Photography Best Practices for Online and Print

Back in the dark ages when art directors wandered around checking transparencies with Agfa Loupes, no one worried about file size, image depth and RGB conversion.

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Today, digital photography has revolutionized everything about how images are shot, stored and used. Here are some of the things that will make working with digital photography easier to understand.

Correct color online is a big fat lie
There is no such thing as correct color online because each monitor uses device-dependent color. That means that if the person viewing the file has an old, oddly blue monitor, all of your images will be oddly blue. It can’t be fixed, so you can’t worry about it.

If you are responsible for color, however, you can and should worry about your own monitor because you have to start somewhere. And if you know where your color is, you can adjust as needed. Any professional worth her salt will be using a high-definition monitor that is calibrated regularly.
There are two ways to calibrate a monitor. The easiest, cheapest and least accurate is by eye.

Most monitors have a color correction feature that will help you match the standard you select. But if you don’t see color accurately to start with, you will have trouble doing this by eye. In general, men are less accurate than women—and the older you get, the yellower your eye’s lens gets, which affects your overall sensitivity to color. It’s like wearing sunglasses: You don’t notice the tint except when you put them on or take them off.

The best way to calibrate a monitor is with a colorimeter. Colorimeters measure the color output of your monitor and exactly match the color profile you select. A good one will run you about $200—and if you are editing images, they are worth every penny.

But if achieving correct color online is a big fat lie, why should you bother? You do it for print.

Unfortunately, correct color in print is a bit of a fib
The print industry is set up to get the best results at a price that is cheap enough for the industry to mail millions and millions of catalogs. You can get almost perfect color on most things if you are willing to work for it. If you aren’t, then you need to get the best color you can for the least amount of time and money.

If you are selling clothing, it should be swatch matched and your photography should be color corrected to a very high degree. If you are selling nuts and screws or vacation destinations, then pleasing color will do.

A good pressman will control color on press, and giving your pressman a high-quality color proof to match will greatly increase your color accuracy. It also helps to have a company representative on press.

RGB versus CMYK
All monitors show color in RGB, or a combination of red, green and blue. Printers print with CMYK, or cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

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What you see on your monitor is not necessarily what you will get in print. Red and green together, and blue and orange together, play nicer on screen than they do in print. The opposite is true with white type on a colored background, so make sure you see a good quality proof, like an Iris or Kodak Match before going to print if accurate color is important or readability is in question.

Printers tell me from time to time that they are moving to an RGB standard—but they always kick back images that haven’t been converted to CMYK, so it is still mostly talk. As we move to an all-digital production workflow, it will have to happen.

RGB actually shows more colors than CMYK, so where the two don’t meet you get “out of gamut warnings.”

Colors like neon or blaze orange can be seen on a monitor but can’t be swatch matched in print without using special inks.

Size and resolution
Cameras today capture incredible amounts of information. You have a choice of how big and how much resolution you want to keep. Size is the actual dimension of the image, width and height. Resolution is the depth of the information in that image.

Web and print have different resolution requirements. Web is usually 72 to 96 pixels per inch (ppi) at actual size. So a 3-inch by 4-inch image for the web is about 190k.

That’s tiny and will load quickly, which is great for the web. In order to use the high-res zoom features on some web platforms, you will need files with more size, or resolution, or both, depending on the platform. The 72-ppi image (though commonly referred to as dpi, or dots per inch, for an added level of confusion) that was perfect for the web will not print well.

Print needs to be higher resolution—1.5-times the screen that it will print with. Most catalogs print at 133 dpi, so images need to be 200 dpi at actual size to print correctly. The gold standard is 300 dpi, which lets you size the image up by about 50% before it starts to break up. The same 3-inch by 4-inch image that was only 190k at the right resolution for the web is a whopping 2.3 megs at 300 dpi and CMYK.

So if you shoot an image and only save the resolution you need for the web, you won’t be able to use the image later for print. If you shoot an image at the resolution you need for print, you can always knock it down for the web.

Use and cost
If you have an inhouse studio and the cost of reshooting a basic image is minimal, then 10-inch by 12-inch RGB at 300 dpi will cover 99% of uses. If you want to make sure you are covered for whatever life throws at you, bigger is always better and storage is cheap.

My rule of thumb is always get the biggest file you can. Perhaps it’s Murphy’s Law, but it seems like the minute I say “No worries, it’s just a silo for a quarter page” I get a call saying the client has decided to use it for instore signage and it is going to be blown up to 8-feet by 10-feet.

If you are shooting models, events or hard to reproduce images, always get the biggest and highest resolution file you can.

Sarah Fletcher ( is creative director at Catalog Design Studios (

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