Photograph Reproduction Methods
April 2, 2006 3:39 PM   Subscribe

For many years I beat my self up because my photographs did not approach the quality that I saw in magazines. This stopped when I was assigned to repair and maintain an offset printing press. I saw the offset being a four color (five if you factor the brilliance of the paper) mechanical process while my photographs were being done in a single or three color chemical process. The printer told me that images that were to be offset rather that darkroom printed had to be slightly overexposed. When a chemically processed photograph was placed beside its' offset printed twin, they showed two very different images of an identical subject. Is a magazine photograph a true photograph or is it really something else? Can a magazine illustration accurately portray what a photograph from a negative looks like? Does this question exist with digital photography? Please discount duotone and tritone B&W printing. I have been trying to wrap my head around this for years and the question still troubles me.
posted by Raybun to Media & Arts (12 answers total)
Is a magazine photograph a true photograph or is it really something else? Can a magazine illustration accurately portray what a photograph from a negative looks like?

"The negative is comparable to the composer's score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways." -Ansel Adams

There is no "true" print of any particular photo, just as there is no "true" performance of any particular piece of music. Making photographic prints is an art of both technique and interpretation.

Different printing methods are akin to different instrumentation of a piece in music. I wouldn't beat myself up because my inkjet prints aren't beautiful in the same way that a platinum print is, for example. They're just different.

The printer told me that images that were to be offset rather that darkroom printed had to be slightly overexposed.

Doesn't seem too different from Adams coordinating and tweaking the various aspects of his original exposure, negative development, and printing material/techniques to produce the exact output he had in mind. If you're fastidious about the final output, then yes there are advantages to making adjustments throughout the photographic process to create the intended final output.
posted by DaShiv at 4:15 PM on April 2, 2006

With digital printing as with offset printing, you really have to know the best way to translate the original RGB image to a CMYK image. There is a translation which needs to be done. Printers are very well versed into how to to get the best printed image from any source. Unless you have lots of experience with a digital printer and how different color spaces are translated onto specific inks and papers, then your results are going to be very mediocre. While computers can automate some things, there is still alot of manual finetuning which needs to be done. For the best digital prints, you are probably better off going to a custom printing company or take many high-end seminars.
posted by JJ86 at 4:40 PM on April 2, 2006

What DaShiv said.

With digital the difference is between what you see in a monitor and what comes out of the printer. There are fundamental differnces between looking at an illuminated image versus a reflective image (additive versus subtractive color). Not to mention the color spaces are different and one is larger then the other.
posted by doctor_negative at 4:42 PM on April 2, 2006

Magazines are generally produced using a four color separation (CMYK -- Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black). For various reasons CMYK reproduction cannot reproduce all of the colors capable of being represented by a color negative or slide.

This is also true of inkjet printers which use CMYK or variations thereof (CcMmYKKK on my Epson 9800 and so on).

An RGB display is also not capable of displaying all the colors a photograph can hold.

In fact each device (Digicam, printer, monitor, film/dev combination) has its own color space which can be described mathematically. You can then use these descriptions ('Profiles') to accurately preview how a particular photograph will print on a particular device (a 'soft proof'). This process is known as 'Color Management' and is an essential part of the photographic reproductive process.

Using correctly profiled devices and color-management savvy applications you can take almost complete control over the way colors will be represented on a particular device. You can't make a CMYK device print colors it isn't physically capable of but you can ensure the print is going to look like you want.

These days the best original is simply a correctly exposed negative (or whatever kind of image). Color management takes care of the rest.

A google search for "Color Management' will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about this. It is, for the beginner, a fiendishly complicated subject and the cause of massive amounts of confusion. But understanding it is important if you are working in digital photography.

Here's how it might work. You shoot a negative. You scan this on a scanner. This scanner has a known profile, which is used to convert the image to a known working color space, often something like Adobe RGB. Editing is performed in this space, and then the image is 'proofed' using the profile of the target output device to make a screen proof on a profiled monitor. Adjustments are made to account for clipped or out-of-gamut colors, the paper color and black intensity, then the file is output on the device and hopefully the result looks just like it did on the screen.
posted by unSane at 4:45 PM on April 2, 2006

Elements to research here are:

1. Correct camera color space
2. Using the same color space in your photo editor
3. Applying the proper ICC printer profile to the photo before sending it to the printer.

Read more here: Using Printer Profiles with Digital Labs
posted by seymour.skinner at 4:52 PM on April 2, 2006

Read about Adams' "Moonrise, Hernandez" and the involvement in printing it.
posted by kcm at 5:08 PM on April 2, 2006

Is a magazine photograph a true photograph or is it really something else?

I know nothing about printing or photography really, but this is reminding me of a story about Picasso.

Supposedly, some drunk guy comes up to Picasso in a bar and starts giving him a hard time.

"Why do you paint people all weird like that?" says the drunk guy. "Why can't you paint people the way they really are?"

"Look," he says, pulling out his wallet, "here's a photo of my wife, just the way she is in real life."

Picasso looks at the picture and says "This is your wife just as she looks in real life? Very small, isn't she?"

The point being that we accept, without question, all kinds of artifice and artificiality in our media, and there's no such thing as "true".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:18 PM on April 2, 2006

Yes, pretty much every means of reproduction has different limitations. The best we can do is approximate when moving from one medium to the next. The measure of success for an image, however, is not whether it matches the source precisely, but whether it achieves its purpose -- no matter what that purpose is (to tell a story, to record an event, to illustrate a point, to evoke an emotional response, to express one's self, etc.).
posted by kindall at 5:42 PM on April 2, 2006


There is still nothing like it.

Every medium has its parameters. You have problems with magazines paper and/or printing ? Have you ever tried newsprint? Or have you ever watched the color of your shirt being processed by a tv camera, the broadcasting system and your monitor?

Whether you write or paint or photograph or film, the end result will always be relative to your end medium. There is no other solution than to try and look, and try and look until you know all your constraints and until you are able to use them to your own ends.
posted by bru at 5:55 PM on April 2, 2006

A "photograph" is chemically treated paper which changes color when exposed to light. (sort of. Close enough.) A "print" is one or more layers of different colored ink. They're never going to give you the exact same results, because they're nearly opposite methods of creating color.

Neither one is "real", in the sense I think you mean, though. Just as there are different printing techniques, there are different types of photo paper which respond differently to light, different techniques for exposing the film, different types of film stock... the closest thing to an accurate representation of what's on the negative would probably be a contact print from a large-format negative -- this is where no projector is used in the darkroom, the negative is placed directly on the photo paper itself for exposure. But even that can result in different images depending on the paper, the film, exposure time, and so on.

All this is probably not really what you're after, though: the quality you're perceiving in magazine photos compared to your own probably has less to do with the particular printing technique than with the lighting, color adjustments, and these days digital tweaking and retouching that's done to the professional photos before you see them. I'd imagine that, except for fine art photography, it's fairly rare for a negative to go straight to the printers, anymore; the image is almost always going to get converted to a digital format where it can be adjusted and tweaked and airbrushed and otherwise photoshopped before it finds its way to you.

So -- before you knock your own work, remember that you're comparing it to work that was put together by a small army of professionals.
posted by ook at 6:40 PM on April 2, 2006

If you're looking for maximum image quality, Philip Greenspun suggests that photographs can look better on a computer monitor than in a magazine.
posted by russilwvong at 8:19 PM on April 2, 2006

Setting aside the philisophical questions I believe Dot Gain was what the printer was talking about.

To get a certain shade of grey, the press mixes the black of the ink with the white of the paper. Since it cannot mix like a painters pallette, it does this with screen percentages. If you have a square of 50% grey on the page, half of that square will be black, and half will be white....just spread out as white space between the dots of ink. Your eye does the mixing.

Now, think about a marker touching a piece of paper and the size dot it would make, then think about a marker touching a paper towel. When it touches the paper towel it will bloom out and be...a bigger dot. So if you have something set up to be 50% of certain size dot and 50% of the space inbetween...but it then hits a paper towel...there will be a lot less space and the overall effect would be darker, say 60%. Therefore, to get the original 50%, you would have to overexpose it to be 40%.

As far as other things go, there are many ways to get your photographs to be better, colorwise. Digitally, we're talking about properly setting highlighs, shadows & neutrals. They must have analogue siblings but they might have different names. If you are interested, Dan Margulis is THE guy for this stuff digitally. The world would be a better place if people realized how simple it was to get good color out of cmyk just adjusting by the numbers. You might want to read his articles just to see how much is possible, even if you're not digital at all.
posted by Brainy at 9:41 PM on April 2, 2006

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