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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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Custom Printing: Selecting the Best Photos for Publication

Photo purchased from … www.depositphotos.com

If you look at the photo above, you’ll see a catastrophe in the making, a tornado just about to strike. It’s a powerful image. It also captures the emotions you might experience if you choose a bad photo for an important promotional piece. Believe me. I have made the mistakes noted below.

More often than not, it’s the photos in a design piece (everything from a print book cover to a multi-floor building wrap) that grab the view’s attention first, before the typescript, the content. Photos grip the viewer, often encouraging her/him to feel or think about a subject in a particular way.

So if you’re a marketer, or even a print book designer, it is crucial that you select the best images for publication. And since these images usually go through some sort of digital or offset commercial printing process, it’s important to remember that printing technology reduces image quality. It does not enhance it.

What Does This Mean?

This can mean a number of things. Most of these pertain to either technical qualities or design qualities. Both subjects could fill several books. So for now I’ll say only a little about the design aspects and then shift to the technical requirements.

  1. As a designer, I choose images that focus on a single subject (a person, group, place, or thing) in a dramatic and unique way, a way that makes a statement.
  2. If the subject is a person, I choose an image that captures the character of the person, and then I crop away all extraneous image material and focus on the person’s face, posture, etc.

Usually, if you review a number of images (JPEGs on a computer, transparencies on a light box, or paper photo prints scattered on a table), only a handful of images will be “right” intuitively in your eyes and those of your colleagues or clients.

The Technical Aspects

Selecting images from a perspective of design is often very subjective. However, once you’ve found your preferred photos, you will want to ensure that they reproduce in the most dramatic and effective way. You don’t want any technical flaws to lessen their impact.

(Back when I started in the business of design and art production, we had no digital images. Therefore, we could only choose photos in either print form on glossy paper or as transparencies, or slides.)

Crisp Focus

Images have to start out in crystal clear focus. An out of focus image draws attention to itself, not to its subject matter. So only choose crisp photos. Granted, a photo will often have a visible depth of field, that is, a range in which everything is in focus and outside of which everything is somewhat blurred. This can be very effective in a photo of flowers, for instance. The restricted depth of field can direct the viewer’s attention exclusively toward the subject.

However, the actual subject matter in the photo must be crystal clear. Settle for nothing less than pristine quality. And don’t rely on sharpening technology (“unsharp masking”) in Photoshop.

In the 1990s I had an associate who would ask me to “Crispy up” an image or say, “Just Photoshop it,” to improve the snapshots she gave me for a newsletter. My belief is, “GIGO” is the rule: “garbage in, garbage out.” Adhering to this maxim gives you the best results.

Dynamic Range

Before digital photography, the rule of thumb was that images from slides were better than images from paper prints. This was because they captured the greatest tonal range from the darkest dark to the lightest light. Paper prints were ok, but the highlights and shadows did not match the depth/intensity of shadows and highlights in transparencies. And the interim steps or gradations from shadows to midtones to highlights available in transparencies were also better than in paper prints.

The general idea is that true black and true white will be the most intense and accurate in the actual scene you photograph (i.e., in real life). This dynamic range will lessen somewhat as you photograph the image. And then it will become an even narrower transition from black to white, or from one dark color to a lighter one, once you offset print or digitally print the image.

Color

Depending on the lighting when you take a photo, sometimes you will get a color cast. This is a color imbalance that shows up in neutral colors (a white sheet of paper in a photo, for example, might have a pinkish cast).

A color cast can also add yellow to a face and make the subject look jaundiced. Be aware of this. Fortunately, you can adjust the image in applications like Photoshop (using an on-screen densitometer) to correct color casts. Moreover, you can do this by reading the numbers (rather than by just relying on the computer monitor). That is, by checking density readings within an image and correcting them, you can successfully remove a color cast whether you can see it on screen or not.

Flaws

For the most part, I’m talking about scratches, which are really only a problem if you’re using paper photo prints or transparencies. In some cases it is possible to remove these blemishes in Photoshop, but it takes a lot of work, and in my experience the results don’t usually warrant the effort.

Flaws can also include patterns in the photo (a checkerboard pattern, for instance, or the pattern in a metal link fence). Sometimes these patterns conflict with halftone screens and cause moires (additional, yet undesirable, patterns). Watch out for these.

Flaws can also include overly large grain (from the silver halide deposits that comprise the images in paper prints and transparencies). I once used a 35mm image for a poster. When I enlarged it from 35mm to 2 feet by 3 feet, the film grain was huge. Fortunately, I still kept my job. But I learned why photographers love 2-1/4”-format handheld cameras and 8” x 10” tripod-mounted cameras. These cameras can maintain crisp detail, a wide range of tones, and rich shadows and clear highlights even when the images are enlarged. And less enlargement is usually required when you start with a large negative (compared to between 700 percent and 1,000 percent enlargement when you start with a 35mm negative).

But flaws can also include extraneous elements in a photo, like a tree that appears to grow out of the subject’s head (which you didn’t see when shooting the photo). For instance, a few days ago I took two photos of an exterior sculpture. In one of them, a car was going by. In the next one, the car was gone. I deleted the one with the car.

Digital Options

In spite of what I said above, Photoshop really is a wonderful application, especially when you start with (technically) good images.

Here are some things to consider:

  1. Make the “histogram” your best friend. This is a graph showing the number of pixels for each level of gray (levels 0 to 255). Ideally, when you open up a histogram in Photoshop you will see a smooth graph from the left to the right, starting with relatively few pixels on the shadow side, a lot in the middle tones, and relatively few on the highlight side. What you don’t want to see in the chart is gaps. These look like missing teeth on a comb. Gaps indicate a total absence of pixels for a specific level of gray. What this means visually is that you will see a stair-stepping of tones (i.e., posterization) in the photo.
  2. Histograms can also come in sets of three or four for full-color work (RGB–red, green, and blue for use on a computer monitor–or CMYK—cyan, magenta, yellow, and black for use in commercial printing). Do some research online, and you’ll find the proper balance for these colors (the relative numbers for each channel using the on-screen densitometer) to minimize or eliminate color casts.
  3. That said, your goal is to have the widest possible dynamic range (dark to light): the most pixel data from the darkest dark to the lightest light with the most picture information in between. A transparency (slide) will give you this result (compared to a paper print), but so will a good image from a high-megapixel digital camera, if you have good quality exterior lighting or highly controlled interior lighting.
  4. If your image is slightly out of focus, you can improve it a bit with unsharp masking, which increases the contrast between adjacent light and dark pixels and thus fools your eye into believing the image has been (to quote my associate above) made more “crispy” in Photoshop.
  5. Proper resolution is vital. I use my cell phone to take photos of my fiancee’s and my autistic art therapy students, but we use the photos almost exclusively for 72dpi online images. They are snapshots, not high-quality images for print production.
  6. That said, when I receive photos for these PIE Blog articles, such as the one above, they come to me in large dimensions at an ultra-high resolution. If I crop in on a small area and enlarge it significantly, I can see the eyelashes on the model’s face or the stitching in her clothes. If I were to save the image as a JPEG at this size and resolution, and uploaded it to the PIE website, it would take forever to load a PIE Blog page. The size of the image (let’s say 10 MB) would choke the software and hardware. However, when I reduce the image from about 36 inches to 10 inches in width at 72dpi, I have adequate resolution for blog readers to see the important parts of the photo–and nothing else. Plus, at this point the photo is about 250 KB rather than 10 MB.
  7. If I wanted to use the same image for a print ad, I would save the image with a resolution of about 266dpi (or double a 133lpi halftone screen) at the final size (reduced from the larger format of approximately 30” x 30”). In this case the size reduction would actually improve the sharpness of the image.

So the gist of this is, use the digital enhancement tools to your advantage. But start out with the highest technical quality and then just tweak the images. Don’t try to save bad photos.

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