Making CMYK "work"

  • I apologize for the thread title, I meant to go for, “Making CMYK ‘Work?’” *

I’ve had a long-standing struggle with CMYK color mode and was hoping the knowledgeable members here might be able to help me find some satisfaction.

I find myself frustrated at seeing vibrant reds and pinks and cyans across printed materials but rarely being able to maintain their integrity in my own projects. In this instance, the majority of colors I’m using are almost pure CMYK, aiming for eye-popping cyan, yellow, and pink. Instead, I’m threatened with drabness. Here’s an approximation of what I’m looking for versus what I expect the printer will return:

Is there anything I might be able to do to prevent this problem?

The best solution I’ve found is to send Pantone color codes alongside the design, but that has still been pretty hit and miss. Is there anything else I can do to better preserve my intended colors?

Thanks in advance for any advice you can provide.

How are you doing it?
What software? what environment?

This is all work done in Photoshop. I’ll usually work in RGB color mode and then convert to CMYK.

O dear. I’m not a color expert, but you should work in CMYK from the beginning. CMYK and RBG are totally different (technically the opposite of each other) and do not share the same “gamut” (or range of colors).

There are things you can do to optimize the appearance of colors on your screen, but you screen colors are RGB, so, as far as I know, they can never look the same as the printed output.

The only reliable guide I’ve found (as a noob in this area) is the Pantone color codes. I’m not sure what you mean by “sending these alongside the design”, but you should be using these color values IN your design.

Why the conversion from RGB to CMYK? If it is print just work in CMYK from the start. Converting is not recommended for a number of reasons.

The loss of vibrancy is not a shortcoming of CMYK but the conversion from RGB to CMYK.

Couple of questions.
I am guessing you are printing this.
How? Digital or offset?

Here’s what you have to do.
Calibrate your monitor (CMYK) so that what you see is closest to what you get.
Print samples and keep comparing with what you see on screen (your printer will vary from offset but it’s good start)

Understand that some colours are out of the CMYK gamut and just won’t print. Design within those limitations.

Some of the colours look almost flourescent - these are 5th colours and begin to get pricey. SO you will print CMYK + Flourescent colour.

To be honest, if this is your first print job with offset… it is not going to be perfect. It comes with messing up and learning unless you have an experienced artist to check your work. Most times by looking at the colour values - the amount of black and other colours an artist could estimate that the visual representation can be replicated on paper.

Thanks for the comments, guys. :slight_smile:

The problem is, this is a longstanding battle I’ve been facing. I’ve had projects where I’ve worked from CMYK the whole time, but tend to find the same problems (except without the unrealistically high expectations of really vibrant colors).

What makes things more difficult is I work with a variety of clients and rarely have any input regarding who will be printing or what method they will be using. For that matter, about half of the printers have actually preferred RGB.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s been years since I’ve had a print project whose results I was really unhappy with (and, even then, the client was happy). I’m just trying to see if there’s a trick I haven’t learned yet that would allow me to easily get a color like a vibrant lime green to come through faithfully from screen to paper.

On this project in particular, though, it seemed strange that things wanted to get so murky when the logical progression in my mind was that colors like straight cyan and yellow and pink would be perfect for CMYK printing.

Holy macarel. You can’t print in RGB, it’s as simple as that. There’s no such thing as RGB inks. RGB is brigter and more vibrant because is is based on a light source (not very technical, sorry); if you add all the colors together you get white. If you add all the printer’s inks together you get a murky black color. So CMYK is just not as vibrant. You can also use spot colors and things. But yu need to see printed examples f colors to see what’s possible, and not rely on screen appearance. A piece of paper can never behave like a screen.

the logical progression in my mind was that colors like straight cyan and yellow and pink would be perfect for CMYK printing.

Well of course they [cyan and yellow] are, but don’t judge them by what the “look” like on screen. Real CMY can’t be represented on screen—only an RGB approximation…unless you smear your monitor with ink!

printing RGB? :eek: What kind of printhouses are you working with?
Certain RGB colors that one can easily see on a screen can’t be replicated and are simply unachievable with standard CMYK inks! That’s why we call them “out of the gamut colors” That’s why starting with CMYK color builds, rather then converting from RGB to CMYK, is highly recommended to avoid RGB conversion issues and brightness loss.

You should ask your clients from the begining do you intend printing this or this?

I’m not recommending a commercial product, but I did want to say this:

I know of a company (which I started investing in, full disclosure) who as their job makes instruments who actually measure colour. A lot of these are purely for the print industry: that orange on Kodak logos is a particular orange and needs to look the same from printing to printing, despite what inks are used and on what kind of surface. Eyeballing doesn’t give you the feedback a measuring device does. Another device they make measures the colours of new (fake) teeth so they match the current teeth, for dentists. And, I remember seeing one that was specifically used to measure colour on monitors… I don’t remember if this was for something onscreen that was meant to be printed or not. It may have been more meant so one guy making images on a screen could guarantee that his colleague in the next room was seeing the exact colours on his screen, fully digital stuff?
The company is the one who bought Pantone a couple of years ago.

I work in RGB mode because unfortunately some of the filters that I may apply will not work in CMYK mode. So, as you do, I convert from RGB to CMYK. But you can’t simply convert from one to the other, after converting you need to do the final adjustments so the colors look fine.

The first thing is to ask you if your monitor is calibrated properly, and it should be calibrated according to the settings and model of the printer you expect to use. Talk to your printer.

The second thing is that you need to know that in printing, dark colors look darker, furthermore if it is black. That’s what is called the dot gain. It really depends on the paper you will use and the printer itself. A good average is to say that the colors will be 15% darker. Again, the printing company should have more information.

What this means is that, if your monitor is properly calibrated and you have the right settings, you should adjust your colors either before or after the conversion. If you do it before, you should be working with colors 15% lighter… Since I find this very hard, I convert and then I use adjustment layers to get the colors 15% lighter.

Now, if you’re not going to use filters, then you should be working in CMYK directly.

edit: Conradical’s advice is great

I had a bit of a headache with this recently, I made a catalogue in RGB color (stupidly I know). I thought the conversion from RGB > CYMK would do the job but I had to go through the whole catalog and ensure that my blacks were 100% K, not sure if it was the specific printing process that required that but it was a headache!

Thanks again for all of the comments, guys. :slight_smile:

I think I presented my post from the wrong direction, as I didn’t mean to come off as a novice. I’ve done quite a lot of print work, and have tried everything from working in CMYK the whole time to converting from RGB to CMYK and then doing manual optimization from there. But I’m self-taught in all of this, so I was just curious if there was an easy trick I may have missed.

A good portion of my clients are ‘little guys’ starting out. Some of them even end up printing at FedEx/Kinko’s. I’ve had clients put me on the phone with the technician at their store as I try to explain what CMYK color mode is, along with .pdf format, and 300dpi. One of the big self-distribution companies actually prefers RGB as well (I think it was DiscMasters?).

I’m lucky if I can even get a template from most of my clients before they’re already asking for designs, so I’m just trying to go with the flow as best I can. :slight_smile: This is the first project in a while that has been based around big piles of vibrant colors, though, so it renewed my curiosity on the mysteries of CMYK. :slight_smile:

Alas, I guess there’s no easy fix, but I do appreciate all of the insights, and now have a much better idea of how the process is officially supposed to go, and will do my best to push things in that direction henceforth. :slight_smile:

One of the big self-distribution companies actually prefers RGB as well (I think it was DiscMasters?)

I wonder if it’s because they’d rather use some standard method of their own to switch over to CYMK? Just an idea.

You may want to find an online community of those guys who make band posters. They design them almost entirely in stuff like Photoshop and then they print them out on these boards… the colours always wow me. If anyone knows a secret of screen-to-print vibrant colours it’s gotta be those kids. I just saw this one by the train station yesterday morning as a poster… actually looks less “bright” on the screen. But the poster outside looks fabulous.

I would also recommend getting a book like Color Index. It has CMYK breakdowns of lots of colors. If you’re concerned about a certain color and the way it looks on-screen as CMYK, look up a color in the book, and assign those CMYK values to the color in question on screen, and rest assured knowing that’s how the color will look when printed (by a good printer).

Also, if the project has the budget, you can talk to the printer about bump plates; this is a way to get that lime green you’re looking for. It’s just an additional plate and drum on the printer that will have lime green ink in it. Just make sure you do your color separations properly, or the ink will just mix with the other CMYK colors and come out muddy. This is also useful for bright oranges, and any neon color really.

Part of the problem probably also has to do with the paper. If you’re printing on a cheap uncoated paper, your final job will look no where near as vibrant as it would if you used a decent coated or silk paper. Find a reputable printing place near you, and ask if you could go in and talk with someone about this. They usually are tickled pink to help “educate” designers (and possibly get some future work out of it.)

  1. Are you using color separation? Taking out the blues from specific areas can make it so your pink doesn’t turn to purple. (And you probably did all that, but I suppose it’s something that could easily be overlooked shrug)

  2. Aren’t there other “specialty” inks besides CMYK? Like neon hues and multiple specific shades of magenta? I remember the high-end printers in our school art department had at least 8 different inks. And I’ve had print ads go out that used only three colors, say black, neon green and neon orange. No CMYK printing there. However, I don’t know if there are different color codes (Pantone?) for those kind of inks or what.

First, an admission. I come to this from a theoretical viewpoint… what you really need is to hear from someone who runs printing presses!

But I’ll toss in my opinion nevertheless. :wink:

If you want color results from offset printing that are predictable you must work with the printer. By which I mean “the print shop” / “the printing press operator” (not “the printer, that little box on your desk”).

Ideally, you would get a color profile from the printer that matches the press, paper and inks that are going to be used for the job, and use that profile as part of your process.

If you can’t work with the printer, probably the worst thing you can do is provide that unknown entity with a file that is in CMYK format. Why? Because implicit in the mixture of colors in the plates (layers) of a CMYK file are the characteristics of the ink, paper and press on which the job will be produce. If you don’t know those (and how could you? / why should you?), the results you get are going to be a roll of the dice.

In Photoshop, open the Color Settings dialog and click More Options. In the Working Spaces section, point over popup labeled CMYK and down at the bottom read the text in the Description section. Change the CMYK working space and now read different text in the Description section.

Notice up at the top again the setting for Gray and Spot “Dot Gain.” Do you know what those numbers should be for the press, paper and ink with which your job will be printed? Not likely. Let’s say you happily went along creating your Photoshop document while in CMYK color mode. It turns out that you were working on a poster that will be printed on a shiny surfaced heavy stock using a sheet-fed press. But the Working Space you were using happened to be “U.S. Web Uncoated v2.”

Well, unless the print shop manages to “fix” your file, what comes out of the press is going to be a long way from what you hoped would come out of it.

If you work in RGB, but convert to CMYK as the last step, you’ll encounter the exact same problem. With a flick of the wrist, you’ve changed the color mode, but done so using rules you are probably unaware of. And rules that almost certainly do not match those needed to “recreate” (as much as possible) the design you saw on your monitor.

For more “unpleasantness,” in an RGB file, choose “Convert to Profile…”. For Destination Space, change the popup to “Custom CMYK.” We see, at least, Dot Gain, GCR or UCR, Black Generation (for more fun, again choose “Custom…”), Black Ink Limit, Total Ink Limit, UCA Amount and a nice graph labeled “Gray Ramp.”

Now, depending on the ink(s), paper and individual press, any of those values or settings might change. Since it’s very unlikely that the person driving Photoshop will know these rather esoteric printing press details, I think that it’s just inviting disappointment to hand over a CMYK file to a client.

The phrase “out of gamut” was used in a previous post. That is certainly something to be aware of. But the implication is that the complete version would be “out of the CMYK gamut.” But there is no such thing as “the” CMYK gamut. Again, it depends on the ink(s) paper and characteristics of the individual press.

So, what to do?

Presuming that you use a high quality computer display, that is color calibrated (characterized)…then, if you don’t know where or how your job is going to be printed, probably the best thing to do is to deliver a file that’s in RGB format with an embedded color profile. Probably, a flattened file would be a good idea too (no additional channels or layers)… but you might want to leave text layers as text, in case the printer’s system can pull them out and rasterize them at very high resolution. Consult your printer.

When the print shop opens this file on their computer (which of course also has a high quality, color calibrated monitor), what they see on that monitor should very closely resemble what you saw on your monitor.

Now comes the magic. Since the print shop knows how they will be producing the job, they know how to properly convert your RGB file into a CMYK file that is tuned to their system. (And if they don’t know how to do that, you want to run out the door and find a different printer!!)

By the way, the reason I kept including “ink(s)” in my commentary above is because there is more than just a single standard formula for Cyan, Magenta or Yellow. Probably even black. Plus, there are some ink sets that, for example, specifically include a green (for the purpose of producing more vivid or more natural colors of foliage. So you may have happily converted your RGB file to CMYK, but on the printing press the color mix is CMYGK!

That’s it for me.

To put it simply, some colors simply do not exist in the CMYK color gamut. When you convert from RGB to CMYK Photoshop does its best to make an approximation for the color percentages in for C,M,Y & K. To have more control over how photoshop calculates that, you can change some of the values in the “Color Settings” dialog box.

edit: what the guy above me said. :slight_smile:

Eric has the best answer.

I just want to add that a some modern print shops might be using digital printers. they still use CYMK, of course, but they may have have a custom set up in the machine which automatically converts and corrects. Again another reason to send them the file in RGB mode. Another difference from digital printing to something like offset or letter press ( yeah, I got to work with a letter press print shop not to long ago!) is that they don’t have “screens” ( as in plates, not monitors) and gradients band/ muddy up ( I noticed this in your sample). If this is the case a good technique is to add a small amount of monochrome noise.

So, simply put, working in RGB mode, is living in a dream world.

You’re looking at a much larger color spectrum than CMYK will ever, ever reproduce.

In effect, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Worse still, you are setting up your clients for disappointment.

Creating all those luscious vibrant designs, and then sending those PDFs off to clients, followed by a delivery of much duller printed results is not a good business model.

Learning to manage client expectations is hard enough (!!!) but sending digital proofs that excite, followed by “dull” CMYK materials will only bring disappointment.

So, take time to understand what can and cannot be reproduced, and learn to temper client expectations by explaining (without going into Eric-esque levels of technical details) that printed items are not guaranteed to look like what they see on screen. It’s not always easy, but can be done.

Your examples in your OP are excellent. I would not expect to get the hot magentas or vibrant purples shown on the left. Just aint 'gonna happen. However, if your work closely with a printer, as Eric says, and see what ‘bump’ or additional colors can be added to the CMYK inks to supplement and extend the color spectrum, then you have a chance to get where you want to go. Great results is a collaboration between printers and designers.

Otherwise, just print your RGB file to your desktop (CMYK) printer, and that’s about the results you’ll get from a “just give us the files” printer.