Tag 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.

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.