Between the Sheets

Understanding how to read a press sheet when you’re at the printer for a press check results in a more accurate print job for your catalog. What’s more, knowing how to plan ahead for your press run will make things easier when it comes time to put ink on paper.

A press sheet, also known as a make-ready, is a preliminary sheet that a printer prepares at the beginning of a press run. The goal, says Daniel Dejan, a national print and creative specialist for Boston-based Sappi Fine Paper, is to have the catalog client and the printer work together to create a near-replica of how the job will look once the presses start running.

The prepress proof

In the current digital era, your production team typically creates the catalog layouts using page design software such as QuarkXPress and transmits the files — usually in PDF format — to the printer. The printer then formulates a preflight diagnostic, using software to analyze the digital files before inserting them into the prepress workflow. This way the printer can be sure that the document contents, including all images and fonts, are the proper size, format, and resolution.

Then the printer makes a proof, converting the digital RGB (red/green/blue) color range to the analog CMYK (cyan/magenta/yellow/black), which is sent to the cataloger for approval. The proof should be used as a forecasting tool before plates are made, as making changes during the proofing stage is more cost-effective than making changes on press.

For that reason, Maura Lyons, director of catalog production for Beverly, MA-based women’s apparel merchant Appleseed’s, uses a “swatch match” method to check the color accuracy of her proofs. The method is common among apparel catalogers, she adds.

Before going on press, Lyons and her staff create fabric swatches made from the actual garments used in photo shoots. They then send the fabric samples to the prepress provider, which creates a precise color value to match each piece of fabric prior to creating the color proofs.

“We’ve found that using the swatches is the best way to produce the colors you want when you finally put ink on paper,” Lyons says.

Once the printer puts together the initial color proofs, Lyons estimates that it takes about five weeks until her team approves all the images. “The proofs may go back and forth three or four times before we finalize them,” she explains. “It saves us a lot of time on press, and it gives us the best chance to replicate the actual products we’re selling.”

Once you approve the proofs, the printer will burn the printing plates; once you approve the printing plates, it’s press time.

“At this point the pressman has gotten you as close as he possibly can — about 95% of the way there, based on your initial layout ideas,” says Dejan. “After that, he is looking for your final approval.”

Pressing ahead

The first sheets are printed on the same paper stock that will be used to print your run, but the presses are run at about half speed, to conserve paper. Before you know it, you’ll have the first press sheet in hand. Now you’re ready to proof the sharpness and accuracy of the images.

Reading the press sheet and correcting colors is all about patience and flexibility, says Sue Brescia, art director for Portsmouth, RI-based Hodges Badge, a cataloger of ribbons, medals, sashes, and buttons. “When it comes to color, there will always be some kind of compromise.”

Before you look at color, however, make sure the press is in register. Check for blurry images and “hanging color” off a two-color bug or display type. You might use a loup, says Timothy Gable, print manager for Madison, VA-based home and garden products merchant Plow & Hearth, but generally you should trust your eye; if a registration problem isn’t noticeable to your naked eye, it most likely won’t be noticeable to any readers. To see if the black plate is out of register, find an image with a drop shadow and look at the point where the shadow meets the four-color image. A thin white gap indicates that the black is slightly out of register.

Also check to see that the whites have “body,” with shadows and lines. If your images lack detail, you need to add black to the CMYK mix. Ditto if the shadows are too light; if they are too dark, reduce the amount of black.

When approving final colors, it’s helpful to work from the “big picture to small details,” Brescia says. For instance, is the overall color robust enough? If the images appear washed out, experts advise increasing the cyan, yellow, and magenta inks. Then look at each specific color — does the blue have too much red? Or is it too green? Is your flesh tone too red? Any time the color is off you will have to play with combinations to get the right hue, as in adding yellow to cut red or increasing blue to create or boost brown. “Remember that creating color balance from top to bottom and side to side can be difficult when you are replicating actual products for a catalog,” Brescia says.

Keep in mind that in web offset printing, adding a color to correct one image could dramatically alter the color of another image. Reducing the red to improve a model’s skin tone in one photo could end up making the orange tablecloth in an adjacent photo look more like crimson. And this applies not just to images within one page but also to images on other pages of the same signature or form.

Again, here’s where you may need to compromise. When checking the press sheet, Dejan suggests mentally categorizing images as “critical” or “pleasing.” Critical images and colors relate to the products themselves — for instance, is the jacket on the page the accurate shade of blue? Pleasing images and colors are backgrounds or lifestyle shots — making sure that the color of the sky in the background comes out an attractive blue, for example.

“Think about the products your company is selling and what you’re trying to provide to your customers,” advises Appleseed’s Lyons. “In the catalog you’re trying to give them a near-exact replica of the items you will ultimately send them. You don’t want product returns.”

At the same time, Lyons adds, “remember that you can only get things ‘close to perfect.’ Everyone sees color a little differently.”

Since you will likely always have to make some color compromises, try to think of things in terms of simple economics, she says: “If you have a page in your catalog that features a woman wearing a $300 dress and a $35 pair of shoes, concentrate on getting the colors in the dress right first.”

After some adjustments, the next press sheet will be run at full speed. Now you are ready for your actual press run; you’ll get one final look at your printed product before you okay the complete run.

After the press sheet is approved, most of the problems that occur on press are what Kurt Miller, a spokesperson for Sussex, WI-based printer Quad/Graphics, characterizes as manufacturing oriented, not esthetic or creative. So when you receive your sign-off signature sheets, make certain that they are an exact match to what you had approved earlier on your press sheet. Once you have those approved signature sheets and have compared the finished piece to the press sheet you approved earlier, your job at the press check is done, he says.

The gravure process

The majority of catalogers print their books via web offset presses, which is less expensive for smaller books and print runs. Rotogravure printing tends to be the better option for catalogs printing more pages with larger runs (generally speaking, those with more than 1 million impressions). Because gravure books tend to be bigger, the signatures also tend to be larger. A typical offset signature has 16 pages, whereas a gravure page form may have 32.

Gravure also tends to yield deeper, richer colors for high-end presentations. And with offset you make changes while on press, whereas with gravure you view color in a marking room because you can make image by image changes. In other words, if you have a picture of a model wearing an outfit and only his tie needed to be color-corrected, you could easily fix just that one aspect of the page. Appleseed’s prints its catalog covers using a web offset printer and its text pages using a gravure printer in part to maintain that sort of control over the image accuracy.

Regardless of the printer you use, Lyons suggests being aware of the technical limitations before you head off to the press check. Know your product well, and try to remember your company’s core messages when you’re thinking of how to interpret colors. “If you’ve done your homework,” she says, “making these decisions will be a whole lot easier.”

Skipping the press check

Some catalogers, such as Chelmsford, MA-based multititle mailer Potpourri Group, have streamlined the print production process to the point where they don’t even conduct press checks anymore. “We have been working with the same printing company [Sussex, WI-based Quad/Graphics] for nearly two years, and their systems have been specially calibrated to meet our particular needs,” says Potpourri prepress manager Jeff Elsing.

The cataloger’s proofing equipment is exactly like Quad’s; the printer also has a quality-control tool called System Brunner that prevents the shifting of colors when it’s making the press sheets, Elsing says. The system is so precise, he no longer needs to travel to Wisconsin to go on press.

“They know our proofing methods so well that there’s no need to make the trip,” Elsing says. “All of our interpretations of the proofs and press sheets are virtually the same because of the established benchmarks.”