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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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Archive for the ‘Photos’ Category

Book Printing: A Few Thoughts on Image Preparation

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

In spite of the promotional literature implying the ease with which one can seamlessly use Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator, there really is a lot to learn. And when you’re using these programs together to prepare large book printing jobs for either offset printing or digital printing, the learning curve is even steeper.

That said, I have three book printing jobs I’m brokering at the moment. They are all close to 8.5” x 11” in format, and their press runs range from 500 copies to 11,000 copies (perfect bound and case bound).

In this particular case, the physical properties of the print books are less important than the preparation of the art files, or, more specifically, the preparation of the images to be placed in the InDesign files.

My “DIY” (Do-It-Yourself) Client

One of my clients has written and designed her book and then has prepared all pages in InDesign. She may also have taken the photographs. But she is somewhat new to Photoshop. To her the images are more important than the words. This is a cookbook, and she wants the images to take the lead.

From a commercial printing standpoint, because of this orientation toward the images, I have suggested that my client select a gloss coated printing stock. But for the custom printing paper to showcase the nuances of the images, the photographs must be correctly prepared prior to being placed in the InDesign file.

One of the things I learned, purely by accident during a discussion with my client, was that she had kept the photos in RGB JPEG format as they had been initially shot. Since she knew she wanted the text of the book (both words and images) to be printed in black ink only, she had merely desaturated the photos in Photoshop (i.e., removed their color but kept them in RGB format).

This had made perfect sense to her (and was a logical approach), but it was not what the offset printer would need in order to produce her book. So I gave my client the following suggestions. I think these would benefit a number of new designers (and designers who had come of age with traditional paste-up and are only now making the shift to computerized design and prepress):

My Suggestions to My Client

  1. I told my client she needed to convert all photos from RGB JPEGs to Grayscale TIFFs. Some printers can work with JPEGs, but it’s safest to use TIFFs because all printers will accept these.
  2. If my client had continued to use RGB, the printer would have needed to convert the files himself to CMYK (from Red/Green/Blue, which is used for video monitors, to Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/Black, which is used for ink or toner applied to paper). These color spaces are not the same. A color image mode change from one color space to another can cause color shifts.
  3. In my client’s case, if she had kept her files in the CMYK mode, the offset printer would have prepared printing plates for all four colors. In essence, even if the computer monitor had given the impression that her images were black and white, they would have been created with all four process colors. Printing the interior text pages of the book in full color would have cost multiple thousands of dollars more than printing a black-only text block. Since this would not have been acceptable, all of her work would have needed to be redone after the first proof, and then a second proof would have been required, further adding to the cost. So understanding how to use Photoshop to change the color mode from RGB to Grayscale was important for my client (as was doing this in a way that optimized the tonal range of the photos: i.e., the detail in highlights, midtones, and shadows).
  4. I suggested that my client look online for a tutorial on preparing black and white images for commercial printing. I have seen many such tutorials. They are succinct and extremely useful. They discuss everything from image resolution to changing color modes, to optimizing highlights and shadows for offset printing.
  5. I encouraged my client to make decisions regarding highlights and shadows based on “numbers” in the Photoshop dialog boxes (the “Info” palette, for instance), rather than by looking at the computer monitor. I noted that backlit images on a computer screen will look brighter than the same image files printed with ink or toner on paper. Learning to interpret the “numbers” (the numerical values for the colors and tonal range) would minimize error.
  6. I suggested that my client prepare a few pages of text and photos and then have the printer run a digital proof of just those pages as an initial test. If they looked too dark or too light, that feedback would help her in preparing the remainder of the book. I suggested that she approach the proofing process as an investment, not an expense.
  7. I spoke with the printer about providing his prepress department’s checklist for producing optimal, press-ready PDFs, so that once my client had received the initial few test pages and applied what she had learned to the remainder of the book, she would know how to convert her InDesign file into the best possible PDF file. He agreed. (Many printers already have such a PDF creation checklist. The reason this is useful is that different printers have different preferences for the numerous options available in creating a print-ready PDF file.)
  8. I encouraged my client to request the following proofs: the 3- to 5-page initial test file (plus any revisions needed); a high-resolution digital proof of all photos ganged up onto approximately 100 pages; the overall digital proof of the book (a “contract” quality, digital cover proof such as a Spectrum or Epson, plus laser proofs of all text pages); and folded and gathered book signatures handed off following printing but before binding the book. Overall, this would let my client see every stage of the process. Since this print book is her pride and joy, her “baby,” these multiple proofing stages will help ensure success.

What You Can Learn From This Case Study

You can apply most of the suggestions I gave my client to your own work.

  1. Find out how your printer needs you to prepare images. Check online for short tutorials that teach you how to prepare Photoshop images for offset printing. They will give you a limited number of steps to follow to ensure your success with offset printed images.
  2. Consider requesting any or all of the proofs I have suggested. It may cost a little more, but it will help you identify problems before the book has been printed. At minimum, consider a high-res proof of the cover and “for position” proofs of the text. If you have images or tint screens, consider requesting high-res proofs of these pages. The jargon to use is “contract proofs.” These serve as a contract between you and the printer: once you have approved the way they look, he has to match these proofs exactly.
  3. Ask for your printer’s PDF-creation guidance sheet. Don’t assume one printer’s PDF-creation guide is the same as another’s.

Custom Printing: Thoughts on Using Photos Effectively

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

I found a very simple and accessible book on design at a thrift store recently. It was written by Robin Williams and John Tollett, and it’s called Design Workshop.

If you are a custom printing designer, I would encourage you to make it a regular practice to analyze printed products like brochures and billboards, as well as design books like Design Workshop, in order to maintain and even improve your design skills. Stephen R. Covey (business self-help guru) calls this “sharpening the saw,” and I’ve always been a strong believer in continuously practicing the fundamentals of the craft of commercial printing and design.

Improving Your Photos

I recently reviewed some photos for a print book with a brokering client, and a number of Williams’ and Tollett’s suggestions would have improved the photos. They will be printed on matte coated stock in an eight-page photo signature bound into the middle of the print book. Some of the photos have more of a “snapshot” look. That is, they look amateurish. Fortunately, a lot of Williams’ and Tollett’s suggestions can be applied to these snapshots to turn them into more professional-looking “photographs.”

The section of Design Workshop to which I refer addresses the creative and effective use of photographic images. Here is a short list of the book’s suggestions:

Be Conscious of the Background

Consider where the subject of the photo is placed relative to the background. If a stovepipe in the background appears to be growing out of the subject’s head (i.e., is directly behind her or him), move your vantage point, as the photographer, to the left or right to remedy this. Although this sounds like common sense, it’s very easy, when you’re taking a photo, to only think about the person you’re photographing and to forget the background.

(Design Workshop does not address this directly, but if you have been provided with photos and the only photo you have to work with has a stovepipe or other item behind the subject, consider silhouetting the image.)

Avoid Clutter

Consider the clutter in the background when you’re taking a photo. Keep it simple. Also, if distracting elements like furniture extend into the photo from outside the “picture frame,” move them or change your vantage point for the photo. Even something like a window in the photo can be distracting. The bright sunlight coming into the room can take your viewer’s or reader’s attention away from the main subject. In short, always consider photo composition.

(Design Workshop does not address this directly, but if you use Photoshop’s cropping tool creatively, you can improve images if you only have photos with cluttered backgrounds. Severely cropping into any of the distracting elements in the photos can minimize their impact.)

Consider How the Viewer’s Eye Moves Around the Photo

Think about the reader’s eye movement through a photo. In Design Workshop, Williams and Tollett include a photo of a series of motorcycles riding away from the viewer through what appears to be mud. You cannot see any faces, but the photo is interesting because your eye moves from the largest motorcycle in the foreground (front right), through the middle ground (a smaller motorcycle, due to its distance from the viewer) to the background at the upper left of the image (the smallest motorcycle, since it’s the farthest away from the viewer). In the distance, you can see a line of trees. The photo is interesting because of its great depth of field, from the foreground images to those in the background, and because of the way the photographer leads the viewer’s eye through the image.

Shoot from Unique Vantage Points

Williams and Tollett also encourage you to take photos from unique vantage points. They include a photo of people around a table eating a meal. In this case the photographer shot the image from above, presumably from a balcony. What makes this image work is that it flouts expectations. You expect an image of a dinner to be shot from the same level as the diners. Shooting it from above provides more of a focus on the interactions among the diners and deemphasizes the individual people at the table. It becomes more of a design, or pattern. Also, the angle of the table (diagonal to the picture plane) makes for a more dynamic composition.

Crop Photos Wisely

Design Workshop includes two variations of a photo of a couple in a chair or loveseat looking at a candle. It’s very romantic, but the original photo is also cluttered. By cropping severely into the image (just above the man’s eyes, leaving just a little of his forehead) and leaving the candle just inside the left-most crop of the image, the designer eliminates the clutter while focusing on the two faces and the candle. This is a dynamic balance (and a good way to remedy a busy photograph).

What You Can Learn from Williams and Tollett’s Design Workshop

Photos add drama and personality to a layout for a commercial printing job. Learn to analyze them critically, and look for those specific attributes that will make the images—and the layout of your print book, brochure, or large format print—both striking and memorable.

Custom Printing: Creating Four-Color B/W Images

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

At first glance, the concept of four-color black and white images would appear contradictory. After all, either you print halftone images in black ink only, or you print them in full color (i.e., cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink). Or do you?

How about duotones? When you create a duotone, you usually print an image in black and a second color, or you print the image in two PMS colors. When you do this, you create two halftone images with different tone curves (in Photoshop). That is, you focus on a certain portion of the halftone (let’s say midtones and highlights, or quarter-tones and three-quarter-tones. You do this because of the imperfections of printing. Using one custom printing ink and one halftone screen cannot capture the full range of tones from the darkest dark to the lightest light. Something suffers. But each time you add a color (as with a duotone), you can extend the range of tones in the composite halftone image. (This is called increasing the “dynamic range” of the image.)

But that’s a duotone. What about a four-color black and white image?

The same goes for four-color black and white images. If you use cyan, magenta, yellow, and black together, you can (for the most part) capture the full range of color in an image. But if you want an image that stands out because of its simplicity (and a rich, black and white image will definitely stand out in a world of full-color imagery), you can adjust the percentages of the process colors in the halftone to simulate an achromatic (no-color) image.

And given the ability to use each of the process color screens to enhance a specific portion of the tone curve (highlights, quarter-tones, midtones, three-quarter-tones, shadows), you can end up with a deep, rich photograph impossible to create with a single black ink. Or, more precisely, you can hold detail and levels of tonal transition in the deepest shadows, the midtones, and the highlights simultaneously.

But Problems May Arise

As with any truly wonderful artistic technique, this one has dangers as well, namely color shifts or color casts. The success of a four-color black and white image rests on the ability of your commercial printing vendor to hold a neutral gray balance in the image. That is, the image cannot have a color cast, or it will no longer have the characteristic look of a black and white photo.

On press, color casts can occur for a number of reasons. Among these are dot gain. If the halftone dots spread on the press sheet, then the precise balance of the four process colors that yields a true achromatic black will be lost, and the image may tend toward a cyan, yellow, or magenta look.

In fact, it is because of the tendency of neutral grays to shift toward a color tone that such processes as UCR (under color removal) and GCR (gray component replacement) are used to replace a cyan, magenta, and yellow on press with black ink. This stabilizes the overall image color and avoids color casts. In the case of a four-color black and white image, we’re consciously choosing to do the opposite of UCR and GCR. So it’s risky.

In-Line Color Conflicts

Another cause of color casts (in addition to dot gain in one of the process colors, or over or under inking resulting in a color imbalance) is an “in-line conflict.”

An in-line color conflict often occurs in a magazine press signature in which heavy-ink-coverage advertisements, solid colors, and lighter areas of type are distributed across one side of one press signature. To understand this, picture a 16-page signature with four 8.5” x 11” pages across the top of the sheet and four more pages immediately below. On the back there will be eight more pages making a total of 16. This is a traditional 16-page signature.

The individual press sheet travels through the press with the top four pages of the signature going through the inking units first, followed by the four pages immediately beneath them on the flat press sheet. If images on the top four pages use a large amount of a particular process color, it is entirely possible that the pages immediately underneath them (or “in-line” with them) on the 8-page side of the press sheet may be adversely affected by that larger amount of color.

For instance, if a large image on the top left page of the signature requires a large amount of magenta ink, the magazine page immediately below it (i.e., in-line with it) may have a magenta cast as well. If you’re custom printing a four-color black and white image on that particular magazine page within the press form, it may shift from a deep rich black to a rose-tinted warm black. This may be unacceptable.

Fortunately, your commercial printing supplier may suggest putting the four-color black and white image on a different page within the press signature, one that would be less adversely affected by such an “in-line conflict.”

To achieve success with four-color black and white images, the best thing to learn from this discussion is not to avoid four-color black and white images but to involve your custom printing vendor early in the process. Describe your goals. Make sure your printer has done high-end work like this before. And consider attending a press inspection so you will not be unhappily surprised with the final product. After all, on a press inspection, you can identify a color cast and ask the pressman to fix it.

Designing & Printing: Five Tips for Designing with Images

Friday, September 20th, 2013

Here are a few ideas you may want to consider when designing newsletters, directories, annual reports, or other print products containing multiple images.

Standardize Portraits in Directories, Annual Reports, and Newsletters

I just received a sample printed directory and noticed something odd about the photos. They had been shot by different photographers, so the backgrounds were different, the lighting was not the same, and the cropping of the photos left different sized heads within the standardized 1” x 1.5” image frames.

In general, I would say that this is distracting. One of the qualities of good graphic design is standardization: of type, of the design grid, and of images.

Therefore, it is wise to either shoot (or acquire) images in which the backgrounds contain similar colors and are nondescript. After all, the goal is to focus your reader’s attention on the foreground of the photos rather than the background. In addition, it is wise to crop your images to keep the heads (and hands, or other similar elements of the photos) proportional to one another.

The human eye is lightning fast in recognizing patterns. Image-heavy printed documents such as annual reports, directories, and such, will often include photos with similar compositions. Newsletters may also include similar photos, such as images of people giving or receiving awards.

The reader’s eye will see both the pattern within multiple photos and a break in the pattern if your images differ in composition. This is often a challenge to remedy, obviously, since you can’t always control the source from which the images come. At a time like this, sometimes all you can do is be aware of the problem, strive for uniformity at least in the cropping and size of the people, and move on.

At this point you may also want to check for color casts in photos. If all of the photos have predominantly blue backgrounds, and one of your sources submitted a head shot with a reddish cast in the background, this will stand out and look odd. Therefore, you may want to adjust the color in Photoshop.

Scan Signatures at Sufficient Resolution

Images include more than just photos. They also include line art. While you would scan a photo at twice the halftone line screen the custom printing supplier will use (300 dpi, for example, for a 150-line halftone screen), you would need much higher resolution for line art.

For instance, if your newsletter or annual report will include a letter from the CEO, you will probably need to scan his or her signature. It is wise to scan the image at 1000 or 1200 dpi to minimize the jagged edges that result from scanning line art. (That is, you want the image dots that make up the signature to be as small as possible.) I’d also scan the image as line art within the “bitmap” mode in Photoshop rather than within the “grayscale” or color modes (RGB or CMYK). A black-only image that you colorize within the page layout software (InDesign) will have crisper edges than one you have scanned in color or grayscale.

Be Conscious of the Color Space of Your Images

You will probably scan directly into RGB mode. This is appropriate for computer screens (Internet design, multimedia, etc.) but not for offset or digital custom printing. So remember to change the color space of each image from RGB to CMYK before handing off the job to the printer. It’s easy to forget. So use the “Links” panel in InDesign, highlight each image in the list, and check the bottom of the window to confirm the correct “color space.”

Save Images As TIFFs for Offset and Digital Custom Printing

If you receive a digital scan as a JPEG, that’s fine. However, once you have opened the files and adjusted the images for your commercial printing vendor, save the images as TIFFs. If you need to compress them to make the files smaller, specify LZW compression. JPEG is a “lossy” compression algorithm. Each time you save an image to the JPEG file format, you delete digital information and therefore reduce the quality of the image to make the file smaller. In contrast, LZW compression is a “lossless” algorithm. It does not damage the photos.

Avoid Both Blur and Excessive Sharpening in Photos

If your images are blurry, that’s a problem. However, if you use a sharpening tool in Photoshop such as “unsharp mask,” and you do this to excess, you may add halos to portions of your images. Too sharp is just as bad as not sharp enough. Unsharp masking increases the contrast between adjacent tones, and this fools the eye into seeing a sharper image. But taken to an extreme, this makes the image look unnatural.

Commercial Printing: Optimizing Photos in Photoshop

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

I’ve been doing some consulting recently, helping a designer prepare photographs for a personal history print book. The photos are quite old, from World War II. This is the designer’s first exposure to photo preparation. He is changing careers. Although he is learning the techniques rapidly, this will be a trial by fire due to the work needed. My task is to teach him what he needs to know and oversee the photo manipulation.

The Process of Optimizing Photos

I have suggested that the designer (let’s call him Bill) follow a protocol to make photo preparation more routine. This should speed up the process, and make it more intuitive. After all, there are a lot of photographs to process.

I suggested the following workflow.

  1. Change color space from “RGB” to “Grayscale.”
  2. Scale and crop photo to final reproduction dimensions.
  3. Ensure that photo is 300 dpi at final size.
  4. Use cloning tool to correct small imperfections, such as dust spots.
  5. Adjust levels or curves to ensure a wide range of tones.
  6. Lighten the photo slightly to compensate for dot gain.
  7. Use unsharp masking in the filters menu to sharpen the image.

I read once that this series of steps would correct most problems with almost 95 percent of the photos a designer will need to manipulate.

I would add one further approach to the photos, given the massive number for this particular print book. I call it “triage,” from the medical term referencing the decisions for treatment based on the severity of the wound. If you are preparing photos for a brochure, this will be less important, since you will probably have only a handful to correct. But you have 50, 100, or more photos, it will be important to decide whether an individual photo is worth correcting. If it has major flaws (not enough tones from the lightest lights to the darkest darks, tears or scratches across faces or other detailed portions of the image, and so forth), you will need to invest a huge amount of time in a single photo. If you are batch processing 50 photos, you can’t necessarily afford to get stuck on one photo. You need to ask yourself whether it’s worth fixing the photo or whether it is a better use of your time to find another.

So to expand a bit on the photo processing list, here are some thoughts:

Color Space

Normally you will receive digitally scanned photos in RGB mode. However, if you will hand them off to a digital or offset commercial printing vendor, you will need to convert the images to CMYK (4-color process). To allow for the best reproduction, it’s best to keep images in RGB mode until the end of the process and then convert them to CMYK. On the other hand, if you will be producing black-only halftones (which is what my client is producing), change the color space from RGB to Grayscale first. You’ll get a clearer view of what you’re doing, since images can look very different in black and white than in color. The grayscale command is in the image menu under “mode.”

Scale and Crop

It’s best to come at least close to the final size and cropping when you place a Photoshop TIFF image in InDesign. And remember to avoid (like the plague) increasing the size of an image.


Assume that you will need twice the custom printing vendor’s halftone line screen’s worth of pixel information in a photo. If your printer is using a 150 lpi line screen for halftones, make sure your photos will be at 300 dpi resolution (at the final printed size). Otherwise pixels may be visible.


Use the clone tool in the vertical menu on the left side of the Photoshop pasteboard. It’s called the “clone stamp tool,” and it is about halfway down the series of tools. On the top horizontal menu, look for “opacity.” If you’re worried about damaging the photo, you can work gradually to correct flaws by reducing the opacity of this tool. Option click on a spot you want to use as source material to cover a flaw. Then point the cursor at the destination (the flaw) and click and draw. You will be drawing with the pixels you had selected, effectively covering the “destination” area with the “source” pixels.

Levels and Curves

Books could be written about these tools. Research them on the Internet. Your goal should be to give an image a wide selection of tones from black (if you’re working in grayscale, like my consulting client) through the dark grays, mid-tone grays, light grays, and white. Avoid abrupt changes in tone (they appear as spikes in the “histogram,” a graph that shows how many pixels of each grayscale tone a photo contains).

Lighten for Dot Gain

Ink spreads on paper as it flows into the fibers. In addition, your LCD monitor will make photos appear lighter than they will print. So compensate a bit by lightening your photos prior to handing off your job to your custom printing supplier. If you have any concerns, send sample photos to your printer and ask for advice.

Unsharp Masking

Unsharp masking (found in the “filter” menu under “sharpen”) makes images appear sharper (less blurry) by accentuating the tonal difference between light and dark pixels. Too much adds artifacts and halos. This looks painfully bad. You have three variables for unsharp masking: amount, radius, and threshold. Check online for starting values (i.e., amount: 75, radius: 1, and threshold: 10, as noted in one online tutorial by Simon Mackie for “soft subjects”). Experiment. If you see graininess or halos, you’ve gone too far, so back off.

Then save the image as a TIFF file.

Commercial Printing: More Solutions for Problem Photos

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

In life, challenges seem to come in waves, so I haven’t been surprised lately as a number of clients have had problems with photographs to be used in their custom printing jobs.

The issues have generally focused on how to make bad photos usable or, more specifically, what to do with photos with insufficient image resolution.

The ideal situation would be to have a photo that has twice the line screen’s worth of image data. For instance, if your commercial printing vendor will use a 150-line-per inch halftone screen, and your image is the same size as the final printed product (with no reduction or enlargement), your target would be 300 dpi or ppi (150 x 2).

But sometimes you just don’t have that photo.

What Not to Do: Don’t Upsample, Ever

I once had a client for whom I was designing a CD jacket. He wanted a particular photo. I only had a 72 dpi version. I enlarged the photo and resampled it, creating a CD-sized image (approximately 5” square). I used Photoshop’s “Gaussian Blur” to blur the very obvious pixelation, and then I resharpened the image using “Unsharp Mask.” The image was not crisp, and there were artifacts and halos in the photo. It was a serious problem. So don’t do this. Save yourself the heartache.

Make It Smaller

In another case recently, I suggested that a client make the photo smaller in her print book design. She is using a grid for her layout incorporating two wide columns and a smaller scholar’s margin. I pointed out that her readers would not see the flaws if she reduced the problem photos and placed them in one column or in the even narrower scholar’s margin. Certain small flaws are below the threshold of visibility. That is, damage that would be overly time consuming (or impossible) to fix in Photoshop might not be visible if the photo is reproduced at, say, 2” wide by 2” deep. In contrast, the same image might be totally unusable at 4” x 4” because (for instance) the tear in the archival photo, which you unsuccessfully tried to fix in Photoshop, crosses someone’s face.

In short, use the limits of the human eye to your advantage. Also, consider the age of your readers (my eyes, at least, aren’t what they used to be).


I know I just emphatically said not to do this. As with everything else in life, rules are meant to be broken–in selected instances.

Let’s say you have a photo that you need to enlarge slightly for a custom printing job. The key word is “slightly.”

An article I read recently suggests using PhotoZoom Pro2 by BenVista or Genuine Fractals by onOne Software. I know nothing about either, but it’s a start for your research online. Both allow you to upsample images with very little loss of quality.

Another protocol mentioned in the same article just uses Photoshop to enlarge the photo.

  1. Open the “Image Size” window.
  2. Check “Resample Image.”
  3. Choose “Bicubic Smoother” from the options under “Resample Image.”
  4. Change the “Document Size” option to “Percent.”
  5. Choose your target resolution (such as 300 pixels per inch).
  6. Type anywhere from “105 to 110 percent,” and click OK.
  7. Do this multiple times to enlarge the photo incrementally.

This actually works. I have done it myself. Be careful, though, and check the image at high resolution to confirm its quality (and lack of pixelation). Start with a high quality image (with only one flaw: the fact that it’s just not quite big enough). Other flaws will be magnified, so I’d use this quick fix only in a dire emergency.

Make It Artsy

I had another client ask me recently about using images shot with a cell phone at 72 dpi for a print book cover. I said no, absolutely not.

However, I did made a suggestion. My client could use multiple small photos for the print book cover, or he could add artsy screens to the low resolution images. For instance, a rough mezzotint screen of fine dots (like a Seurat pointillist painting) would totally stylize the image in Photoshop. It would no longer be a “photographic likeness.” It would be art. It would be a mood piece.

Play with the filters in Photoshop. Consider such options as “Fresco,” Cutout,” or “Dry Brush.” With each filter, your flawed image will take on a different emotional tone. It will be more like a painting than a photo. This can wipe out a lot of flaws—or at least obscure them from the average reader’s eye.

Commercial Printing: More Photo Optimization Ideas

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

I want to expand a bit upon my last PIE Blog article regarding preparing photographs for offset and digital custom printing. As I had mentioned, I have been helping a new designer prepare photographs for a personal history print book about World War II.

The designer has been sending me the photographs as he has completed them, based on the steps I had suggested in the prior article. About half of the photos have been great. By this I mean that the photos the designer has sent me for approval have included a wide range of grays (this is a black-only World War II print book, so all photos have been converted to grayscale images). In the best of the photos, you can see an indication within the “histogram” (a graph accessible through the “Levels” dialog box) that there are pixels in all tonal levels from white to black. This is indicated by a sweeping “mountain range” (by way of analogy) within the histogram, starting with the pure black pixels and extending to the pure white pixels.

(If you’re working in full color instead of black and white, you will also see this histogram, since this graph actually represents not actual shades of gray but brightness levels, or values from light to dark.)

The lower the humps of the “mountain range,” the fewer the pixels of that particular brightness level. If the humps of the graph are high, this indicates more pixels in a certain area (highlights, for instance, in a high-key photo, or shadows in a low-key photo). If there are gaps in the histogram, this means there are no pixels of that particular value. If there are spikes, that indicates an abrupt shift from one value to another.

Sample Photos from the Designer

Some of the photos the World War II print book designer sent me for review were either flat (gray overall, lacking in contrast), or they had pure white areas that appeared to have been painted onto the photo with white paint (or White-Out, for those who remember typewriters). Other photos had blotchy areas (obvious areas of lighter or darker gray that did not blend into their surroundings).

To teach the designer how to best use Photoshop to correct these problematic images, I had him open the photo itself for visual reference, the “histogram” in “Levels,” and the “Info” palette under the “Windows” menu. I wanted the designer to be able to balance an aesthetic, visual judgment of an image with the technical pixel information in both the histogram and the Info palette.

Ultimately, the picture has to look right, visually and intuitively. That’s the real goal. The Info palette (which shows the actual highlight or shadow value–i.e., an 8 percent printer’s halftone dot in the highlights of someone’s face) and the histogram in the Levels dialog box are merely tools to help judge the quality of a photographic image.

What I Suggested (The Goals)

I asked the designer to look for spikes (pixel values that extended to the top of the histogram) and gaps in the histogram. I said these were less than ideal and that they would show up as posterization (visible stair-stepping of values rather than a gradual blending of white into gray into black).

I also suggested that he consider what was most important in an image. For instance, by darkening a background (one photo had the leaves and trees of a wooded area in the background), he could preserve the detail in the clothing of the people in the foreground. Since the people were more important than the trees, I encouraged him to do this. (Sacrificing the background detail brought out detail in the foreground.)

I also encouraged the designer to darken the light tones in the people’s clothing and faces to preserve detail in these areas in order to give them a sense of depth and solidity. The designer’s first attempts included white faces that lacked the details of the cheekbones, eye sockets, etc. Other photos had subjects in clothing that was almost completely white. By darkening the clothing slightly, the designer could give more of a three-dimensional, sculptural sense to the clothing, making the subjects of the photos look real and less flat.

The Best Photoshop Tools for This Work

I asked the designer to try both “Curves” and “Levels” to adjust the tonal values in the photos. Curves would allow him to isolate areas within an image so he could increase the midtones while maintaining the quarter tones and three-quarter tones.

I asked the designer to pay close attention to the value of pixels, monitoring the grayscale changes in the “Info” palette while observing the effects of these changes on the image itself. I wanted him to make sure there was some tonal information even in the lighter areas, and to avoid making any area completely white.

I also suggested that the designer consider using Photoshop’s “masking tools and techniques” to isolate entire regions within a photo so that they might remain untouched while the designer altered other areas with the Levels or Curves tools.

What You Can Learn from This Designer’s Photos

Photoshop is a comprehensive program about which many thick books have been written. It is very powerful, but it takes a long time to learn. I think you may find that a close study of its tools and techniques will be rewarding and will empower you, greatly benefiting your photo manipulation work. In addition, as questions arise for you, feel free to ask the prepress managers at your custom printing supplier for advice and help.

Custom Printing: Addressing Problem Photos

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

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.


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