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Color Separations Revisited

(February 2010) posted on Mon Jan 25, 2010

CMYK color separation remains prevalent in most print shops, but read on to learn about some powerful alternatives.


By Rick Mandel

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Print technology has completely changed the way ink appears on paper and has put the way we prepare graphics on its ear. Color separation is the only area in the workflow that seems to use the same basic methodology across various printing techniques.

Most printers believe that color separations do not exist in the digital printing environment, mainly because we do not see the step (as in film positives) that ultimately creates something we can physically hold in our hands. The perceived effect of the process colors (CMYK) has taken a back seat to color-management philosophies. In reality, though, color separations and color management work side by side to create the graphics we produce for our clients.

Today, files are separated, proofed, and printed primarily with a single printing condition in mind. In a more advanced shop, files are separated, proofed, and printed to a specific proven standard, which has shown to be very successful. The shortcomings of this approach, however, are seldom discussed.

Substrates and color sense
Rarely do we print day-to-day work on the same substrate to which we’ve calibrated the entire process. The only compensation we typically make is when the paper changes from job-to-job. This happens in the pressroom, on a running press or digital printer, in an attempt to match the proof visually. Many times, the proof is only a laser printout.

Rarely do we evaluate specific substrates in hopes of understanding how to print color on them optimally. Today’s technology represents vast advancements in terms of our understanding of color perception, our ability to predict color, the level of achievable automation, and in our ability to print color mechanically and digitally. But sadly, we have lost the ability to create good separations based on color sense.

You may still be skeptical of the variance of values of CMYK within identical files. Allow multiple RIPs or programs to create CMYK values for a specified PMS color. Each method has a different value, be it Adobe Photoshop or Quark XPress. Which is right?

Our clients create the art from illustration software or digital stock-photo Websites and then allow the software and/or RIP to create the color-separation values for print. Separators in the 1980s and 1990s were able to input the data via drum scanners in an attempt to create files that would maximize the printability of the specific output method.


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