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Choosing a Color Separation Program
By Dane Clement, Great Dane Graphics/SPSI
In the same way that every art department needs an image editor and a vector program, every department should have separation software.
In theory, you could do separations by hand, but that’s something I haven’t done — and many screen printers haven’t done, no doubt — in at least 15 years. Similarly, you could make your way through the separation process using only Adobe Photoshop, and most people use Photoshop when creating seps “by hand” but again, it’s a time-consuming way to do things that has fallen by the wayside. Today, advances in technology, as well as lower software costs, make it possible for printers to turn out top-notch separations with surprising ease and speed. The only question is, which separation software is right for your shop?
It’s also important to know that most separation programs are actually plug-ins for Photoshop. In fact, only one product, Spot Process, is a stand-alone program that works without a graphics program. Prices range from about $300 to $1,000 or more, so it’s a good idea to start your selection process by using demos.
A visit to each supplier’s Web site should give you access to downloadable demos; if not, give the supplier a call and ask for a demo CD. Generally, demos are fully functional applications that will stop working after a certain amount of time or usage — two weeks or 20 separation jobs, for instance.
Demo in hand, peruse the owner’s manual and see if it outlines a workflow process. Also see what types of files it can handle. Does it work with RGB or CMYK files? Does the file need to be on a black-and-white background? Should it be layered? At this point, you don’t need to read the manual cover to cover. You’re just trying to glean a sense of the software’s ease of use, its learning curve, and how well it may fit with your workflow.
For what it’s worth, I prefer software that can handle simulated process separations. I’m not interested in index separations, which can posterize the artwork and change the original, in my opinion. By posterize, I mean that the software reduces the number of colors in the artwork, taking a continuous green tone, for instance, and simplifying it dramatically.
However, the biggest question is how well it can reproduce your original artwork. Your goal, of course, is to take a piece of artwork, print films, burn screens, and print accurately — the first time. You’re not interested in software that requires two or three trial-and-error efforts before you get what you’re looking for. The number and types of separation techniques the software can handle is not the issue. It’s really all about finding the software that creates the best separations the first time, every time, whatever technique you use and prefer.
Other questions to ask:
Sticking With It In many ways, all separation programs offer the same functionality — the ability to separate artwork. Admittedly, some do the job better than others, but they all can get the job done. The key, then, is how the software gets you to that point. In other words, is the software user-friendly? Is it intuitive? And does it fit well into your work style?
That said, once you’ve chosen a separation program, you probably should make it the only one your art department uses. You’re in business to print shirts and make money, not to spend endless hours fooling with different separation techniques and experimenting with different programs. Make life simpler for everyone in your shop by choosing a program, then laying out a specific way of using that program. If you want to do R&D, do it off the clock.
The amount of time you’ll need to spend familiarizing yourself with the actual separation software varies from individual to individual. For instance, when my company first purchased separation software in 1995, it was only a matter of about three days before we were using it to turn out jobs. Of course, much like screen printing itself, you’re never really done learning; there’s always something new and exciting to discover.
The Four Types of Separations
Below is brief description of each type of separation and its pros and cons.
True Process Color
The biggest advantage to using true process is you need only four screens. So this saves time and labor. The biggest disadvantage to true process is it was originally invented to print on paper and that’s what it works best on. It can and is done on T-shirts, but achieving color consistency from print to print is very difficult. The necessary translucent inks are tricky to work with because they cause color shifts and casts. You might print a job today and tomorrow find you cannot exactly match the colors.
Another disadvantage is a lack of color vibrancy and brightness. To get a rich red or green in a true process print, most printers use what is called a bump plate or spot color. This is an additional screen that is printed over the red or green area to make the color brighter. If you are going to make an additional screen, you may as well use simulated process. In summary, it’s time consuming, causes a lot of headaches, and you can never be guaranteed great results. For this reason, this technique is not widely used in garment decoration.
Simulated Process Color
A downside to simulated over true process is the number of screens. It will usually be more than four. The number of screens is dictated by the artwork. Typically, simulated process designs use between five and eight screens. It’s the best choice to use with raster artwork or any design that has a combination of raster and vector artwork.
You can create simulated process color separations in Photoshop, but there are industry-specific color separation software programs that automate this process making it much quicker. They include Spot Process, Fast Films, and Easy Art.
The down side of index process is you lose the ability to create shading and highlights. For example, if you were printing a green leaf that was half in sun and half in shadow, you might need three shades of green: a dark green, a medium green, and a highlight green. Otherwise you would have to choose which green you wanted to use and the leaf would be a solid green with no distinction. Another disadvantage is index process typically requires a big press to print all the required colors and lots of screens. Programs that will produce index separations include Fast Films, Photoshop, and Easy Art.
Kennesaw , GA 30152
770-590-3500 or 800-326-0226
Fast Films from U.S. Screen Print and Inkjet Technology
1901 E. 5th Street
Tempe, AZ USA 85281
480-929-0640 or 800-624-6532
Spot Process from Great Dane Graphics
P.O. Box 1661
Maple Grove, MN 55311
This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 4th Quarter 2007 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2007 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.
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