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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

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.

What do I mean by degrade? Two things for starters. The range from the darkest tone to the lightest tone in the image will narrow a bit in the journey from camera to offset commercial printing. This is called “tone compression,” the squeezing of the initial range from highlight to shadow.

In addition, the nuances of the visible transitions from highlights to midtones to shadows will be less evident than they were in real life, and less distinct to the eye than they were on the original image (film or digital) once you have printed the photos.

Another way of saying this is that the range and the detail in the subtle transitions from the lightest light to the darkest dark in the image will be minimized as you transition from the camera to the digital file to the custom printing plate to the final job on paper.

How Can You Improve the Quality of Your Printed Photos?

First of all, start with transparencies if at all possible. These have the greatest range from the lightest light to the darkest dark when compared to digital photos or printed photographs. (This is in the process of changing as digital technology improves. So you may want to do some research online for confirmation.)

Transparencies are essentially slides. They come in different sizes depending on the camera you’re using. Most commercial grade cameras bought for regular use are 35mm cameras. (Again, most cameras these days are digital rather than film-based, but back when I was an art director in the 1990s we used 35mm cameras almost exclusively.) Larger film formats were always better in that they captured more detail with less evident film grain (the silver halide crystals that made up the image on cellulose film for analog cameras). Some were 2 1/4” x 2 1/4” square-format cameras. Some cameras supported on tripods for extremely detailed work were 8” x 10” in format, yielding photos with both more and sharper detail in the transitions from one tone to another. Why is this? Because these large-format negatives or transparencies did not need to be enlarged as much as 35mm images for printing. (Even an 8” x 10” print made from a 35mm slide needs to be enlarged approximately 700 percent. A 2 1/4” image requires far less enlargement than a 35mm image, so minor flaws are less visible, but an 8” x 10” original is even better.)

So how does this translate to the digital images to which we have grown accustomed? If more image data affords a broader tonal range and more detail in the various levels from shadows to highlights, then a digital camera that captures more data—with a higher megapixel count—will translate into a better image in your camera and therefore a better image in prepress and final commercial printing.

You may even want to research image formats for digital cameras. From my reading on Camera Raw images, which are sometimes referred to as “digital negatives,” this format seems to be ideal (although it does create very large image files). Camera Raw captures the most picture information digitally, making it similar to working from not only a transparency but a large-format transparency at that.

However, if you do use a film-based camera, and you do choose to work from transparencies, be aware that if you examine transparencies on a light box, they will appear lighter than they will look when printed because they are back-lit. You have the same consideration when you’re evaluating images on a computer screen.

Resolution, Focus, and Depth of Field

One thing I have seen at various commercial printing plants is that if you start with a high enough megapixel image produced with a quality digital SLR (single lens reflex) camera, you can capture enough picture detail to be able to print the image on even grand-format inkjet equipment, large enough to create a mural. If you start with this good an original digital image, clearly you can produce large, crisp-focus images for your books and even posters.

Back in the ‘90s I learned all of this the hard way. I stated with a 35mm transparency and enlarged it for a poster. It was a promotional piece for a nonprofit educational foundation, and I hadn’t yet learned all of what I have noted above. I enlarged the image from 35mm to 18” x 24” poster size, and the film grain in the transparency became acutely visible. It looked like a pointillist painting (dot painting) or perhaps a mezzotint. Ouch.

A comparable flaw these days would be to start with a digital photo with too low an initial resolution and enlarge it (let’s say a 2” x 3” 72dpi image for the internet enlarged to a 4” x 5” format). You wouldn’t see film grain, as you would with a transparency, but you would definitely see pixellation (visible squares of color side by side making up the photo). This is one reason to always select a high-resolution image (300 dpi at the final size you intend to print it).

Flaws are always magnified, particularly if you enlarge the image. So the importance of choosing the highest quality photo pertains to image focus as well. If you start with either a film-based or digital image that is out of focus (or if your depth of field–the area of sharpest focus within a photo–is other than on your primary subject matter), the final printed product will be even more visibly blurred.

So What Can You Do?

Choose the image with the most picture data (digital or film). Make sure it is in crisp focus and the depth of field enhances the subject of the photo. Look at the image on a computer screen, but remember that the photos will appear lighter and the colors more saturated than they will once your commercial printing supplier has offset printed the job on paper.

Another thing you can do is check the images in Photoshop, analyzing their “histograms.” Histograms are vertical bar charts that show the number of pixels at a particular tone level from the darkest dark to the lightest light. You want a smooth curve with no gaps. You also don’t want either the shadow or highlight to be excessive (i.e., you don’t want the histogram chart to spike up at either end of the spectrum with too many completely white or completely black pixels).

Also, look for color casts, but don’t completely trust the accuracy of your (presumably uncalibrated) monitor in an uncontrolled (ambient lighting) environment (perhaps with a window, allowing the sun to change the colors on the screen throughout the day). Do a little research online to determine the proper histogram balance for the color channels (keep the Photoshop file in RGB–red, green, blue–format until you hand off the final, adjusted image to the printer in CMYK format). In this case you’re trying to avoid color imbalances: color casts. These show up on the online color densitometer readings, and on the internet you can find the proper Photoshop (RGB) amounts/percentages to keep all color channels in balance).

The Short Answer

So the best approach to avoid GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) is to give your printer the highest quality images (either film-based transparencies or high-megapixel digital images).

If there are any questions, I would encourage you to hand off the images to the printer for evaluation separately from the final art file submission (and with lots of lead time). A good prepress operator can look for all of the potential pitfalls I have enumerated and give you suggestions before you commit to final job files.

And then always ask for a physical color proof of any critical color work (like a poster or print book cover). If any of the flaws I have mentioned have slipped by, these will appear on a contract-quality color proof, and you can resolve the issues before offset printing your job.

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.

Why Use Halftones?

Offset printing is a binary process. Either you print ink in a particular place on your press sheet, or you print nothing. You can’t print a continuous tone image (either color or black and white) where black tones transition into gray tones and finally into white.

So how do you get images to look right on a commercial printing press?

Long before computer prepress and scanning devices existed, it was discovered that if you photographed a continuous tone photo through a glass sheet covered with a matrix of “cells” (like small, separate windows), this process would yield an image composed of dots. Depending on the lightness or darkness of the area represented, you could have a light area comprising many small dots or a dark area comprising many large dots.

Due to the regular position of the little “windows” on the halftone screen (the same number of lines of halftone dots, all lined up across and up and down on the screen), there was a constant and finite number of halftone dots. They were just larger or smaller in size, depending on whether they were in dark or light areas.

The number of halftone dots per linear inch was called the screen ruling. For reproducing images on thin, porous paper like newsprint, commercial printing suppliers would use coarse screens (85 lines per inch, for example). For coated paper, printers would use 133lpi or 150lpi screens (or even much higher rulings).

As the printing and prepress processes were computerized in the ’80s and ’90s, all of the above information pretty much continued to be true (albeit on a digital rather than analog level).

On the plus side, the human eye is very forgiving, and from a normal reading distance, the dots in the finer halftone screens (133lpi or 150lpi) cannot be seen easily, whereas the dots of the coarser halftone screens (85lpi) printed in newspapers are usually visible. Unfortunately, trying to print finer line screens on newsprint yields muddy images, since the absorbent nature of newsprint makes the halftone dots spread. Ink goes into the paper fibers and travels. Images look horrible. So you really do need the coarse (lower-number) halftone screens for cheaper paper.

Fortunately, coated printing paper allows the ink to dry on the surface of the press sheet (rather than seeping into the paper fibers), so the halftone dots can be smaller without spreading (they’re called “hard halftone dots”). But these harder-surfaced, coated press sheets are more expensive than lower-grade papers like newsprint, so high quality photos, in which you can barely see (or not see at all) the halftone dots, usually wind up in higher-end publications.

To keep you apprised of the printer’s lingo, this growth of printing dots is called “dot gain.” One way commercial printing vendors compensate for this is to print less ink by intentionally lightening the halftone screens (by slightly reducing the halftone dot sizes) so the printed output will be correct after the inevitable dot gain.

What About Color Images?

Back in the day, printers separated 4-color images into four distinct negatives, one for each of the commercial printing process colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Then the printers produced printing plates from these negatives. All of this was an analog, photographic process. Now, all of this is achieved digitally with scanners and computers, but the concept is the same. An image is scanned and then separated into the four process colors. These are then printed not to film but directly to custom printing plates, one for each color.

But here’s the trick. Each of these four separated images really is just one halftone, just like the halftone described above that is used for black and white images. The difference is that the four halftones for color printing are rotated at slightly different angles to one another. For example, one option is 15 degrees (cyan), 45 degrees (black), 75 degrees (magenta), and 90 degrees (yellow). Yellow dots are less visible, so they can be set closer to the angles of the other screens (15 degrees in this case). The best angle for viewing is 45 degrees (so it’s used here for the black plate).

Because of this distribution of the four halftone angles (just the halftone angles, not the printing plates themselves), once the image is printed, you will see a circular “rosette” pattern in the images if you use a 12-power printer’s loupe to magnify areas of the photos. These rosettes are the visual indication that the halftone screens have been rotated. And they appear larger or smaller depending on the size of the halftone dots in a particular area.

Another way to say this is that the rosettes are more visible in areas printed with more ink (dark areas) and less visible in areas that take less ink (lighter areas).

Dot Shape

These halftone dots can be a number of shapes, including round, square, and elliptical. Round dots are the norm (from very small to very large depending on the density of ink in a particular area). Elliptical dots, on the other hand, are very good for skin tones because as they grow in size (from small at the quarter-tones to larger at the three-quarter tones), the longer dimensions of the elliptical dots eventually touch each other, and this makes for smoother gradations in flesh tones.

(Square dots are good for detail work with lots of straight lines and angles.)

I’ll say this again because it’s very complex. But the overall concept is what’s important. The way elliptical dots touch at the long ends as they get larger (to allow for increased ink distribution) makes for smoother transitions in the tones of a human face. If you’re printing high-end glamour photos for Chanel, this is useful information indeed.

Amplitude-Modulated vs. Frequency-Modulated Screening

All of what I have been explaining is called “amplitude-modulated screening.” This just means the dots are all on a fixed grid (i.e., the same number of rows and columns of halftone dots in a 150lpi screen, for instance). They are just larger or smaller depending on the ink density.

In contrast, you can now use “frequency-modulated screening” or even a hybrid that blends both AM and FM screening. Frequency-modulated halftone screens are made up of equal-sized dots (minuscule ones). They’re all the same size, but where there’s a lot of color, there are a lot of small dots.

If you look closely at the output of an inkjet printer, you’ll see exactly this kind of pattern. In contrast, if you look at the output of a laser printer, you’ll see some version of amplitude-modulated halftone screening. Laser printers may not use the exact same screening angles as used for offset commercial printing. They may not even produce the same rosette patterns. But they are based on similar mathematical algorithms as those used for offset printing.


First, here’s the wording referenced by the acronyms above:

TAC=Total Area Coverage
UCR=Undercolor Removal
GCR=Grey Component Replacement

TAC means total area coverage. If you print 100 percent coverage of all four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) in one place on a press sheet (a high-density neutral area of a photograph), you could conceivably be printing 400 percent (100 percent x 4 colors) total ink coverage. Unfortunately, too much ink makes the offset lithographic process break down, and the paper also can’t handle that much ink (it gets too wet and comes apart). The ideal overall target might be 270 percent to 300 percent for all four colors, depending on your printer, the press, the paper, etc.

UCR means Undercolor Removal. This and GCR or Grey Component Replacement are ways to replace the cyan, magenta, and yellow in a photographic image with black. When you do this successfully, you achieve two things:

  1. You can use less ink. This reduces materials costs and ensures that there’s never too much ink anywhere on a press sheet (see above for the results of printing too much ink).
  2. When you create neutrals, or even gray areas, with cyan, magenta, and yellow, any misregister of the printing plates will cause color shifts and color casts. Replacing some of these hues with a percentage of black will minimize these color shifts significantly.

What You Can Learn From All of This

If your head hurts from all of this information, I apologize. That said, it doesn’t hurt to begin to understand the nuances of prepress and presswork. It will help you understand why you prepare design files for press the way you do. It will also help you make good choices regarding printing paper.

There are a lot of good textbooks out there that describe these technologies and their challenges. However, it’s even easier to find little booklets produced by custom printing suppliers and paper companies that give you this information in a condensed form (only what you need). The more you know, the better able you will be to discuss your commercial printing needs with both your sales rep and the pressmen actually printing your job.

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.

As source material for the collages, my fiancee had collected and silhouetted photos of the autistic members, and had also collected large sepia images from an oversized Italian fashion magazine as well as color photos and drawings from an advertising promotion print book.

What started as a fine arts project began to gradually expand into a graphic design project, as the autistic members and their parents and aides wrapped the images around the boxes, in various sizes, at various angles, and with various photo croppings. Some images were tightly cropped, with parts of models’ faces wrapped around the box corners or cut off entirely. In some cases the members even cut out words from the magazines and pasted them down, or glued Scrabble letters onto the clock shoe-boxes to spell words.

I observed, and I thought, and then I explained the following principles to help them with their artwork:.

Photo Cropping

Images can have a lot of space around the subject matter (such as a person’s face), or they can be “severely” cropped. That is, you can focus intently on one aspect of the face, such as the eyes, by cropping away everything else.

This concept is immediately transferable to publication design as well. (In your own work, whether you’re designing a brochure, logo, or print book cover, try different approaches to photos. Decide what you want the image to “say.” What’s the message you want to convey, and how can you most effectively make this statement by highlighting certain elements of the photo? If you’re doing this on a computer with an image editing application and a page design program, your ability to play with different approaches is enhanced (compared to my fiancee’s and my students’ approach with scissors and glue).

I also encouraged the members to run the photos off the edge of the boxes, and perhaps from one side of the shoe box onto an adjacent side.

This is relevant to publication design as well. In graphic design it’s called bleeding an image off the page, and what it does artistically is give the impression that the magazine, brochure, or print book page is larger and more opulent than if the photo did not bleed off the page (if the image is just surrounded by the white text page). The bleed gives the illusion that the image is much larger and that it actually extends off the page.

Photo Contrast

Much of what creates interest in either a work of fine art or a page in a graphic design project is the contrast between (or among) images. This contrast can be achieved in many ways:

  1. Contrast of size
  2. Contrast of color
  3. Contrast of content (simple vs. busy, for instance)
  4. Contrast in the edge treatment of the images (straight edges, torn edges, or shadows behind the images)

All of these were relevant in the creation of the autistic members’ clock collages on the shoe boxes, but they are also equally relevant in the design of a print book, brochure, poster, etc.

I suggested that the students start by choosing a larger image (perhaps a sepia or black and white one) for the background of the front of the clocks. The clock hands and numbers would eventually be placed over this large, dominant image. I suggested that they then choose smaller images (including their own photos which my fiancee had silhouetted) and other photos to position in various places over the larger photo (i.e., smaller shapes positioned over one unifying, larger shape).

The autistic members saw just how the smaller photos laid over the larger photos created a contrast in size, actually making the larger photos seem larger and the smaller photos seem smaller. A silhouette of a person looked small when superimposed over a sepia toned background. This created a sense of interest, balance, and movement. That’s what contrast does in a piece of fine art, but it’s also what it does in a graphic design piece like a print book cover.

I noted that the sepia toned photos were “desaturated.” They lacked intense color. Therefore, the members could create contrast, interest, and movement with small color photos laid over the larger, less intense images. The intense hues of the smaller color images would catch the viewer’s eye first.

The same is true for designing a poster or any other graphic design piece.

Now for contrast in content. One of the members found a color photo of a hand and placed it over a much larger sepia toned photo that included a number of people. The difference between the busy background photo and the simple elegance of the hand photo made for an interesting contrast.

Finally, I encouraged the members to tear the photos. I noted that this created random, irregular photo edges that might be interesting when laid over straight-edged photos—again, a contrast between the simple and regular and the varied and jagged.

Moreover, I told the members, parents, and aides about line direction: vertical lines imply stability; horizontal lines suggest peace and tranquility; and diagonal lines give a sense of movement and energy to an artistic piece.

Again, the same is true for graphic design.

Now contrast by itself is just a trick. I strongly encouraged the members to use the contrast to set up an intentional direction of eye movement through and across the various sides of their clock collages, using such attributes as strong color or interesting photo cropping to draw the eye to certain elements of the design first, second, third, and so forth.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

The first thing to learn is that successful graphic design and successful fine art are based on similar (or even the same) principles. You can learn a lot by going to the art museum or studying fine art print books along with your design textbooks. In fact, you might want to study the following artists: Piet Mondrian, Toulouse Lautrec, and Andy Warhol, all of whom pursued careers in both graphic design and fine art. If you keep an open mind, you’ll learn a lot.

Another thing to learn is that contrast elicits interest in a piece of fine art or a graphic design. You can contrast size, color, edge treatment, or the amount of activity in photos. But for this not to become a trick of the eye, it’s important to consider the message you’re conveying and how you want the reader’s eye to travel through the fine art piece, poster, brochure, print book page spread, or whatever. Ask yourself the following. How can your treatment of the images reinforce the statement you’re making?

Another thing to learn is that the more you look, the more you will see. If you like a billboard you see while driving, ask yourself why. What is the message it conveys, and how do the various graphic elements reinforce this message? If you like a poster, brochure, or print book page spread, ask yourself the same questions.

Also, since our world is becoming increasingly visual, with YouTube apparently surpassing Google as the primary search engine, consider the use of photos online, in commercial printing, and even in photo collage. (By the way, the collage work our autistic students were doing is called photo compositing in the graphic design world. The main difference is that graphic designers do the compositing in Photoshop on a computer rather than by hand with magazine photos, scissors, and glue.)

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.


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