the contrast between the darkest blacks in the image and the brightest whites. It will also give an archival look to the images (a little like a duotone, with the paper being one color and the black toner being the other color. (This is a short-run book, so it will be produced on an HP Indigo digital press.) The reduced contrast combined with the roughness and porosity of the uncoated paper will further minimize the visible flaws in the photos. (One way to grasp this approach would be to consider its opposite. Producing the print book on a bright white gloss coated press sheet would greatly magnify the flaws. The printing substrate’s gloss and brightness, and the contrast between the image and the substrate, would draw the reader’s eye toward all surface imperfections in the photos.)
  2. I have arranged for the commercial printing supplier to produce several samples of the photos on the printing stock that will be used (80# Finch Vanilla text). We will therefore see exactly what the photos will look like printed in the Indigo toner (IndiChrome inks) using the exact press sheet (a benefit of a digital job rather than an offset print job).
  3. I will ask the printer to analyze the photos the designer submits to determine the optimum image highlight and shadow for the chosen text paper and the printing technology (perhaps a range between a 7 percent halftone dot for highlights and a 93 percent halftone dot for shadows). The printer can also comment on the gamma of the images (midtones and overall lightness of the image). Using these targets, the designer will be able to prepare photos that will be neither too light nor too dark.
  4. I suggested that the designer slightly blur (gaussian blur in Photoshop) the documents with patterned backgrounds and then sharpen them (unsharp masking in Photoshop). This should minimize the chance for conflict between the image background patterns and the halftone dot patterns. We can also ask for Indigo proofs of problematic photos on the Finch Vanilla text stock.
  5. For the stippling on the photos (the degraded photo emulsion), the designer can use the clone tool (in Photoshop) to minimize the flaws. Reproducing (cloning) the undamaged parts of the image over the damaged areas may in some cases make problematic photos usable. (The goal will be to identify images that can be repaired quickly. Those that cannot should be replaced.)
  6. Levels or curves (in Photoshop) can be used to reduce the contrast in those photos with an overabundance of either black, or white, pixels.
  7. Military insignia can be silhouetted to remove cluttered or irrelevant backgrounds.
  8. When in doubt, the designer can choose a replacement photo.
  9. The designer can make a decision about a photo and then insert it into the book design for review. The author can see how the photo will be used and then decide whether it’s worth the expense (in some cases) of applying lots of Photoshop repair time to the particular image.

These are just some thoughts and approaches, but they should minimize the flaws while giving the print book an archival look. And here, really, is the crux of the matter. The author wants the antique photos from World War II to look like they’re from World War II. He wants an archival look. Therefore, some flaws will not only be tolerable, but actually relevant, to the overall look of the finished print book. The images shouldn’t look like they were shot in the year 2012.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing: Addressing Problem Photos”

  1. Hello, A very insightful post. Thanks for the info. Its great that if our default settings are giving us messy or stringy builds, this dialog can probably help.Thanks for the information.


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