Preparing Photos for Publication – Part One

Here’s a serious question… who should be preparing your photos?

Typically, the three folks (in descending order) generally charged with overseeing the quality of publication photos are: the photographer, the publication’s production department, and the printer’s pre-press department.

Collectively, there’s a pretty good chance that essential color, depth, and detail are unwittingly getting left out in the process.

Maitland 14Before you dismiss this as an inflammatory statement, please hear my reasoning. Having spent many years of my career in each of these three positions, I am certainly not about to criticize any of them. Actually, it is precisely because I have handled digital images in these three positions AND as a pressman that I dare to make such a statement. Allow me to explain. There is a critical though not-so-obvious truth behind what I’m about to say.

First, professional photographers certainly know their way around cameras and software (Lightroom or Photoshop) and understand color, tonality, and sharpening well enough to produce great looking prints. They understand color correction, color spaces, and color printing, and they are the first (and perhaps the last) in the production line to adjust the images.

Next, the production department receives the images and determines if they are ready for prime-time. If an image doesn’t look stellar, they’ll try adjusting it to make it look a little better before dropping it into their page makeup application and generating the PDF file that gets sent to the printer.

Finally, the pre-press department at the printing company checks the images for proper resolution, color space, and highlight/shadow settings before dispatching the file to the platesetter. Generally, the printers do NOT want the responsibility for “editing” images.

So what could possibly get overlooked with all this oversight? A whole bunch. And it all starts with the photographer. The photo is his/her responsibility. And herein lies the problem. While photographers understand fine art prints and image editing software, very few professional photographers see their photos through the eyes of a pressmen. But they should!

There is a quantum difference between preparing photos for ink jet printers and preparing images for publication presses. It’s an RGB-vs-CMYK thing that differs significantly in color space, color saturation and tonal reproduction. Actually, it’s a communications issue that can be quite easily cleared up once it is addressed.

Maitland 15In the beginning. When an image is captured with today’s digital cameras, it initially possesses more than 4000 tones per (RGB) color. Do the math, that’s a whole bunch of possible colors. Considering the fact that JPG conversion drastically reduces that number to only 256 tones per RGB color, the initial tone and color shaping of the camera image is super-critical! Simply put, how the photographer shapes that data before it is saved as a JPG file will determine how much detail and clarity will appear in the magazine.

The old adage “start with the end in mind” comes clearly into focus here. Since these images will all get printed in a magazine, the publication press is the ultimate arbiter, and deserves the loudest voice in the conversation. What does that mean? Four critical facts.

Fact One: the detail that a press can reproduce in the darkest (shadow) portions of an image is limited by several factors; the grade (quality) of paper being the biggest. Fact Two: camera image sensors capture very little shadow detail. Fact Three: the darkest areas of a photo are the most difficult areas to print cleanly on press. Fact Four: if the photographer doesn’t shape each image specifically for the press and paper stock, the image will probably lose shadow detail and will display muddy middle tones.

ViennaTreesCURegardless of whether the photographer captures RAW or JPG camera images, the very first adjustment made to those images will determine the clarity and appearance of the printed image. More on this in a following post.

Assessment Time: If you are the Publisher, Editor, Creative Director, Production Manager, or a contributing photographer, now it’s time to do your homework. Grab the last issue of your publication and notice the print quality difference between the photos in the national ads and the photos in the editorial articles. While the photo quality may differ to some degree, the printing clarity shouldn’t.

If the cover and feature article photos in your pub don’t display detail in the shadows, clean color throughout, and reasonable “snap” (not to be confused with over sharpening), you should be concerned. Not worried, but concerned enough to set some new standards. In the following posts in this series, I’ll address specific production issues that will make a significant difference in the visual appearance of your publication. One that your advertisers and subscribers will appreciate immediately. Check out these examples http://herbpaynter.com/image-optimization.html.

Join me for the next post in this series where I’ll discuss how to uncover the hidden details.

About Herb Paynter

I'm an author, photographer, and video producer living in Fort Pierce, Fl. I've been in the color game for more years than I care to admit. In that time I have picked up some insights and experience that I like to share.
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3 Responses to Preparing Photos for Publication – Part One

  1. David says:

    Looking forward to reading on about this topic . . . thanks! (Still trying to get a good grip and solid habbits on exactly what needs to happen from capture to seeing the image in it’s final output.)

  2. Paul Dever says:

    Hi Herb, great explanation of the process its makes a lot of sense
    I have experienced the end product being different from what I had expected .The photolab person made adjustments and changed the some of the colours

  3. David says:

    Great topic (among many great topics) – I love this stuff and am living it. I have worked with a few different pre-press people on specific photos but have never done that part as a job — that is where the rubber meets the road, yes? I searched and didn’t find Part Two — looking forward to reading more — especially on the pre-press side.

    (@ Paul – I know what you are saying when it comes to photo prints. I use a photo service that gives me the option to turn on and off “auto processing” when i submit photos and unless I am printing family snap shots I select off — nice to have that option if you can find it.)

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