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Make Color Communicate

Color Management from File to Final Output

By Thomas Franklin

Print is all about communication. Brands need to convey a message. But print is about communication in another crucial sense, it is the exchange of color—from file to monitor to printer to media to finished product. For print to effectively impart a brand’s message, it must ensure that the internal lines of color communication are open. That takes color management.

For color management to be successful, it needs to touch on nearly everything, from the original file in the design stage to the controlled lighting used to view the final output. This is why many print service providers (PSPs) find the process frustrating—even mysterious—and are tempted to skip steps or find short cuts regularly, says Andy Hatkoff, VP, advanced color technology, Pantone, Inc.

“It can be challenging for people to break from tried and true workflows,” he adds. But if a workflow doesn’t incorporate effective color management throughout, it is likely costly.

Color management isn’t simply about final output meeting client expectations, as serious an obligation as that is. It’s about instituting an internal process that generates efficiencies and saves money. The latter is particularly important today. By ensuring accurate colors the first time, there are fewer reprints, saving time and media. Second, a predictable workflow quickly identifies mistakes should any link in the chain between file and output breakdown, explains Dennis Dorrity, marketing manager, Wasatch Computer Technology, LLC.

Starting the Conversation
It’s useful to think of color as a person traveling around the world. Along the way, color is assisted in the local language by a number of translators until reaching the final destination. These translators are essential tools of color management and include both hardware and software.

Before embarking on the journey, color must carry a translator. This is the profile. It helps color conform itself to the local dialect—the color gamut of the monitor and output device. For PSPs, the original design file makes or breaks the rest of color’s journey. If it isn’t designed with an embedded profile, its journey is considerably more difficult. When artwork is submitted and not designed in-house, it’s always good to encourage the designer to implement color management—ideally providing clear color guidelines.

To visually explain color repercussions Bryan Kennedy of BT&D Big Graphics, located in East Dundee, IL, shows customers a wall of art produced from a file with no profiles. It’s a cautionary exercise. “We always suggest using a color management system to our customers. If there is no reference point, we’re flying blind throughout the entire process,” shares Kennedy.

However, it’s important not to over do it, warns Hatkoff. Many color issues arise because color management is applied to the file in multiple locations—in Adobe Photoshop or at the RIP. It is similar to attempting to merge two distinct languages into a single sentence, the results are confusing at best and ruinous at worst.

“We are currently developing software that will overcome user interference, including at the RIP, with presets,” says Arjen van der Meulen, director of color, Kodak. “One administrator sets the color and all the job specific parameters will avoid operator intervention, which can cause color errors.”

“We usually reach color at the production stage,” explains Brian Ashe, technical consultant, X-Rite, Inc. “Now we’re looking to reach it at the design stage, where people were using analog tools in the past.” The company’s new ColorMunki creates color palettes that sync with design programs from Quark Inc. and Adobe Systems Incorporated. Files are exported in a format—CFX—which X-Rite hopes to turn into the “PDF of color,” admits Ashe.

When a file is received, many PSPs find working in a central color server more efficient, explains Larry Summers, president, GMG. “One thing we found when looking at many PSPs’ workflows is color management practices are a bit loose. PSPs take a file and rather than truly working it through all devices, edit the file until it looks good on a specific device, proof on that device, then keep editing the file until the customer likes it,” Summers continues.

The end result may be a pleasing graphic, but it’s a torturous route to final approval and it renders the file inoperable on other machines or media should a client wish to repurpose.

“We recommend starting with a single file, edit it in a master color space, and convert it to a destination printer at the very last minute,” adds Summers. This master file is then on hand for future use if the graphic is used across a variety of different platforms.

Software, such as GMG’s ColorServer and RIPs from Colorburst Systems, EFI, ONYX Graphics, Inc., Wasatch, and others play an essential role in a color managed workflow. One common mistake printers make is overlooking the key importance of the RIP, says Ian Mackenzie, VP marketing, Chromaticity.

Not only do RIPs help printers achieve accurate color, they also save ink. “RIPs can reduce ink usage by 25 percent when imaging onto a wide format device. In today’s market the number one or two objective is a return on investment (ROI), assuming you’re hitting the quality. For that, you need efficient use of consumables,” shares Mackenzie.

“Centralizing a workflow saves time and headaches and ensures better consistency,” explains John Rusanchin, business development manager, ONYX.

Calibrate, Profile; Rinse, Repeat
The anchor of a color managed workflow is a calibrated monitor and printer. Once in an optimum state, a profile is created of both to communicate how color is reproduced on those devices. Both monitors and printers drift away from their original state over time.

Print devices are especially sensitive to the environment and any significant event, such as a swing in humidity or temperature, may throw them off their ideal state. Many PSPs blame the profile for a printing error when in fact it’s due to a piece of hardware that has drifted off its calibrated state, X-Rite’s Ashe observes.

“The most common problem I see is failure to recalibrate regularly,” Rusanchin adds. “PSPs need to do this on a regular basis to account for those variables. Recalibrating takes less than two minutes.”

“We’re calibrating the monitors on a monthly basis and running printer alignments daily,” says Kennedy. A self-described stickler for color, BT&D Big Graphics runs ONYX ProductionHouse on a Mimaki USA, Inc. JV3 printer and a trio of Hewlett-Packard (HP) aqueous large format printers.

For monitors, calibration and profiling devices are relatively inexpensive. Datacolor’s Spyder3Elite, LaCie’s blue eye pro, and X-Rite’s ColorMunki, are all under $500. They include a hardware device for measuring color off of a monitor and software for creating and managing profiles.

For measuring color from a printer, businesses should use spectrophotometers to generate the most accurate printed output reading. Don’t use densitometers or colorimeters, cautions Summers.

Spectrophotometers are available from companies such as Barbieri Electronic, Datacolor, and X-Rite. “Our problem with spectrophotometers in the past was speed,” Kennedy noted. The company is now using an Eye-One from X-Rite.

Wide format printers frequently take advantage of media profiles provided by the manufacturers. “We create profiles in our own color labs and spend a lot of time optimizing that specific profile,” says Kodak’s van der Meulen.

Depending on the application, some print providers may want to—at a minimum—test the media or even create their own custom profile, which is something BT&D Big Graphics did. “We created a color test file with some colors we know are tough to reproduce” for all media tests, admits Kennedy.

With a RIP, spectrophotometer, and monitor calibrator, a print shop is looking at a very modest investment of anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000; relative to the cost of a printer that will improve ROI, suggests Chromaticity’s Mackenzie. “Color management has to be like second nature” for a PSP to thrive, he adds.

Some printer manufacturers, notably Canon U.S.A., Inc. and HP, are embedding calibration tools, making color management out-of-the-box. The industry is still studying the impact of this approach, says Ashe. Some buyers are turned off by the added cost, although ultimately the embedded model is expected to prevail. “That’s the overall direction of the industry,” he adds.

Proofing: Some Like it Soft
There really is only one way to ensure color is communicating correctly and that is to generate a proof. The question then becomes, soft or hard?

Soft proofing does have a role to play and depending on the nature of the work, it can be large indeed. “Soft proofing has been around for a long time,” for non-color critical applications, explains Mark Radogna, group product manager, professional imaging, Epson. It is routinely used for checking the placement of design elements in a project and for spell checking copy.

For demanding deadlines, a virtual proof is instantaneous. Yet the concept of soft proofing evolved to encompass more color sensitive applications too, through firms such as Integrated Color Solutions, as major print buyers pressure their suppliers for a “green” printing process.

“We see more acceptance of soft proofing as an alternative,” shares Pat Lord, product manager, portal products, Kodak. “The initial push came from the publishing and retail side. Now it is broadening to other areas, particularly in packaging.”

More sophisticated computer monitors with a larger color gamut from firms like Apple, Eizo Nanao Technolgoies Inc., HP, and LaCie dropped in price, making them accessible to a wider base of users.

Some monitor suppliers, such as LaCie, offer color management bundles—combining software, a colorimeter, large gamut monitor, and a monitor hood in one package for an off-the-shelf approach.

Soft proofing is also becoming an interactive, collaborative tool as multiple parties contribute to the final design, says Mackenzie. This alternative cuts down on cost and saves time.

“Depending on job, client, and turnarounds, soft proofing is a very important part of the overall printing process. But color critical work won’t go soft only. A contract proof is still preferred—it’s much cheaper and easier to produce than ever before,” points out Radogna.

“You can’t stick a soft proof on a wall and have five editors sit around and discuss it,” adds Mackenzie. Nor does it provide ad agencies and others stakeholders with the traditional revenue stream associated with hard copy proofs, he says.

Because its large color gamut can easily encompass the smaller gamut of a press, an aqueous inkjet printer is a favorite for proofing printers. Proofing devices are marked by a strong color engine/RIP; the ability to print a full bleed, tabloid sized image; and handle multiple media types. Agfa Graphics, Epson, HP, and Kodak are all players in the proofing printer market.

The Proof is in the Paper
Epson is debuting proofing paper for the packaging industry that enables proofs on actual packaging material versus overlaying other media onto a box to simulate the look of the final piece. “We’ll have thicker boards, with up to 18 and 24 point material to simulate a box and a clear film too,” shares Radgona.

PSPs increasingly look for cost-effective proofing substrates. “They won’t pay more than $400 for a roll of paper and that price is going to go under $250 a roll for premium paper,” Mackenzie predicts for the future.

While commercial printers employ aqueous inkjet proofers to produce contract proofs of output poised to roll off of a press, most wide format printers proof on the equipment and media they intend to print the final output on. It gives the client an exact feel for the product they’re paying for.

Yet GMG’s Summers says PSPs could steal a page from the commercial world and proof output destined for wide format solvent or UV printers on aqueous printers. The benefit, he says, is freeing up a production machine to focus on paying work. Since aqueous printers host a much larger color gamut than solvent or UV, they easily dial-down to match the prospective colors, and even in some cases, media type, Summers concludes.

When it comes to viewing a final proof, lighting matters. Light tables, or industry standard overhead lighting from vendors such as GTI Graphic Technology, Inc., JUST Normlicht, and X-Rite provide standard illumination for proper viewing in all situations.

Viewing tables enable PSPs to preview output in the most accurate lighting environment possible. Advancements in florescent lighting allow viewing table manufacturers to imitate daylight.

Talk to Me
Commercial printers serve as something of a bellwether for the color management industry. They perfected what is often described as a manufacturing approach to color management, driven by standards such as SWOP and GRACol.

Reducing color management to a matter of numbers will ultimately make the process easier for everyone involved, suppliers say. For one, printing to a defined target takes color management out of the realm of intuition and into the world of math, where there is no wiggle room.

This commercial mindset is slowly filtering into the world of wide format, both as commercial printers bring wide format machines in-house and as best practices migrate over industry borders, says Mackenzie. It’s still a work in progress in part because so much large format output is viewed from a great distance and the demand for color accuracy is not as great in some applications.

“There’s no reason why wide format printers can’t run to commercial standards,” Ashe explains. In an increasingly cost competitive world, they may have no choice.

Color management is a multifaceted process consisting of software and hardware. With the correct combination PSPs successfully communicate color.

May2009, Digital Output

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