Saturday, November 07, 2009

Getting stuff printed

As the title says, this Blog post is about getting stuff printed. But before I delve into that, I want to express my thanks to Larry Becker, Executive Director of NAPP, who was kind enough to say some good things about me on his NAPP News podcast this week, and he put a link to this Blog on the front page of the NAPP site. He commented that I had some good things to say about NAPP on the Blog and he's right, I did.

I didn't say stuff because I wanted anything: well, OK, I could use a Mac, and a pro-series Nikon lens in the midrange would be nice... but more and more, I find myself going to the NAPP site for inspiration and to learn new techniques. I regularly browse the member's galleries for ideas and often come across some real gems. There's one fellow I'm corresponding with and have asked his permission to talk about his work on here, but I'll wait untill he says it's OK before I say anything else.

The only constructive criticism I would make  (OK, I could make more, but not today!) is about "constructive criticism". Comments that people make on members' pictures are always complimentary, always positive like Paula what's-her-name on American Idol. Like, "Nice Capture. I love the texture in the background and the glow of the skin tones...". Honestly, these comments come from a lot of knowledgeable experts and I'd rather read, "This shot has great potential. Try moving the subject out of the center and drop the exposure a little so the hilite on her forehead isn't blown out. Oh by the way, nice texture in the background!". There seems to be a general taboo on constructive criticism there.

Anyway, I've had hundreds of new visitors to my Blog and I'm honoured. I hope people find it interesting and informative. With a new expanded readership, I'm going to have to put more effort into my writing, and research stuff better before posting!

On to the topic for today -- getting stuff printed.
Now I'm NOT talking about getting your photos printed at a service bureau or on your own printer. I'm not qualified to talk about that stuff because, well, I'm not good at it, and I left the darkroom behind me 25 or more years ago. No, I'm talking about getting stuff PRINTED. Like on a printing press. Like cards and brochures and forms and labels and... you know, "PRINTED". Many of you may not do that very often, sometimes never, but if you need a business card, why shouldn't you design it yourself in Photoshop and send it to a printer to be produced? You may not be a graphic designer, but well, every time I hand someone one of my business cards, I feel that 'glow' when they say, "nice card!", knowing I did it myself!

Here's my FACzen business card, front & back:

By the way I love how the back of the card looks with the trim marks and border there, so I used it just like that on the website!
I designed it but I didn't print it. In fact I sent it to a company called "" and they printed it. But you can't just send them a JPG file and expect it to be printed the way you want. You have to prepare it for them. And that's what I'm going to talk about here.

Now the company I just mentioned is not typical. They know exactly how to print business cards from electronic artwork — that's what they do all day. And they have some special requirements and some templates and all kinds of good stuff to help you so that you'll have predictable results. If you do go to (they advertise in PhotoshopUser magazine and I was very satisfied with how I was treated and the results), by all means go to their website and follow the bouncing ball. Your local printer, the guy you're more likely to deal with for smaller or more custom jobs, is a little different. This Blog is about dealing with a local shop.

Sidebar: about this supplier has another name, it's "Boss Logo". Same company. They happen to be located in Toronto but that doesn't matter much. Their business revolves around the 'trade' so I'm sure they have two different pricing structures for end users and people who are reselling thir work. I'll ask them and report back here when they get back to me. If they don't deal with end users, well I have an account there, so you could order through me. Send me an email! They work by ganging up orders on one big sheet, so if you order anything special — spot inks, different coatings or stock, etc., it will cost you more. However they do a damned fine job with their standard stuff. I had my cards done with a matte laminate and they look spectacular.

Because they deal with "us" — digital people — they've taken the trouble to design and make available templates in a variety of programs. Like I said, "follow the bouncing ball" — start on the Online Resources tab and read about the file specs (they want .tif files, BTW) and look at the templates. You will need to sign in before they will share their pricing with you. BTW when I first started dealing with them, their minimum order was indeed 5000 cards. Not true any more, my last order was for only 1000. And they do a lot of other stuff, not just cards.

Yes this is a plug for them. They don't know (yet) that I'm writing this. They did a great job for me — on my own stuff and on outside jobs, and I wanted to acknowledge them.

In the old days, a printer would only accept colour-separated film and burn printing plates from the film — one for each colour (I'll talk about 4-colour process in a minute). Today, like us, they're digital. They still need a printing plate but it's a digital process and they can work from a file instead of pieces of film. The guy I deal with works best from a .pdf file. So we'll talk about that.

The first thing you need to know is the difference between RGB and CMYK colour. Red, Green, and Blue are "additive colors". If we combine red, green and blue light you will get white light. This is the principal behind the monitor you are looking at right now, and it's also what you use when you prepare a file to be printed on an inkjet printer, whether on your own desktop printer or at Costco or another bureau. However, open up that inkjet printer: it doesn't use Red, Green and Blue ink! Magic happens between your computer and the printer and your file gets translated! The printing world operates in subtractive color, or CMYK mode. Cyan, Magenta and Yellow (and black) are "subtractive colors". If we print cyan, magenta and yellow inks on white paper, they absorb the light shining on the page. Since our eyes receive no reflected light from the paper, we perceive black. Ideally, 100% Cyan plus 100% Magenta plus 100% Yellow would absorb all the light and you'd get black, but to get a really good black, you need to add a layer of black ink as well. The letter "K" is used for the black layer to avoid confusion with "B"lue.

4-colour process is laying down amounts of up to 4 different colours of ink: CMY&K, to produce any given colour. If you want red, you mix Magenta and Yellow. For green, you mix Cyan & Yellow. For dark blue, Cyan, Magenta and Black. you can get any colour that way. Sometimes printers use premixed "spot" inks, say to achieve the exact colour that a logo requires, but that's expensive because they have to stop everything, wash the press, mix the ink, ink the press, run it, wash it and replace the standard CMYK inks again for the next job. You want to avoid using spot colours if you can. For standard stuff anyway. Spot inks are more precise, generally richer and you can do neat stuff like putting down metallic inks, matte and gloss varnishes, etc. but that's not for normal work. It's too expensive.

Sidebar. Getting fancy.
If you want to print a pure rich black, it ain't going to happen by using black ink only. Without getting too technical, you should mix in some CMY as well, usually Cyan. Photoshop knows this. Open Photoshop, and press the "D" key to set the colours to the default. Now click on the black swatch and look at the color picker. Notice the percentages of different colours that Photoshop assigns to the colour "Black".

It's not 100% of everything because you would create "mud" by laying too much ink on the paper and it would spread out like crazy when it gets absorbed by the paper you're printing on. But it's not just black!
So the first thing you need to do is convert your document to CMYK which you do in Photoshop under Image --> Mode. So let's get started. As an example, I'll use a job I did recently for my own company which makes First Aid kits. (we make really outstanding First Aid kits. You need one in your shop, your car, your house, your backpack... if you tell me you saw this here, I'll give you a discount when you order via our website) I needed some new labels for two new kits and instead of just doing a simple silkscreen, I decided to do full-colour glossy labels. The printer I send to likes to use 8.5x11 sheets, so in this case, I put two labels on the same sheet, then he trims them out after printing.  Without going into a lot of extraneous detail, he likes working from a 300dpi file, so I made sure all my documents were CMYK, 300dpi. I created a new document in Photoshop with those parameters, then I dragged the two images I wanted to print into it.

No fair critiquing my artwork, OK? I never claimed to be an artist, but it seems to work!

Remember I said he was going to trim the images out of the sheet after printing it? Printers have these huge cutters that resemble a guillotine (that's what they're called, actually). I'm always surprised that printers aren't missing fingers and stuff, but the machines are intelligently designed: you have to hold down two separate buttons to make the blade come down, so your hands are nowhere near the blade. Anyway, to make it easy for him to cut, you want to line stuff up so he has the fewest operations. The green arrow above shows you that I need to line up the left edges of the two images so he can cut them in one shot.

You have to tell him where to cut. So you need to put "corner marks" on the page to guide his knife. I find the easiest way to do that is to drag some guides into the document, then use the pencil tool (holding the Shift key down to keep it from straying off the vertical or horizontal). The marks have to be OUTSIDE the printed area, like this:

Next, you go around the document and lay down all the corner marks. I like to do that on a separate layer so I can change it if I have to without affecting the pictures. If you're going to do this a lot, keep the layer as a separate template, then drag it into the document you're working on and drag the corners to where you want them. "Snap to Guides" helps.

Some of the corner marks may not be visible because they're hidden by the guidelines. You can turn those off temporarily with Ctrl-H. They don't print, so don't worry about them.

Now save your document, flatten it, and print it to a PDF file.

Remember, it has to be in CMYK mode.

I use a free PDF program called PrimoPDF (sorry Adobe. It is free...) It does what I need it to do. If you need more features, check out their premium product here. Be sure to set the colour management to the US-standard. This is the Photoshop print dialogue box:

Primo PDF asks you what you want to do with the file you're creating. It compresses differently and adjusts other parameters accordingly. I chose "Prepress" as you can see from the next image.

The resulting file was about 1.5Mb in size. Next step is to send it to the print shop as an email attachment. Now if you trust the guy, you can just tell him to go ahead. Be careful: ask for a proof if you can. For any large job, you might even want to be there before he runs it, to do what they call a "press proof". If you're printing thousands of pages or printing on tons of paper, it's a good idea to have a last look before that typo you never noticed gets printed on 3/4 of a million expensive sheets of paper.

 This isn't rocket science.
  • Create your images
  • Convert them to CMYK
  • Place them on the appropriate size sheet for your print shop
  • Add trim marks as necessary
  • Print it to a full-resolution PDF
  • Send it to your print shop
  • Sit back and pour yourself a glass of single-malt scotch to celebrate
  • Send me a bottle as a thank you
  • Don't tell anyone how easy it was.
Any questions?