Art, magazines, fashion look books, brochures; it takes a little magic and a lot of hard work to bring ideas to life. While it’s simple to reproduce something on paper, professional printing can significantly elevate the way a final product looks and feels. With creative inks, subtle retouching, specialised equipment and genuine craftsmanship, a piece of paper can be transformed into a visually stunning and effective tool of communication.
Print is very much alive and kicking. Tangible, relatable and responsible for some of the most iconic imagery of our time, it offers a sensory experience that evokes a subtle yet powerful response. It’s even a little nostalgic. Think of your bedroom walls as a teen, plastered with your favourite images, flicking through magazines on holiday or an ad you can still recall from memory.
For businesses, artists, designers and creators, print is a powerful visual communication tool, and in order to do their work justice, the final result needs to be flawless. While a whole industry exists to help bring ideas to life via print, most never give a second thought to the science and artistry that goes into reproducing something on paper. So, what makes an award-winning printing company in the UK stand out?
High quality litho printing requires high resolution images, but it doesn’t end there. Achieving print with impressive colour and mesmerising detail is about much more than the size of the file, and has a lot to do with the mechanics and artistry that takes place behind the scenes at the printing press.
It’s not just the click of a button. Specialists equipped with an arsenal of inks, proofing devices, colour profiles and calibrated machines are responsible for taking an image through an entire life cycle, from pre-press to final print, constantly making adjustments along the way. Office lighting must be considered, and be standardised to ensure it’s calibrated. Tech-heavy printers produce runs with exceptional precision. To ensure consistent performance, these finely tuned machines must have a thorough and very frequent maintenance programme.
While many printers claim to work to ISO 12647 standards, there are less than 20 ISO 12647 -2:2013 certified printers in the UK. ISO 12647 is a hallmark of quality and craftsmanship that holds certified printers to exceptionally high standards when it comes to colour management, manufacturing, technology and machinery.
1. Do you apply correct colour profiles to artwork if I haven’t applied the correct profile myself?
The ideal is that they have a colour server to perform this task.
2. What is your cap for large file sizes?
The larger the file size, the more detail will appear in the image. Most printers cap at 300dpi, but a 450dpi cap or no cap is even better.
3. How fine are the screens that you work with?
Most printers work to no more than 200 line screen, but an even finer screen of 240 line on coated papers is ideal, and will benefit a good quality image.
4. How do you proof?
Most printers only proof on coated proofing papers. This lessens accuracy when proofing projects to be printed on uncoated papers. It’s ideal to work with a printer that proofs on uncoated and coated materials.
5. What inks do you use?
Ink quality impacts the print. High quality inks are more vivid, accurate and long lasting. Huber (the new name for Stehlin Hostag) is one of the best ISO 12647 certified ink producers.
6. Is the lighting in your pre-press room and offices colour calibrated?
Lighting should be standardised throughout the building, and especially in the pre-press/ proofing and press room areas, to ensure accuracy across the board.
7. What specialist repro skills do you have?
Specialist printers will be able to integrate metallic, fluorescents and other special Pantones into images.
Nothing is more frustrating than work being reproduced badly in print, especially if the colours are slightly off. That’s why colour management is an important consideration that’s strictly monitored on a high-end printing press.
Achieving accurate colour and clarity requires more than a well-maintained printing press. The artwork files need to be set up correctly for printing and the printing press must be correctly calibrated to the proofing devices being used.
For example, let’s say an image captured on a digital camera or purchased from a stock site is created in RGB and needs to be converted to CMYK for printing. During the conversion, the printer needs to consider variables like the stock being used – gloss, silk or matt, for example – and ensure that the correct colour profile is implemented to compensate for various factors.
Proofing and reproofing is essential. It is the final step in the process before the printing press begins the final run, enabling the customer to see what the final product is going to look like before signing it off. A hard copy colour accurate proof should be produced before colour corrections are done. Proofs should be produced on the type of material that the project is going to be printed on - uncoated or coated - in order to ensure the best possible colour match is achieved.
It is very important to have the most recent colour proofs available on press when the job is being printed. This enables the press operator to produce a printed result that’s accurate, and which matches both the proof and the customer’s expectations.
The choice of ink has a huge impact on the colour accuracy, vibrancy and detail that can ultimately be achieved in a final product. Some inks are better suited to printing on coated paper, while others work best on uncoated paper.
In addition, they all dry differently, and at different rates, which means taking all variables into account requires expert product knowledge and a sharp eye for detail. Printers make use of metallic and fluorescent inks, as well as compatible varnishes, to highlight focus points, add a premium finish to an image, or make it more eye-catching. Integrating these inks into the image is a specialised process.
Dot gain, or tonal value increase (TVI) is a characteristic of halftone printing. It's caused by the spread of ink around halftone dots during the prepress and printing process, and leads to the size of the dots increasing. When on press, this is caused by the dot of ink spreading on first the blanket and then the paper, or even being absorbed into the paper.
This anomaly causes prints to look darker and less detailed than intended. In order to achieve the very best reproduction on press and counteract this phenomenon, printers apply carefully controlled TVR dot gain compensation to take into account the likely dot gain.
When preparing images for the web, keeping a low file size is important for speed of navigation, and images can be compressed to offer the lowest size with the highest quality. For high quality print, the larger a file size, the more detail will appear.
Most printers cap their printing sizes at 300dpi but it’s recommended to deal with a printer that can push this to 450dpi for superior results. Good cameras these days can capture a higher volume of pixels than ever before, which means images can be printed larger without losing quality. A higher cap at a printer enables more texture and detail to be retained during the printing process, leading to a crisp and clear finished product.
In litho printing, a conventional screen ('AM' or 'Analogue Modulated') uses the principle of a set number of dots of ink per inch of each of four colours (cyan, magenta, yellow and black, also described as 'CMYK'), where the dots are of variable size. This forms the matrix shown in the image (left). A stochastic screen, ('FM' or Frequency Modulated') uses the principle of variable frequency of dots, where the dots are all the same size. The latter is particularly useful for achieving high quality reproduction on complex textures.
The finer the screen, the smoother the gradient it can produce. A standard screen for printing is a '200 line screen', which means 200 dots of each colour per inch, but for the best skin tones, a 240 line screen or a stochastic screen is highly recommended.
Retouching an image helps to accentuate, enhance or change colour. It also increases detail and definition in complex patterns like textiles and hair, removes unwanted objects, cleans up blemishes, corrects shadow and removes distortions. Retouching can also remove moiré patterns created by screen clash on tints and stripes. You can do almost anything, the only limitation being time and cost.
The secret to effective retouching starts with an accurate brief from the customer. Shadows should look natural, colours should not look over-saturated and extreme levels of contrast should be avoided. An eye for detail is essential. Retouching is a highly skilled process and is very subjective, which is why it’s so important to have an open conversation with the customer to ensure everyone is 'on the same page'.
The condition of a printing machine and its chemistry is important to overall quality. All equipment should be maintained through a strict program of daily, weekly, monthly and yearly services. Maintenance includes ensuring that all areas of the machine are clean and that there are no ink build-ups. It also involves changing the chemistry and replacing parts as they show signs of wear. High end presses are electronically linked to manufacturers, so that in the event of failure or poor performance, they can dial in and diagnose the problem.