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Taming the Color-Management Beast

(February 2005) posted on Thu Feb 10, 2005

Be the one who drives the proofer


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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