Color Management and Your Customer

by admin on April 15, 2009

Never Go Full Retard

Never Go Full Retard

So there was this massive thread on Printplanet about whether you tell your customers to send you RGB or CMYK, culminating in a poll where about 75% of prepress shops prefer the customers send CMYK.

Naturally, when I first heard of this poll, I thought to myself "What a silly question, of course you ask your clients to send in RGB, good grief don't have them covert to CMYK."

Now, if you don't understand color management very well, I will try to explain. If you convert an image to CMYK, you have a bit of a problem because the CMYK values for each different output device is different. It's obvious when you think about it: When you output to wide-format Epson plotter, of course the values for magenta and cyan will be different than the values for a offset press, in order to get prints that look reasonably similar.

If you don't understand why that is the case, then um, please don't ever come to my shop look to print a four color catalog. That is, if I ever get employed by a prepress shop again. Which is doubtful.

Fortunately, when you convert a image to CMYK in Photoshop, the application is smart to embed a look up table (LUT) in the image, that so happens to be called an ICC profile in prepress lingo. So if you want to look at the image on-screen, some magic is applied, the LUT for that particular output mode is called (in this case,  RGB profile is applied), and the appropriate values are munged together, and voila, you can see the "CMYK" image on screen. Sorta the same thing happens when you go to press, the generic CMYK profile is reference BUT a CMYK profile specially made  for the press is applied so the color  comes out looking correct.

Now, looking back at the last couple of paragraphs, I have simplified things just a little. Okay, I simplified things a lot. But I hope I made my point: There are no universal CMYK values for each and every printing device, so you might as well tell the customer to leave it in RGB.

Now, about 75% of sys admins in prepress shops disagree, and it's worthwhile to examine why they disagree with the obvious point made above. Now, the answer is simple but not very diplomatic, and to avoid writing many words that simply dance around the issue, I'll just come out say it: Most of our customers are retards. And ever worse, they don't care that they are retards. They expect us to embrace their retardness and just make things work.

Now this is not a personal revelation for me. I first stumbled upon this epiphany waaaay back in 1994, when a customer ordered film for a full-color job but wanted to save money by only ordering 3 sheets of film, Red, Green and Blue. No kidding, instead of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, he wanted Red, Green, and Blue. I could go on and on about idiot  requests I've entertained from the customers over the years but hey, every prepress sys admin (and ex-sys admin) has a million war stories. Go read some prepress forums if you don't believe me.

When you convert an image to CMYK from Photoshop to RGB, you actually shrink the gamut as Photoshop tries to mimic a printed sheet on-screen. This is a polite way of saying that you are crippling the image so as to lower expectations with the customers. But of course not all our customers are retards, oh no that would make things too easy. Some prepress customers are extremely knowledgeable about color management and so get somewhat upset when they are told they have to convert to CMYK on their end, especially when you don't provide them the press targets (and really, far too few printing companies make their press profiles available to knowledgeable customers).

What we really need in prepress is a retard sensor that we could hang over the door. If the retard sensor flashes bright red, then we would know to tell the customer to send everything in CMYK. If it flashes green, we could tell them to leave images in RGB. Heck, we could even send them the press profile so they could do color correction at home (because the truly professional customers are fanatical about color, and they color-correct their screens at least once a week, and baby their inkjet printers more than a Hell's Angel babies his Harley).

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Len April 16, 2009 at 6:27 am

I completely agree. I think most shops prefer not to take on the responsibility. It is all too easy to blame the customer for how the image printed if the image is supplied CMYK.

The more interesting debate is over whether or not to convert RGB to CMYK before or in the RIP. Which brings to question whether or not to color correct in RGB.

Great lead photo. Too funny.

Mike Davis April 18, 2009 at 4:42 am

Great picture! And so politically incorrect. We loved it.

You’ve summed up and said what we all probably think about many clients, but were afraid to say. I’ve worked in printing companies, trade shops and service bureaus forever. I still have trouble believing how little some clients understand about color while being entrusted with big expensive print projects.

It’s important to mention that there is also plenty of color retardation in many prepress departments, too.

Realizing all this, I founded Colorprep in 2003 to help both the graphic designers and printers by doing all final CMYK preparation. We only concern ourselves with the images themselves. The designers get to see ganged prepress proofs and have everything the way they like prior to sending the job off to their printer. The printers receive everything ready to go, with no need to check any images.

Regarding Len’s comment about converting to CMYK or doing the conversion at the RIP stage: My opinion is that it would currently be much safer to just go ahead and convert to the correct CMYK profile as desired by the printer. Since you need to know which CMYK profile is being used, so you can soft proof while in RGB, you might as well go ahead and convert. All work here is done in RGB and only converted at the end for the final supplied files.

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