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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 ‘Proofing’ Category

Commercial Printing: What You Can and Can’t Proof?

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

In this day and age, one would expect to be able to accurately proof anything and everything. You can get an inkjet proof of a banner (perhaps in a smaller size than the final product), and it will be color faithful. You can request digital bluelines of a book that will be offset printed. In fact, you can even get a single copy of a digitally printed book (cover and text) that will be exactly the same as the final copies your printer will deliver.

I thought about this recently when a print brokering client received a digital proof of a foil stamped case-side for her annual hard-cover directory, a 576-page tome on government and Congress. Clearly, a digital proof of such a physical process as foil stamping would be several steps removed from the accuracy I had grown to expect. Then again, in prior years she had received no proof, just a foil stamped case without its book.

The whole process made me think of what proofing processes were more accurate and which were less so.

Spot-On Proofs

Any proof printed with the same color set as the final product will be very close to accurate. I qualify that because the substrate will make a difference, and not all digital proofs are produced on the same paper as the final job. For instance, if you specify a warm press sheet (yellowish-white) and the digital proof is produced on a cool-white (blue-white) paper, the ink colors in the final printed product will be different from what you will see in the proof.

Moreover, this level of color accuracy assumes that the digital proof (produced with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inkjet inks) will be followed by either an offset press run using the process colors or a digital press run (which either uses only 4-color process inks or augments this initial color set with a few more hues).

If your final offset printed product will be produced with spot colors (also known as PMS colors or match colors), the proof will not exactly match the final product. For instance, my book print brokering client, noted above, will have a dust jacket on her case-bound book. It will be offset printed with one PMS color plus black. The proof she received used CMYK inkjet inks to simulate the green PMS color. The proof showed the placement of all design elements and color but was not color faithful. It was only a close approximation.

A similar situation occurs when you proof a duotone. If you create a duotone on press using a halftone of black and a halftone of a PMS color, your digital proof (which uses a CMYK color set) will not match the final printed duotone.

So What Can You Do?

Fortunately, there are things you can do to avoid a huge surprise when your books, brochures, or other jobs arrive from your printer.


While you can’t proof a duotone accurately, there are books you can review and online color curves you can apply to a particular halftone. In this case, you’re basically choosing a sample of what you like and then recreating the duotone by copying the Photoshop “levels” or “curves” settings for both the black halftone and the PMS color halftone that comprise the duotone. Depending on the quality of your initial photo, this will be more or less color faithful, but it’s still a gamble.

Plan B is to attend a press check on-site at the printer’s plant. This way, you can talk with the press operator to discuss your goals and then make minor color changes on press while the job is running. This can be expensive. Furthermore, you may just not be able to achieve the exact results you want. Or, and even better, send a printed sample of a duotone image to your printer to show him the exact effect you’re after. Then let him adjust the actual photo from your print job to match the sample.

Foil Stamping Proof

To get back to my client’s case-bound book, reviewing the digital proof of the case side is prudent because it shows exactly where the foil stamping will be positioned on the book’s front cover, back cover, and spine. This way there’s no chance of any text element’s being too close to the edge of the book.

After that, seeing a copy of the foil stamped case side before the book blocks are hung on the binder’s boards will avoid any shock of seeing an error on the final printed and bound job. While my client would have to pay for a new die and for an additional foil stamping process if she found an error, she would not have to tear the covers off the books and redo the covers. (In this situation, reviewing a single foil stamped case side is like reviewing a single F&G—a folded and gathered but not bound or trimmed book. You’re just seeking to avoid any horrible shock before the job is completely done.)

What’s the Final Take-Away?

What this really teaches us is that no proof is an exact replica of the final job (except a digital proof of a digitally printed job produced on the final stock).

Here are some rules of thumb:

  1. The closer the substrate of the proof is to the substrate of the final job, the more accurate the proof will be.
  2. The more closely the final printing process is to that of the proof, the more accurate the proof will be (digital proof to digital final press run).
  3. And the more closely the inks used in the proof resemble the inks used in the final printed product (CMYK proof and CMYK final), the more closely your proof will match your final job.

Beyond that, the best you can do is state clearly your goals for the final printed product and then back up this description with samples of other printed jobs you like. It’s always a bit of a gamble.

Commercial Printing: Proofing Options

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Here are some options from which you may choose when proofing anything from a print book to a brochure. Some are more expensive, some less, but in all cases it’s wise to first decide what you are trying to see on the proof and then think about price.

Paper Dummy (or Folding Dummy)

It never hurts to see an unprinted (but folded and trimmed) sample of your custom printing product on the actual paper stock. Your printer usually doesn’t create a folding dummy himself (although he might do so); usually his paper merchant does this. And it’s usually free.

Virtual Proof (Also Called a Screen Proof or Soft Proof)

These are the least expensive proofs. You view them online through such computer portals as InSite or Rampage Remote. Besides the price, one benefit is that no physical proof travels from the custom printing supplier to you and back. This can shave a lot of time off the production schedule.

In addition, these are “post-RIP proofs.” Your printer has already turned all PostScript vector data (lines and curves) into bitmapped data the platesetter can read. It is extremely unlikely that any unforeseen technical errors will occur after this point (such as font substitution or any other flaws). What you see on the proof is what you’ll get in the final press run.

That said, I’d be careful about approving color on a soft proof. Usually a commercial printing vendor will not certify accurate color on a virtual proof. In addition, your monitor may be out of calibration, or you may be viewing the file in different ambient lighting than your printer (i.e., sunlight coming through the window, no sunlight because it’s nighttime, etc.).

Low-Quality Inkjet Proofs

One of the printers I work with calls these “Level 3” proofs to distinguish them from the higher quality “Level 1” proofs. You can check completeness and position of images and text elements with these proofs, as well as the margins and trim of your job. They’re inexpensive and useful but not adequate for proofing color work. Some printers also call these “plotter proofs” because they’re plotted as large, low-res flats on inkjet equipment and then folded down into press signatures.

High Quality Inkjet Proofs

Many printers will use the name of the inkjet printer in their description of such a proof. These are the “Level 1” proofs noted above. They are more expensive than a plotter proof; however, they are still only continuous tone inkjet proofs (not halftone dot proofs).

One of my clients recently saw some pixellation on a few Level 3 proof pages of a print book she had sent to press. The printer then produced Level 1 proofs of these pages. The pixellation disappeared due to the higher quality of the proof. Problem solved.

These high-resolution, high quality proofs are good for ensuring an exact color match in a job. For a color critical job, it’s smart to request both a plotter proof and a high-quality contract proof (an Epson, an HP, a Fuji, or whatever other “contract” proofing device the your custom printing supplier owns).

Halftone Dot Proofs

The Kodak Approval is an example of a proofing device that simulates the actual halftone dot patterns that you will see on an offset press. It is a laminate-based, laser imaging system that can print CMYK and spot colors. The Approval prints donor sheets, which then transfer the images to the actual custom printing paper. This is especially good for producing one-off packaging proofs on the actual stock to be used. Another benefit of such a proof is that it will reflect such artifacts as “moire” patterns, undesirable conflicts between halftone screens and patterns within the images, which you cannot see on a continuous tone inkjet proof.

Not many printers have these proofing devices, and the proofs are expensive. Similar dot proofing machines include the Fuji FinalProof and Kodak/Creo Spectrum.

Digital Proofs

If your job will print on an HP Indigo digital press (or a Xeikon), your proof can be produced using the actual press. If you’re custom printing a job via offset lithography, all of your proofing options except for a press proof provide only a close simulation of the final product. In contrast, if you’re printing your job digitally, the proof is an exact copy of the final digital product.

Proofs for Variable Data Jobs

Let’s say your job is an invitation or brochure that is personalized for every recipient. How do you make sure all the names and addresses are correct? You can either request virtual proofs of some (or all) of the addresses, or you can ask for hard-copy proofs. Keep in mind that for such a job you will be using a digital press (like the HP Indigo), so what you see is what you will get.

Proofs of Die Cut Jobs

Let’s say you’re producing a packaging job and you want to see one copy of the job to make sure that the color is accurate, the placement of all images and text is correct, and the die cutting will be done right. This is the time to ask for a packaging comp. If your printer has a digital diecutting machine (one that uses digital information rather than a metal die to cut the paper stock), he can usually print a copy of the art right on the comp, and then cut, fold, and glue the sample as it comes off the digital press and the digital cutter.

Offset Press Proofs

Trust me. You don’t want to do this. It’s extremely expensive to actually fire up the press to produce a press proof. That said, if your book cover includes a duotone made with two spot colors, a press proof is the only way to actually see the PMS colors on the actual stock. For some custom printing jobs, this is worth the expense—but not for many, given all the other proofing options available.

Custom Printing: Sappi Addresses Color Management

Monday, May 28th, 2012

After reviewing The Sappi Standard #5, I checked out the Sappi website and found another booklet entitled The Sappi Standard #2, Managing Color. I thought this would contain useful information, so I ordered the print book, and I wanted to share it with you.

Although the book addresses ways to extend the color gamut with touch plates, ink substitution, and hybrid 6-color printing, I think it’s most useful information pertains to controlling color from the monitor to the inkjet proofer or laser printer to the final offset printed copy.

Without color management, you will have no idea whether what you see on your monitor will match what you see on press. That’s scary, given the high cost of mistakes in custom printing. The goal, as the Sappi book notes, is to coordinate the color profiles (ways color is defined on each piece of equipment in the design and printing chain) and map these to each other and to an objective standard, so that a job printed anywhere in the world will match the same job printed anywhere else.

That is, not only should the soft proof on the designer’s computer monitor (rendered in the RGB color space) match the output of the commercial printing vendor’s inkjet proofing device, but the printer’s inkjet proofer should also be “fingerprinted” to his offset press. But color management should go even further. The printer’s press should be calibrated to an objective standard (such as G7). Presumably, all G7-certified print shops will come up with visually identical (in terms of perceptible color information) print products regardless of the press equipment they use.

The Sappi promotional print book, Standard #2, Managing Color, could easily be 500 pages of dense technical material. (The book is actually very short, but there’s that much information in this area of prepress.) That said, here are a few concepts to get you started in your own research into color management.


Images rendered on a monitor use red, green, and blue light to produce a given hue. In contrast, images produced on a laser printer, inkjet printer, or offset press employ the process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to create a given color. Since the RGB color gamut is larger than the CMYK gamut (more reproducible colors), software must adjust “out-of-gamut” colors, mapping them to the next closest reproducible CMYK build when converting from the initial on-screen image to the file that your commercial printing supplier will print on his offset press. By doing this, the color mapping software must compress the color gamut (from the larger RGB color space to the smaller, press-ready CMYK color space).

Color Management

Color management software can measure, in numeric form, the perceived colors visible on a scanner, monitor, proofing device, or printer. This data file, called an ICC device profile, describes the behavior of color on that specific scanner, monitor, proofer, or press. These profiles can then be compared and adjusted to ensure consistency from one device to another.

What Is G7?

G7 is a standard, a protocol of sorts, that allows commercial printing suppliers across the world to match the output from their proofing and custom printing devices. According to the Sappi color management book, they do this by “defining the gray balance and neutral print density curves.” That is, they reference the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black halftone dot area used to produce a neutral gray color on a device.

It’s All Up to You

All of this becomes either very abstract or very scary. Eventually, you, the designer, must take responsibility for the color on your computer and monitor to ensure that the color you see will be the color you get in your final printed product.

The Sappi Standard #2, Managing Color gives you a list of what you need to do:

  1. Request your offset or digital printer’s ICC color profile. Your goal will be to match this offset or digital press characterization to your own system.
  2. Use off the shelf software and hardware to measure and characterize (or profile) the elements of your design system (particularly your monitor and inkjet printer).
  3. Do this every two weeks (or at least calibrate your monitor and inkjet printer once a month).
  4. Remember that monitors will change their ability to render colors as they age, and each device will have a different color profile (even monitors of the same make and model).
  5. Keep the area surrounding your design workstation visually neutral (gray or muted colors in the background) so as not to affect your perception of on-screen color.
  6. Remember that ambient light in your design studio, such as sunlight, will affect your perception of color as well as contrast.
  7. Paper weight and quality will affect color rendition. The more ink the paper can hold, the more faithful the color will be.

My Personal Advice

Color management is difficult to master. Personally, I’d always request a hard-copy proof for a color critical job. Make sure the proofing device is fingerprinted to the press (your commercial printing supplier will know what this means). You want to make sure your printer can match the proof you see to the final offset printed product.

If you don’t like the proof, just be happy that you caught the problem before your job went to press. Consider the cost of a proof an investment in the success of the job rather than an expense.

If the color on the proof is wrong (or the image has a color cast), adjust the original files, and then request another hard-copy proof. When the proof meets your standards, then and only then give your custom printing vendor the approval to go to press.

Custom Printing Options for Creating and Proofing PDFs

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

We are inundated with PDFs today. Almost every application you own can create a Portable Document Format file, from OpenOffice to Microsoft Word to Adobe Acrobat. But if you are a graphic designer, how do you know that the PDF you are creating for your commercial printer is appropriate for the target offset or digital printing technology? How do you know your job won’t go horribly wrong?

What Is PDF/X, and How Does It Differ from PDF?

Those PDF files you can distill from standard office applications can include a multitude of options (including such features as hyperlinks or dynamic forms) that don’t pertain to custom printing. In the case of digital and offset printing, you actually need fewer rather than more features. You need to limit your options to ensure accurate results.

Enter PDF/X. PDF/X is a subset of standard PDF that addresses such graphics exchange issues as “output intent” (the conditions for the final custom printing device), color management, definition of the printable area including trim and bleed specifications, and “active content” issues (essentially the exclusion of rich media such as audio and video, and interactive features such as comments and forms).

Here are some of the options explained one at a time. A book could be written about this information, so consider this just a starting point for discussion with your commercial printer.

  1. Printing Conditions: This includes color and ink data targets, one of which might be “CGATS TR 001 SWOP,” which refers to a specific collection of “Specifications for Web Offset Publications” (SWOP). These standards addresses such custom printing issues as color separation, screen angles, total area coverage of ink, undercolor removal, gray component replacement, color and ink data targets, and proofing processes, to name just a few. In short, these variables address how your final job will look and with what technology it will be printed.
  2. Color Management: This specification focuses on the color space of the print job, including whether it is CMYK and whether it includes spot color information. Data on the ICC profiles (i.e., the color profiles for the custom printing job) can be addressed as well, along with any information on calibrated (color managed) RGB elements (in most cases, of course, your offset job will be CMYK and/or a spot color rather than RGB).
  3. Definition of the Printable Area: This specification includes information on the “Media Box, Trim Box, Art Box, and Bleed Box.” All of these pertain to the job size and format and whether and how the ink will bleed off the page.
  4. Active Content: PDF/X will omit the following from your print-ready files: embedded audio and video, signatures, interactive forms and comments, and other PDF features that are appropriate for the exchange of inter-office documents or forms but that don’t pertain to offset and digital custom printing.

Flavors of PDF/X

To complicate matters within this technical arena, PDF/X comes in many varieties (including PDF/X-1a, PDF/X-3, PDF/X-4, and PDF/X-5g. Most of the variables used in determining which of these sub-specifications to use involve:

  1. whether the transfer from the designer to the commercial printer is “blind,” (i.e., requires no intervention by the printer)
  2. the extent of the acceptable color information (CMYK plus spot colors, vs. other color spaces)
  3. issues such as transparency
  4. issues such as whether the PDF can reference graphics outside the PDF (usually, the PDF includes all fonts and graphics, but some of the alternative PDF/X formats allow printer replacement of graphics).

Ask Your Commercial Printer for Help

In most cases, you will probably only distill PDF files for print as PDF/X-1a compliant. You will probably also limit the color space in your job to only CMYK plus spot color. And you will probably embed all fonts.

It is essential that you discuss the various PDF options (PDF/X-1a, PDF/X-3, and such) with your commercial printer to make sure you set up your PDF document correctly. Different printers use different PDF workflows for various kinds of work (offset printing vs. digital printing vs. packaging printing). Finding a trusted and knowledgeable prepress operator within your custom printing vendor’s shop can save you stress and disappointment. In addition, your commercial printer can preflight your files to ensure that they are PDF/X compliant.

Reviewing a PDF Proof

Many people ask me what the difference is between the PDF they submit to their printer and the PDF proof they see if they request only a screen proof (virtual proof).

The difference between your PDF and the proof is that the proof has passed through the printer’s RIP (raster image processor) and has been converted from the curves and arcs of PostScript into a bitmapped format understandable by the platesetter.

To ensure accuracy, when you review a PDF proof from your commercial printer, you will need to check any logos you have placed in the file as well as any special type characters (such as the trademark symbol ™ and copyright symbol). You will also need to confirm that there was no reflow of copy (i.e., none of the type has moved from column to column or from page to page).

Beyond this list of things to check, your job should be fine as long as you have correctly embedded all fonts in the distilled PDF file. (Basically, any problems introduced between the submission of your PDF file and your receipt of the commercial printer‘s PDF proof should be confined to these areas.)

Commercial Printers: The Right Proof at the Right Time

Monday, February 27th, 2012

There are a lot of proofing options. Clearly. You have inkjet, laser, press proofs, and on-screen soft proofs. Which do you use and when?

Proofing Options: Choosing Color Fidelity vs. Speed

I like to think of the four proofing methods as a set of complementary tools. Each has attributes the others don’t. The first variable to consider is your need for color fidelity.

A screen proof, virtual proof, or PDF proof is the least faithful to the color on press. Even though a computer monitor can be calibrated to match an offset press, the image on screen is composed of red, blue, and green light, while the color on press consists of various percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink. When mixed, red, blue, and green light create white. In contrast, CMYK inks mixed in equal amounts yield black. So, in general, I’d advise against matching color from monitor to press.

That said, soft proofs are great for checking the completeness of a page (confirming that all elements are present), the margin, trim, folios, etc. And they show up immediately since your commercial printer sends them over the Internet. The same cannot be said for hard-copy proofs, which depend on FedEx, the mail, or a courier for transport.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, high-resolution inkjet proofs have the greatest color fidelity. You can easily identify them since most will come to you on thick, gloss stock. With a loupe, you will see that images are made up of tiny spots of color, unlike the traditional rosettes of halftone dots, which you’ll see with a loupe on an offset printed piece.

These proofs are almost continuous tone in appearance. They are fingerprinted to the commercial printer’s press, so they are just about as color faithful as you can get. They are expensive, but if they keep you from making a mistake in color, you can consider the expense to be more of an investment. Choose these for photos, advertising proofs, and the like.

Laser proofs are good for checking copy position and completeness. You can see where all design elements will fall on a page. These low-res proofs are called “position proofs,” in contrast to the ink jet proofs, which are called “contract proofs” (because they are a contract between your custom printing vendor and you, committing the commercial printer to match the color on press).

Press proofs (which are either a separate press run of your job to yield a small number of “test” copies, or an actual press inspection you attend while the live job prints) are completely color faithful. This is true “WYSIWIG” (what you see is what you get). You can tweak color on press if you attend a press inspection. However, any major color changes will require new printing plates (which will add to the cost of the job).

Putting All the Proofs Together: A Case Study

Here’s a case study of a book I designed. This explanation will show when to use which kind of proofs.

The Job Specifications

The book had a four-color cover with ads on the inside front, inside back, and back covers. After the cover came the four-color front matter (44 pages of ads and client photos), and then a two-color directory (a listing of companies with company descriptions, contact names, and phone and web information).

The Selection of Proofs

I received an inkjet proof of the cover and front matter. Both were produced on thick, gloss stock, with pages taped together into four-page signatures. The color was created with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inkjet inks. The proof was to be considered a “contract proof” (and it was, in fact, color faithful).

For the directory pages, I received a color laser proof (printed on both sides of the sheet—unlike the inkjet proofs—and bound into 16-page signatures plus one 4-page signature). With a loupe I could see a dot pattern (but not a rosette) showing that the PMS color had been simulated with CMYK toners on a laser printer. The proof did not show an actual PMS color (the directory portion of the book was to be a two-color print job) since proofing devices can only simulate match colors with process color builds.

The color was way off, but since I had specified a match color (PMS 2607) plus black ink, I knew that the proof color didn’t matter. I just needed to check the color breaks (confirm that all elements were noted either in color, or black, as appropriate) and the position and completeness of the copy. On press, the commercial printer would add pre-mixed PMS 2607 ink to one press unit, regardless of how the proof colors looked.

There were errors in the front matter. Four ads that had been surrounded with rule lines when I submitted the InDesign file no longer had rules around them. All color work, on the other hand, was completely color-faithful. So I asked the commercial printer to put the rule lines back into the file.

(We were working with InDesign files for the front matter and cover, due to their complexity, and a press-ready PDF for the directory, since it was simple text on the page. Therefore, I asked the printer to make the corrections to the front matter himself. For any changes to the directory, I would have just sent the custom printing supplier a new press-ready PDF.)

Since the commercial printer would be adjusting the InDesign file by adding rule lines around the ads, I needed to see proofs. I wanted to make sure nothing else happened to the files. All of the other changes had to do with alignment of pages (related to trimming of the proof rather than positioning of the art on the page). I didn’t need to see proofs of these pages.

Since I had approved the color in the first set of proofs, and since time was of the essence, I requested PDF proofs of only the affected pages (not the entire front matter section). This way, the commercial printer would be responsible for the accuracy of all pages other than the four new PDF pages I had requested.

Once the inkjet, laser, and PDF proofs had been approved, any further proofing would have required a press check. Since the job only required “pleasing color” and not “critical color,” I decided not to request a press check.

In addition, since an approved inkjet proof is a “contract proof,” the commercial printer was contractually bound to match the color, content, trim, margins, etc., of the inkjet proof of the front matter of the book. If a problem had occurred, it would have been the commercial printer’s responsibility to correct it.

Printing Companies: Limits of Digital Color Proofing

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

A close friend emailed me a commercial printing blog comment asking whether any proofing device could really match ink colors on press. Not just close, but dead-on.

I thought about this and did some research. This raises a number of interesting issues.

How Many Colors Can Be Reproduced?

All offset printing presses create color with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink. Because of this, only certain colors can be reproduced on press, far fewer colors than can be perceived by the eye or reproduced on a color monitor in the RGB (red-green-blue) color space.

That said, some commercial printers augment this color set with additional inks. These can include a “touch-plate,” a single extra PMS color in a fifth ink unit used to improve the fidelity of greens or purples in a large format print poster, for example. Other options can include “hexachrome” or similar color ink sets that employ CMYK inks plus orange and green (or two other colors). In these cases, the custom printing vendor seeks to expand the color range on press to match more colors visible to the eye (the vibrant colors in nature, for instance).

Colors on a computer monitor are created with red, green, and blue light and therefore (without adjustment) do not match CMYK ink colors on press.

Colors on proofing devices are also created with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink, but manufacturers have augmented this ink set with such colors as light magenta, light cyan, various black inks, sometimes orange and green, and sometimes even red, green, and blue (but not all at once). The goal is to reproduce more colors (again, such as the vibrant colors in nature) and, more specifically, to match press output more accurately.

Color Management Improves Color Matching

All of these devices treat color somewhat differently, so to make color more consistent across the various devices, color management was born. Essentially, using various light, ink density, and color reading instrumentation, a commercial printer can measure the output of the inkjet and color laser proofing devices as well as the monitors and the offset presses.

The next step is to create color curves that “map” the color of one device to that of another. Think of this as a universal translator that can avoid a “tower of babble” situation. The color management device curves make it possible to consistently predict and control the translation of color information as it travels from the monitors in the client’s office (if they have been calibrated) to the monitors in the commercial printer’s prepress department, to the inkjet proofing device, to the offset press.

If all of the equipment is dutifully maintained and recalibrated regularly, this works in theory. This makes it possible to produce a proof and assure a client that the proof will match the final output on press.

Fingerprinting the Proof to the Press

Many custom printers fingerprint the proof to the press. That is, since they have set up the press to produce colors optimally with four-color process inks (and accounting for such offset-printing challenges as press dot gain, which can affect colors), the commercial printers then adjust their digital proofing devices to match their presses as closely as possible.

(So in theory, at this point, the proof matches the offset press product. However, the press sheet must also match the substrate on which the proof has been produced. Ink on a cream press sheet will not match inkjet ink on a white proofing stock.)

Better Yet, Depend on Color Management Standards

A better (just my opinion) option would be to match both the offset press color and the inkjet proofer color to an objective color standard, such as G7 or GRACoL. While it could take a book to explain either of these standards, the important point is that if a commercial printer’s inkjet proofer and offset press match an objective standard, then the color within his custom printing work will match that of other commercial printers’ work.

Screening Patterns Are Different from Proof to Print

Inkjet proofing output is composed of minuscule spots of color. Offset printing images are built with halftone screens of the process colors tilted slightly relative to one another, thus creating “rosette” dot patterns. These screening processes are different. This will affect the color match. Only by using true halftone dot proofing (like the Kodak Approval) can you match proof to press exactly.

Flaws in Certain Proofing Devices

Some proofing devices are less accurate in yellow/orange and some in violet. Ask your commercial printer about the limits of his color proofer.

Pleasing Color vs. Critical Color

There are two mutually exclusive objectives in achieving color on press: “critical color” and “pleasing color.”

Critical color implies an absolute color match. For example, if you need to match a fabric color for a clothing catalog, you would bring a sample of the cloth to a press inspection and ask the pressman to match the color. Critical color would be required for photos of automotive, food, and fashion products.

Pleasing color has a little more latitude. This is when the color has to be good, but not dead on.

In-Line Conflicts

In addition, keep in mind that any pages that are “in-line” (above or below one another on a press sheet) will be affected by any changes to in-line color information on press. Changing an ad on one page will affect a photo or background tint on the page immediately above or below it on the press sheet.

Are InkJet Proofs Accurate?

So where does this huge amount of information leave us? For an inkjet proof to be accurate:

  1. A printer’s inkjet proofing device, press, and monitors must be consistently monitored and calibrated to a standard like G7 or GRACoL (or the proofing device must be regularly fingerprinted to the press).
  2. Dot gain on press will need to be taken into account.
  3. The proofing and printing paper stocks will need to match.
  4. The limits of the color gamut (CMYK vs. other expanded ink sets in many proofing devices) must be understood.

When In Doubt, Nothing Beats a Press Check

When in doubt, nothing is as good as a press check. Only ink on paper can give you an absolutely color-faithful idea of how the final output will look.

(Then again, even that will look different under different kinds of light: fluorescent, incandescent, sunlight.)

So the safest bet is to say that a commercial printer will come as close as possible to matching proof to print, based on his equipment and color management, but that no proof is perfect and that most printing involves a certain level of compromise.

Print Buyers: Anticipate Production Problems to Avoid Them in Printing Process

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

They say that timing is everything, and in print buying this is especially true. It is essential to think ahead and plan for all contingencies. Here are two diverse case studies to illustrate my point.

Consider the Choice of Cover Coating

One of my print brokering clients is producing a client directory. Last year the printer coated the cover with a film laminate to protect the print book and provide a gloss sheen. This year my client wants to coat the covers again but is not sure whether to request film laminate or UV coating. Here are their requirements:


  1. The coating process cannot slow down the production of the print book, since it is behind schedule.
  2. The coating should minimize fingerprinting of the directory.
  3. The overall look should be congruent with last year’s directory.
  4. The cost of the coating is less of an issue.


For starters, the book printer is different this year. It’s understandable that this vendor owns slightly different equipment and therefore offers different in-house capabilities. This book printer can apply UV coating in-house. However, applying film laminate or liquid laminate would require subcontracting this part of the job.

It would take three days to complete this outsourced work. Granted, the book printer could produce the covers and send them out to be coated while he completed the text pages of the print book. Thus, this process would not necessarily add production time to the overall schedule.

The cost for 2,100 books is approximately $350.00 for UV coating and $650.00 for film lamination. Based on my client’s requirements, this cost alone would not determine the choice of coating materials, but it is a benefit (and logical) that the in-house procedure costs a bit less. More importantly, it is also under the control of the custom printing vendor. He does not need to depend on anyone outside his printing plant.

Since the coating needs to minimize fingerprinting, the gloss UV option is appropriate. Being less reflective than gloss film lamination, UV coating will show less fingerprinting. I asked the book printer about dull film laminate and dull UV coating and was told that either of them would show fingerprinting more than the gloss options.

Fortunately, the cover design this year has a white background, while last year’s cover background was black. Heavy black ink coverage paired with a gloss film laminate actually increases fingerprinting problems.

The client ultimately chose UV coating performed in-house under the control of the book printer. UV coating cures immediately under UV light, thus eliminating drying time.

Request F&G’s and Check Cover Press Sheets

Another client of mine is a professional photographer. She is producing a coffee-table book of photos of flowers paired with famous quotations. The print book needs to be of the highest quality. To be safe, I suggested that she request an F&G of the book (folded and gathered signatures handed off for approval prior to binding—essentially a press proof). If one signature had printing problems, that signature alone could be reprinted without needing to tear off the covers, reprint a signature, then rebind and retrim the book (smaller than the initial version and potentially less attractive).

This F&G review would benefit the client (who would see actual ink on paper, a version more faithful to the final job than any inkjet proof could be). It would also benefit the book printer. (If the client caught an error for which the custom printing vendor had been responsible, it would take less time and fewer materials to correct the problem.)

The Problem

There was a big error. A page was printed upside down. On the front of a page (the recto, even-numbered, or right-hand page) the folio (page number) was at the bottom of the page. On the back of the same leaf (the verso, odd-numbered, or left-hand page) the folio was at the top of the page. This error would have occurred during imposition (the prepress process of laying out the pages on a printing plate such that once the press sheet has been printed and folded, the pages will be in the right order–as clearly they were not).

Without question, it was a printer error (and therefore the custom printing vendor’s responsibility to correct). To add to the problem, the printer had not included a copy of the print book cover along with the F&G, and at the time I learned of this, my client was 18 hours away from leaving town for a week’s photo shoot.

The Solution

The client had lost a little confidence in the book printer due to the misprinted signature. She planned to drive to the printing plant (a four-hour round trip) the day before her week-long trip to see a cover press sheet. Otherwise, she thought she would spend the entire upcoming photo shoot worrying about the job. She really didn’t need this stress.

So I arranged for a courier to pick up a press sheet at the custom printing plant and deliver it to my client’s house the afternoon prior to her trip.

I also asked the book printer to reprint the signature with the inverted page and maintain the same color control as in the first printing (using automated color presets from the first printing). My client saw the cover sheet when it arrived. She loved the printing. She agreed to release the book to the printer to reprint the problematic signature and bind the job.

The Lesson

Don’t assume that problems won’t occur, even with the best of book printers or commercial printers. Requesting an F&G helps both you and your printer if problems arise. Even if the error is your responsibility and you need to pay for a reprinted signature, it will cost a little less and provide a better product, which won’t need to be re-trimmed to a smaller size.

Printing Case Study: Proofing Cycles for Critical Color Images

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

The following case study may give you insight into options for proofing offset custom printing jobs, whether they be digests, books, catalogs, magazines, or any other signature work. For that matter, I think even smaller jobs like fold-over cards, brochures, and such, might benefit from this proofing workflow.

The Job Parameters

My client is producing a book of photos of flowers. Each left-hand page is a full-page image, and each right-hand page is a quote from a famous author. You could envision this as a meditation or contemplation book, intended to provoke thought and reflection by the reader. The format is 6” x 6”. The book is 190+ pages at this point, and it will be perfect bound.

My client had initially produced eight separate fold-over notecard designs, each with a photo on the front and a quotation on the back. The cards had a short press run (500 copies of each) and therefore were best suited to the printer’s HP Indigo digital press. This job, the perfect bound print book, will need to complement the photo cards, but will be printed via offset lithography. Why? Because it is a high-page-count book with a 1,000-copy press run, thus not a good candidate for economical digital printing.

The Goal: Critical Color

Unlike many other custom printing jobs, the goal of this job is not “pleasing color” but “critical color.” Pleasing color implies more tolerance for color shifts. Critical color implies none. Critical color work would include food, automotive, and fashion photography (and, in this case, custom printing for a professional flower photographer).

Furthermore, the client had color corrected on-screen the 90 photos comprising the print book. The monitor had been calibrated. The ambient room light had been controlled. But the images had not been physically printed prior to the job. In addition, since the images had been color corrected within the RGB color space (with a larger color gamut than CMYK) and then converted to CMYK for proofing and final offset custom printing, it was especially important for the client to see repeated series of proofs until she was happy. Anything less would risk having the final offset printed product both surprise and displease her.

The First Proofing Cycle

Under the circumstances, I suggested an initial series of Epson proofs of the photos only, plus the front matter and one quotation page. The text pages would give my client the overall “look” of the book, but for this first series of proofs, the goal was really to establish the correctness of the color in the flower photos. For a 190-page print book (half photos and half quotations), this meant just under 100 pages of photo proofs at $1.00 a page, well worth the money.

The Epson inkjet printer at this particular custom printing vendor had been “fingerprinted” to their offset press. (That is, it had been calibrated to provide the closest possible color match between the proofing device and the press. It was color calibrated regularly and therefore provided a benchmark standard that was considered a “contract proof.”

My client found errors in approximately half the images. Ostensibly this was due to color shifts in the conversion from RGB to CMYK for both inkjet output and final offset custom printing. RGB colors that have no exact match within the CMYK color space (since it is a smaller color space) shift to the next closest CMYK color during the conversion process. Also, the Epson proofs were my client’s first hard-copy proofs, and there really is a difference between color produced on-screen with light and color printed on paper with ink or dyes. So having half the images correct on the first try really was quite good.

The Next Proofing Cycle

I gave my client a choice for the next proofing cycle. She could have another set of Epson proofs or an Indigo proof. The Indigo proof might look better. The color would be close to that of the final offset printed output but not quite as close as the output from the Epson proofer. However, the printer could produce a trimmed sample book on the Indigo (unbound, but exactly accurate to size, on paper comparable to the final offset custom printing output).

Unfortunately, there might be some dot gain on the Indigo. The xerographic dots of the Indigo (amplitude modulated, similar to offset press halftone dot rosettes) would be larger than the minuscule inkjet spots (dithered frequency modulated spots) of the Epson printer. Because of the Epson’s smaller dots (entailing no dot gain and hence more accurate color) and because the Epson had been specifically fingerprinted to the final offset lithographic press, I encouraged my client to request another Epson proof of the updated photos. After all, what good would it have been to get a great looking proof that did not (contractually) match the expected custom printing output?

The client chose a hybrid solution. She requested 37 new Epson proofs of the photos for approximately an additional $37.00. She also requested an HP Indigo (laser) proof of the entire book as a “position proof” to show exact placement and cropping of all elements on all pages. She got the best of both worlds. She also asked that both proofs arrive together, so she could compare the two.

Requesting F&Gs as a Final Step

I suggested F&Gs as well. These are essentially a stack of press signatures (4-, 8-, 16-, or 32-page increments of the print book), stacked and set in a cover but unbound and untrimmed. At this point the commercial printer will have printed the entire job but not yet bound it.

Getting F&Gs is a good idea for color-critical signature work (such as magazines, books, catalogs, or digests), since an error is easier to correct. If my client finds an error in three pages within one signature, for instance, the custom printing supplier can merely reprint one signature. If my client waits and finds the problems after the book has been bound, this will necessitate tearing off the covers, reprinting all copies of the individual signature, rebinding the book with the replaced signature, and retrimming the book (yielding a smaller book in the process, which might look awkward).

So the commercial printer will print all copies of the cover and all copies of all signatures. He will send my client an F&G and then wait for her approval prior to binding the print book.

Commercial Printing: Making Corrections to Your Files at the Proof Stage

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

I recently received a digital proof for a small poetry book I had designed for a client. The following paragraphs describe the items I looked for in checking the proof. You may want to take a similar approach in reviewing your proofs.

The Proofing Method

First of all, my proof was a single copy produced on an HP Indigo press as a prototype for a longer press run. The Indigo is a xerographic digital press. Think “ultra-high-end color xerox.” The commercial printer produced the proof on this equipment because the rest of the run would also be produced on this press. It was a prototype, exactly matching the remainder of the run.

In your case, you may (or may not) be printing via offset lithography instead of digital technology. If this is true, you will most likely receive an inkjet proof instead of a xerographic proof. In either case your custom printing vendor will have “fingerprinted” the proof to the final press output. That is, the two will match as closely as possible. In the first case, the digital xerographic proof from the Indigo is exactly the same as all successive copies of the press run. In the case of the offset job, the inkjet proof closely resembles the final output from the offset press.

The Substrate Used for the Proof

“Substrate” is printer’s lingo for the paper on which the job will be produced. If you are printing a digital job on an Indigo or other xerographic press, you can request that your commercial printer produce the proof on the exact stock on which the final job will be printed. This is prudent. For instance, if you decide at the proof stage that the job would look better on a coated or uncoated stock, or perhaps a heavier stock, you can make these changes without incurring additional expense.

If your job will be printed on an offset press, your proof will probably not be produced on the same stock as the final job. Commercial printers usually have only a limited selection of paper stocks for their inkjet proofing devices. Often you can request a coated or uncoated sheet, but the proof may not be provided on a paper that will be as thick as the stock used for the actual press run. Don’t worry. Just bring it to your custom printing supplier’s attention, and he will explain whether it is a mistake or just an example of the limits of the proofing device.

How to Check a Proof

  1. Check for complete copy. Match the proof to your final laser copy to make sure nothing has been inadvertently lost.
  2. Check the photos. Make sure they are neither too light nor too dark. Check their cropping. Check their color accuracy.
  3. Check the margins, page numbers, and running headers and footers. Is everything placed on the page as you had intended? Do images bleed as intended? Are the pages in the proper order?
  4. Check any solid colors or screens. Should the type be in color? Is the color accurate? Compare the color to your PMS swatch book. Keep in mind that a digital proofing device will print spot colors as 4-color process builds. Therefore, the color may differ from a PMS ink mixed for an offset press run. If there are problems with color on a digital xerographic proof used for an Indigo press, that’s important to note, since your proof is exactly what your final job will be (and since both the proof and the final job are usually produced with only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks rather than PMS colors).

Usually your proof will flawlessly match your last PDF of the job. (In fact, it’s wise to send a PDF of the job to your custom printing vendor along with the native InDesign file. This way your commercial printer will know exactly how you want the final job to look.) However, if there are any glitches introduced inadvertently by the printer’s equipment—or if there are any emergency edits—now is the time to make corrections.

If you have sent your commercial printer a high-res PDF of the job instead of a native InDesign file, it would be extremely rare for this file not to print exactly as expected. Occasionally, however, things do happen—hiccups during the RIPing process (the conversion of PostScript code into into a grid of printer dots imaged on the proof or the printing plates). Don’t assume anything. Check everything carefully. Once you have signed off on the proof, any errors you missed are your responsibility, not your custom printing supplier‘s. If you waive the option of a proof altogether, any error is your responsibility.

Uploading Corrections

If you catch errors, make corrections in your native file. Save the file under a different name (“File v1,” “File v2,” and so forth, to indicate different versions). Or, use another naming convention as long as it is clear that you are submitting a new file.

Ask for a complete second proof (not just selected pages). Probably a PDF will suffice. After all, you will have seen the photos, solids, and area screens on the first proof. However, if your corrections involve photos (particularly color photos), you will probably want a hard-copy proof of these individual pages. But still ask for a complete PDF proof as well. Why? Just to ensure that no other errors have crept into the process. If you get a PDF of the entire job for the second proof, you can be sure that all pages are in place and accurate in the second proof as well as the first. You never know. It’s better to be safe.

Custom Printing of Photo Notecards: A Case Study

Monday, December 5th, 2011

A client of mine is a professional photographer. Among other items, she sells gorgeous, full-color photo notecards of a myriad of multicolored flower species.

Quality is paramount with this client—understandably.

She recently received digital (inkjet) proofs of eight of her cards from a commercial printer with a small-format 4-color press. The contract proofer had been “fingerprinted” to the vendor’s press, so the digital output my client saw would very closely resemble the final offset custom printing of her cards.

She was unhappy with six of the eight prints. “Too dark,” she said.

Fortunately, this client is a consummate professional. She had submitted 8-bit TIFF images in CMYK color space, which I had placed in InDesign files and then distilled into “press-quality” PDFs. My client took responsibility for the error and requested second proofs prior to printing. She looked closely into the process to determine exactly what had happened, prior to adjusting the files and resubmitting them to the custom printing vendor.

Possible Causes of the Problem

First of all, the highlights and mid-tones were acceptable. Only the shadows of the photos concerned my client.

My client works in her basement, so she can control the ambient light in the room (i.e., the room light does not change as the sun rises and sets). She also calibrates her monitor regularly to ensure color fidelity. Both of these steps are essential, but most people (I would venture to guess) do not do either with the necessary frequency and precision.

As an additional consideration, LCD monitors, which most designers possess, “run hot.” This term, provided by a commercial printer with whom I used to work, means that colors on an LCD monitor appear lighter and brighter than they will appear in an actual custom printing job. It is all too easy to forget that an image on a computer monitor created with red, green, and blue light will not exactly match the image printed with ink—or even toner—on paper. However, knowing that images on an LCD monitor will print darker than they appear will help you avoid mistakes.

Using her knowledge of color and light, my client determined that the problem had occurred in the conversion from the RGB color space to the CMYK color space prior to her sending me the photos. For whatever reason, the color shift appeared most intensely in the shadows during the translation from RGB to CMYK. It is good to keep in mind that scanners usually capture images within a Red/Green/Blue (light-based rather than ink-based) color space. This is not as large a color space (does not include as many distinct colors) as “all visible color,” but is is larger than the Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/Black color space. It has a larger color gamut (number of reproducible colors).

For the most part, designers and photographers work within the RGB color space up until the last possible moment, and then convert the image to CMYK just prior to sending the job to the commercial printer. Colors that exist within the RGB color space and the CMYK color space transition without a problem. Colors that exist within the RGB color space but not within the CMYK color space shift to the nearest color match. This often causes a visible color shift.

Color Corrections and Final Proofs

My client determined that the problem had occurred during the color conversion. Therefore, she lightened the shadows in the RGB color space, converted the images to CMYK, and re-checked them to make sure the final CMYK output would be acceptable (accounting for the tendency of the monitor to lighten colors, and having confirmed the accuracy of the calibration of the monitor).

I received the amended 8-bit TIFF CMYK photo files and repositioned them within the InDesign art files for the photo notecards. The difference was dramatic. The images were lighter—but only in the shadows.

When the second set of proofs arrived, my client was happy. She approved them and released the job to the custom printing vendor for final production.

What We Can Learn from This

  1. Always color calibrate your monitor. Do this regularly.
  2. Control the ambient light in your computer room. The surrounding light will alter your perception of the color on the monitor.
  3. Assume that the final image will print darker than the image on the monitor. Ask your prepress provider at your commercial printer how to compensate for this using Photoshop’s “levels” and “curves” commands.
  4. Make your own inkjet proofs. Then, if these are ok, have your commercial printer make proofs. Adjust your files as necessary. It’s better to make—and pay for–multiple proofs than print the job too dark, too light, or with a color cast.

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