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PDF Proofing Comes of Age

The cost and scheduling benefits of adding PDF proofs to your production workflow.

PDF has certainly made tremendous inroads in all types of print production in the last few years, and it’s now beginning to make a serious impact on the proofing process. Is PDF a valid method of sending out proofs? If so, when and how should they be used, what are the limitations, and could a PDF file be legitimately considered as a "contract proof?" The answers to these questions will have a profound effect on print providers in the next couple of years.

Here’s a hint: The short answer to all of the above questions is "yes," but it is a qualified yes. There are still some issues that need to be resolved before PDF proofs will replace hard-copy proofs for a majority of output applications.

Figuring the total costs and savings
While there are lots of good reasons for considering PDF proofing, most of the considerations come down to the bottom line. The truth is, every time you can use a PDF as a contract proof instead of a physical proof, you will save time and money.

The cost of physical proofs has certainly already gone down thanks to a solid base of inkjet proofing hardware and software and the growing use of sound color management. Inkjet proofs are increasingly well accepted among print providers and their clients.

Even if inkjet proofs are significantly less costly than the old Chromalins and color keys used by commercial printers, however, they still aren’t free by any means. Yes, for print providers-particularly those utilizing wide-format machines-inkjet proofs are essentially "press-proofs" if they are output on the same device that will ultimately render the actual job. You certainly can’t beat that scenario for dependability. The question becomes, can a PDF proof achieve the same level of reliability without the cost associated with print output?

Of course, the cost of the proof itself is not the only consideration. Even more important in this day of quick-turnaround is the time that can be saved with PDF proofs. And I’m not just talking about the time needed to generate the proof. More significant is the time (and cost) of moving that physical piece of paper from place to place during the approval cycle. Even with next-day courier service available to just about anywhere, the two days it can take to get the proof back can be more than the schedule can tolerate.

In fact, when figuring the total cost of proofing, the time and material costs for creating the physical proof may be the smallest portion of the total cost: The labor of packaging the proof, the cost of shipping, and the delay in production can be significantly greater costs. With the tight scheduling of today’s marketplace, the most costly factor of all may be that it’s becoming increasingly common for customers to receive their proof and call back with an okay, expecting the job to be printed without returning the proof. This puts the output provider in the position of hoping the machine used for output has maintained calibration, since he or she now has no reference to verify all of the print settings. No proofing error could be more costly than a job that is rejected because an accurate proof was not available during the production run.

And while cost is certainly the biggest factor in favor of PDF proofing, there are other advantages-some that might not be as clear at the outset. These advantages center on the revision cycle. While one of the several disadvantages of PDF files, as I’ll discuss later, is that they are relatively difficult to edit, it is also true that the more revision cycles any given job goes through, the greater the advantage to using PDF proofs.

Because PDF proofs can be delivered electronically (with all of the cost advantages I’ve previously stated), the total savings rises for each proofing cycle. In addition, new features built into Adobe Acrobat Professional make collaboration during these cycles much easier. The mark up capabilities also provide a clear electronic "paper trail," showing when, where, and by whom any changes are made. Adobe has even built in on-line real-time collaboration capabilities by making the old Macromedia Breeze product part of Acrobat Professional. Although there is some added cost to using the service, Adobe Connect allows browser-based interactive PDF notation and mark-up. Many high-end workflows offer similar capabilities for PDF-document collaboration.

One other hidden advantage to PDF proofing is the nearly universal acceptance of the PDF format. Adobe Reader is free, and with Acrobat 8 Professional, even users of the free version of Reader can use the collaboration tools. Although users cannot originate collaboration sessions with the free version, they are able to read and respond to notations made in the Professional version of the product.

The challenges you’ll face
PDF proofs are definitely not for everyone-at least not yet. Some serious color and file issues do exist. While most of the potential problems are relatively easy to deal with, a few-such as not being able to control whether your clients are calibrating their monitors-are more problematic.

The difficulty in editing PDF files may be one of the strongest reasons some print providers resist turning to PDF proofing. Programs such as Enfocus PitStop, Quite a Box of Tricks, Apago PDF Enhancer, and several products from Callas can aid you in editing PDF files. These products are great for correcting common file-creation errors such as unwanted hairline rules and rich blacks, converting RGB to CMYK, preserving and combining spot colors, preflighting, and more. But it’s still true that making a simple text correction in a PDF can be considerably more difficult than going back to the native program to make the fix.

Another problem with using PDF files as proofs is that many designers and print providers have a poor understanding of PDFfile creation. This is not all that different from the days when it was challenging to create clean PostScript. But current production realities have conspired to make everything just a bit more complicated.

For one thing, there are several "flavors" of PDF. In order to make the right kind of PDF file for each output purpose, the print community has set standards for creating "proper" PDF files. For the printing industry, there is a PDF-X family of standards, created through the Ghent PDF Workgroup (GWG) based in Ghent, Belgium. But since the print community uses a variety of workflows and output devices, several sets of standards have been created dependent on the output intention. The good news is that Adobe Acrobat Professional and several other PDF creation tools (though by no means all) have these standard settings built in, so the people creating the PDF file can choose precisely which standard is used. The bad news is that not everyone is familiar with which standard should be selected. In fact, as you read this, a new standard called PDFX-4 is in the process of being created; it will allow for the use of transparency in PDF among other things.

A few other challenges when it comes to PDF proofing:

* The proof is in the RIP: Not all RIP devices currently in the field are capable of RIP’ing native PDF files. This is probably true more in the wide-format and quick-print segments of the print industry than for general commercial or packaging printers. You need a PostScript level 3 RIP to output these files, and many of these RIPs actually convert the PDF back to PostScript to handle the processing. That’s not always the perfect solution. More recently, Adobe has released the PDF Print Engine and made it available to third-party RIP vendors. This engine processes PDF files natively and understands how to properly handle things like transparency. But the number of such RIPs currently in operation is relatively small.

* The size of the file: While it’s vital that a proof accurately represent what the final output will look like, the size of the proof file must be kept reasonable if it’s to be transmitted electronically. So here’s the problem: One of the things that makes a PDF small is that it usually has both raster and vector components. That is, the type is kept in the vector format until it is actually RIP’d; this keeps the file much smaller since you only need to define the outline (vector) of each text character rather than each and every raster dot. But if you are sending a proof, you want to show the file after it has been RIP’d. While a few workflows maintain the vector characters right up until the final imaging (such as the Adobe PDF Print Engine), most RIPs in production don’t. That means you must send either a very large file or a very low-resolution file. Most shops sending rasterized PDF files for proofing compromise by making the files high enough resolution to see the images at print resolution (perhaps 300 dpi)-but this means the text will also be 300 dpi. This also means the file sent as a proof cannot be edited since it is essentially an image with no editable text (of course, the original file still exists and can still be edited).

* The color conundrum: As I mentioned earlier, it’s not possible (or at least is not terribly practical) for a print provider to verify that its clients are properly calibrating their monitors. Unfortunately, that’s only part of the issue when it comes to providing color-accurate contract proofs as PDF files. And it’s particularly an issue for wide-format print providers using multiple output devices with differing color capabilities. Because many shops prefer to use the full color gamut of each output device, many print providers are not running their machines based on industry standards (which inherently limits the output gamut). The downside of printing to the limits of each individual device, however, is that the same file printed on different devices will not necessarily match. That could very well be by intent, but it creates an issue for PDF proofing. It’s simple enough to run off a print on the actual output device and provide that as a proof-but to show that color with a PDF, the specific printer profile must be used to create that PDF. Although doing so is not impossible, it’s a consideration that must be taken into account. When added to the general problem of color calibration and color management, this can be more of a headache than some print providers will want to deal with.

Content proofs vs contract proofs
Before sending out any PDF proof, it’s a good idea to have a clear understanding of what the PDF is expected to achieve-for you and for the client. Is the proof only intended to be used to approve the content of the file with little or no concern for the color match? That’s certainly the role that is easy for PDF proofs to fill.

If color has to be perfect, it can be done, but it takes a lot more work and a lot more collaboration and communication. There has to be a clear understanding of color-management issues on both sides for it to work.

A couple of interim solutions are available for those not completely comfortable with color management. One is to use a hard-copy proof for the initial color approval, and then to send PDF proofs back and forth to nail down any last-minute copy changes or other non-color issues.

Another solution is to use remote proofing via PDF files. This is likely to become increasingly popular because some third-party Epson partners have created proof-verification systems, and HP has rolled out its Z3100 and Z2100 printers with a built in iOne spectrophotometer. What this approach does is allow clients and print providers to output the same file at different locations and get a certifiable reading via a spectrophotometer to confirm that what each device is printing is within a very small, specified range of color deviation (DeltaE). Essentially, this gives the best of both worlds: a very fast turn-around plus a hard-copy proof. Of course, it does mean the actual cost of making that proof doesn’t go away, but again, that has become one of the smaller parts of the proofing process in terms of cost.

Are PDF proofs for you and your clientele?
Many of you are likely already using PDF files for quick last-minute proofs. The cost savings and production gains made each time you use a PDF are indicative of the overall savings possible if you choose to make PDF proofs a regular part of your proofing strategy. Only the most sophisticated color-managed print providers with the most color-savvy clientele will be able to replace all of their hard-copy proofs with PDF. And for some, remote proofing may be a good answer.

But for nearly everyone, adding more PDF proofs to your production workflow has cost and scheduling benefits that are very real. Your clients are likely to appreciate any cost savings they can realize with PDF proofs. Rather than compromise the quality of proofing, the proper integration of electronic proof delivery in PDF format should improve the overall quality, satisfaction, and savings for all parties.

Stephen Beals authors our regular "Digital Workflow" column.

Helpful Tools
As indicated in the main text, the collaboration tools in Acrobat 8 Professional are easier to use than ever, and they’ve have been improved and expanded upon. Some have been available since earlier versions, but in this edition, Adobe has finally put together a complete package. Briefly, Acrobat Professional allows you to: attach sticky notes that point to specific areas of concern; accept, reject, and track comments and changes; and even automate the e-mail delivery of the changes. With the addition of the optional Connect service, all of these features can be used in real time through any standard browser. You can share your screen with any client, so you are both commenting on the same file at the same time, and of course all comments and changes are tracked and annotated for future review, leaving all the information you need for billing and verification. And in any case, you can attach digital signatures to "sign off" on the final proof.

Several companies are making helpful tools for a PDF workflow, and it is well worth looking at them if you intend to use PDF proofs on a regular basis. Here are just a few (see the January 2007 issue of The Big Picture, p. 46, for a more comprehensive list):

* Enfocus PitStop (www.enfocus.com) has become an industry standard for editing PDF files. It is a plug-in for Acrobat and also comes in a server version with various automation features. The company also has introduced PitStop Automate for creation, editing, and workflow automation.

* Markzware FlightCheck Professional (www.markzware.com) offers extensive controls for checking and certifying PDF files. Its Flight-Check online product can verify files being submitted on-line and offer feedback for correcting any potential problems before the file is sent.

* Apago (www.apago.com) makes several PDF products, but PDF Enhancer will automate the assembly, preparation, and optimization of PDF for Print. It also does a great job of repurposing PDF and merging. For example, you can drop a file into Enhancer and automatically create a Web, print, and office version of the same file.

* Callas Software (www.callassoftware.com) also makes several PDF products: its pdfInspektor will verify file construction; pdfCorrect will search for and repair dozens of common output related problems; and pdfColorConvert will convert spot colors to CMYK, convert the entire job to grayscale, or merge spot colors.

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