Across the board, digital workflows have enabled production teams to deliver more content faster at less cost. This is certainly true as well in processing and trafficking digital photographs. Yet, like any new workflow with a high degree of technological support, acquiring and processing digital images comes with its own learning curve and bottlenecks. Interestingly, the digital image production process has carried forward some of the checks and balances used in the film days.

Images in the Raw
John Blanchard, vice president, manufacturing at Reed Business Information, foresaw the inevitable march toward all-digital photography about four years ago and modified his internal prepress operation to handle the new file formats. According to Blanchard, 98 percent of RBI’s materials are now supplied in a digital format. Transparency scanning has largely been replaced with a digital workflow. He knew, however, that the place to start was at the image’s origin;the photographer. "We published standards through which we would receive digital materials directly from the photographers;certain pixel depth, resolution, and we were, and still are, adamant about accepting raw images," he says.

The raw image format is essentially an image straight from the camera without any manipulation or processing applied to it. The more the file is converted or manipulated and re-saved, the more its file information can be degraded. "We prefer raw images because we have our own color conversion algorithms that we use that are optimized into our color management workflow," says Blanchard. "We’ve got all the data necessary to process that image in a way suitable for its eventual application."

Color Assurances
Dan Westergren, senior photo editor at National Geographic Traveler, also prefers raw images but points out that the processing of those files works best if techniques from the transparency days are modified for the new digital context. Westergren’s operation outsources prepress services, which kick in once the photo editors make their first selection from the randoms submitted by the photographer. "It’s kind of difficult because the raw files really don’t look that good;the photographers used to choose particular types of film in order to get a certain color palette," he says. "And with a raw file, I think some people have the misperception that it is what it really looked like. But it’s not at all. A lot depends on the software that’s used to open that file. Is it set to make automatic adjustments on that image? So there’s all these things that as you learn about the nature of the capture device you have to counteract."

The prepress operators, who actually work on color-correct workstations on-site at the magazine, are told to essentially treat the raw files as if they were processing a scan. "I expect them to check black point and white point and color," says Westergren. "The only difference is they don’t have the reference of the transparency of what it’s supposed to look like. For example, if there’s a photographer in Maine that takes pictures of the Aurora Borealis, what on earth is that supposed to look like?"

To reorient the prepress staff, Westergren has the photographers send a low-resolution corrected RGB file to use as a guide for converting the raw file to an image that best resembles the original subject.

Workflow Efficiencies
Both Westergren and Blanchard cite time and cost savings that are achieved by working exclusively with digital images. Westergren, for example, says the elimination of film and processing alone have saved the magazine significantly. "Let’s say in a year we do 28 stories and for each story there are 150 rolls of film. That’s 4,200 rolls of film and we used to use a figure of $18 per roll. That’s $75,000."

Blanchard notes that the very nature of his prepress operation is optimized to save time and eliminate roadblocks. "Transparency scanning can be very meticulous and it used to take a lot of time," he says. "Any controls that we put around material submission, be it advertising or digital photography or otherwise, needs to be implemented on the basis that we’re eliminating roadblocks and speeding the process up."

Keep in Mind
Just because photos files are digital, doesn’t mean you’re set to go. Here’s what to keep in mind as you traffic the files through the production process.

  • Adobe PhotoShop, commonly the first application to open a raw file, has a feature called Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), which is activated when a new image file is opened. Make sure you check the default settings, which change according to camera model. An image taken with a Nikon D2X will open with different preference settings than an image from a Canon EOS 5D, for example.
  • Stock agencies, obviously a popular source of digital imagery, often traffic in JPEG file formats. If detail is important, be aware that every time a JPEG is resaved, the image becomes further compressed. Multiple savings of the files can result in noticeable artifacts;checkerboard patterns or high contrast edges, for example. Try to save the JPEG as a TIFF as early in the process as you can.
  • Invest in prepress services. "It’s all too tempting for people to get a copy of PhotoShop and just use the software," says Blanchard. "While [prepress] is an additional expense, I strongly recommend that it be factored into operating expenses in order to maintain quality and get the most out of the materials that you publish."