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Recently I got a note.  “If we can match the color of this sample, we can lock in a huge job from this new client…  We need your help.”

Here’s the Sales side of Color Management.  I’ve done a lot of work for this client, tuning up their offset proofing system, profiling their wide-format printers and even their CD/DVD thermal printing, but still, this particular color – a deep, rich maroon – seemed elusive.  It was particularly troublesome when printed on different systems, yet, the product had to match, and getting the client in the door (and keeping them) depended on their Color Management.

Starting with some good printer profiles we got close with a few tweaks.  Fine-tuning the rendering with some finessing in the RIP got us the rest of the way.  They nailed the color, and locked in the client for the job, and many more to come.  Total time elapsed: about 4 hours.

The first round of printer profiling for this client was also about Sales.  They needed their wide-format printer to match their offset press’s output, so a very large, and very particular client’s work would all look the same…  and good.  That was a simple case of fixing their workflow with some fresh profiles, and bringing the wide format printer in line with the GRACol standard used in the offset industry.

But here’s the cool one.

Once more, “If we can match this color…”, but the stakes were astronomical.  Again, it’s red, and other shops had tried and failed to hit the mark with the flatbed printing process required for this particular media.  If they could hit the target, it was a multi-million dollar contract, a new press, and possibly a new facility.  This one would kick them into the next level.  This one was also a huge challenge.

Of course, we started with a good profile, and tight workflow from pre-press to output.  They had several problems to start with, including the way they were building and delivering the files.  This required some fairly intensive rounds of communication to establish exactly what the client wanted, what they were supplying, and what my client could work with to get the most out of the printer.  This, on projects of this scale, is a great example of where the Color Management process starts: Communication.

We finally were able to develop a strategy of tight color, some “bumps” on the printer, along with some compensating adjustments to the files to keep all the other colors in line.  From our standpoint, it was as tight a color match as we could get, but the final word was the client.  We were all holding our collective breath.

Finally, the word came back down through Sales.  They got the job.  Total time invested, about 3 days.  Payback?  Huge.

Color Management is usually thought of in terms of QA or efficiency…  but when you include it in your arsenal of capabilities, for doing the “impossible”, then it’s an enormously powerful tool for closing sales, attracting clients and keeping them happy.  How many times have you heard your teams say “… it’s the best our printers can do, the client’s going to have to be satisfied with it.”?

You can be sure of one thing.  Whether you’re using Color Management as a Sales tool or not, your competition is.

Profiling printers isn’t just for the Fine Art or Prepress printers.  I’ve had a lot of fun over the years with a “try it and see” method of profiling pretty unconventional output devices.

Xerox-Phaser-8560-N-MainThe first time I got my eyes opened to what you can get away with was a photographer printing his promotional mailers with one of the “solid ink” Xerox printers, the Tektronix models.  I used them a lot, even printed the first versions of my first book with one and loved the print quality…  but it never occurred to me that they’d profile well.

He used a basic CMYK profiling tool and produced prints that were far beyond what I imagined the printer could do – almost photo-quality, but certainly giving any offset process a run for it’s money.

Since then, I’ve profiled not only the Phaser solid ink printers but literally hundreds of laser printers of every description.  One of the comments I love is, “It’s the office laser and the color from it is crap…  but what can you expect?”  If left to it’s own drivers, most laser printers are simply horrible color.  Profiled, they can print quite well.  In some cases, remarkably well.  Many, many designers put together layouts and print them out on the office laser to present, with apologies for color, to their clients. Imagine if the colors were reproduced faithfully?

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Speaking of apologies for color, did you know most projectors can be profiled?  How many times have you seen a presentation where the speaker is constantly saying “…well, this color is obviously wrong, but…” ?

Using the i1 Pro system I can actually place the device in the path of the projector and it will measure the color, just as if it was sitting on a display. The better the performance of the projector, the better the result.  If you’re running a premium quality projector without a good profile, you’re getting about 50% out of what the thing can do.

Screen shot 2012-12-23 at 5.50.29 AMProbably the funniest (from a Color Geek standpoint, mind you) profiling project has been the Rimage Everest CD/DVD thermal printers I profiled recently.  It really was just a, “Hey, I wonder if these things can be profiled…” idea, at the start.  We began by simply running the PDI target to see how bad it was printing with the standard drivers and it showed several characteristics that gave us some hope, and some flaws that looked like simple (and common) profiling issues.

In this case, the challenge was printing the target image on the CD.  I took the basic i1 RGB page and fit it to a couple of CD templates, and then fabricated a little bracket device so I could read the patches without missing the mark.  Once I tried that, and got some promising results with the RGB workflow that’s common with these printers I built some CMYK targets and tried a true CMYK workflow.  The result was a surprisingly accurate print.  What started as almost a little geek joke ended up saving the staff a huge amount of work.

Got an unusual printer challenge?  Don’t sell it short…  bring it on!

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Here’s an interesting story of applying processing and color management standards to streamline production:

Ross-Simons, one of the country’s most successful fine jewelry retailers, faced a staggering challenge. They support 14 retail locations, an online store (named a “Top 500” site by Internet Retailer Magazine in 2005), and a quarterly catalog, first mailed in 1981, that now tops 60 million catalogs mailed all over the world every year.  Color, size, cut and polish are all critical to the customer, and Ross-Simons needs their photography to show it all, accurately.

While some companies can have in-house photo studios, the sheer number of products in the Ross-Simons catalog and limited time-frame means that multiple photographers all over the country are all working on various stages of the projects. Jay Dunn, as VP of Creative, was seeing a huge degree of variation in the photography coming in from the studios. Considering each studio was using different cameras and different practices in processing and delivering the files, it’s no wonder.

“In our last catalog run we spent over 600 hours for post-production Photoshop time in color adjusting file standardization and retouching. We really felt that we could cut that in half if we could somehow standardize the Color Management and processing…It’s not that we’re unhappy with the photographers’ work. In fact, we feel we’re partially to blame. We just have never been able to tell them what we want.”, said Dunn..

The first step was simply to isolate each of the factors that was causing variations in output.

First, the photographers used different cameras – a Leaf Aptus75, a Valeo 22, a Sinar 54, and even a Nikon D200, with software that was just as varied. Since there were over six different makes and models of cameras, lenses and lighting, we had to synchronize the color rendering of each camera to match the others. In this case, it wasn’t so much an attempt to match the cameras to any “industry standard”, more that they needed to match each other.

Second, we recognized that the problem wasn’t simply the photographers: a complete end-to-end, or “Capture-to-Press” solution, was needed. So collaboration and agreed standards were key. In this case, the best way to make sure that this was reasonable and understood was to bring all of the vendors together – 24 people in all – to review process, standards, and best practices in a full-day meeting… to form a consensus.

Third, once this consensus was reached, Ross-Simons needed to give the entire team a set of guidelines – from exposure, capture and processing settings to scaling, sizing and color management standards – right out to prepress and proofing, including a communication “loop” from the press back to the photographers. We were able to create a capture, RAW-processing and color management workflow that worked from end to end, and establish lines of communication to reinforce, and correct, the process, during the process.

Ross Simons’ problem was very common, but we had an unusual opportunity to create a new solution. Rather than apply a fix after the fact, by trying to profile the cameras – a notoriously inaccurate and ineffective approach – we elected to go to the RAW files and standardize the processing at the capture level. Each studio had a set of guidelines for file delivery, as well as individualized processing settings to assure one camera would look like the next, regardless of the make, model, lens or lighting used.

Using our experience and training in RAW file processing as well as our considerable experience with the individual digital camera systems, we were able to minimize the differences in color, contrast, and look between all of the cameras, and establish a standard of file quality and specifications between all the studios.

“When I reached out to Tech Superpowers, what I needed was the insight of a professional photographer, fused with the knowledge of the digital and technological advances, to create a cost-effective, efficient, multi-user, multi-city, photography and asset management workflow.

They far surpassed any expectations I had… and engineered a strategy that allowed photographers and color houses in seven different cities to align to standards and protocol that created speed-to-market and cost advantages worth large dollars to our organization.” – Jay Dunn

Given the cost of a trained Photoshop artist, cutting 300 hours for each one of four catalog runs per year… that’s a solution that you can take to the bank.


(photo courtesy of Lucia Prosperi.   ©Lucia Prosperi, 2012   All rights reserved.)

If you consider Color Management to include capture, processing, output and viewing, it brings some pretty interesting implications to Fine Art reproduction techniques. In the last few years we’ve developed some remarkable new methods – many considered heresy by traditional photographers – that produce equally remarkable results.  It’s based on a few simple ideas.

First, the original should be photographed under the same lighting conditions (if not under the actual lighting) in which it was created.  Not only the color of the light, but the quality and direction is of crucial importance to capture the work as the artist saw and created it.

Second.  The work needs to be color managed from the point of capture using a RAW level “profiling” system.

Third, the entire system must be working at the highest level of Color Management standards, with the appropriate protocols in place for the capture system, the processing and the printer’s unique characteristics.

Finally, the print must be evaluated under the same light that the original is viewed under.  If the print is to be shown under slightly different lighting, a final evaluation must be made under that lighting as well.

It’s a fairly simple concept, and with today’s Color Management tools and proper training, it’s a simple process.  It yields amazing results.  We have, for the last few years, had several opportunities to use these methods and have produced prints enthusiastically approved by the artist within two proofs.  The most resounding endorsements?  “Yes.  That feels like my painting.  It’s what I was trying to get the painting to say.”

Read more about this process at The Atelier Print, here.