View Full Version : Printing high quality books - printing process

Julian Boulter
21-Dec-2004, 06:42
I have several books by large format photographers (Jack Dykinga, Joe Cornish etc) and I've just taken delivery of George Tice 'Urban Landscapes'. I am astounded by the print quality of these books which exceed anything I have printed using drum scans, lightjets, inkjets, cibas etc. I have been interested in the process used to produce these books and performed a little research. I understand that the images are probably drum scanned, stored as CMYK, computer manipulated, output to plates, and then printed using offset lithography.

My question is (taking 'Urban Landscapes' as an example - would the original B+W negs have been scanned and then computer manipulated or would the B + W prints themselves have been scanned? It's just that I would have thought it a little soul destroying to have produced such beautiful prints using all the traditional techniques required, e.g. dodging, burning, masks etc, only to have to go through the whole process again once the neg had been scanned in order to produce a book. What is the general method, and can anyone explain the printing process used in more detail?


adrian tyler
21-Dec-2004, 07:16
you are right about the process. under normal cricumstances most photo books are reproductions of original prints. they are drum scanned but with specific sharp masks and contrast settings to look optimal at small "book"sizes. these settings are not valid for making "real" photographic reproductios for 2 reasons, firstly all the sharpening and contrast look great in a book reproduction say 12"x12", but if you take that scan and make a photographic print say 36"x36" you'll see all the signs of too much sharp masking, "graininess" and will be dissapointed. the second reason is that cmyk produces less colour than rgb and offset litho printing less than lambdas and inkjets. if you want your colour prints too look like these reproductions you are going to need one of two things: be and extemely skilled printmaker yourself, or have lots of money to pay someone who is.

specifically on b/w reproductions, the scans are made in duotone, tritone or quadratone, to make 2,3 or 4 plates for printing, sometimes with one of the plates being used as a second black ink to reinfoce shadows and sometimes a plate for varnish overprint which helps the blacks too. a second/third/forth colour, usualy grey is usually used to tone the image, work the midtones, a warm or cold grey or something like that.

there is a lot written about how to simulate this process for photographic output in photoshop, but you should be able to get this done at home best using fibre based paper and your negatives and some time to experiment, especialy if you know what you are after.

Frank Petronio
21-Dec-2004, 08:02
Up until recently, most color work was reproduced from the original transparency film, and only in the past few years has digital retouching been used for more than "fixing" flaws or dust spots because printers charged huge fees for minor digital work. These "chromes" were almost always drum scanned. The fine black and white reproductions you refer to were generally made from fine 8x10 or 11x14 prints, specially printed for reproduction, with slightly more open shadows and burnt down highlights compared to a fine exhibition print. These prints used to be drum scanned; nowdays they would likely be scanned on a high-quality flatbed OR a drum scanner.

Currently, many more photographers are using color negative film, which is either scanned and manipulated in Photoshop, or color prints, which are flatbed or drum scanned. Many fashion photographers go this route. Earlier scanners were never set up to scan color negatives properly - the printer's workflow was based on the assumption of "matching the transparency". Whenever I submited a color negative they would be thrown into a tizzy, as they had no reference point to judge color.

Before scanning (1970s) and up until the last ten years or so, most printers bought color separations from an independant color separation house. These were places that "shot" images for reproduction using process cameras. They created a 100% sized screened film for each color plate. Most of these businesses became scanning operators, then went bankrupt, as the price of scanning has come down enough that printers have set-up scanning departments - or designers and photographers do the scans themselves. You can find older drum scanners for the taking - if you can haul them (they can weigh tons) you can have them ;-)

Some of the B&W fine-art books are printed in duotone (two colors), tritone, or quadtone inks - essentially multiple passes of black and grey plates. But black and white images may also be reproduced using the conventional Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK) inks (this has the advantage of a reliable workflow and proofing methods - it is very hard to accurately proof a duotone other than to run it on press.) Some high-end doutones (tris and quads) are made from films shot by photographer Richard Benson and his apprentices - he is still shooting with a process camera, and runs a very tight ship. He often works with high-quality printers like Meriden Stinehour, and their books sing (see William Clift's books).

Your local printer uses the same technology, and often the same equipment, as the printing jobs you admire. The differrence between a common commercial printer and a better printer is the skill and craftsmanship that they apply to their craft - just like photography. There have been many new technologies and sub-processes aimed at improving print quality - waterless litho, seven-color inks, new screening patterns, etc. - but in the end, even mainstream technology, done with care, with proper equipment - will do a superb job.

David E. Rose
21-Dec-2004, 08:24
If you want to see an outstanding example of Richard Benson's printing skills, look at a copy of "Paul Strand: An American Vision". This is the finest monochrome printing I have seen. There was an article by Benson in an early issue of Lenswork that explained his philosophy of ink reproduction- it would be worth reading.

John Flavell
21-Dec-2004, 08:45
If you troll the internet and library resources you can find tech notes and essays by the likes of Ansel Adams and Minor White on printing and publishing. Both of these guys, and many others, jumped on the bandwagon early for drum scanning prints and insisting on quad tone printing for their books. In the early days we didn't have the computers to store images. We went straight from the scan to the pre-press film and then to the plate.

When I talk to groups about how we get a color images into a newspaper they seem to have the most trouble grasping the concept that color image uses four units of the press to make one image. It's the same with quadtone black and white with each of the units running a different shade of grey.

I also note the irony of it all. In the film world we're using a method that's been around for over a century to make the image, turning it over to the high-tech world to pre-press the image, then giving back to a method that's been around for centuries for final publishing. In that middle and end part, we still need highly trained people who are artists in their own right.

For smaller projects I see most of us are trying to find ways to publish our own books in very limited runs just for the joy of it.

MIke Sherck
21-Dec-2004, 08:51
Brooks Jensen, editor of Lenswork magazine, has written quite a bit about fine printing in his magazine. You might want to contact him via his website, Lenswork.com, or pick up an issue or two of the magazine to see what he's talking about. Personally, I think that Lenswork's quality of printing is unrivaled in the market today and he's gone through quite a learning experience to get it that way. His experiance should be valuable.


Jerry Flynn
21-Dec-2004, 09:14

I took a workshop with George Tice a few years ago. He was explaining how duotone and tritone works. Being a very particular worker, he worked very closely with the printer choosing the appropriate colors and densities of the various layers. He showed us the separations for a few images from "Urban Landscapes" showing the different colors of inks, etc. It was very instructive.

The quality of reproduction has improved over the years, but I would think that a knowledgeable photographer working very closely with the printer is key to the ultimate end product.

One comment he made was that sometimes he had to sacrifice some of the royalties he might get from the book sales in order to get the publisher to agree to changes that would result in the quality Tice wanted in the book.

Michael A.Smith
21-Dec-2004, 21:17
The responses so far are right on regarding the process. The finest offset printing today is done by Salto, a small company in Belgium. They print black and white in 600-line screen quadtone. The finer the screen the more difficult it is to control the ink and keep it in the dot. To my knowledge, no other printer can print with this fine a screen and with blacks at densities over 3.0 and still keep full shadow detail. They just printed 5 big books for our publishing company, Lodima Press, including a 252-page Edward Weston book. And we'll be printing a new George Tice book with Salto early next year. Several years ago, after receiving press proofs from Stinehour press and finding them not to be not so good, a representative from Stinehour visited us and saw press proofs from Salto. He said, " We can't match that." After the book was published this fellow spent a week in Belgium at Salto's plant. When he came back he said, " You are right. They are the best printers in the world." As far as I know we are the only American publisher who uses Salto to print our books. Unfortunately, the dollar has dropped against the Euro and getting books printed with Salto is no longer inexpensive, although they are still competitive with the finer American publishers.

Frank Petronio
22-Dec-2004, 07:30
This is rarified terriority. Stinehour is several times more expensive than your community's "best" printer. In Rochester, NY I can get a small 96-page hardbound book with all the normal trimmings (four-color, varnish, aqueous coating on jacket, smyth sewn, etc.) at $10 each for 5000 ($50K). I haven't quoted with Stinehour for years, but I remember they wanted something like that for a 32-pager in the 1980s... I wouldn't be surprised if it was by a factor of 2-3X.

The refinement Michael referes to is even more refined because they are printing (I assume) on an uncoated paper (for tactile quality and archivalness). The uncoated papers are even harder to print a sharp dot on, and most printers would want to use a coarser screen so the dots wouldn't "plug" up. Stinehour, and Salto, go the extra mile by printing extremely fine screens. This takes lots of washing, new blankets, tighter tolerances on press, special ($$$) plates, and a really good pressman - all of which are more expensive. Add to that a super-fussy photographer, making minute (and usually back and forth, ill-defined) changes... it's hard for a printer to make a living from photo books. In fact, most wise printers run away from amateurs and photographers because they are troublesome clients who don't grasp the process or limitations.

I love books printed like these, but simply because great artists choose and can afford (usually by sacrificing profits, etc.) to print with exotic printers, it doesn't mean that you can't get great results from more traditional printers. I have a poster printed at only 133-line screen that is marvelous, and given the paper, press, and image, had I insisted on the printer using a finer screen than they could accomodate, they only would have screwed it up.

Find a printer that you can communicate with, that isn't so big as to ignore your job, and that can patiently answer your questions. You also need one that has the proper equipment - if you do tritones, don't go to a printer with only a two-color press (although this is not an absolute... I've seen great work from one-color presses and multiple passes.) Print some everyday things - postcards, invitations, brochures, posters - just like darkroom experimentation - and gain some experience. If a newbie ventures into Stinehour or Swiss printing terriority, you'll get frustrated and probably waste a lot of money.

Just to blow your mind, there are also processes like revival letterpress (http://www.bargarrletterpress.com/ http://www.fiveroses.org/intro.htm (http://www.fiveroses.org/intro.htm) ) and Black Box C0llotype, in Chicago (http://www.archiveimages.com/Publishing/Prints/Process/AdvContinuousTone.html), that do some cool stuff. Not to forget all those great calender printers in Switzerland for color work.

Here is some "Printer of the Year" info: http://www.sappi.co.za/home.asp?pid=463&aid=140 (http://www.sappi.co.za/home.asp?pid=463&aid=140)

This is also good info: http://www.lumierepress.com/pages/make/chrono.html (http://www.lumierepress.com/pages/make/chrono.html)