Print Publication Quality Control

A lot has changed with the quality of print publications over the last fifteen years, and not all of it for the good. I have ink in my blood from working publications inside and out for decades. I’ve shot and edited photos, worked in the color separation trade and I’ve logged years as a color pressman. I get it.

Back in an earlier time, this was a different industry and it was served by a different trade. Professional photographers went on assignment for 85% of the photos. Photo labs produced transparencies and photo-retouchers took care of any problems. Color trade shops made the separations and produced color-corrected litho films. Prepress Journeymen assembled films and produced printing plates. When the magazine went to press, the First Pressman, Pressroom Supervisor, Account Manager, and the Art Director all attended the press check and OK’d the signatures after the make-readys were complete. Quality control was a professional process from top to bottom.

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But that’s not the way the process works anymore. Budgets are slim, less than 50% of the photos are assigned to photographers and the rest are either submitted by customers, shot with cell phones, or purchased from stock photo houses. Many photographers adjust their own images though they know little about the printing process. Photos are submitted in all forms, color modes and formats, some are edited in Photoshop, others are not. Most arrive as JPEGs in a mix of RGB and CMYK formats. Magazines are assembled and pictures are placed in InDesign files that are then converted to PDF by the magazine staff. 

The printer gets the PDF and checks the links and resolution before paginating it and sending the files to the platesetter. Most printing signatures are approved remotely by a variety of individuals viewing it on a variety of color monitors. Sometimes hard proofs are produced, though not always. The pressman checks the color against a color monitor at the press table. Makeready is quick and schedules are tight.

While digital publishing opened many doors of opportunity, it also opened the industry to relaxed standards and reduced professional skills.

You’d think with all the advanced systems and processes today that the quality would be greatly improved over what it was fifteen years ago. But this isn’t always the case, as you know. So what’s missing? A lot. And we can thank progress and technology for much of it! Technology and automation have taken the place of trade knowledge and human experience in our industry. Moving forward has moved us backwards in some ways, and it shows. Here’s what I mean.

DrivewayB4&A

Several years ago I noticed the cover of a regional city magazine had printed lifeless and dull. The design was nice but the color was disappointing. I met with the publisher of several city magazines and was made aware that this dull cover wasn’t a one-time problem. He thought the cover looked pretty good since great photography just wasn’t in the budget anymore. It seemed “good enough” had become the new normal. I told him I could prepare his next cover to print bright and colorful for a small fee. He agreed to give me a shot and the next cover saw a significant improvement. He now realized how little it took to produce great color again.

I also noticed that some of the book’s internal images showed typical JPEG traits of banding, blown highlights and plugged shadows; some beyond my ability to repair. I came to realize that while all photographers are artists and they care about their photos, but few have a working knowledge of digital imaging, tone curves or color reproduction (preparing images for press). Color science isn’t always the photographer’s high suit. In days past, it didn’t have to know all this, but now they do.

I approached the publisher about me meeting with the magazine’s printing company to understand the file submission standards for their particular presses and paper stocks (no, publication standards are not all the same). The publisher commissioned the investigation.

Printing companies work very hard to identify and control the behavior of their presses. They know the limitations of what they can and cannot print. They maintain a regimen of “control systems and best practices” to maintain all equipment and presses to produce very consistent results. Each printing company produces a production spec; a rule book of how to submit files for their system. It is critically important that their clients submit their files in complete accordance with this spec. And, publishers need to understand that printers are not allowed to “improve” the customer’s pictures.

As a former retoucher, pre-press operator and pressman, I wanted to know the details of this specification so I could fine tune a set of submission standards for the magazines.

Skye DR-O  Skye DR-A copy

After a series of meetings with the printing company, I met with the magazine’s photographers and developed a Submission Specification for Publication Photographers. This photo specification included tonal range limitations, a specific camera color mode, mandatory gray card test shots for all interior scenes, and finally, that they were to submit all photos to me in RAW format. I then gave them access to my (http://gottaknowvideos.com) video series to familiarize them with basic color science for photography.

I finally put together a color managed production workflow for the magazine. I’m now on contract as intercessor between the photographers, the magazine publisher and the publication printer. I edit the images and supply the Editor with color-managed files on a very tight production schedule. A single day has been added to the monthly schedule to accommodate my QC process. I coach-up the photographers as needed and oversee the print quality of the publications. The photographers are happy, the printer is happy, and the magazine is looking snappy. We now have disciplined and informed photographers, a color-managed and efficient workflow, and we’re realizing consistent improvement.

If this scenario strikes a familiar chord with you and you’d like to see improvement in your print publications, drop me a line (hpaynter@imageprep.net) and let’s set up a time to talk. I can and will make a difference.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.

About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook Digital Color Photography from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color video series at Gotta Know Videos.com.
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