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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

Commercial Printing: Creating Photos, Recording Light

Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Photographs in your custom printing work are essentially a record of the light you witnessed. You are creating with light, making a specific artistic and/or editorial statement. Photos are never added to a publication just for their appearance.

In this light (so to speak), it is helpful to understand some terms and definitions. These will help you either take photos or select photos for the projects you design, whether brochures, banners, or print books.

Depth of Field

For the first ten years of my forty-six years (to date) in graphic design and other aspects of publications management, I shot the photos I used in my graphic design work. I used a film camera, not a digital camera, so you will need to do some online research to apply this information to digital photography.

“Depth of field” identifies the part of a photo that is in perfect, crisp focus and the part of the photo that is a little bit fuzzy. It notes the range (or depth into the picture plane) of crystal clarity, assuming all photos have a foreground, middle ground, and background.

If you are working in bright light (outdoors, for instance, photographing a group of flowers), you can set the lens aperture at a higher number (say f/ 16, or “f-stop” 16), which closes down the adjustable “screen” covering the camera lens in just the same way as the pupil in your eye closes to protect your vision in bright light.

This not only allows less light into the light sensor of the digital camera (or onto the film), but it also allows certain parts of the photo (depths into the picture plane, as noted above) to be in sharp focus or out of focus.

Why would you want to do this? Because it allows you to select the part of the photo you want the viewer to focus on, the subject of the photo, while ignoring or giving less attention to other parts of the photo.

If you’re photographing a bed of flowers (to reference the example noted above), you can highlight one flower and make those flowers closer to the viewer and those farther away less prominent, since they will be out of focus. You can also do this when photographing a person, a model.

From a mathematical point of view, the more closed down the lens can be (to allow less light to enter), the more inclusive the sharp focus will be (the larger the area from crisp focus in the foreground to crisp focus deeper into the background). For example, in this case the camera lens setting might be f/ 16 or greater (maybe even f/ 32). This, of course, requires more light, either natural ambient light or light from an electronic flash.

Going in the opposite direction and lessening the depth of field would require you to “open” the lens more (as the pupil of your eye opens more in lower lighting). An open lens (perhaps f/ 1.2) would make the area of crisp focus (which you could change the position of, within the picture plane, using the focusing control of the camera) be less deep.

High-Key and Low-Key Photos, and Contrast in Photos

Photos make a statement of some kind. Depth of field allows you as the photographer to choose what your viewer will look at. Other tools will do the same or similar things, even leading your viewer to feel a certain way about a photo in a print book or other publication.

In this light here are some terms to consider.

A “high-key” photo is one with predominantly light areas (or white or lighter toned pixels when viewed as a “histogram” graph in an image editing program like Photoshop). To the eye, such a photo just looks very white or bright, if it is either in black and white or color. This can suggest the bright, pristine white of early morning sunlight, for instance. The opposite is a “low-key” photo (in which the Photoshop histogram leans toward the darker tones). This might suggest the more subdued feel associated with sunset.

Closely related to this is the range from high contrast to low contrast within a photo. At noon, the sun casts intense shadows. A photo of a rock outcropping in the mountains, for instance, will have deep shadows and almost completely white highlights. It will be of high contrast. You can do the same thing indoors with an electronic flash (or multiple electronic flashes), with the deep shadows making a man’s face seem more masculine and chiseled.

The alternative would be an image with less contrast. Ambient light (natural light outdoors not augmented by electronic flash) in the afternoon can make a model look softer and more approachable.

As with depth of field, creating images with greater or lesser contrast, or photos that are high or low key will allow you to make a statement about the subject matter. That is, you can lead the viewer to perceive the subject in a certain way and/or have certain feelings and make certain judgments about the subject, all by changing its presentation based on the effects of light.

Electronic Flash and Studio Lighting

A book could be written about this subject. This is just to get you started. Also, you can employ studio lighting techniques away from the studio, using an electronic flash attached to the camera. This will increase the number of ways in which to present your subject (perhaps highlighted and therefore more dramatic or with more subdued light and therefore more approachable).

When I started at the non-profit government education foundation at which I eventually became the art director/production manager, part of my day was spent on Capitol Hill taking photos of students in seminars with senators and congressmen. I had a bounce flash, which I attached to a bracket on the camera. I could tilt it up and bounce the light off the ceiling, which would soften the light that fell upon the people I was photographing. Or I could point the flash directly at the students and legislators. I could also vary the intensity of the light the flash produced, and I could adjust both the camera shutter speed and aperture (see above description of depth of field).

Overall, I could make the lighting more dramatic or more subdued, depending on the tone in which I wanted to cast the subject matter. I even attached a white index card to the bounce flash with a rubber band so I could bounce the flash (the card would deflect the light) if the ceiling were too high.

If I were to replicate these lighting options in a photo studio with large, floor-standing studio lights, I might make the following decisions:

  1. I might use one flash on the camera and then a fill flash or fill light in the room, separate from the camera. The light on the camera might illuminate the front of the model’s face, while a light on the side of the model might cast other shadows and highlight additional portions of the model’s face (like the cheekbones). It might also make the overall face look more dimensional and less flat than what one light would create.
  2. I might avoid positioning lights below the model, since this could make the model look ghoulish and scary.
  3. I might avoid shooting the flash near a window or mirror, so as to avoid a reflected glare.
  4. I might choose to photograph the model with light coming only from one side (at a 90 degree angle) to subtly accentuate the shadows of the face.
  5. I might illuminate the model only from behind to create a silhouette effect.
  6. I might use a “softbox,” a lamp covered with a diffusion screen, to scatter the light and soften the look of the model.

Studio lights would make this easier, since I could see the lighting effect before tripping the flash (less easy to see, since it’s there only for an instant). To the best of my knowledge, studio lights today can be turned on, illuminating the subject, and can then be flashed for an instant for the photograph, to increase their intensity for a good exposure.

The goal of all of this is to brighten the subject and increase the detail created by precisely positioned illumination, without creating harsh shadows. Depending on the equipment, you can either do this in a photographic studio or out in the field (with a flash), without needing to artificially doctor up the image in Photoshop. And in all cases, the goal is to use light creatively and precisely to add a mood or tone or in some other way make a statement about the subject of the photo. And this artistic statement can reinforce the tone or message of the print book, large format print banner, or anything else you’re designing.

Commercial Printing: A Photo-Retouching Case Study

Sunday, September 25th, 2022

Photo purchased from …

When I was 14, I took a course in photography. It was 1972, so we didn’t have digital photography yet, and everything was based on light and chemistry. Our homework was to take the photos; our classwork was to develop and print them.

One of the things we learned how to do was to “spot” images we had printed on the enlarger. That is, we used an ultra-small, round brush with various inks (or dyes, actually), which we applied spot by spot on the emulsion of the photo print to correct flaws. Fortunately our work was entirely in black and white, since I can’t imagine doing such detailed work using colored inks or dyes.

Keep in mind that photos used in commercial printing are turned into halftones prior to the presswork. (That is, grids of equally-spaced small, medium, and large dots simulate more or less ink coverage and continuous tones, since offset lithography can only print “ink” or “no ink” rather than lighter or darker ink of the same color.)

In contrast, the retouching work I was doing was to correct continuous-tone images produced with silver halide crystals that had been exposed to light. To picture what this looked like, you might want to examine the output of an inkjet printer, in which the ink spots are all the same size, but there are more of them in areas of heavy ink coverage. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s close.

How It’s Done Now

To put all of this in perspective, during the intervening years between 1972 and 2022, we invented digital photography, so all of the retouching I was doing as a 14-year-old has migrated to Photoshop. A lot of the retouching work has been automated, but I have also done my share of detailed work with a virtual pen or brush on my computer. The goal has been the same: to work slowly under high magnification using a small brush. Fortunately we now have the concept of “Undo.” Back in 1972, if I made a mistake, I couldn’t revert to my last saved version, and scraping away spotting dye with a razor blade risked my scratching off the emulsion of the paper.

From Spotting Prints in 1972 to Painting Out Mold on a Poster in 2022

Within this context of photo prints, traditional vs. digital photography, and photo retouching, my fiancee came to me this week with a poster that had been in the garage for (probably) way more than the 18 years we have been together. In fact, it had been commercially printed for a Witkin Museum exhibit in New York in 1981, and the museum itself has apparently been defunct since the ‘90s.

Since the poster had been in the garage for so long, without a frame, in heat and humidity, it had visible mold spots and two tears in the paper. My fiancee remembered that she had loved the image, and she asked me to retouch it. (In part this was because neither she nor I could find a replacement copy of the poster anywhere on the internet.)

Retouching the Poster

I knew the poster would become valueless (financially) once I retouched it (by adding paint to an already printed poster). However, I also knew that my fiancee would have a visually improved poster that would make her happy.

The tears I could fix relatively easily from the back of the poster (a duotone, maybe 2 feet x 3 feet in size, of a child coming out of an egg) using linen tape. Linen tape is alkaline rather than acidic. Therefore it does not turn brown or become brittle after several decades.

This is actually a good concept for you to grasp if you’re a designer or buyer of commercial printing, because you may need to print a job that you want to last a very long time. Choosing what is called an “archival” paper, one that is alkaline, will make all the difference. (Look closely at books from the 1800s that are pristine, and compare them to paperback novels from 1970 that are yellowing and becoming brittle.)

My next step was to choose the paints. First I thought about using watercolors. These I could apply in thin washes, so I could build up areas of color gradually. However, I realized they would be impermanent: able to flake off or be reactivated with the slightest drop of water. Moreover, instead of painting them onto a porous background, into which they could seep, I would be painting the watercolors onto the matte or dull flood coating already printed over the entire poster.

So I chose acrylics. These I could water down to make an initial thin film, so I could retouch the poster gradually, instead of painting a thick film of color that would appear to be laid on top of the poster. And they would dry (or cure) to a permanent state (because acrylic paint actually dries to a permanent color film that can’t be reactivated by water, as watercolors can).

My fiancee had made an attempt herself, before I applied my paints. Unfortunately, she had painted in thick brush strokes and had not left subtle gradations between the original poster and her own painting work. So basically what I did was smooth out everything, making subtle changes between areas of light and shadow. I also repainted complete sections of the poster, for the most part. I didn’t leave a visible transition between my painted areas and the original print. When I couldn’t do this, I used a wet paper towel to thin the color and drag it across the poster, so it would be more transparent, revealing the original poster below.

I mentioned that my fiancee had painted a large area with a yellowish wash. But using my 12-power printer’s loupe, I could see that most of the poster contained minuscule halftone dots of cyan and black. So I was really looking at a cooler tone (a more bluish tint than the warm yellow wash my fiancee had added).

Interestingly enough, I found that white, Payne’s gray (a blue-gray color), and silver actually made a useful mixture (which could be made lighter or darker in accordance with the halftone dots on the printed poster). Then I used primarily white (“stippled” or added as tiny dots with a tiny brush) to obscure the brown mold stains in the whiter background of the poster toward its outer margins.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

How can touching up a silver halide continuous tone photo and painting acrylics on an already printed poster be relevant to a contemporary graphic designer or commercial printing buyer? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Be mindful of what you are printing on. Printing ink will seep into an uncoated sheet. This will dull down the color. However, you may want that effect. In contrast, ink will sit up on top of a surface coating like that of a matte, dull, or gloss custom printing sheet. The halftone dots will be crisper, and the colors will be more vibrant. This may be the effect you want. (Neither uncoated nor coated paper is the correct choice; rather, it’s important to understand the different effects each will yield.) Consider the porosity of the substrate as well as its base tone (yellow-white or blue-white).
  2. Learn how to judge colors from either the halftone dot structure on an already printed poster (or other print job) or the color composition under the “info” cursor in Photoshop (i.e., understand the percentage mix of CMYK inks). This will help you adjust the images on the computer to remove a color cast. It will also help you retouch an image (let’s say you’re working with old photos that have been damaged, and you need to use Photoshop to recreate some detail that has been lost).
  3. If you’re doing digital retouching in Photoshop, be mindful of the opacity setting. (Can you see through the color or tone you’re adding?) Work at a large magnification, and then check the image at 100 percent size (some flaws will be below the threshold of visibility). Work slowly and delicately, and consider adding transparent colors in layers to achieve subtle transitions between what is already there and what you’re adding.

Custom Printing: Save Photos in RGB (Not CMYK) Format

Sunday, October 10th, 2021

Photo purchased from …

I learned something today. A colleague of mine emailed me saying her book designer planned to save all photos in RGB rather than CMYK format. My colleague asked my opinion. So I did some homework. (more…)

Custom Printing: Selecting the Best Photos for Publication

Wednesday, October 6th, 2021

Photo purchased from …

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…)

Custom Printing: A Few Tips for Enhancing Your Photos

Sunday, February 21st, 2021

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The Problem with Photos

There is a truism, somewhat unflattering in its wording: “garbage in, garbage out.” In commercial printing, whatever you start with in the way of photographic imagery, once you have digitized it (if it starts as a printed photo), opened it in your image editing software, placed the resulting TIFF photo into InDesign, and then handed off the file to the printer for imaging to the press plate, the image has degraded–at least a bit. Printing it on a paper substrate will degrade the image a bit further. Because of this, it is essential that you start with the very best image possible. (more…)

Custom Printing: A Few Random Thoughts on Halftones

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

With the Coronavirus threat upon us, I have had extra time recently, so I have taken this time to brush up on my knowledge of commercial printing. I thought I’d start by reviewing my textbooks on color prepress and custom printing.

In this light, I chose the subject of halftones. I thought my findings might be of interest to you. (more…)

Custom Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photos

Monday, March 2nd, 2020

I was reminded this week while teaching an art therapy class that the principles of design are the same for fine arts and graphic design. We were making clocks by building up paper collages over Nordstrom shoe boxes with clock motors attached to the box tops. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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? (more…)


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