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Taming the Color-Management Beast

Be the one who drives the proofer

Big Picture

In 1999, the medium-size commercial printer I work for moved from analog color keys to Iris inkjet proofs. At the time, most of our competitors were bearing the cost of making films and color keys for a proof that might or might not be approved. In some cases, a half a dozen sets of films and Matchprints had to be made at a cost to both the printer and the customer of several hundred dollars just for materials.

But we knew some of our customers would be hesitant to make the move. So we made a bold decision: We simply began showing customers the new digital proofs instead of analog Matchprints. We didn't say a word unless someone asked. And we didn't cut the price. But we did allow customers some leeway in remakes. The truth was, we were often eating the expense of remakes anyway. Designers tended to believe that if a printer couldn't hit the precise color they had in mind the first time around, they shouldn't pay to have it redone. Never mind that they were looking at RGB images on non-calibrated monitors"?it was up to the printer to get the color right, period.

The pointing of fingers

Today, printers and designers are using much more sophisticated color-management technology than was available just a few years ago. And yet color management remains a bit of a mystery for lots of folks. Although they're aware of something called "color profiles" they're not sure how to create them or where, when, and how to apply them.

So who's calling the shots in your shop? With more and more original image files being created by the designer, does that make them responsible for the final color? If the designer embeds some obscure profile into his files and the intended color is missed by a mile, who's responsible when the job bounces?

This has become an increasingly volatile issue, partly because of the increased sophistication of color-management systems. The ability of so much software to embed profiles is not necessarily a good thing"?at least not when so few people are really knowledgeable about how to use the software, and when color-management specifications are still being developed for programs such as Adobe's Acrobat.

Even in the area of spot colors, the fact that Pantone changed many of its color-reproduction formulas has created a plethora of problems. People using Quark 4, for example, have a different Pantone color library than those using Quark 6. The rationale behind the changes (paper is brighter, plus inks themselves and the order in which colors are typically printed have changed over the years) is certainly laudable. But does every designer and every printer know exactly which Pantone libraries are being used in every file in every job?

Fingers can be pointed in a number of directions: The designer is using the wrong color library. The customer is using an improperly calibrated monitor. The wrong profile was applied. The right profile was applied, but at the wrong time. Today, we have as many reasons for bad color proofs as there are proofs.

A collaborative approach

Collaboration and standardization are the only ways to fix the problem. The Color Management committee of the Ghent PDF Workgroup (www.ghentpdfworkgroup.org) is an example of an industry initiative that's seeking to bring all parties together to establish specifications that can work for everybody.

The group has called in experts from across the industry to develop effective common-sense solutions that will make it relatively simple to apply the correct image data to a PDF file that everyone who deals with the job will be able to understand and use. It isn't an easy thing, and it hasn't been completed yet. But that kind of approach will need to be taken throughout the industry to tame the color-management beast.

Even with industry-accepted standards, however, there is yet a broader chasm to cross. The widespread misconception is that color management is merely a matter of buying a package of software and hardware and plugging in the numbers. To use color management effectively, you need to really get familiar with the technology. There is nothing out there that you can just plug in and suddenly, presto, your shop is color managed.

Take the time to learn about color management. It is not enough to scan the user manual. You need to be the one who drives the proofer.

Stephen Beals (bpworkflow@verizon.net), in prepress production for more than 30 years, is the digital prepress manager with Finger Lakes Press in Auburn, NY.

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