Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Color Bar

Color bars (a.k.a. color control bars, color control strips, or proofing bars) are essentially test targets that are used to measure print and/or proof attributes. Normally, but not always, it is printed in the trim area of the press sheet.
Typical placement of a color bar on an offset press sheet - at the trailing edge (back end of the sheet).

However, it can take many different forms - sometimes hard to recognize - but always serving the same purpose.

Sometimes the "color bar" is incorporated within the graphic design of the publication. In this case the color makeup of the title (Cyan) and section headers (Blue, in this example, - Magenta overprinting Cyan).

Sometimes it is hidden in the spine (in this case the grey line running from top to bottom on the front edge of the photo).

While it is certainly possible to measure the color of the actual live image area, the technology is expensive and, as result, few printers are fortunate enough to have it at their disposal. Also, measuring the live image area doesn't provide as much useful information as a color bar can. Color bars therefore act as proxies, or substitutes, for the live image area as well as provide additional data.

The logic behind color bars

1) Unlike the live image area of the press sheet, color bars are consistent job to job. Therefore they are more efficient at providing a benchmark and can be used to track trends in variation over time.

2) Color bars can be tailored to meet the needs and measurement capabilities of individual print shops.

3) Color bars may be used to measure all aspects of the "print characteristic" - solid ink density, overprinting (ink trapping), dot gain, grey balance, as well as issues such as slur and dot doubling.

4) Color bars can reveal issues with ink hue, blanket condition, impression cylinder pressure, etc.

5) They can be used forensically to help understand why a specific job did not meet expectations.

6) They are efficient since, unlike the live image area, they are a constant made up of well defined elements that continue from proof to press sheet.

Solid ink density
A printing press is essentially a complex machine for laying down a specific film thickness of a specific color of ink onto a substrate. The ink is metered out in zones across the width of the press sheet according to how much ink coverage is required for each color in each zone.Therefore, for most press operators, the minimum requirement for a color bar is that it contains solid patches of the inks that will be printing since solid ink density is the only thing on press that an operator can adjust while the press is running.Those solid patches are then repeated over the width of the press sheet so that each ink zone is represented by at least one complete set of patches - containing one patch for each color being printed.
Information provided by only using solid ink density targets in the color bar
In this example, cyan is misregistered while the black printer is over emulsified (fountain solution breaking down the ink).

1) Provides a solid ink density value, measured using a densitometer, to determine if the press sheet is conforming to published industry, or shop specific targets.

2) Is an indirect, but practical, method of determining optimum ink film thickness and hence the balance of maximum color gamut without introducing image degrading inking issues such as slinging/misting.

3) The balance of the primary solid densities determines the hue of the overprints - i.e. the SID of magenta and SID of yellow determine the hue of the resulting red.

4) Indicate misregistration which can then be examined in the live image area.

5) Reveal defects such as slinging/misting/tailing, over emulsification, slur, doubling.

6) If records are kept, the hue of the ink currently on press compared with the hue of ink used in the past to determine if there is any contamination, change in color due to ink batch differences, etc.

Forensic targets on color bars are image elements that are typically not measured by the press operator unless there is a problem in aligning presswork to the proof. If that happens then these targets may provide useful information as to the cause of the problem.

Two-color overprint ink trapping targets
Ink "trap" is an objective indication of the ability, or inability, of a printed ink to accept the next ink printed compared with how well the substrate accepted that ink. Poor ink trapping results in presswork color shifts in reds (magenta plus yellow), greens (cyan plus yellow), and blues (cyan plus magenta) as well as a loss in total color gamut.
The two-color overprint solids allows for the objective measurement and evaluation of ink trap efficiency as well as the overprint hue error and greyness.
Typical trap values for three print conditions running a CMY ink sequence with Black first or last down:
Offset sheetfed: R=70, G=80, B=75
Heatset web offset (publications): R=70, G=87, B=72
Coldset web offset (newspaper): R=50, G=89, B=50

Slur and doubling targets
Slurring and doubling are print defects that occur when halftone dots and type blur as a result of a slight second contact or movement between press cylinders or the paper and blanket. (More about slur HERE and doubling HERE)
There are many different styles of slur and doubling detection targets. Here are two of the most popular:Of course, every halftone dot or letter character on the printed sheet will reveal slur and doubling, however the targets in the color bar signal the defect easier and quicker.
Grey balance targets
Grey balance targets are made up of a patch of three screened process colors that are balanced so as to appear as neutral grey under standard printing conditions. They are typically printed adjacent to a black screen tint of a similar value to allow for a quick visual, or measured, evaluation of how grey balance has shifted.Grey balance targets can be useful since variation in any of the three process colors because of dot gain, slur, doubling, density, trapping, and registration will be reflected by a shift in hue away from neutrality. The 3/C patch will take on a bluish, reddish, or greenish color cast.The idea behind this target is that any grey balance color shift away from neutrality suggests a possible color shift in the live image area. However, in production printing the grey balance target may not be a reliable indicator of presswork issues.

Other targets
Other targets that may be included in the color bar are:

Dot gainThese targets are intended to capture dot gain variation information. The dot gain targets may consist of just two patches for each process color to measure the dot gain a one location on the tone scale, or, with the addition of more patches, to measure the dot gain at the quarter, mid, and three-quarter tone values. Dot gain can be useful because issues like slur, doubling, or incorrect solid ink density, will be reflected by a variation in the measured dot gain.

Brown balance targets
Brown balance patches are similar to grey balance patches in function except that they are made up equal percentages of cyan, magenta, and yellow. Unlike grey balance patches which allow the press operator to make a subjective visual assessment of hue shift, brown balance patches can only be evaluated objectively with instruments.

ProprietaryProprietary targets such as that used by System Brunner are typically used to drive on-press closed loop color control systems.

Spot colorIf a spot or brand color is being used then it will warrant at least a solid patch in the color bar so that its solid ink density can be measured. Space permitting, the solid patch will be adjacent to a screened back patch so that dot gain information can be measured.

For process control, color bars should be included on every proof and press form of every job. If that is not possible because there is no room on the sheet (as often happens in newspaper work) then there are several options;

1) Run color bars on occasion by including it in the live image area.With the publisher's permission if required.

2) With the print buyer's permission, incorporate color bars test elements into the graphic/editorial design of the printed piece (see the USA Today example in Part 1).

Color bars are not a requirement for quality printing, however, they are key to making proofing and printing more efficient and effective while reducing overall production costs.

Presswork should be run "to the numbers" i.e. the solid ink density aim points, at which time the presswork should align to the signed-off proof. At that point the press operator should be free to make any needed ink key adjustments to refine the match. The color bar then becomes a record of initial match and needed adjustments. That information can be used in statistical process control to spot any trends, or issues, revealed by the kind of ink key moves that are made over time.

Color bars can be placed anywhere that they fit on the press form, including the lead and trailing edge as well as across the center of the form. In fact, placing it in the center of the form parallel to the inking rollers is ideal, since there is less likelihood of seeing the variation that occurs at the lead and trailing edges. Color bars can even be placed in the gutter inline with the direction of the sheet through the press, although doing so is not optimal since it provides information from only one ink key zone.

Ideally the color bar should use the same halftone screening as the live image area and have had the same press curve applied.