canstockphoto0131059One of the most mysterious parts of pricing print jobs is the pre-press cost of preparing the images for the project, whether that work is done by a printer or by a color house.

This article explains how to talk about how you want your image work to be approached, how image prep and proof costs are calculated, and how to avoid unexpected alteration charges.

Two approaches to color image editing

Image color image adjustments or corrections are commonly approached and priced one of two ways. The first is called pleasing color. That’s generally-agreed-upon, reasonably-good-looking color. Think very nice Kodak snapshot. Achieving pleasing color most often involves making overall or global adjustments to the images, such as decreasing a blue or pink cast from all parts of the image at once. Most small print shops have basic pleasing color capabilities.

The other is called match color or critical color. In addition to making global adjustments, achieving critical color usually involves making isolated adjustments, meaning that the changes are specific to one area, such as removing a blemish from a subject’s face. Color pre-press houses, larger printers, and a few small print shops have critical color capabilities. I think of critical color as fussy color work.

Note: Match color (also known as TX match) and critical color were more common terms when designers worked with film transparencies rather than digital files. They are still good terms to know. Who knows, one day you may need to match images of Andrew Wyeth paintings to supplied transparencies from the Brandywine River Museum!

Assess the images and describe the work to be done

canstockphoto0101945Your first step, then, is to assess your images and determine whether they call for pleasing color or the more fussy critical-color work.

Will the necessary image adjustments be overall moves or isolated ones? Will much work be needed to make the images meet your design vision for them, or do they look quite close to that vision already?

Do you have the expertise to do some of the adjustments yourself before releasing the images? (If so, see: If You’re a PhotoShop Pro.)

Some studios employ an in-house or contract Adobe PhotoShop artist whose job it is to make corrections and edits between rounds. If that’s how your studio does it, be sure to discuss the project workflow expectations with the vendor before the job begins to ensure that it will go smoothly. Also check that the PhotoShop artist’s monitor profile matches the vendor’s. Otherwise you may get unexpected color shifts on the adjusted proofs or pay for duplicate work.

In my experience, graphic designers are usually in the fussy color camp (no offense!), especially when they have to make a slew of images from ten different sources look like they belong together. In addition to requiring more image adjustments, designers should specify at least two rounds of color proofs for reviewing those edits.

What’s included in a round of proofs?

canstockphoto0011174Once you have decided on the type of work the images will need, the next step is to decide how many rounds of proofs to specify. Let’s focus on image proofs, sometimes also called loose color or round of color.

What’s included in a round of proofs? The answer is, “it depends.” Each vendor may define a round differently. For some, a round of proofs includes only the proof processing time + cost of proofing paper. What? You want some work done to that image? Sorry, that’s gonna cost extra!

The rationale for not including the labor in the proof round price is that there’s no real way to tell how much correcting time the vendor would need to include. The thing is, alterations or change orders usually cost more than the work that is included in the base price.

Other vendors use a pricing formula that includes pre-press labor + proof processing time + materials needed to create the round of proofs. Printers and color houses that price this way have a pretty accurate idea of the average labor hours that go into a the corrections for a proof round. (They also have a pretty good sense of just how fussy various designers are!)

Now that digital images are the norm—and because there are no prints or TXs to compare proofs against—many printers output a round of uncorrected proofs as a starting point. These are used to mark up your first requested adjustments. Some count this round as the “first,” while others do not. Borrowing a term from ink drawdowns, I call this round a let fall round of proofs.

Spell out your proofing requirements

In order to compare multiple vendors’ bids apples-to-apples—and avoid sticker shock when the invoice arrives—it’s important to spell out your definition of rounds of color in the Request for Estimate and be sure the bids map to your specs.

You might find it helpful to think of in terms of the number of opportunities to ask for changes. Most experienced, disciplined designers can get the results they want within two opportunities to make changes.

Your printer may also opt to show the images as composed page proofs (proofs that show all the other type and design elements for the page or spread). With digital proofing, this approach costs about the same, and it’s nice to be able to view the images in context.

Disaster Avoidance Tips

Like designers, pre-press and printing vendors are visual types. Providing a design PDF for your bidding vendors to look through while pricing goes a long way toward getting accurate, realistic prices—and helps you avoid surprise alterations costs.

When your project includes images that require making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, say so in your specifications: “Two images need significant editing.” Or, “Clone in band of sky across top of one image.” The vendor will incorporate some extra labor time in the price to accommodate the color work.

Alert: If you accept a bid that is based on pleasing color, but then you make a lot of critical-color changes, you will be charged extra for them.

There’s a fine line between building into the base price more image editing time than your job will really need and not including enough.

On the one hand, if you build in editing and correction time you don’t end up using, you will be leaving money on the table when the printer invoices the finished job at the full bid price.

On the other hand, if you build in no extra time, the printer will add the cost of alterations, at $120 an hour or more, making it difficult to communicate to your client exactly what their project will cost.

I usually err on the side of limiting surprises, as long as I am confident that the vendor and I have agreed on what the proofing rounds include and when alterations charges begin to apply.