So, how many of you know the name Bill Atkinson? Maybe you've heard of a niche product called the Apple Macintosh? Okay, how about MacPaint and HyperCard?
Yeah, that Bill Atkinson. Did you know that Bill's been an avid and accomplished photographer his whole life? And that these days he's one of the reigning printer gurus? I know many of you did; now you all do.
Bill is a fellow of many talents. And an extremely talented fellow.
Bill's also produced one of the nicest coffee table photo books that's ever been printed. Those of you who really love fine photo reproduction will remember landmark books like Ernst Hass' The Creation and Ansel Adams' first books with "laser-cut" plates. They set new standards for fine press reproduction.
To that list of benchmark books, add Within the Stone (Browntrout Publishers, 2004). This is absolutely, positively the very best 4-color reproduction I've ever seen. Depending upon whether other presses follow his lead, it may very well be the best for color reproduction I ever see.
Even if you don't care about the subject matter, even if you don't like the photography (Philistine though you'd have to be), you just have to love the sheer lusciousness of the pages themselves. Richer blacks, greater tonal ranges, and maximal color saturation that is beyond anything you'll see in a conventional photographic print, darkroom or digital. Let's not even compare it to conventional press printing. It wouldn't surprise me if the color gamut exceeds that of Hexachrome and other color-super set printing methods; certainly the density and saturation range do. You don't have to be a connoisseur to see the quality; it will smack you write upside the head of the moment you flip open to any page of the book.
Here's the best part: this isn't even an expensive book. Autographed copies are $40 directly from Bill. Cheaper if you want to buy it through Amazon, I imagine, and don't care about the signature.
Here's the worst part; the press run was 20,000 and when I saw Bill last week he told me that all but 5,000 had been sold. There will not be another press run. When they're gone, that's it. That's what impels me to write this column; you'll hate yourself if you miss out on this remarkable book.
So, what's Bill's secret? Bill took the printing press and applied the standard color management and profiling techniques that he'd use with any home inkjet printer. Traditional practice is to hand-tune the ink and pressure levels of the printing press to produce the best reproduction of each photograph. Instead, Bill ran profiles on the press and adjusted it until it produced the best possible output of a standard profiling test pattern. He tried different ink and paper combinations and settings to find which one would give him the maximum range and fidelity in a print. That gave him an "optimal press." Then he created a printer profile for that press and applied it to all his files. The platemaker machine then turned out plates that were corrected and balanced for the optimized press. There you are! Maximum quality with minimum fuss (once you've done all that calibration, of course).
If you'd like to see Bill' pictorial diary about making this book, go here and download the Acrobat file, "Making Within the Stone."
Featured Comment by Sergio: "What I find curious is, how can a mechanical and in constant movement machine as printing press, which is usually printing all the time various jobs of probably very different characteristics, be profiled, and keep consistency enough till you print the final run for the profile to be precise. I suppose the best way would be to have the press for yourself, profile it, the have it waiting still for your run. A luxury I would love to have.
"For practical reasons (and economy) I target the contract proof. The perfect contract proof. That will take me to a 90% match."
Ctein Replies: Quite so! The printing device has to be stable for a profile to be of any value. That's why the better inkjet printers have built-in calibrators to insure their output is consistent from day to day.
On an offset press, there are two main run-time variables for each color—the rate of ink flow and the pressure of the offset blanket. Very crudely, think of the effect of ink flow as altering density and contrast and blanket pressure as altering gamma. The 100% and 50% primary color squares printed at the edge of each sheet tell you where those variables are.
In "old style" printing, the pressmaster would tweak these controls on the fly to produce the visually-most-pleasing result for a given sheet of content. As we've all seen the results can be excellent. But, there are two flies in the ointment. First, there will be some optimal settings for the run-time variables that produce the most faithful color. When you mess with the ink flow and blanket, you move from optimum. It may make one class of photo look better, but on average the rest'll look much worse, which is why you have to worry about which photos are ganged together on which sheets. If you can't insure that all the photos on a sheet need the same tweaking (impossible for a book, pretty much), you end up sacrificing the quality of the less important photos.
Second, because you're calibrating by eye, on the fly, you can't use higher-quality-but-more-finicky paper and ink combos. One major reason Bill's book looks better is that he uses high density inks that produce a much larger gamut. Working with those inks is like printing all your photos on grade 4 paper—you can't just guess at the exposure and hope to get many good prints. Bill's approach makes it possible.
On a calibrated press, all you have to do is monitor the densities of the 50% and 100% ink squares, to keep them at their target values. If they start to drift, you adjust the ink flow and blanket pressure to compensate. On a modern press, that's done automatically by a built-in densitometer. But you can do it by hand (as was done on Bill's book).
As for cost and effort? Well, it's a rare case of "faster, cheaper, and better." Books produced this way get done in half the time with only 1/3 the wastage. (Or possible vice-versa, I forget. Either's good!). They cost less to print, get finished faster, and the print quality's better.
Bill had to hunt for a while to find printer willing to try his approach, and even then it was only because he was waving a big checkbook that they went along with it. But Vanfu was so impressed with the result they converted their regular operation over to it, and wound up making several million more bucks on the same work, because their profit margin went way up a the same time the clients were getting better printing.
The nasty part's calibrating the system to begin with. But once that's done, you're in fat city.
pax / Ctein