In PDF Workflows, the Big Challenge is Color Management
by Bert langford, with technical perspectives provided by Matt Beals and David Zwang
An extraordinary 21 percent of respondents to a September, 2006, survey in Folio: cited a "lack of manufacturing standards" as a real problem facing the magazine industry. This in spite of the hard work that the allied industries did in drafting the International Standards Organization (ISO) accredited PDF/X-1a standard. Why? Because because PDF/X-1a only scratches the surface by generally accommodating all the printing markets without adequately addressing any, including magazines.
Even so, the Folio: survey reports that 90 percent of the responding publishers indicated they rely on workflows using some variation of PDF. So just what file specifications are publishers following?
The answer is that publishers attempt to follow their printers’ specifications, as is traditional for any "materials" the publisher provides the printer, including paper stock and inserts. This evolving process requires that printers take a commanding role in not only setting what the printer can and can not accept from his customers, but, also help educate publishers in how to prepare files correctly.
Heading Towards "Single-Button" CTP File Production
In the typical life cycle of computer technology, software starts out requiring considerable expertise to operate. It also typically has little or no integration between workflows involving multiple applications. After a while, however, software becomes more intelligent and more capable of solving and even fixing problems, as well as acheiving more integration into a single and automated workflow. This is the goal publishers need to focus on in order to remain competitive in a multimedia world today.
In fact, according to Vicki Blake, director of business development for Enfocus, and executive director of the Ghent PDF Workgroup, Enfocus’ Instant PDF product accomplishes just that. It intuitively and reliably creates certified PDFs that comply with print or advertiser vendors’ specifications, from within industry-leading page-layout and PDF tools such as Adobe InDesign, QuarkXPress, Adobe Acrobat and others.
If it were merely a matter of furnishing PDF/X-like files that printers were satisfied with, tremendous gains would have been made. However, there is still a long way to go.
Will Color Management Remain the 1,000-Pound Gorilla?
The complication remains the role of color management. Publishers, advertisers and their respective vendors as well as printers, are seeking to implement color-management capabilities that can totally streamline the digital process: From creator to printer. This effort, though, once again requires a huge knowledge base of on-staff expertise that publishers historically have left to their prepress vendors.
Naturally as photographers move into digital photography, the cost of and expertise in color scanning becomes less an issue for this otherwise formidable obstacle to a "single-button solution."
Yet, color management in itself is quite formidable. And matters are evolving. For some publishers with the volume and resources to justify the return, color management has become an inherent way of life. "We have a scanning and color-corrections specialist on staff who still scans many transparencies for several of our titles," says Bob Dawson, production director of Affinity Group, Inc. (AGI). "Just as importantly though, several of our art directors continue to use his expertise to fine tune the digital images they receive for their titles."
Enter the Ghent PDF Workgroup (GWG)
Color-management technology is improving each day. David Zwang, publishing consultant and vice chairman of the Ghent PDF Workgroup (GWG), an international organization dedicated to the practical use of PDFs in print workflows, explains that while color management has often appeared to be an elusive dream technology, there has been significant progress.
"We have had self-calibrating monitors for a while, and there is some further good news with the release of the new HP DesignJet Z2100 and Z3100 printer/proofers," Zwang says. "They have a built in X-Rite EyeOne Spectrophotometer that can keep the device in calibration, and bundled software that can do device characterization. This is undoubtedly the first of many color printer/proofers that will include this type of technology. Once the devices are self-calibrating, a part of the problem is solved. As you look toward future technology purchases, self-calibration is something you should require. Any incremental cost will be offset by the savings in rework and time."
The bigger problem will be getting color-management devices to work seamlessly in the process. "Setting aside the issues surrounding viewing conditions, the physiology of seeing color, and issues of subjectivity, we still have a bigger problem," says Zwang. "When we look at a proof, we are setting an expectation of the final output. If the results of the proofer don’t represent the target output device, color management, as a concept, has failed. Color management goes a long way toward matching colors. However, it really can’t do much for colors outside a device’s reproducible color space, nor if you’re not setting your expectations for the final output."
"Current standards are developed by pushing the limits of available technology, in effect offering you the highest quality product," continues Zwang. "Even though there is a standard for the production of color print, color has always been treated as a regional issue. The graphic arts industry in the U.S. has promoted color standards, like SWOP TR001 for example, while the corresponding industries in Europe, Japan, and others promoted their own. This surely complicates global print efforts, but it also confuses local efforts. Most design software provides access to a plethora of profiles in a pull-down menu."
In 2002, GWG took on the challenge of globally aligning all of the requirements for creating a PDF file based on the requirements of the specific market segment and technology (i.e., commercial print, newspaper, magazine, gravure, flexo, offset, web sheetfed and more). Until then, the globally agreed upon PDF/X standards didn’t differentiate between the different requirements of commercial print, newspapers and magazines.
"The success of this effort drove an effort on the part of the various national graphic arts standards bodies to look at developing a set of globally acceptable color profiles based on printing technology and paper types," says Zwang. The effort started with a Printing Across Borders (PAB) meeting in London in May 2005.
"To the skilled professional it will simplify and ensure that they would be able to produce their color and set their expectations to a set of standards that could be achieved anywhere in the world," says Zwang. "To the less skilled, it will mean that the profile choices in the design applications could be reduced to a clear and simple set of choices that would allow them to accurately set their expectations and have them met by their output provider. You should be able to see the new globally agreed upon color standards sometime in 2007."
Mark Stoner, senior prepress manager of the American magazine printer Fry Communications, flatly states, "I’m quite confident that the [GWG] specs as they are currently written would provide Fry with good files if they would be adopted by the publishing community."
Matt Beals, a PDF/X expert and consultant accredited by both Enfocus and Markzware, explains, "The Ghent PDF Workgroup expanded upon the PDF/X-1a specification and created de jure standards for specific needs. They developed specialized requirements for magazine advertising, sheetfed printing, newspapers and others. Within each of these niche markets they were able to decide collectively what the best practices were for each market segment."
Which Workflow Is Better: CMYK or RGB?
On the road towards "simplification," some experts contend that the industry needs to move from PDF/X-1a onto a PDF/X-3 platform to properly incorporate and handle color management, including its inherent RGB workflow and the ability to embed ICC color profiles as a part of the PDF/X-3 files."The main advantages to an RGB workflow is that the same image can be used for multiple applications;such as for both print and Web," Stoner explains. "This is important if the intent is to use images for mediums other than print. You throw away some potentially important color data by converting the images to CMYK. The CMYK color gamut is small when compared to RGB."
RGB workflows do not require a color expert to understand the theory behind RGB to CMYK conversion. But understanding color management and the application of profiles is no piece of cake either.
Compare the advantages:
ﾕ RGB files are 25 percent smaller than CMYK. ﾕ Most image capture devices, e.g., digital cameras and desktop scanners, create RGB images. ﾕ Photoshop has more options for image manipulation when working in an RGB color space and ICC destination and display profiles will allow the editing of an image in RGB while viewing the results in CMYK. ﾕ You can still view CMYK equivalents even if you are working in RGB. ﾕ When in RGB space you are in the same space as your monitor. ﾕ Gray balance is much easier in RGB than CMYK. Equal values mean a good balanced gray.
Interestingly, there remains considerable resistance to changing from CMYK to RGB workflows from those used to working in CYMK workflows. "I’ve learned there is a lack of enthusiasm among experienced operators to change technologies in any field," says Stoner.
Still, Gina Sigmon, director of technical sales, Quebecor World, suggests that "PDF/X-3 would become the predominant standard when color management is widely accepted and color-management methods render a closer match."
Selecting Your PDF Workflow
If you are currently reevaluating your PDF workflow, or are thinking about converting to one, assess what you really require. "When I sit down with clients and examine their needs for a PDF-based workflow, part of what we discuss is what the real needs of the workflow are," says Beals. "Not what is wanted, but what is needed."
But getting publishers and advertisers to look beyond their own immediate needs is a problem. "The challenge in adopting a standard is that it is counter-intuitive for many of us," Beals continues. "ﾑThe standard doesn’t fit what I need’ is what I hear from people. Much of the time that can be dispelled very quickly. Europeans have been using these profiles and methods with great success."
Adoption of ISO Coated, Uncoated and Web color profiles, CertifiedPDF from Enfocus and the Ghent Work Group profiles for PDFs have all gone a long way to easing communications between content creators and print providers. "If we can wrap our heads around the efforts of Ghent, we will be able to communicate in a much clearer manner and be more efficient," says Beals.
Where Is This Heading And Should You Get on Board?
Zwang insists that "working with standards and best practices" should be an imperative to anyone in the publishing field. "If you haven’t started the move to RGB (or more properly described ﾑdevice independent’) workflows, you should start the process," he says.
By implementing a device-independent workflow, with the coming introduction of PDF/X-4 and PDF/X-5, along with the new RIPs, like those based on the Adobe PDF Print Engine, publishers will be able to finally put some of the historic WYSIWYG problems like Transparency and hidden objects behind them, according to Zwang.
More importantly, publishers will be pleasantly surprised at how easy the transition is, and how much better they and their process partners are at meeting expectations. The PDF/X-Plus efforts of the Ghent PDF Workgroup will ensure you can create a file that can be targeted to the process you are using, and ensure that it will be processed reliably and accurately to the final output requirements.
"For those who are a bit skittish about how to start there are many resources that you can tap," Zwang says. The ICC Web site (www.color.org), and the Ghent PDF Workgroup site (www.gwg.org) and Adobe (www.adobe.com) offer excellent information, downloads and whitepapers.
For those publishers that need some assistance in getting started, there are many reputable consultants and other integrators that would be happy to help you make the necessary transition. And, don’t hesitate to ask your printer for help!