Let’s have some resolution, please

April 23, 2011

Nope, it’s not what you think.  This entry’s not going to be about Congress or any other assembly of wishy-washy, slimy political creatures. That’s not the lack or resolution that concerns Poor Richard today. It’s a different lack of resolution . . . image resolution.

It’s been a while since I’ve approached anything even moderately technical. Honestly, I’m almost convinced that there’s no one out there who really gives a flip about the finer points of the printing art. This topic’s pretty basic, though, and has major implications for the quality of any printed piece.  It’s like this: you can’t take a bad steak and cook it on a good grill and make it a good steak.  The quality of the grill has nothing to do with the quality of the meat.

The same occurs with images plucked from the internet.  And it is a shame, because the images are so, so readily available. Our customers just can’t resist them . . . and then they get upset with us when we tell them that the images won’t work.  One more time . . . images plucked from the internet will rarely work for print.

Why?

cross-eyed girl

Let’s take a look at this freckle-faced, cross-eyed girl.  She’s cute, isn’t she?  Poor Richard plucked this picture from one of the image libraries to which he subscribes.  It was downloaded at 300 dpi, the optimum resolution for print.  That means 300 dots per inch.  To oversimplify a little, when we convert an image for printing, the information is carried in dots.  When we print, we’re actually putting dots on paper.  When you look at a printed piece of paper, your eyes and your brain are fooled into thinking that you’re seeing a whole spectrum of color, instead of a bunch of dots. When you print a photograph on paper using 300 dots per inch, it looks pretty good.

Now, let’s make it a little more complicated.  When we’re talking about digital images, the dots are really pixels.  Now a pixel is more of an electronic term than a printing term.  When you’re looking at your computer screen, the color images you see are comprised of pixels, little dots with varying intensities which fool your eyes and your brain into thinking that you’re seeing a whole spectrum of color, instead of a bunch of hyperactive dots.  Because of the way your computer screen works, fewer dots are needed to fool your brain than on paper.  In fact 72 or 96 dots per inch works pretty well.

If you spread the dots out, the picture gets bigger.  The cross-eyed girl above is roughly 4.7 x 7 inches at 300 dpi.  Measured in pixels, that’s 1414 x 2121 pixels. Because your computer screen measures something like 1024 x 768 pixels, the photo is actually too big for the screen.  If we spread the crosseyed girl’s dots out for the computer screen, she can be as big as 19.6 x 29.5 inches.  So, we can lose some dots (downsize the image) she’ll still look cute on the internet.  Plus, the file size is smaller, which means she’ll appear on the screen faster.

Image areas

Let’s look at it a little bit differently.  We’ll draw a couple of boxes over the little girl’s nose.  The light blue box represents 1 square inch at 300 dots/inch.  The green box represents 1 square inch at 72 dpi.  Here’s the point:  there’s a lot more information in the blue box. In fact, there’s enough dots there to describe a whole nose, an upper lip, and a bunch of freckles.  In the green box, all you get are the freckles.

To take things a little further, I can certainly lose some of the information from the blue box and the nose will still look good on screen.  But I can’t get more information into the green box.  The simple explanation is that if I increase the size of the green box, I basically just make the dots bigger.  Actually, it doesn’t really work that way, but the effect is the same.

One eye

Ok, so let’s just look at an eye.  If we only look at one of them, they don’t look crossed, but that doesn’t have anything to do with resolution.  Let’s assume that we’ve sized this picture for the screen at 72 dpi.  That means that if the size of the eye was 1″ on screen, it would measure 72 x 72. Basically, we’ve moved the green box over the little girl’s eye and captured that image.

eye at 72 x 72

This is the eye at 72 x 72.  The eye above will give you a better idea of clarity. It looks okay on your computer screen, right?

What if we want to print the eye?  To get the information needed for a clear print, we need the dots to be closer together.  If we move theme close enough to get 300 dots per inch, the size of the image shrinks.  In fact, it shrinks to about 1/4 inch, probably a little small for anyone to notice, even if the image does print clearly:  reduced from internet

But, if we try to increase the size, things just get worse.  Because we can’t really increase the information, we just stretch the dots and the image becomes blurry.  This is essentially what happens when a photo intended for the internet is used for print.  The resolution isn’t adequate and it blurs out.  Depending on the image, edges can become jagged, and you might see pixelization (boxes) in the image.  The photo will look crummy and embarrass your printer, who is supposed to know better.

The last question: Can’t you fix it with Photoshop?

Yes and no. Photoshop and other photo editing programs use interpolation algorithms that basically multiply dots instead of stretch them.  These formulas can gauge the variations of color in a line or  radius from the dot that is being multiplied and actually create gradients or ranges of color rather than exact duplicates of the dots being multiplied.  This can certainly help if it is absolutely necessary to enlarge an image, but the process is an educated guessing game.  The image editing programs guess what information might be there, and the results can be unpredictable and inconsistent.

Synopsis and conclusion

Downsizing is ok. You can always make a big photo smaller.

Upsizing isn’t. The bad steak and good grill aphorism applies.

Listen to your printer.  Sometimes, we really do know what we’re talking about.


Half a bob off plumb

August 19, 2010

It’s been one of those weird weeks when the moon should have been full. But it wasn’t. Perhaps the 100 plus degree heat an 99.999997% humidity have steamed the brains of Middle Georgians.  Poor Richard doesn’t know exactly what it is, but things are slightly askew here . . . to paraphrase my buddy Bob Galloway, the curmudgeon, the entire town is about “half a bob off plumb.”


Item One

I didn’t get to meet her, but right hand man Brian said that she looked relatively normal when she walked through the doors of the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar (name carefully concealed to avoid disrupting the peaceful sleep of the powers that be at the franchise . . . hint, sounds like Gralpharaphics).  She explained to Brian that she was opening a new business and needed letterhead, envelopes, business card, etc. This used to be a fairly common occurrence at printing companies, and Brian looked forward to serving a new customer.

It’s not uncommon that a new customer will ask the price of a product before they provide a description of it.  While it is possible to quote a price that will cover most contingencies, I’ve yet to find a customer who will accept an estimate of “probably somewhat less than $10,000,” without question.  Standard operating procedure is to try to narrow the description a bit and find a solution that is reasonably in line with the customer’s expectations and budget.

Brian attempted and ascertained that the customer would like to use paper for her letterhead and envelopes and would also like her symbol on it.  She specifically said “symbol,” not logo or wordmark or even image. She wanted her symbol on the letterhead . . . in color . . . and (as she glanced and pointed at a presentation folder on our display rack) “smashed into the paper like that.”

Skeptical that the cost of embossing a process color logo on a short run of letterhead would be practical for a new business, Brian started to suggest alternatives. The customer was adamant. What she wanted was her symbol smashed into the letterhead, business cards and envelopes. Ever helpful, Brian offered to run down prices and asked if the customer had her logo as a digital file that we could use . . . or at least something that we could look at to help us prepare the estimate.  The customer fumbled a bit, then reached in her purse, removed her billfold and then her drivers license.

“That’s it,” she exclaimed, pointing at the photo on the license. “That’s my symbol. That’s what I want!”

Brian, ever mindful of the endless time and patience available to the printshop owner, deferred to Poor Richard and told the customer that I would follow up with her.  I haven’t contacted her yet, but I do have an idea. Perhaps something like this might work?


Item Two

Three paragraphs, bullet points, and numbers. Poor Richard is probably going to get in big trouble with this one, because the customer is going to read this blog, identify himself, and get supremely ticked off!

Here’s the text of the email we received:

Whereas, from time to time revisions are made to documents created for Amalgamated Peanut Butter and Jelly Roll Company (APB&J Rollco), and said documents are printed and archived by Gralpharaphics of Macon, the aforesaid company (APB&J Rollco) wishes to indicate the occurrence of revisions to each document produced and to verify the currency of each revision prior to production of duplications, reprints, or new and unique iterations of each printed version or versions.

Because the temporality of the aforementioned documents is currently not indicated, this may currently counterindicate the currency of our current versions. In fact, our customers have occasionally called the currency of our current versions into question due to the lack of an evidential indicant that the version they received was indeed correct and produced contemporaneously with the latest APB&J Rollco product described within.

Our goals are thus:

  • to accurately indicate the current version
  • to convey this clearly to our customers
  • to assure that the latest iteration of each document is indeed the current version
  • (to confuse the pants off of the folks at Gralpharaphics)

To that end we require that your company immediately implement the following changes as pertain to the documents and versions of documents you currently produce, have produced in the past, or might conceivably produce in the future for APB&J Rollco:

  1. Indicate the current version on the document
  2. Do this in such a way that the temporality of the version is conveyed to each customer
  3. Destroy, delete, or otherwise dispense with document versions that are untemporal or not current

Many thanks for the services you render for APB&J Rollco and for your prompt attention to this matter.

–Name withheld in the vain hope that Poor Richard will go undiscovered.

Admittedly, Poor Richard has elaborated a bit . . . but not a lot.  The actual email we received from our good, but very precise, customer was almost as complicated as the gobbledygook inserted above and did require a phone call to ascertain exactly what the customer wanted . . . a date entry at the bottom of each form we produce to indicate the latest revision.


Item Three

The customer was absolutely serious. So serious in fact that he noted a specific instruction on the proof copy that he faxed back to us and on his email approval of the final proof.  We’ve produced shells similar to the one the customer wanted many times. A shell is  boilerplate language (and sometimes a form image) that can be fed through a laser printer to overprint the specifics of a contract, invoice, etc.

In this case, we were asked to print 5000 copies on one side. Presumably the specifics would be printed on the other. There was no specific paper requirement . . . we printed on 60# offset text (no watermarks).

The instruction:  Please make sure that this information is printed on the back of the paper.

I think we did OK. We stacked all 5000 copies printed side down in the boxes and delivered them to the customer.  He thought we were wonderful!

Times are still rough in the printing business, but it laughter is a great diversion. Isn’t life grand?


Digital Weight Loss

August 13, 2008

It’s been a long while since I’ve blogged. Life’s been hectic with altogether too much of little importance going on. We’ve been doing lots of small jobs at the printshop. With a weak economy, many of the projects we are seeing are of the do-it-yourself variety. So much so, in fact, that I’ve just about quit trying to explain that Microsoft Word is not a page layout program.

The DIY aspect has also compounded the problems with compressed deadlines. Typically, the customer has underestimated the time required to layout their program or brochure or postcard. They bring it to us at the last minute. We do what we can, but with intstantaneous deadlines there’s no time to disassemble the Microsoft mess, repair what we can, try to get higher resolution photos and then and reassemble it all in Indesign.

One of the recurring nightmares in the pieces we’ve been doing of late is disproportionate scaling of photography. This one really bothers Poor Richard, but I confess that it is sometimes flattering to the photographic victim. Here’s how it works:

Here’s our unsuspecting victim. His name is Brian and he manages production at the shop. Like me, Brian has inflated and deflated in cycles over the years he’s been at AlphaGraphics. Unlike me, Brian has occasionally decided that voluntary exercise is a good thing. He’s even had a gym membership once or twice. Poor Richard will never set foot in a gym. I see no purpose whatsoever in riding a bicycle that isn’t going anywhere.

Brian’s photo at left is scaled correctly. It is a very reasonable facsimile of what Brian actually looks like. The problem occurs when our DIY designer decides that Brian’s photo doesn’t fit the space that is allocated in the publication. Or perhaps the DIYer wants all of the photos in the publication to be the same size. So he resizes the photo.

Let’s suppose that the photo needs to be taller. Here’s what we often see. Brian becomes much thinner and taller. Now, depending on his current state of expansion or contraction, this may or may not be appealing to Brian. It is safe to say, though, that it is more appealing that the other distortion that we often see.

The “horizontal stretch” is rarely flattering:

For a normal sized American type person, the effect is disturbingly toadlike. For the Southern Fried Chicken, cholesterol, and carbohydrate dieter, the result can be downright disturbing.

In Brian’s case, the horizontal stretch makes him lookonly slightly like Peter Lorre.

So, how to resolve this problem? The answer is cropping and proportional scaling. Cropping is actually cutting out a section of the image to create horizontal and vertical ratio that is similar to the area that you wish to fill. Scaling increases or decreases the cropped image to actually fill the space.

Depending on the software you are using, you may have to do this operation in either one or two steps. Real page layout programs, like Adobe Indesign will let you both crop and scale at the same time. You simply import the photo into the layout, adjust the boxes using the black and white arrows (selection and direct selection tools). You can scale proportionally in Indesign and in many other programs by holding down the Shift key as you stretch the object.

You can also adjust the proportions in Photoshop or the photo editor that you are using prior to placing the image. This may be necessary if you are using a Microsoft aberration or another of the DIY programs that are sold in the marketplace for just about what they’re worth. Here’s an example . . . let’s crop and scale Brian the right way.

Let’s crop Brian’s head out of this photo and then size it for insertion. First in Photoshop or another image editing program, we’ll simply draw a line around the area we want with the crop tool and eliminate the rest of the photo. We’ll end up with something like this:

Assuming that the image is of sufficient resolution (a topic for another blog entry), we can then resize it proportionally to fit the space needed. The end result might look like this:

Then again, why should I be the one to worry about the finer elements of basic design. After all, I’m just ther printer. Go ahead, get creative . . . turn Brian into a green duotone, stretch him all out of proportion and be happy about it . . .

Sorry, Brian . . .

Isn’t life grand?


Check Your Printing Vocabulary

July 14, 2007

Readers . . . you have to check this one out. Ever wonder what the difference between a “gutter” and an alley is? What about “tombstones” and “daggers?” Check this link for a cool and creative way to beef up your printing lexicon – The Dark Side of Design


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