The art of repro in the digital world

Simon Eccles
Monday, December 8, 2014

What happened to repro? Around a decade or so ago most photographs were still taken on film and getting them into halftone print required high-quality scanners together with repro operators with the skill and experience to get the best from the resulting digital files.

Now digital cameras have all but killed off film, nobody makes high-quality film scanners and it’s rare to hear about preparing pics for print. We do hear about profiling and colour management, but that assumes that the original images are identical and fit to print straight out of the camera. Anyone who’s ever wielded a camera in anger knows that they’re not.

Film scanner operators and repro technicians used to enhance images to get the best results in print as a matter of course. But with a few exceptions trade repro houses have died out, so who’s responsible for making sure the pics look their best? Photographers? Designers? Workflow operators?

Automation

Some of the old manual skills have been automated and built into pre-press workflows. The pre-press developers that used to build scanners, such as Fujifilm (which took over Crosfield) and Screen, have tended to incorporate elements of their scanners’ image enhancement programs into the pre-flight and file preparation modules of their all-digital workflows. 

Newspapers have to deal with large quantities of images from a range of sources, from professional agencies through to amateurs with phonecams. Time constraints mean that batch enhancement of images is an attractive option. Agfa is one supplier, with its specialist Enhance Intellitune module within its Arkitex newspaper workflow product range. “There are sometimes a lot of pictures for a news event, coming from various sources,” says Paul Adriaensen, Agfa Graphics PR manager. “Enhance Intellitune will get all the pictures in the same colour ‘mood’, and tonal specifications, detect faces and do global image corrections in a completely automated way.”

Dutch developer Elpical Software developed its Claro batch enhancement software package for similar high-volume requirements.

Elpical managing director John de Jong explains: “In Claro, the human assessment of images is replaced with artificial intelligence. Images get a thorough analysis, and based upon that the image gets enhanced. Every image is different and needs different treatment. If images are already very good, maybe manually enhanced by the photographer, you will see only subtle changes when processed through Claro, where on other images the difference is much bigger. Claro allows you to set target levels rather than fixed adjustments.”

However, Precision Printing managing director Gary Peeling says: “Today in general our clients’ designers will take care of the traditional reprographic function in terms of page make-up, so the images will be prepared and they’ll be presented, normally in a PDF file. We pre-flight the files before they are imposed in an automated procedure. We use Fujifilm XMF when receiving native files, or the whole process can be completely automated with applications like OneFlow, our own print-on-demand automated software.”

Photographs aren’t usually touched once they come in, he adds: “In most cases the images will have been colour-corrected and the adjustments that the designer requires have already been made. One of the things that’s helping tremendously is the uniformity of the ISO 12647 colour standard. We run to a set of profiles in each of the devices, whether digital or offset, so we have a predictable result. As long as the originator of the file has the correct competencies, then what they see on their screen is what we print here.”

Software success

It’s not that the designers and photographers need repro abilities, he feels, more that today’s desktop publishing software does a lot of the work for them. “I can’t remember when we last had a colour issue with an image, with someone who was producing something on a professional DTP system,” Peeling says. “It’s largely due to the advancement in the front-end software, but also that the profiling at most commercial print plants is now standardised. The whole subjectiveness of adjusting colour on-press has been completely removed.”

Paul Sherfield’s Missing Horse consultancy helps both originators and printers to set up colour-managed workflows. It is possible for clients to do good work on their own images, he says: “Adobe Creative Cloud, used correctly, is a repro shop in a box.” However, correct use can’t always be relied upon. “Photographers may just output CMYK with Fogra 39 and think that’s enough, without actually understanding it. The client wants the lower prices but often won’t take responsibility if it goes wrong.”

To help his printer clients, he gives them a sheet called Image Policy that contains the basic settings to set up colour-managed files correctly. The printers can pass this along to their clients. “It contains instructions for file sizes, resolution, profiles, etc,” he says. 

Modern pre-press workflows contain good colour management, he says. “The trouble is, not all the operators are now trained to understand colour. On the other hand companies working with high quality colour, such as Pureprint, will use Eizo screens and they employ retouchers to do an amazing job. There are still some pre-press houses left that have retouchers who work with photographers, mainly for things like cars, watches and fashion ads. There are also some freelance retouchers who work for agencies.”

Bill Greenwood is one such freelance. He used to work for London trade repro houses before becoming self-employed four years ago, setting up his own home studio. “I’ll go in, take a brief, pick up the job, take it away and do it, then send it back. With high-speed internet it’s a lot easier to shuffle big files around,” he says. 

Is there still much of a demand for retouching? “Most definitely,” he says. “A lot of catalogue work is swatch-matched and still needs a human eye to look it over. For clothing, say, you’re going to be looking at slight creases in garments, maybe, or it’s a pre-production model where you’re taking a label off to match the later real world garments. I still do a lot of that, and for packaging. Less so for magazine work.”

He says that raw files from digital cameras are the modern equivalent of scanning and retouching. “With raw files, the photographer or anyone they pass the raw file to can be in control of output. To a degree you can change exposure, swap your hue around, without much damage to the file when you output. 

“Some photographers won’t give the raw files and you’ll get RGB or CMYK TIFFs. Or some will happily say I’ve taken the shot, there’s the raw files, get on with it.” 

One of the surviving London trade repro houses is Idea Digital in London. Director Martin Orpen still has three old drum scanners and a couple of pre-press flatbeds, and a stock of old Macs to drive them via SCSI cables. Most of the scanning work is from photographers who still work with film or prints. However, there’s still traditional trade repro work around. “The most common call I’ll get from a new client is when a job’s gone wrong on press,” Orpen says. “It’s ‘oh, we’ve heard you may be able to fix it.’ That’s the call.

“It’s a shame, but it’s the end result of a history where clients didn’t want to spend the money on repro. The end clients, who pay the bills, don’t know what we do. They don’t see the point of pre-press, and they don’t see why they should have to allocate a budget for it when everyone else has said for years that if you choose the right photographer and printer, that’s all you need. That just highlighted that there is a massive gap in the knowledge of the printers, who having the end device, had no interest or need to bother about repro.”

Fashion photographer Clive Booth loves print and make sure he gets the best results by handling his own raw conversions in Adobe Lightroom. “Ideally the photographer will have a reference monitor,” he says. He has a 30in NEC SpectraView Reference 301 monitor, costing about £2,000, plus an X-Rite i1 Pro 2 colour calibration kit. “It’s the same as a pre-press house. I’ve also got a daylight viewing system and I use printer profiles and screen profiles. It’s vital to have a colour-managed workflow. Then nine tenths of the time what you see on the screen comes out as expected. On my own Canon I can also do pretty good CMYK proofs using the Fogra 39 profile.”

Booth previously trained and worked as a designer. “I spent a lot of time sitting behind presses and learned enormous respect for those people,” he says. He works with printers that still have true repro facilities when he can – he’s recently worked with Print4 in Nottingham on four-colour black and white work, printed on a Heidelberg press with 350lpi screens, which the company calls SuperHD print. “It was very impressive, with huge detail,” he says. 

“I still work with the repro guy I used to work with when I was a designer 10 years ago. If I have work from a reputable magazine or book publisher, I’ll give them a low res image to lay out, and they’ll send me a PDF or InDesign file that I pass to my repro guy. He has the same reference monitor as me and he’ll work on it for print, and send it back to the publisher. Sizing and sharpening is vital. But most people will just drop files into a workflow and let the automatics take care of everything.” 

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