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COLOR CONTROL -- Managing the Variables

February 2003

Would color management by any other name still carry the same stigma? When it was first introduced, the concept grew to being billed as just short of perfect color in a box. The early offerings might as well have come in a yellow and black box with a "Color for Dummies" label.

It quickly became clear that color, the human eye and perception defy description by straightforward mathematics. Or, maybe it's just that expectations were set so high, there was no chance of matching them.

To avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, it's worth taking a brief look at where things went wrong. Consultant and researcher Don Carli explored that question as part of a 2001 study—titled "Trends and Issues in Adoption of Color Management in the Graphic Arts"—commissioned by NPES the Association for Suppliers of Printing, Publishing and Converting Technologies. Carli is a principal with Nima Hunter in New York City.

"The most important issue we uncovered was the lack of a commonly accepted definition for color management. If everyone means something different when they say color management, how can they hope to get people to adopt it?," the researcher questions. "Secondly, we found there was a huge gap between the promise of color management and the ability of solutions to deliver on it."

The core of the problem was that equivalence in measurement does not equal equivalence in human perception, Carli explains. "Companies offering color management tools and services claimed you could run based on measurements alone."

For many years, developers also worked under a false assumption, the researcher asserts. "They had been trying to come up with silver-bullet solutions to problems that weren't important to people. What people in our study sample said they wanted most was to simply match two devices of the same type in the same medium," he notes.

"A great deal of the benefit people want from color management actually derives from Statistical Process Control (SPC), device calibration, and device and process characterization. It's not a question of appearance matching, but process control," Carli continues. "Rather than hiring a color management consultant, printers should think first about looking into standards like ISO 9000, SPC and Total Quality Management. If you understand those disciplines and apply them to color, you will have a better-managed process and achieve greater consistency in proofing and printing. These are not specifically color management disciplines."

Carli lays a good part of the blame for the earlier failure of color management at the feet of the International Color Consortium (ICC).

"It overspent on technical development and underspent on marketing research," he says. "The industry as a whole didn't have a concrete plan for color management. Vendors didn't make clear what was real today versus what they hoped would be real in five to 10 years. Expectations for interoperability (between device types and media), in particular, were set too high," the researcher concludes.

So what is practical today? Let's consider a couple of real-world examples of color management in action.

Veitch Printing, in Lancaster, PA, got into color management almost five years ago, reports Doug Hookway, prepress manager. "We started in the pressroom and worked forward," he says. "We did call it color management, but what we were trying to do initially was fingerprint the press."

Being a full-service (including prepress) commercial printing shop with one location worked to the company's advantage in trying to bring its processes under control. Management hired a consultant to help get the effort started and then brought together representatives from its plate and ink manufacturers, as well as other industry people, Hookway notes.

"We tried different ink sets, chemicals, blankets, etc., until we got to what we thought was optimum printing on the press," the prepress manager recalls. "We didn't want to set a standard for printing that would take the pressroom hours to achieve."

The shop actually runs three presses, but picked its newest and workhorse press—a six-color, 40˝ Komori sheetfed with coater—to be standard for the pressroom. Veitch then brought its other two six-color presses into line with that machine. "It's not an exact match, but the way the machines all print is very close," Hookway adds.

Knowing how the presses print and getting them to do so with consistency was a critical first step in the company's broader color management plans. "Once that was done, we printed a test grid that was a combination of some GATF test targets and some images of our own. Then we started developing ICC profiles based on the press sheets to get our IRIS proofers to closer match what we were doing on-press," he explains.

Veitch started by developing a profile for a coated press sheet, and then moved on to developing a profile for matching proofs to printing on uncoated stock.

Today the shop has four different profiles it uses on a regular basis to make proofs that match different types of printing, including fine-art reproductions. Customers are so satisfied with the proofs, fewer and fewer are doing press okays and those that do come in are signing off on press sheets with the first or second pull, according to Hookway. "That, of course, means the pressroom isn't struggling to match the proofs."

Moving on to Monitors

Once its hard-copy proofing was set, Veitch turned its attention to monitors. It calibrated and set up profiles for its own displays before deciding to extend the service to some of its bigger customers as an ongoing value-added service. The positive results led to smaller customers being added to the program, but the printer only offers to make one site visit free of charge in those cases.

Veitch also has helped some customers set up scanners to work in a color-managed workflow. Internally, the shop is still scanning to CMYK because that is the native format of its existing drum scanner. The scanner still works well, so there is no need to replace it, and converting the machine to scan in RGB would have meant investing money to upgrade a more than 10-year-old piece of equipment, Hookway explains.

"There are benefits to working in RGB. The file sizes are smaller and you can repurpose the data," he continues. "We'll probably make the switch when we have to replace the scanner."

For now, Hookway says the company definitely is seeing a payoff to working with color management, even in a CMYK workflow. "It wasn't easy to get to this point, but we are certainly glad we did it. Every makeready on the press is quicker because of what we've done. The payoffs have come not only in time saved, but also from customers receiving quality proofs and giving quicker okays on-press," he notes.

There's good news for others just now looking to implement color management, Hookway says. "The software and equipment definitely is easier to use today. There are also more expert consultants who can help shops get started," he concludes.

The challenges and goals were a little different for Que-Net Media when it looked to implement color management about three years ago, points out Brian Gaughen, color quality manager. As an arm of Quebecor World, the network of "technology solution centers" provides digital solutions for printing, publishing and the Web. Gaughen is based in the Los Angeles facility, but actually works with 14 Que-Net or Quebecor World facilities.

"We have so many presses, we could never start by fingerprinting the press," the quality manager notes. "What we did was calibrate our Kodak Approvals, which is our main proofing solution. We have a total of 48 Approvals installed across the country and they are all calibrated to each other. The presses are run to the proofs."

In addition, the organization had a need to implement different levels of color management depending on the type of work being done and the skills of the staffs of individual locations, Gaughen says. The one constant is that all of the facilities are scanning in RGB.

Since the Chicago facility does catalog work, it was an early adopter and has taken color management the farthest. "It's workflow can keep files in RGB all the way up to the RIP," he adds. "Catalog publishers pick up product shots all the time, so having color-corrected RGB images enables them to be used for multiple purposes. That can mean big savings."

Gaughen says the RGB workflow also is more efficient because the tools for doing color correcting and swatch matching (usually for clothing) enable a color expert to work more quickly and efficiently.

The LA facility, on the other hand, mostly does publication work. Since publishers rarely pick up images and ad materials can come from a variety of outside sources, images are converted to CMYK after scanning, Gaughen reveals. Color management has made that process more efficient, however.

"We're now able to scan 20 to 30 percent more work in the same amount of time. You do have to think differently about the process, though. Our scanner operator is just capturing the images, which are transferred to a server. I can then have five or six color operators convert the images into CMYK using ICC profiles," he explains.

"You still need the right people converting the images. Color management is not a magic wand; that is probably the biggest misconception," he continues. "You're usually trying to improve the original, not just match it, so it still needs to be interpreted by a color person. "

Look to the Experts

He agrees with Hookway that hiring a consultant to help put a color management program in place can be a good way to start. "You need someone who knows what they are doing to get things off the ground, but you don't have to get all caught up in the stuff about color space and gamut," Gaughen says. "The main advice I would give anybody getting into color management is to first think about what your expectations are and what you are trying to achieve."

Returning to the question of a definition for color management, consultant and educator Don Hutcheson agrees with Veitch's Hookway that actions taken in the pressroom are a core component. Hutcheson helps teach a Graphic Arts Technical Foundation course entitled "Color Management in the Pressroom," in addition to being a principal with Hutcheson Consulting in Washington, NJ, which specializes in color management services.

"In reality, there is very little pure application of color management—in the ICC sense—within the pressroom," Hutcheson concedes. "But the pressroom is such a critical part of a fully color-managed system, that it is incorrect to say color management doesn't take place partly in the pressroom."

Color management in the pressroom is about how to stabilize and optimize the printing conditions, or perhaps multiple conditions due to the use of different stocks and presses, the color consultant says. This is accomplished through a program of measurement and changes in materials and processes.

The approach to color management in the pressroom that Hutcheson espouses starts with setting a standard of printing on a specific press with a given media. The next step is to figure out how to optimize the press and printing conditions to meet that standard, and then maintain it on an ongoing basis.

"Without a defined standard of printing and consistency in achieving it, color management is aiming at a moving target. If the output process is always changing, then you can only accomplish a limited level of effectiveness with color management," he asserts.

The end result of this process should be a press sheet that was run at what the operator considers to be the sweet spot of the press with a given set of materials, according to Hutcheson. This sheet can then be used to develop ICC-based profiles for use in the prep department.

In some cases, there can be sound reasons for not taking the final step of profiling—in the ICC sense—a press, he notes. One example is if a shop can't control the media it runs, possibly because it is supplied by customers.

Time to Take Control

"Nevertheless, it's certainly time for printers to calibrate their presses and understand how to control them on an ongoing basis," the consultant asserts. "The metrics we've used in the past—such as solid ink density and dot gain—may be useful for controlling a press, but they really don't suffice when it comes to appearance matching."

Hutcheson recommends a modified set of pressroom procedures that he says takes the same amount of effort, but redirects it to actions that are of greater use in managing color. Chief among these is maintaining gray balance throughout the press run.

"When I entered this industry 31 years ago, it appalled me that gray wasn't already the number one quality control metric, and it still isn't today. I'm trying to raise it to the stature of being one of the critical measurements in the pressroom."

While he generally has found people to be receptive to the concept, Hutcheson says it's understandable if the proposed adoption of color management meets with some skepticism in the pressroom. In the past, even if they did try to run to densities, dot gain or other metrics, press operators still were beaten up by trying to match unstable proofing systems.

The proof is at the heart of any color-managed workflow. If a shop elects to start by implementing color management in prepress (scanning and retouching), then proofing also must be involved. Hutcheson believe prepress is the logical starting point, assuming a shop has an in-house prep department, of course. If a printer does decide to begin by calibrating and profiling its presses, then it should at least do the same for its proofing, he adds.

The financial returns in the pressroom come from optimizing makereadies—meaning shorter and with substantially less waste. The ability to match the proof quicker also means huge dollars to a printer, Hutcheson notes.

In the prepress arena, he recommends that companies convert to an RGB-based workflow when implementing color management. The payoff in proofing comes from eliminating rounds of proofs and the ability to use much cheaper proofing systems to achieve the same, or even better, quality of proof.

For those looking to get started, these experts agree that the primary tools of the trade—regardless of application—include the Gretag-Macbeth ProfileMaker line and Monaco Systems' Profiler family of products, with ColorBlind from Imaging Technologies impacted by changes in its marketing approach. Hutcheson also likes Integrated Color Solutions' basICColor Display for monitor calibration and profiling.


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