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A few months back I wrote a blog entry on a common complaint from first time printers: “Why are my prints so dark?”

Since then several people have written to tell me they’ve dropped their monitor brightness all the way to zero, but are still having a hard time judging whether their prints will print with the brightness they envision. I’ve also had clients send me files they believe are print ready, but without a little guidance would really lack the “pop” that people expect high-quality prints to have.

So, here’s part two on dealing with bright monitors and dark prints. Instead of relying on your eye to let you know if you’ve got the print right, it turns out there’s a very handy tool built into both Lightroom and Photoshop for this exact purpose: the histogram.

Three Before Histograms

Here are the histograms from three actual client files I received for printing in the last seven days:

From each of these histograms I can immediately tell that the images are too dark to print. I don’t even have to see the actual images. Let’s discuss each histogram in order to see what the signs are.

Histogram 1


Another sign that the image is too dark is where the midtones fall. Looking at the histogram you can see they’re almost all down between the 1/4 and 1/2 mark of the histogram, near where the shadows live. Getting those up more towards the highlight end of the spectrum will really help.

Histogram 2


The second histogram is even more obvious than the first. There’s almost zero data anywhere in the last 1/4 of the histogram. This means that the image has no highlights anywhere: nothing glinting in the sun, nothing catching nice light from a lamp or flash. Even worse, nearly all the data is shoved down in the shadows (the first 1/4 of the histogram), with very little content in the midtones.

Histogram 3


I’ll admit that at first glance this histogram looks pretty good. Unlike #2, there’s hardly any data in the shadows. There’s a pretty big hump in the midtones, but it’s towards the highlight end again, not the shadow side. And then a reasonable hump that looks near the highlights.

The trick here is the word “near”. The big hump is close to, but not quite, in highlight range. So everything that you might think is nice and bright and adding all sorts of neat little “pop” to the photo actually just isn’t quite making it. A small adjustment here to shove things over just a teeny bit makes a huge difference in the overall effect.

Three After Histograms

So now that we have examples of before histograms, what does a “correct” histogram look like? Well, correct will definitely vary depending on the image content, but here’s the histograms for the three above images just before they went to print:

Whee! So much better! So what changed?

Histogram 1

First, notice how much of the data has moved over to the right side of the image. It’s a massive swing from what the photo was originally. It’s almost all highlight or high-midtones now, with only a smidge in the shadow. While this adjustment was a huge improvement to the original image, it does come with the risk of accentuating noise that was lurking in the darker areas of the image. In this case things turned out ok.

Lightroom adjustments: +1.25 exposure, 33 recovery, 7 fill light, +18 lights.
Image subject: Bride (in a white wedding dress) and groom (in a dark suit) shot from above against a light terazzo floor. If you have a bride in a white wedding dress, it better look white when printed!

Histogram 2

This one wasn’t nearly as drastic as the first, but you can see how some data has moved into the highlights part of the histogram, and more importantly the bump of data that was in the midtone area is more towards the high midtone area of the image.

Lightroom adjustments: +0.89 exposure
Image subject: Three teapots with nice specular highlights on a wood block against a very dark background.

Histogram 3

Talk about subtle changes! If you squint you’ll see it though. The major hump that was in the high midtone area is now in the highlights region. The difference on-screen and in-print is remarkable. The image went from a slightly muddy high-key image to a really crisp high-key image that jumps off the page.

Lightroom adjustments: +0.31 exposure
Image subject: High-key portrait shot on film and scanned for digital printing.

In all three of the above after histograms you may notice that there’s a tiny gap at the very right edge. That’s for printing purposes to ensure that every part of the page has ink on it. For more details on why, see Brooks Jensen’s excellent blog entry on the subject.

Summary

This is the second blog entry on print brightness that’s wound up being much longer than I expected, and I apologize 🙂 Hopefully it’s been useful. There’s a lot to digest, but I’d summarize with two key points:

  1. The histogram is a valuable tool to see if your image is potentially too dark to print.
  2. There’s no rule to come up with a “right” histogram. It’ll vary based on the photographer’s vision and the image content.

Finally, since there was nowhere else to put it, just looking at the histograms I’d say that only one was properly exposed in-camera to begin with. The other two were anywhere from 0.3 to 0.6 stops underexposed.

Questions? Comments? Write ’em below!

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About five minutes ago I smacked my head in one of those “OF COURSE!” moments. I was thinking about my recent blog entry on using Lightroom and InDesign’s merge functionality to create Blurb books, and had an epihpany: the same process would work for generating folio pages. This little connection was likely triggered by an entry on Brooks’s blog about his printing workflow.

I don’t know why I didn’t come up with this before, but it will save me a ton of frustration. Right now I make my folio pages using Photoshop and a series of actions, but getting the sizing of the image area correct is always something that takes me hours to re-create.

But no more. I’ll just create an InDesign template that’s perfect, and use the data merge functionality for future folios!

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Last year I put together a Blurb book of photos from my trip to Antarctica. I knew going into the book that I wanted complete control over every aspect of the book layout which meant using a proper page layout package. In my case I went with Adobe InDesign CS4, since that’s what I had available.

I also knew from past experience that I would be spending a lot of time messing around with the selection and sequencing of photos for the book. I wanted an easy way to quickly change the image content of the book without having to manually redo the pages every time. If I did a draft of the book, decided to swap out four photos and add 6 more, I didn’t want to spend an hour in InDesign making the modifications manually adding images and text to frames.

Thankfully InDesign supports data merging, and if you pair that with Adobe Lightroom and an inexpensive plug-in you can automate the entire process of generating your book’s image plates.

In this blog entry I’ll walk through the steps necessary to make this all work.

The overall approach

My overall approach was to do all the image selection, ordering, and metadata wrangling in Lightroom. I let InDesign handle the page layout of the plate pages only. Any text that I wanted printed on the page along with the image had to be metadata associated with the image in Lightroom, not manually entered in InDesign text boxes.

Step 1: Get the plug-in

Lightroom doesn’t, unfortunately, have native support for exporting image metadata as a separate file. Since InDesign’s data merge functionality requires a text file with the data, I needed a way to extract the metadata.

The tool for this job is the LR/Transporter Plug-in from Photographer’s Toolbox. Unless you are including fewer than 10 images in your book you’ll need to donate some money to unlock the full version. The donation is well worth it for the amount of time you will save.

Step 2: Select and prepare your images

Create a collection in Lightroom that contains all the images you want to include in your book. Make sure the images also have the text pieces you want to include on your plate pages as metadata. In my case that was simply ensuring each image had the Title filled in. Finally, re-order the images in the collection to match how you want them to appear in your book (I didn’t know you could do this in Lightroom until this book project! Just drag the images around in Library grid view.)

My book images, in order, in a Lightroom collection.
My book images, in order, in a Lightroom collection. 

Step 3: Export your photos

Using the standard Lightroom Export command, export your photos to a directory somewhere. For now you can just do a straight export at whatever resolution you like, but later on when you do your final version of your book you’ll want to export to a resolution that exactly matches the pixel resolution of your page’s image frame in InDesign.

Step 4: Export your metadata

Using the LR/Transporter plug-in from the File > Plug-in Extras menu in Lightroom export the metadata for your book images. Use the Summary file tab to create a comma-separated text file that has all the necessary metadata for your book in it. In my case I needed to know the filename for the exported image and the image title.

LR/Transporter Export Settings (click image for a larger view)
LR/Transporter Export Settings (click image for a larger view)

The head of the summary file will tell InDesign what pieces of data to expect for each image. In my case it looked like this:

@FileName,Title{return}

This will tell InDesign to expect two pieces of data for each image: the filename for the image and its title. The @ in front of FileName is very important. It tells InDesign that the text is really a filename for an image.

The text to add for each photo looks something like this:

{fileNameNoExtension}.jpg,{title}{return}

This will result in one line per image that contains the filename with .jpg added to it (since I exported as JPEG), and the title of the image from metadata.

Then select the output directory so it’s the same as the folder you saved your images to in step 3, and click ok. This will give you a file called summary.txt with all the relevant image information to automatically generate your book.

If you want to include additional metadata for use in the book that’s fine. Just make sure there’s a header for it, and separate each piece of metadata from the next with a comma.

Step 5: Create your InDesign template

Using InDesign create a template your book’s image plates. Put frames on the page wherever you would like a piece of content, such as the image, title, EXIF data, etc. Format the frames with whatever formatting you would like the text to have.

Step 6: Map the Metadata in InDesign

With your template from step 5 open, go to the Window > Automation > Data Merge menu. This will bring up the Data Merge panel. From the panel menu select Select Data Source…. In the file dialog that appears navigate to the folder where your images are and select the summary.txt file generated in step 4. 

The Data Merge panel. It doesn't look like much, but it is the key to making all this work.</
The Data Merge panel. It doesn’t look like much, but it is the key to making all this work.

If your metadata export worked correctly you should see a list of metadata items in the Data Merge panel. The image filename should have an image icon in the left column, not a text icon. All the rest should have text icons.

The Data Merge panel after pointing it at the metadata file.
The Data Merge panel after pointing it at the metadata file.

At this point you can drag and drop the pieces of information onto the appropriate frames in your template. You’re essentially telling InDesign where to stick each piece of information on the page when you do your merge.

Once you’re done mapping the metadata save this template as an InDesign file called “Merge Template” or something similar. This won’t be your actual book file, it’s just the template you’ll use later on.

The completed InDesign template with the merged fields mapped. Click image for a larger view.
The completed InDesign template with the merged fields mapped. Click image for a larger view.

Step 7: Do the Merge

At this point you’re ready to automatically produce your book. From the Data Merge panel menu select Create Merged Document. Merge all records as Single Record. On the Options tab make sure you select Fit Images Proportionally and Center In Frame for best results. Then click Ok to create your book.

If all goes well a new document will be created in InDesign with one page for each of your images, and the metadata will magically appear where you wanted it. Neat, eh?

One minor gotcha at this point: InDesign doesn’t create a merged document with 2-page spreads. This isn’t really what you want if you’re doing a book. To fix it, after the merge is done, drag page 2 in front of page 1 in the Pages panel (this converts everything to 2-page spreads). Then drag the new page 1 in between pages 2 and 3. This will re-order the pages so they match your order from Lightroom.

Save this InDesign file as your actual book, and voila! You’re done!

Additional Tips

At this point you have all the components to quickly make new variations of your book as you edit your photos. Let’s say you decide you don’t like four of the photos you included, and you want to replace them with four new ones. Also, you found 6 great photos you’d overlooked before that have to be included too. No problem! Add them to the collection in Lightroom, order them appropriately in Lightroom, and export your metadata and images again (step 3 and 4). Then open your template from step 6 and select Update Data Source from the Data Merge panel menu. This tells InDesign about your new metadata, and then you can do the merge as in step 7 to get a whole new book with the new images.

While this merge concept is great for the image plates of your book, how do you handle all the other pieces of a book, like title pages, introductions, acknowledgments, etc.? InDesign’s Book feature is perfect for that. What I did for my Antarctica book is create the following separate InDesign files:

  • Front Matter
  • Plates (the auto-generated piece)
  • Back Matter

The Front Matter and Back Matter files were hand authored with all the bits that didn’t change regularly, and the Book feature of InDesign helped me keep the page numbers in sequence across all three. When the time came to upload to Blurb I just exported the whole thing as a PDF from the Book panel menu.

If you have any questions about the above feel free to post them below and I’ll do my best to answer.

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