Category Archives: proofing

Chasing the Color Dragon

athens lawn boy

Color proofs are typically examined under the color-corrected lights of a proofing booth. The faithful assume that all proofing booths are identical. They are not. And neither are monitors. They are approximations.

Where do you look at color? I’m not talking about just proofs here—but the finished product. I’ll bet its on your sofa, maybe outside, in your office or kitchen; anywhere except in the even stabbing death-light of a proofing booth. Welcome to the real world.

Chasing the Dragon

Not too long ago I went into a small agency that had a big problem. The printed ads they had designed didn’t look anything like their proofs. The owner was sweating, as this was their Big Client.

We went through a list of culprits that could originate in the agency:

  • unprofiled Photoshop source images
  • un- or mis-profiled layout documents (here it was Quark 7)
  • monitors in and out of calibration
  • checking the profiles of the exported pdfs
  • looking at the RIP choices on the Epson 9600, using the ColorBurst rip.
  • possible color shift in the proofing paper

As I pulled test proofs, it became clear once we’d tightened up Quark, the color proofs looked pretty much like the source data. I say pretty much, because photons gunning out of a monitor and and a dithered proof are two dissimilar environment. Note: it always looks good on your monitor.

Now came the fun part. According to what I was seeing, the agency was sending accurate color to the pub. And the pub was hosing the agency.

The proof was in the same ad printed three days apart. Friday’s ad was yellow. Monday’s ad was red. A closer examination of both issues showed that the respective red and yellow contamination ran throughout the entire book.

Nice. Now the tail was wagging the dog. The anxiety was compounded by the fact that clients typically do not look at the entire book—they only look at their ad. And if the color visibly sucks, it becomes your problem.

Calls were made to the pub production manager, and the ensuing silence was disconcerting. Part of my job was to tell the agency that the pub was responsible for this wretched color. This is cold comfort when your proof is weighed against the tonnage of printed issues out there. Because in a perverse way, the bad color is more authoritative.

Fortunately the owner was a smart guy, and realized in his bones that setting up a color profile to match a wandering pub’s was not a realistic option. If the color was consistently red, different story. He then called the client, and the client was realistic. They knew that the pub was a rag in every respect except the prices they charged to run the ad. That was world-class. It was an unfortunate part of doing business in a closed trade environment.

A Color Proofing Environment of Note

In 1973, I was a lucky young guy, touring the Flor de Partagas cigar factory in Havana, Cuba. Towards the end of the tour we came to a cigar-sorter’s closet-sized workspace. The sorter’s job was to sort a never-ending stream of like-typed cigars (Coronas, Panatelas, Churchills, etc) by the color of the wrapper. They ranged from greenish black on the left to a tawny tan to the right. When she had twenty of the right range, they went into a waiting box. And so on.

She proofed her color under a weak fluorescent tube. The walls were painted an elderly lime-green. Yes, the fluorescent is also heavily blue-green, the walls don’t help, but all the color was range-consistent when it left her cubbyhole. This was a stable proofing environment. Her choices held up once they were boxed.

In The Out-of-Gamut Color Space, No One Will Hear You Scream

red hat ladies

Sh0oting Hoops: A Miniature Basketball Court
Somewhere In the Middle of a Very Large Football Field

The visible light spectrum can contain up to 16,777,216 colors. I say “can contain” because the human eye can detect at most several hundred thousand colors. This is the wide and wonderful world of RGB. By comparison, the 4-color printing space is only about 13,000 colors.

While at the Workbook, I used the analogy of basketball court/football field to describe the difference in the respective CMYK/RGB color spaces. Even those proportions are somewhat misleading, but I had to answer questions very concisely—I worked for a publishing firm, not a help desk.

The Color “F-Chart”

Eternal thanks to my boss Paul Semnacher, who kindly gave this to me.

Behold the Color “F-Chart”, which will help you trouble-shoot color issues in the CMYK color space.


The “F” in “F-Chart” euphemistically refers to “tamper, alter, distort” and so on. Use your imagination.

The primary colors are Yellow, Magenta and Cyan. The secondary colors (Green, Orange and Purple) are created from the primaries, as shown by the circular arrows. Black is not shown on this chart, as it controls contrast and shadow.

The main arrows in the center show where contamination occurs.

  • Yellow dirties Purple
  • Magenta contaminates Green
  • Cyan contaminates Orange

Understanding these three things will solve most color issues in the proof stage.

While we’re here, there are several situations you will rarely see done well in 4-color printing:

  • A clean orange
  • Pure turquoise
  • Iridescent lime green
  • A neutral 4-color grayscale image.
    You’re better off controlling it as a rich-black, (ie 20C and 100K).
    Otherwise it will most likely be greenish. But people still try it, with predictably uneven results.

Out Of Gamut, Out Of Mind?

Sadly, no. Michael Kieran defines gamut as “The total range of colors produced by a device, system or storage medium. A color is described being out of gamut when its position in one device’s color space cannot be mapped into the the color space of another device”. Now we both know.

Common RGB Profiles

Here are some common RGB profiles. I’ve seen documents using all of these profiles—Quark, Photoshop, Indesign and Illustrator. Changing the profiles in your monitor, source application (Photoshop for instance) and in your layout program will have a noticeable difference in how color is treated.

  • Apple 1998 is the smallest. However its range is considerably less than Adobe RGB (1998)
  • Adobe RGB (1998) is in the middle. Consider it the convertible currency of color management—it produces good results with most RGB recorders and plays well in the CMYK translation.
  • sRGB was designed for low-end consumer color scanners, digital cameras and inkjet printers. It is inadvisable for high-quality color production because of clipping in the blue-green part of the spectrum. Don’t use it if you are planning on printing it. Or you’re feeling foolishly lucky.
  • Monitor RGB tailors color to the monitor, instead of the other way around. It makes sense in a web application, as it forces the RGB colors in Photoshop to match those in web-design programs like Dreamweaver. Again, this observation is from Michael Keiran. Since the bulk of my experience has been in print production, I cannot verify this absolutely. But I included it as an example of the spectrum of choices in color management.

In conclusion, color is a highly subjective experience. Customers sent target proofs ranging from the workmanlike to the surreal. I saw proofs on everything from cold bright white proofing stock (excellent), through warm off-white Arches paper (love that 5% yellow gain), on down to 24lb Walmart inkjet bond (they were out of paper towels that day). Never mind the sizes. I guess the ReadMe/FAQ was optional. But they all want Perfect Color.

Go figure.

Every Pixel Tells A Story, Don’t It?


Quality halftone image reproduction is central to the print process. I’ll set aside vector art for the moment, as those are generated under a different protocol. And yes, numbers help, but they don’t tell the whole story.

Digitally-created images are unlikely to ever see the bright light of a scanner. But they are bound by the same rules as scanned files.

Scans are made from either flat art, or negatives and chromes. Flat art is scanned on flatbed scanners of varying horsepower, or drum-scanners. Film files can be scanned on a variety of scanners ranging from insanely excellent down to consumer-borderline competent. All scanners have their own proprietary anomalies.

For the purposes of higher-end print production, placed image is typically 350dpi at 100% in the layout. This is true across the board: Photoshop, Quark, InDesign and Adobe Illustrator.

(Note: In Quark and InDesign it is far easier to verify an image’s enlargement/resolution ratio than in Illustrator, where you have to dig. Read why Illustrator is unqualified as a page-layout application).

Scenario 1: High and Low

If you import an image which is 350dpi at its native 100% into a page layout scenario like Quark or InDesign at 100%, the ratio is 1:1, and everything is golden. However, if I import the same file and then enlarge it 125%, the image inversely decreases to 280 lpi.

350 / 1.25 = 280dpi

When I’ve encountered this numeric, I’ll flag it as a potential problem. When I’ve called advertisers about this problem, reactions vary, ranging from “uh-oh” to “it worked when I sent this identical file to Rolling Stone/NY Times Sunday Magazine” etc. This is when I tell them that the difference between art-book publishing and web-offset periodical printing is considerable. Images go soft, banding starts to appear, and image degradation becomes more evident. Oh.

However I’ve seen rare scenarios where images fell short numerically, and were saved by accidental or intentional bold contrasts, even halftones, and overall image quality as evidenced by the customer’s target proofs. The layout was given a pass and off it went to be wet-proofed.

But that is the exception. Like the drunk driver going over a canyon rail and walking away from the wreck.

The opposite doesn’t play out the same way. I’ve seen layouts where the original image is 350dpi, but is imported into a layout at 125%, equalling 437.5dpi.

350 x 1.25 = 437.5dpi

This is excessive, as current printing typically doesn’t require this.

On the higher end of grotesque, I’ve looked at layouts where a placed image is 15% of original, and the customer’s target proofs are 13×19. And printed out on warm toothy art paper, which typically will add 5% yellow and warm things up quite nicely. Which is fine—until the wet-proofs come back.


  • Under-resolution images need to be replaced by higher quality files
  • Over-rez files get reduced in either pixel dimensions (Quark) or percentage of import (InDesign)

My G5 Is A Beast, Why Bother?

An eternal production question. Because the monstrous spool file you are generating every time you print files that are massive is costing you time and money. Every additional calculation you make with an image (rotation, skew, horizontal/vertical flips) is an additional burden on the document and a clear sign to the pre-press guy or gal that You Are Ignorant.

Scenario 2: Real and Junk Pixels

For example: I open a customer file which is an 8-1/2 x 11″ page document that has the following image in it, complete with bleed. The placed image bleeds 4 sides in the layout.


Its starting to look like a good day. The file’s native dimensions are identical to the layout requirements.

Now look at the Image Size palette for this document:


Numerically the file is good to go.

Junk Pixels

So what happens when you get a file that numerically checks out, but just looks plain weird?

Imagine an 11 x 17 spread, and an extreme closeup of a young toddler. The child’s face looked like it had been put through a Photoshop Mosaic Tile filter. This is what the previous image would look like if it had been treated the same way;

low-rez scan

My first reaction was “Yipes!”

Was this…

  • a stylistic statement (I’d been to a lot of galleries lately)
  • an inadvertent mistake by a designer (ie, low-rez jpeg not swapped out)
  • a basic technical error.

The advertiser was contacted. We found out that the designer had put the original 2 x 2-1/4″ neg on a mid-level flatbed transparency scanner, and then enlarged it to fill the space available.

The pixel dimensions are identical, but the outcome is considerably different. Seems pretty obvious, but this is a continual travelling partner in the World of Pre-Press.

The Advertiser resent their file with a high-resolution scan and the results were considerably improved.


Image management is a combination of metrics and alchemy. The guidelines I’ve mentioned will go a long way in getting an image to print to the best of its original capacity. It has nothing to do with aesthetics—I’ve looked at many files containing images with proper numerics and zero content. The alert designer, pre-press operator, and whoever else that comes into contact with the file are all obliged to do their homework and make sure nothing falls between the cracks.

Adobe Illustrator: The Harsh Layout Mistress

beer-can house costume

I’ll keep this short and to the point: Don’t do page layouts in Adobe Illustrator. Ever.

I have no beef on AI’s remarkable tools for drawings and diagrams. It ain’t made for page layout. To elaborate:

  • It has a very kludgy interface for placing images
  • Type handling characteristics are not pleasant
  • There is no Collect-For-Output feature.
    You leave a file behind, you won’t know it until your service bureau/color house/pub calls and says “hello, bucko, you’re missing x fonts/images. Now what?”
  • When it comes time to save, the unwary are confused between “Save With Links” and “Embed”

I suppose some people started using AI back when Quark was the only page layout game in town, and they couldn’t get used to viewing a low-res image in a picture window.

Hint: Make a quickie PDF of that page/spread. It’s called a “soft-proof”

In the last several years InDesign has eaten a lot of Quark’s lunch. (It was long overdue, which will be the subject of another post).

However, in the context of this AI post–people liked the hi-rez preview. And I got to examine a lot of AI layouts. Here’s how I’d handle these files:

  • Start by opening the fonts in Suitcase or other font utility. Oh, how I miss Adobe ATM <sigh>
  • Now open the file. Do pushups while waiting, in some instances.
  • Watch for the missing image alerts
  • If there was an image folder/files available, try to link to them.
  • Sometimes, the designer had started with low-rez jpegs, and swapped out w/ hi-rez files. Maybe they even have the same names.
  • Now the file is open. Look at it in outline mode to see if there are ‘phantom files’ in the layout or margins. Its happened more than once.
  • Got bleed? Lotsa folks don’t understand that 1/16″ is precious little between a bleed and a sliver of daylight which can make them look like an idiot.
  • Go to the Links palette, and click the images one by one, noting size and enlargement. Anything over 300 lpi was home free. Hey! I’m not paid to make aesthetic judgements. To quote the late Brandon Tartikoff, “If I programmed what I liked, the network would be dark 4 nights a week”

Inshallah, everything checks out OK. The file is released to production.

There are some of you out there thinking “Gee Mr Pre-Press? How come you didn’t spank the file with Markzware Preflight??”

I wished it were so. What I discovered about PreFlight, a program I love, is that when it looks at AI files, half the time it does not dig down into the second and third layer below the surface. Like when a monster AI file is imported into an IDCS document just so it can be proofed. I got stung earlier in the season by a Workbook advertiser who sent a file that was incomplete that way, and it involved multiple catch-ups to get the file ripped and the proof back to the customer.

And that is the short take on why Adobe Illustrator Is The Harsh Layout Mistress

Size Matters: When Bigger Is Not Better

burning jeep

This summer I saw a file that took all available prizes in File Management. I saw the IDCS doc, and then a folder with a bloated AI file, and the Links folder.

file mgmt.jpg

The ground rules for submitting files to a CMYK pub are pretty basic. Four colors. No spots, no metallics. Even a boiled-down FAQ, which is rarely read. However this is my livelihood, so I dig in.

The following is an annotated and redacted memo which described the state of affairs.

From: Larry Gassan
Date: July 23, 2007 4:05:15 PM PDT
Subject: [Problem file]


This is the breakdown on the spread:


1] source doc is AICS3 [“customer ad”_r1.eps]
with embedded PS files. The embedding caused the file to swell to 514mb.

Embedded files cannot be extracted when color work be required.

Yes, the file can be opened in Photoshop, but you are limited by the exact cropping available, and if there are any masks, blends, channel work—you are constricted further

The AI file was then brought into an IDCS3 file [0000_customerdoc.indd]
to rip by the color house. The spool file on a 514mb document would easily
exceed 1-2gig if printed from the original document.

Someday for your own amusement, take a fully linked file and export it as a PostScript file. When its done, check the size. That’s your spool file when you send it to a printer. Then think about the times your printer timed out on you.


2] Pantone 877 is a metallic, and has no direct CMYK conversion.

Remedy: 50% gray.

3] Support files were included in a folder called “LINKS”.

Each embedded PS file no less than 45mb in its original configuration. Only
one file, the left-hand [original file], was appropriate to its actual placement.

The average size of each window was 3 x 4″—meaning the original file was reduced 40% to fit. But wait!

4] ea file was imported, and rotated 180 degrees in [Adobe Illustrator] AI. This also causes a
file to swell—each transformation requires much more memory than a file imported at 100% of layout size.

This was straight out of Quark, 1989. Moving along to other issues, like “Which File Were We Supposed to Link To?”

5] A preliminary look at the file TEST compared to “test-219_cmyk.tif” cast doubt as to whether or not the included file was relevant, as the colorcasts were slightly different. Files in LINKS included dupes of “[original files]”

[original files] [in cmyk and rgb]. Which one is it?

Another classic move. Especially with Photoshop and Illustrator, people get nervous, and they do one or more of the following;

  • submit files for “back-up” and “just in case”. Like, which ones did you want me to use?
  • are unaware that in Photoshop, once you import files, they are the document.
  • People who build files and put in FPO artwork, unaware of the reality that documents can now handle high-resolution files.

Calls were made to the advertiser. Eventually we got an Illustrator file, where the artwork was placed & linked, not embedded, CMYK and the files were actually size appropriate.

And that is the subject of another post “Adobe Illustrator: The Harsh Layout Mistress”

The Case Of The Color-Blind Photographer

color monster

I looked at a lot of files while I was with the Workbook. In a typical year I would be the first person to look at 1200+ pages. Along the way I learned a lot about the way people thought their files looked like. Which brings me to the Case of The Color-blind Photographer.

The customer’s Epson proof had the photographer’s notation on it that it was “not correct, and should be gray-green”, (analogous to Wehrmacht green). Very well.

The Color You Want And the Color That Is

We pulled a test strip on our Epson 4800, and it was not gray-green. Not even close. We even ran an output on the Canon color laser printer. No big difference here either.

what the customer wanted

Now things were getting interesting. The photographer clearly thought their green was a blue-gray-green. A spot-check of the background colorfield showed that the magenta was 42%, with a full 100% yellow and 38% black to really warm things up in a fine slurry.

what the customer provided

I discussed this with the Paul Semnacher, Director of Print Production. He was going to have to make a call to the advertiser and gently probe. He did. The conversation revealed the usual suspects:

  • an erratic low-end printer with an idiosyncratic profile
  • a monitor that wasn’t properly calibrated, and of an unknown vintage
  • customer’s wishful thinking.

The first two items are nominally fixable, but the last item is the most tenacious, and one that is beyond the technical reach of any color or pre-press house. The conversation ended in a draw. We looked at each other. Finally he said “What if the photographer is color-blind?”

Whoa. Then it hit me. Paul’s elderly mother had just had cataract surgery. While she was recovering, she’d woken up on morning, gotten dressed, and noticed a bright yellow sweater on the dresser. She asked who’s sweater that was. Her daughter-in-law said that it was hers. She didn’t believe her…she’d never wear anything that bright.

Of course not. When you have cataracts, bright yellow looks like beige. Which provided a possible insight to our Photographer.

In the end, the photographer came around to the fact that 42% magenta made things very warmed. Paul wrote up the correction to the color house in Singapore to recurve the background closer to the desired color, and everyone went home happy. More or less.