Follow through

Manage the color workflow and win clients for life

By Jim DiVitale, M.Photog. MEI.Cr., F-ASP
Images By Jim DiVitale
First published in April 2005

Digital capture is a client-driven technology. If they need it, we need to provide it, and act like our whole career depends on it. It does. We must be totally vested in delivering excellence.

Getting a potential commercial customer to hire you for a photography assignment is one thing. Creating longtime commercial clients with repeat assignments is the secret to a successful career in commercial digital photography.

The job was easier in the past. Gone are the days of simply turning over the image to the client, with nothing left to worry about except when the check would arrive. The client would meet with the pre-press shop and the printer, and if the job didn’t turn out with all the brilliance of the original, there’d be no finger pointing at the photographer.

It’s a completely different story with digital capture. With no film to use as a reference, everyone looks back at the photographer and says, “This is what you gave me.” Chances are it isn’t exactly, but now it’s the photographer’s responsibility to help oversee quality control during the entire job. If you feel that you’re not being paid for that extra effort, that it’s too much bother to follow the process through to the end, you’re better off sticking to film for as long as it’s here. Digital capture is a client-driven technology. If they need it, we need to provide it, and to act like our whole career depends on it. It does.

It starts with proper exposure, of course, and color management. Graphic artists, art directors, and designers often have their hands full meeting production deadlines. They need the photographer’s help with the details. They certainly know the difference between grayscale, RGB and CMYK color spaces, but probably have less understanding of sRGB, ColorMatch RGB, and Adobe RGB.

It doesn’t do anybody any good to save a bunch of money on test Polaroids, film and processing, only to spend more money on multiple press proofs trying to get the color right. “We’ll get it closer on the next round” is just not acceptable. Besides wasting your client’s time and money, it just plain makes you look bad.

With digital capture and correct color management, we have the potential to get perfect color and exposure right from the start. It’s crucial to do so with multiple-shot projects, where your results are going to be all correct or all wrong. Achieving color perfection doesn’t have to result in a conflict with pre-press and printing. With a little cooperation and teamwork, everybody will come out on top.

When I begin a new project with lots of photography in it, I start by asking a questions. First question: Are you working on a hardware-calibrated, color-managed computer? Visual calibration doesn’t cut it any more. Every party to the project has to use a colorimeter to calibrate their monitors. Client, photographer, pre-press—all need to be looking at the same exposure and color values if they are to make intelligent evaluations of the photography.

Eleven years ago when I made the drastic switch from film to the first Leaf DCB digital camera back, nobody knew how to handle color. I was working on 1,000-page catalogs at the time, and continuity from page to page was a big client concern. From the very beginning, I would set up test images of different products with Macbeth color charts, and shoot them with a bracket. I’d take these images to the client’s pre-press office and ask them to make CMYK conversions and test prints. Examining the test prints, the technicians and I would determine the image areas with the best highlight and shadow values for reproduction on the large web press. We’d gauge the amount of sharpening to be added on the front end of the job. I still use these test procedures today, and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

For large, multiple-shot photo projects like annual reports, brochures and catalogs, I explain to my clients, we can save a ton of money on the back end if we do project test files and match prints on the front end. It’s not about taking any work away from the pre-press techs, but working within the client’s budget. If we can save money by reducing the number of press proofs it takes to get the color right, we can spend more on good paper stock, or more ink colors, or larger press runs. The clients are going to spend the money, but the photographer can help them spend it on better things.

My present project test file now includes a custom-made image of a Macbeth Color Checker, an IT-8 test chart, 21- and 256-step Photoshop-generated grayscales, and a CMYK color table. I combine these test shots with other tests or final images into one 300 ppi file for 11x17-inch output, and ask the client to forward it to the pre-press department.

I always ask new clients which colors have been the hardest to reproduce on past projects. Blues and purples are hard to match, so I include images with these colors. I always save the file with a color space attached.

I use ColorMatch RGB, and encourage my clients to use it as well. It’s less saturated than Adobe RGB (1998), but it’s a closer representation of the colors that can be reproduced on a four-color press. It doesn’t pay to show clients vibrant colors that they cannot have in the final product. I send a custom-profiled inkjet print with the test file to give the pre-press technicians a good idea of what I’m looking for. I do custom white balance on every shot, and the test reveals any color problems before I turn over the final files.

I ask the client to request a CMYK match print of this test. The match print can be compared to the file on the monitor to see if everything looks correct.

The most common problem I’ve had with clients who work on Macintosh computers is that they leave the color settings in the default sRGB color space. That’s fine for Windows systems and projects going on to the Web, but it creates problems when Macs send files to the press.

Communication is a key part of the process. The money you save by taking the extra step to shepherd a project through proper color management is incredible. When a customer understands the savings you are working to achieve, they stop being a customer and become a longtime client.

Getting everyone in on getting the highest quality and cutting down waste makes win-win situations that create a loyalty I never saw in film-based commercial photography. You become the technical expert on imaging for the client, and they come to think of you as an extension of their office. They wouldn’t even consider hiring another photographer. Printers and pre-press services welcome the coordination among all the parties involved.

This is the secret of achieving stability in the commercial photographer’s business.

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