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Controlling Color from Proofs to Prints to Profits

New color management and proofing tools promote a universal color workflow.

By Thomas Franklin

Color is a lot like water. Left uncontrolled, it will wreak havoc. Channel it, and you’ll reap rewards. Color needs to be managed for any print business to be successful. In an era of cross-platform communication, where brand identity moves between the virtual and the physical—indoors and outdoors—color consistency is crucial.

Mastering color also improves business performance. First, it reduces waste, says Andy Hatkoff, VP, advanced color technology, Pantone/X-Rite. With a calibrated monitor capable of accurately reproducing colors, soft proofs will closely align with hard proofs, reducing media usage.

Efficiency is also realized through predictably. Implementing color management provides an understanding of the gamut limits of monitors and printers, essential information pertaining to which colors can be accurately reproduced and which can’t, explains C. David Tobie, product technology manager, Datacolor. This knowledge will minimize mistakes during the production process and provide customers with an accurate assessment of how the finished product will look when the ink is laid down.

The key to successful color-managed workflow is specificity, Tobie says. "Just as when you simplify a statement, you get less and less accurate, so to with color management. The more you rely on canned profiles, the less accurate your results will be."

Creating custom profiles for every monitor, ink, media, and printer used is critical. Many people pinpoint reproduction problems on faulty color management tools, when in fact it’s a basic incompatibility between the printer and media, Tobie says. Start slow, Tobie advises, by creating custom profiles only for the most commonly used printer, ink, and media combinations.

Building the profile is the easy part, says Brian Ashe, director, business development, X-Rite, Inc. It’s applying it in a repeatable environment that many end users struggle with, he adds.

At its heart, color management entails shepherding an RGB file into CMYK. Both are device dependent color spaces, so as they travel from one device to another, they need to speak a common color language. The Inter-national Color Consortium (ICC) profiles created for each device facilitates that communication, but to remain accurate the devices need to be performing at their optimum state—the state they were in when profiled. Regular calibration of both printers and monitors is essential to retaining a color accurate workflow, Hatkoff says. Calibrat-ing hardware is particularly important as it ages and drifts more frequently away from its optimal state.

Color management is not something you can simply turn off or walk away from, Tobie cautions. "Photoshop insists on color management, so it’s not a matter of turning it off, it’s a matter of how customized you want to make it."

"Proofing light matters as well," Tobie asserts. The ICC recommends that prints be viewed in a 5,000 degree Kelvin light source to simulate daylight. However, Ashe notes, only a filtered light box more accurately represents daylight—and filtered light boxes cost more than unfiltered ones.

Building profiles that anticipate the light source at the viewing area are beneficial for fine art printers who understand the work will be viewed in galleries. "A lot of people don’t take advantage of this, on the same theory that most people don’t read the directions when they buy a new appliance," Ashe says. Such light specific profiles are less important for work viewed "at 50 feet at 50 miles per hour," Ashe adds.

The backbone of a color-managed workflow is a calibrated and profiled monitor and printer as well as standardized lighting to examine printed output.

The vendor landscape in the color space is undergoing several significant changes, with X-Rite purchasing first Gretag Macbeth and then Pantone.

"We now encompass the full color supply chain," says Richard Herbert, president, Pantone, Inc. regarding the deal. "It’s the globalization of color."

Color, Color Everywhere
Eventually, many color management tools will be "under the hood," says Ashe. He points to Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) Designjet Z3100, which features a built in spectrophotometer from X-Rite, as an example. "It will be almost invisible to the end user, at least that’s where we want to be." Pantone’s inexpensive huey monitor calibrator senses ambient lighting and makes adjustments automatically, to keep the display in tune without user intervention.

Though the industry is making great strides to reduce the visibility of color management, some level of user involvement is probably unavoidable, Hatkoff says.

"Color management is part art and part science," Tobie explains. "It’s not prone to automation."

Color in Action at Pictorial Offset
"Color management is extremely important to meeting, and exceeding, customer expectations," says Lester Samuels, president, Carlstadt, NJ-based Pictorial Offset. The sheet-fed Web printer performs wide format proofing on Epson printers and instituted a thorough color management regime as part of its comprehensive approach to process control.

"Our goal is to get ink on paper, to match the proofs, and get the job in and out—there is no second chance," Samuels shares. The firm employs a full time calibrator to ensure all aspects of its workflow, but it also takes a company-wide commitment to see it through. "You really need all parts of the organization working together to achieve the same end result," he adds.

Tight color management aligns with the firm’s International Standards Organization (ISO) quality certification. "We track over 500 different metrics; we have a completely closed-loop system," Samuels says. The firm employs a range of color management tools, including Pantone/X-Rite spectrophotometers, the Spyder monitor calibration tool from Datacolor, and Kodak’s MATCHPRINT virtual proofing software.

Precision in Fine Art
While color is critical for all print related businesses, it takes on added importance in the realm of fine art reproduction.

For Les productions Numart of Quebec City, color accuracy is the cornerstone of the business. Founded in 2002 by former computer analyst Daniel Vézina, who now serves as technical director, and business partner Daniel Gregoire, the firm focuses on developing technology for high quality fine art reproductions.

The company custom developed an archive-quality inkjet canvas along with a high-end wide format scanner to offer artists the assurance that their reproduction would survive for generations, Vézina explains. For Numart, color management is "essential, the success of our business is entirely based on the fact that we have mastered color management."

The firm employs Epson printers and scanners as well as Canon printers. They print on their Epsons with the Epson Ultrachome K3 inkset. For color management, the company uses Datacolor tools, including the new Spyder3Studio suite. "We can create accurate ICC profiles that allow us to print in color and still get correct B&W results with the same sets of profiles. It allows us to make B&W inkjet prints for photographers that look like a traditional silver halide B&W," Vézina says.

Mastering color management is not terribly difficult, he adds, but it takes time. "You often need real life cases, and bugs, to improve your skills, but it’s worth it," he says, "because once you master it you become much more efficient."

CA-based professional photographer Andy Katz has been printing his own large format work for over eight years. "I’ve spent my whole life in a dark room," he confesses.

Katz now totes a digital camera as well, scanning and printing his work on an Epson Stylus Pro 10000 and 9800. Most recently he used an HP Designjet Z3100.

For Katz, a color-managed workflow means cost savings. "When you think about fine art printing, the inks, and paper—they’re not cheap."

Katz recently purchased his HP Designjet just prior to receiving an offer to produce 42, 40x50 prints for a one man show entitled Mixed Emotions at the prestigious Mumm Napa Gallery in CA. "I was just about to board a plane to India for a shoot and they wanted the prints three weeks after I returned," he shares.

Despite the break neck pace, Katz was able to meet the deadline, producing his prints primarily on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Pearl 320gsm.

From Proof to Profit
Color management is an integral part of the proofing process. A firm understanding of color management principles is the cornerstone of both successful contract proofing businesses and in the creation of wide format digital graphics.

The contract proofing market is stable, growing at roughly two to three percent a year, shares Ian Mackenzie, marketing VP, Chromaticity, Inc. The big drivers in the business are centralizing color and proofing to standards, he says.

Proofing technologies initially adopted in the commercial print and publishing markets are migrating upstream to content creators, agencies, and publishers. Meanwhile, offset printers diversify themselves by adding wide format digital to tackle the signage market, says James Summers, president, GMG. The consolidation of print technologies and the evolution of display platforms is driving a need for color solutions and standards that address a changing market, vendors say.

"It’s no longer segmented," Mackenzie observes. "Commercial lithographers are installing wide format printers to do their own proofing or for signage." As printers add multiple platforms and promote themselves as a one stop shop, they enter a world of multiple RIPs, drivers, and user interfaces. Therefore one of the key objectives "is to manage that process to achieve consistent color, and to do it with as little of what we call RIP-a-rama as possible," Mackenzie says. "The industry wants single graphical user interface (GUI ) solutions—a central color server" to feed multiple output devices, from aqueous inkjets to UV plotters.

Many wide format shops in particular edit a file for a specific output device, Summers observes. "That creates an issue for them if a customer wants to output it on a different machine, or media, or even on a different day or time. We want them to edit a file in one central color space to maintain consistency as the file moves across printing platforms," he advises. Even if a shop is not offering proofing as a service, using precise color management to maintain more consistency will reduce costs and improve operational efficiency, Summers notes.

Still, "prepress is foreign to the grand format and wide format market. We need to create a prepress workflow that is simple and automated," Mackenzie says. Part of that workflow would entail using a wide format aqueous printer to proof work destined for a grand format plotter. Mistakes there would cost a lot less than mistakes on a grand format printer, he argues.

Indeed, while proofing is usually associated with output destined to be produced on a commercial offset press, it’s equally vital for wide and grand format digital output, says Andrew Page, director, inkjet proofing, HP. "There are benefits to proofing on the same device you do production on," he says. "You get to see the graphic on the same media it will be finalized on."

Like color profiling and calibrating tools, proofing tools are becoming more automated. Graphic arts companies must move to industrial production. The demand for an integrated and automated proofing solution is becoming extremely important, explains Frank Hueske, product marketing manager, graphic arts solutions, EFI, Inc. "Accordingly, proofing vendors have to provide solutions that can be implemented most efficiently in the production process by best supporting the automation approach."

"We see people who want to buy RIPs that can handle a number of different activities—not just proofing," Mackenzie says. "They want a contract proofing RIP that they can also use in wide format digital printing. Ultimately what they need is a device-independent color management system."

Putting calibration and profiling tools "under the hood" also pushes the automation trend along, observes Page. As does another major trend—the adoption of standards and proofing to numbers.

Certifications by the International Digital Enterprise Alliance (IDEAlliance)—including SWOP and GRACol for web offset presses and sheet-fed offset presses—are frequently appearing on proofing media to alert users that certain paper offers the white point and gamut capacity required for commercial proofing.

"People were at first reluctant to embrace the proof to numbers approach, because it made printing less like a craft and more manufacturing," Mackenzie observes. "But at the end of the day, it really is."

"We’re dealing with a more standardized world," Summers seconds. "People at the front end are beginning to understand color management at the design stage. To the extent that your file is based on a standard, we can move it from one space to the other successfully." Indeed, the competition among software vendors is less about hitting the right color—which they can all more or less do successfully—and more about who can do it in the most straightforward fashion, Summers shares.

Monitor Migration?
One area of proofing which is enjoying increased attention is soft, or virtual, proofing. Thanks to new software, high caliber monitors from Apple, EIZO, and others, along with a desire to reduce paper waste and speed project approval times, monitors are replacing paper in some instances.

The change is driven by publishers who are sensitive to turnaround times and the environmental impact of generating large numbers of paper proofs and ferrying them about via FedEx, says Vicki Blake, business development VP, Integrated Color Solutions (ICS).

Hard proofs are an essential part of the design process, asserts Marc Aguilera, co-founder/color management director, Encompus—a San Diego design firm. "When you print on paper you have something tangible, and that helps in the design process, to watch a project come alive."

"We expect that color accurate soft proofing and online proofing will reduce the number of hardcopy proofs, but people will still create hardcopy proofs for final approval," predicts EFI’s Hueske. "There will be a co-existence between hardcopy proofing, color accurate soft proofing, and online proofing."

"I’m not sure about soft proof replacing hard proof. There is still a case for hardcopy proofing; the monitor can never duplicate what a print can offer," Page argues. "A display can do better for a catalog or a project with variable data, but for projects that are unique and high value, they still require a hard proof and probably always will," he adds.

Hardcopy proofing is declining, however, simply by virtue of the ease of sending large PDF files by email. "90 percent of all proofing is for content, not color," Mackenzie says, so it makes sense for content-oriented proofing to migrate to the monitor.

In market segments that don’t have color critical requirements soft proofing make sense, Summers recommends. "In more exacting color applications, the advertisers and brands want color fidelity. What we’re finding is those early adopters of inkjet proofing are installing soft proof systems at their customer’s locations. They’re using it as a tool to supplement an existing relationship. Not as an out and out replacement."

Soft proofing is also applicable to color sensitive jobs thanks to new programs such as ICS Remote Director, asserts Blake. "It’s taken some education, people once felt they couldn’t trust the monitor. But when customers realize that you can actually use soft proofing to check color, not just content, the game changes," she says.

Color in Action
Firms deal with color on a daily basis. Both Prestige Graphics, Inc. and Encompus, Inc. are two examples of firms where color is the critical component to pleasing the customer

Prestige Graphics, Inc.
Color is always on the mind of Reston, VA-based Prestige Graphics. The firm specializes in contract proofing, prepress, and wide format inkjet reproductions. Founder Mark McCall estimates the split is 60 percent proofing, and 40 percent wide format printing. He employs 30-inch Apple Cinema displays, EFI’s Colorproof XF software, alongside Canon’s 60-inch imagePROGRAF iPF9000 for production, and the Epson Stylus Pro 9800 for contract proofing.

His clients include Nature’s Best Photography magazine. For five years running, McCall produced an exhibit for the Smithsonian, based on award winning photography from the magazine, along with proofs for the magazine’s fall collector edition. Reproducing the vibrant colors found in nature is a challenge, McCall admits, but a life spent working in color and strong support from vendor partners saw the project through.

"The people at EFI make it a lot easier to get color management down," he says. Proofing to the color parameters of a commercial offset press is fairly routine, thanks to GRACol. Fine art is a trickier proposition, it is subjective.

Successful proofing is as much about trust as it is about technology, McCall explains. "Once a client believes what you say will happen on press will happen on press, you build confidence."

Encompus, Inc.
You can tell a lot about a firm’s priorities by how it apportions management roles. For design firm Encompus, color is so critical that co-founder Marc Aquilera wears two hats. He’s also the firm’s color management director. The company name incorporates the mission—to create the designs that encompass a variety of platforms.

Moving a brand’s color consistently across platforms by creating color accurate hard proofs at every step of the design process is Aquilera’s personal mission. "We believe in proofing through the entire process of a job—even photo comps for a Web site are properly profiled. We proof on certified paper so there are no surprises at the end. We don’t like surprises in our business."

The company proofs to GRACol standards—which Aquilera hails as a godsend—and when dealing in wide format, only works with ICC savvy shops.

Encompus uses an HP Designjet Z3100 for in-house proofing with HP Proofing Matte and Semi-Gloss Contract Proofing paper. Aquilera will be the first to admit that he is something of a color obsessive, but in a good way. He gives seminars in the X-Rite-sponsored Color Control Freak series and blogs about the topic on his company’s Web site.

How does one become a color control freak? "It starts with measuring color. We’re always measuring the color."

Implementing color management does require knowledge, Aquirela says, but perhaps more importantly "time and dedication. I’m planning all the time—when to recalibrate monitors, the printers, etc."

Color Control
Coping with color is a matter of mastering the components of your workflow. Reaching a level of accuracy ensures that same workflow will run smoothly. End users looking to simplify should research color proofing tools bundled with a print device. Armed with this knowledge they’ll deliver repeatable color matches to clients, equaling more business to their bottom line.

May2008, Digital Output

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