Remembering basic settings crucial to quality photo output

When you spend your life teaching classes most of the time, it’s easy to forget that most folks don’t spend a lot of time thinking about things like preferences and color settings. In our business, we work on deadlines. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for exploring the underworld of our computer applications. Nonetheless, they are important and make a significant impact on our final results.

Recently, I spent the day with a daily newspaper in East Tennessee. The assignment wasn’t unusual. While they were getting pretty good results with their photos, they had a feeling the print quality could be improved. This is an intimidating task for a consultant. What if I make the trip, spend a day with the staff, and the photos don’t look any better when I’m finished?
I began by visiting with the press staff. I quickly learned that they had noticed too much ink on the black plate. We looked at film from the front page and it did seem as if there was too much black in the photos. Not a tremendous amount of black, just a little too much.

Next, I visited the photo department. At this newspaper, three photographers edit all the photos for each issue. I asked a lead photographer to take me through the steps they use to edit a picture. She took me through their normal process, the same process I’ve taught a thousand times. First, cropping the photo and setting its size. Next, adjusting the levels and curves. Finally, sharpening the image and converting the color mode. Just as I’ve taught for years, they saved their photos in EPS format. Hmmmm.

The clue that solved the mystery came from my earlier conversation at the press. The dark black plate indicated that there was too much black in all the photos, while the other separations looked just about right. I made a quick check of Photoshop’s Color Settings on the photographers’ computers. Sure enough, they weren’t set for newspaper printing. The dot gain was set for 20%, perfect for printing on coated stock, but not on newsprint. We changed the setting to 32%. Likewise, we changed the Gray and Spot Color settings to include a 30% dot gain. In the CMYK settings, we made two other changes. The Separation Type was set as “GCR.” For newsprint, this should be set to “UCR.” Next, we lowered the Black Ink Limit to 75% and the Total Ink Limit to 265%.

Finally, I asked the photographers to increase the amount of sharpening they were using - to compensate for the flat look sometimes created with newsprint - to a minimum of 120%.
It was time for a test. I asked the photo staff to take the same photos that had been printed in that day’s paper and resave them, using the new settings we had just created. They placed these files on the server. From there, a paginator took the pictures and replaced the earlier versions on the front page.

The files were sent to the imagesetter: film was processed and plates were made. We could see a decrease in ink on the black plate. Finally, we put the plates on the press and printed the new version of the front page. Sure enough, everyone from the pressmen to the photographers agreed that the photos looked much better. Skin tone, which had been blown out before, now looked natural. Muddy jackets on firemen now contained detail not seen previously. A close look showed texture on the bridge which had printed as solid white in the earlier version.

Making sure your Color Settings are right in Photoshop makes a world of difference in the final outcome. Depending on the version of Photoshop, these can be found in one of two places. PC and OS 9 users will find these settings under the Edit menu. OS X users will find these settings under the Photoshop menu. Note that the latest version of Photoshop, CS2, moved the settings back under the Edit menu for Mac users.

New books released for the newspaper designer

If you visit my office any time soon, you might have to step over the boxes. The recent release of Creative Suite 2, along with the upcoming release of Quark 7.0, has produced a wealth of new and updated software products, as well as books and computer peripherals. Three books, released in July, are welcome additions to any designer’s library:

Photoshop CS2: Up to Speed, by Ben Willmore, offers in-depth coverage of every new feature in Photoshop CS2. Readers will find chapters dedicated to Bridge, Variables, Smart Objects, Layers, Camera Raw and HDR Imaging. This book promises to make the transition to the latest version of Photoshop as painless as possible. Peachpit Press, $25 (US), ISBN 0-321-33050-1.

Mac OS X Tiger: Visual Quickstart Guide, by Maria Langer. I’ve written about Peachpit’s Visual Quickstart series before. I’ve found these books to be the easiest method of learning to do specific tasks in various applications. This book, all 700 pages, takes the reader through an easy, visual approach to learning OS X, using pictures to guide you through the software. Peachpit Press, $25 (US), ISBN 0-321-30526-4.

InDesign CS/CS2 Breakthroughs, by David Blatner and Anne-Marie Concepcion. Blatner and Concepcion have scoured the online forums, interviewed trainers, and gathered together answers to over 200 of the most commonly asked InDesign questions. It’s a fun book that reads much like the question/answer section of a computer magazine. Peachpit Press, $25 (US), ISBN 0-321-33413-2.
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