Managing Creative in a Digital World

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Digital this and digital that. Printers are insisting on digital files. Pre-press suppliers have replaced their conventional stripping tables with electronic proofers and more computer workstations. A new breed of photographers is ushering in the latest technology of cameras. But what does all this mean for catalogers?


Technology has advanced quickly in the past several years, to where RGB (red, green, blue) to CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black - the process four colors used in printing conversions) has replaced color separations. And the printers no longer specify film negatives, but rather electronic files. Long gone are the dot etchers and the X-acto knife, the talent now replaced with individuals accompanied by a computer screen and a mouse. It's faster, the quality can be better and if you manage the technology correctly, it can be cheaper.


And although good design is still good design, technology has opened a new frontier for the creative process. Its effect is felt primarily in photography, pre-press and printing. Knowing the benefits and drawbacks of technology for creating and producing a catalog, the process can become faster, better and even cheaper. If you are open to the inevitable trials and tribulations, are willing to manage a new work flow and have a little luck, the technology process can be so advantageous that you won't look back.


Digital Photography -- In the simplest explanation, digital photography eliminates conventional film transparencies. Today's digital camera records images in RGB values in a digital form, similar to scanning, rather than on film. Because the image is immediately available in a digital form upon completion of the shot, two steps are eliminated from the schedule -- film and processing and the need for color separation. This can save time and money. However, the elimination of these two steps does not necessarily make it an easier process.


With photography taking on elements that were traditionally part of the separator's responsibilities, such as digital images, there is a stronger emphasis on establishing expectations and coordinating the work flow with the photographer. For instance, will a proof accompany the digital files? How will color be managed? Will the digital files be supplied in the RGB format or will they be converted to CMYK? Will images be archived with the photographer? The answers bring potential costs.


At the beginning of the digital photography process, an image is captured. Because the image is digital, an art director, a client or any other decision maker can review the file off-site. Images can be e-mailed or posted on file transfer protocol sites so easily that those who receive the digital image can quickly review for content while the photography set is still up. This can save those costly reshoots -- in terms of time as well as costs -- later in the schedule. Additionally, low-resolution versions of this image can be supplied to the production team so it can quickly incorporate these images into the layout -- again helping to condense the process.


In many instances, the photography team then can spend from five minutes to a half-hour or more working with the image after its initial capture. Normally, a certain amount of attention needs to be given to this digital file for review and to get it up to standards. This also allows for the opportunity for color corrections and retouching (i.e., fixing wrinkles or blemishes in the product), as well as possibly silhouetting and shadow creation. If color is critical to the project, it might also be the photographer's responsibility to swatch-match the color within the file so that it is a good representation of the product color.


Working with the digital image, color correcting and proofing used to be completed with the pre-press facility or service bureau. Now, in a digital work flow, the photographers have assumed many of these capabilities. Therefore, it is important to have proper communication with the photography studio so expectations and specifications are fully understood. For instance, if the project calls for turning over completed high-resolution files from the photographer, most files should have been proofed at least once, if not twice. And do the proofs simulate the anticipated printed results?


Once the files are complete, they must be supplied in a high-resolution format, in a format that is compatible with your pre-press supplier or printer. For instance, were the files converted from the original capture of RGB values to the four-color process of CMYK? Are the files sized correctly for layout? And is the file format (EPS, TIFF, JPEG) compatible with your vendor's work flow? Even after you receive the files from your photographer, you may want to investigate the archiving systems, in case you ever need to retrieve an image again.


Pre-press -- When using a total digital photography environment, the pre-press portion of the work flow is shorter, and the costs are reduced. There are no more color separations. Instead, many pre-press suppliers see the projects for the first time when the native application page layout files are turned over with the completed high-resolution files. At this point, the pre-press supplier is preparing the final file to printer specifications, as well as producing contract proofs.


One of the biggest challenges of managing a digital work flow is proofing. Because the elements of a project are contained in a nontangible digital format, it is more important than ever to proof those files. In the past, when film was produced for the printer, analog proofs were made from the film. What was on the film was represented on the proof. However, in today's filmless, digital work flow, digital proofs varying in size, cost and quality have emerged. Some digital proofs do not represent a dot, as used in the printing process, whereas other digital proofs produce the halftone dot patterns. The proof that is right for the project is indicative of the quality and budget. Nonetheless, any proof supplied to the printer must accurately simulate the printing process.


A convenient benefit of a digital work flow is remote proofing. This allows the pre-press vendor to electronically transmit digital files via the Internet to output at an off-site proofing device. For example, perhaps your pre-press supplier is in New York, but your office is in Chicago. Upon completion of the files, the New York supplier can transmit the files to your proofing device in the Chicago office. This arrangement helps with turnaround time, but it also involves a strong understanding of color management and calibration so that the proofing device correctly depicts the files.


So in a digital work flow, the pre-press stage is all about proofing. And, preferably, proofing those files in their final format, as they will be supplied to the printer. There should be coordination between pre-press and the printer as to the file formats of the computer-to-plate files. Many printers have preferred file formats that accommodate their work flows and equipment. While the industry overall is moving toward standards, there are still many different requirements to consider with file formats.


CTP and the Printing Process -- If your printer has not persuaded you to use CTP technology, it will. Many printing facilities are 100 percent CTP, and the rest have a 50 percent or more CTP work flow. Not to be confused with on-demand digital printing, CTP describes the technology that allows electronic files to digitally "burn" the printing plate. Conventionally, in the recent past, printing plates were burned using film. However, the CTP process eliminates the need for film, with the electronic files digitally etching the printing plates.


CTP is undeniably better for the printer, the customer and the end results. Because the CTP work flow eliminates the film, the file applied to the plate is considered first-generation. This means a sharper printing dot -- especially in areas that were lost in the contact between film and plate. And because the digital information is readily available, can be queued to the press for quicker press make-readies. Quicker make-readies mean less paper waste -- combined with less time -- means less cost.


Adequate proofing must be considered at every step of the process, including this last step before press. After turning over digital files to the printer, most printers generate a "digital blueline" proof. This might be the last opportunity to review the project before press start-up. And one of the benefits of a CTP work flow is that printers often can accommodate those last-minute, "can't live without" changes. This can be beneficial, as long as this last minute" isn't considered an opportunity to begin the proofing process.


Today's technology lets us do much more. Nonetheless, it is a process that will always need to be managed.
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