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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: Photo Quality in Printer Samples

I sent a client two printed samples recently. Both were magazines. My client is producing a graphic novel, which is essentially a magazine with two gatefolds and some other inserts. I had requested printed samples from the periodical printer with the lowest price. I had worked with this vendor once before and had been very happy with the results, so I was confident in encouraging my client work with the printer as well.

The samples included numerous photos, text, etc., as is the case in any magazine. I had focused on the cover images in choosing the samples for my client. They were crisp, detailed, with a good tonal range and saturated colors. Unfortunately, some of the photos in the interior of the magazines were not quite as good as the cover images. My client was not pleased with their appearance.

What Happened?

  1. My client was displeased with the photos. She could not describe where they were lacking in printer’s terms, but she described the photograpic reproductions as limited in color range and very dense and muddy in the shadows.
  2. My client also commented on the slick covers (which appeared to be either gloss UV coated or film laminated). She said they were a lot shinier that what she was looking for. They made her rethink the term “gloss” that she had used to describe the paper she wanted.
  3. Finally, my client said she had a copy of a magazine that had more of the “look” she was seeking.

The Take Away from My Client’s Comments

  1. First of all, communication, even when it’s not pleasant to hear, is a good thing. My client noted what she liked and what she didn’t like. Fortunately, we are several months out from the press date, which gives us time to analyze commercial printing vendors, printing papers, and cover coating options.
  2. My client didn’t like the slick look of the magazines. This is useful information. It means that cover coatings less shiny than gloss UV coating and gloss film laminate would probably meet her needs better. These options would include matte, dull, and silk cover coatings (including aqueous, film laminate, and UV options).
  3. My client had a sample she liked. Nothing will help more than getting this magazine copy into the hands of the custom printing supplier, who can then look for comparable paper stocks and cover coatings.
  4. My client didn’t like the lack of tonal range in the interior photos. While my desire was to showcase the high quality of the cover images produced by this magazine printer, I had missed the photographic images that were less than stellar in the text of the magazines.
  5. This was an oversight. However, it is also true that often the images in magazines are not professionally photographed, and the lack of quality in these “snapshots” would be reflected in the printing. After all, images will not improve when printed. Rather, all images will actually lose some of their tonal range during the commercial printing process.

    But what I really needed to do was find a way to ensure that my client’s photos would be reproduced at their highest level of quality and to her satisfaction.

What Caused the Problem?

To ensure the highest quality of my client’s printed images, I let my client know the following:

  1. Photos will look their best on a gloss coated sheet with a high sheen UV coating (such is the case with the cover photos in the printer’s samples).
  2. They will look less crisp on a matte sheet without a UV coating, but they will keep their range of tones (highlights, midtones, and shadows).
  3. As the quality of the paper goes down (from a #1 sheet to a #2, #3, etc.), the paper will absorb more ink and the tones will get muddy.
  4. On another note, web offset press work will be close to, but not quite as good as, sheetfed offset work.
  5. Some printers will be better or worse than others in terms of printing quality (beyond the quality and tonal range of the original images submitted to the printer). Some printers that might produce better quality work might also have prices that are significantly higher than other vendors’ prices. Quality and price are often trade-offs.

What I Suggested to My Client

  1. I asked my client to send me a sample of what she didn’t like in the samples (I asked her to just tear out the pages and circle the problems).
  2. I asked my client to send me a copy of the magazine she did like. I asked her to note which images she considers the best. I also asked her to note why she prefers the paper in this magazine to the paper in the printed samples I had sent her (paper color, surface gloss, paper coating, paper thickness, etc.).
  3. After receiving and reviewing the samples, I will forward them to the custom printing supplier. I will request more printed samples (not just to show the quality of printing but also to show the particular paper options and paper coatings the printer can provide).
  4. I will also request sample printed photos on the specific paper stock my client choose (or a comparable sheet).
  5. I will request an unprinted paper dummy from the printer (reflecting the exact paper stock) as we get closer to the press date.

The Bottom Line

All communication is useful in helping a customer meet her or his printing needs. Nothing facilitates communication like sharing printed samples. Finally, to showcase image quality, it’s best to specify higher quality papers (a #1 or #2 sheet rather than a #3 or #4 sheet). This will help maintain the detail and tonal range of the photos.

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