The Challenges of Photobook Printing

May 10, 2016

The Challenges of Photobook Printing

I am just back from a few days in Taiwan where I was on press for some new books that I am planning to release in the summer months of 2016. As always, being on press was both a rewarding and a challenging experience - especially to someone like myself who is self-taught and still very easily overwhelmed by the complexity of offset printing. 

So I thought I'd write a post on my experiences:

When possible I always want to be on press when we are printing new books. Making books is a long process, with a lot of things that can go wrong. Therefore, being on press is really important to make sure that all that work you have put into colour correction and editing pays off in the printing. 

This is perhaps my 20th time being on press. It's still a difficult procedure but I feel that I'm getting better at it each time. It took a long time to understand how offset printing works (it's very different from conventional digital printing) and there is a lot of compromising to be done. Understanding how changes you make in one part of one image will affect other images too is vital, as often you are printing one single image across two different sheets, so if you make changes to the right hand side of the image you have to make sure it still matches the left, which may not be printed for another few hours. 

One of the best things about my 2 years living in Taiwan was being exposed to Taiwan's print culture. Printers are real specialists who love to try new things. Equally important is that they are very enjoyable to work with - even if sometimes I have to struggle through in my average Chinese. Taiwan is awash with beautifully printed and designed publications - I was blown away when I arrived in Taiwan in 2013 and saw how adventurous they were with simple book covers. One of my favourite things to do is to go into a bookshop and be inspired by all the covers and textures of their books, even if I can't hope to ever be able to read them. 

I arrived in a hot and humid Taipei on the 2nd May. After visiting the head office in the city and going over some final details, we drove out to Linkou, which is outside Taipei and where the printing plant is located. To speed things up we had two machines running simultaneously. I was constantly going from one machine to the next to check colours. Thankfully there no no real hiccups and after getting the tones good for the first two or three sheets, everything afterwards came out almost perfect. 

One of the biggest challenges of being on press is to be disciplined and not just admire the photos as they are printed. It's easy to be distracted - here you are, after months of doing layouts and colour corrections, and the images are finally in front of you. It's easy to just look at them and say 'wow!". But you have to, instead, scan them meticulously for problems - anything that you might have missed before (this is your last chance) and try to evaluate the colour and find any errors. I have taken now to examining the photos and sheets upside down, so I am not distracted too much by the beauty of the photo in front of me. 

Offset printing presses always print in the CMYK colour space. To try and achieve as much colour fidelity as possible I always ask the photographer to send personally-approved proofs that we can use for reference when on press. However, because of the technical aspects involved they can never be completely matched. To begin with, because the proofs and the actual book are printed on different papers, this always makes a big difference. Paper is like a 5th colour when you are printing. If, for example, your paper has a slight yellow to it, then your photos will all be much warmer than if they were on a white paper. This affects everything, but most noticeably the whites in the images. When printing Carpoolers for Alejandro Cartagena, for example, we faced the difficult task of retaining the 'whiteness' of the cars in his images on the paper we were using, which had a slight yellow tint to it. Of course you could simply remove all the yellow, but then you have to watch how it affects the colours in the image directly above or below it on the sheet. Just one of many 'give and takes' you need to make during printing. 

In my experience of the past few years however, the images that we print using the printing press are almost always an improvement on the proofs that I receive from the artist. Very often I receive the proofs and think 'wow, this is perfect', only to be pleasantly surprised once the sheets start coming out and we compare proof to print. It's nice to see the perfect print can be printed even better!

After two days we were all done and I left Taipei for the beautiful mountains of east Taiwan. I have been craving nature since we moved to Osaka - which is much more of a concrete jungle than Taiwan, where nature is never far away. Meanwhile, the advance copies are bound and prepared for sending to me so that when I arrive back in Japan I can receive them, check them and then approve the binding en masse. 

And finally, so what was I printing? 

Moment - Wolfgang Hildebrand

Mountains and Waters - Alexander Gronsky

American Motel Signs - Steve Fitch

Materialities - Pocket Essays 01 - various.

Carpoolers - Alejandro Cartagena (not published by The Velvet Cell)

More information on each of them soon. Until then here are some photos of Moment by Wolfgang Hildebrand on press!




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