Painful for a Photographer – Converting to CMYK

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I am at the point in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park: Thirty Years of American Landscapesbook project where it is time to convert the images into the CMYK color space for the press. It is a very painful process. As photographers we see in a full spectrum of colors, shoot for the widest range in the color spectrum, in 16bit Raw files, import them into Photoshop in ProPhoto color space (you do use this now don’t you?) all of which gives us the largest color space we can have. This provides for beautiful images onscreen and in our fine art prints. But the book world uses the color space for commercial presses, the world of four to six color presses and the world of CMYK, a much smaller color space than we work in. So we suffer the long slow pain of watching our colors disappear when we hit the Convert to CMYK button.


Any color out of gamut (outside the target color space) will be clipped into the CMYK color space, which for me in this case is usually the bright yellows and greens of that early morning light in the leaves. So, after getting up early to be there for the golden light, taking care to bring the colors to life in Photoshop and having things look great, we end up cringing as we hit that Convert to CMYK color space. I am converting to the CMYK color my press has specified for their use, basically SWOP coated. So how do you get back some of the colors which have been clipped?


Well, if you look online for answers, you will find everyone has a different opinion. So here is how I have come to process images. Once you have your final RGB file set (and saved), flatten the layers and then take a look at it. Click the Preview button on and off to get an idea of what things will turn into and I have on occasion then upped the saturation of the greens only by about 10% and then converted to CMYK, although this seems to work only occasionally.


As you hit the convert button, please, and this is important, utter the words “bye bye color”.

Most often the beautiful light yellow greens will turn into a cyan bluish color. So what now? I go to the levels and change the cyan levels slightly starting with the middle which I put at 1.00 or 1.15 then adjust the high and low sliders to taste. Then select Hue/Saturation and once again go to the greens and yellows separately and up them 10-20% be careful though you don’t go too far and wash out detail. You might want to also add some black in the greens and/or on the black channel as well. You might find there are more things to try as well, maybe in the curves adjusting each channel separately, or going into the selective colors and adjusting the Cyan and yellow levels in the green layer. Depending on the image you are working on it may take any combination of these actions. Make sure you save it as a different named file – I put CMYK at the end of the file name. No most likely you still won’t be happy with the results but they should be fairly acceptable.

One last thought. Don’t go back and forth between the original file or transparency and try to match it. You won’t be able to. All you can do now is make it look as good as you can given the smaller color space you have to work with. While this is something all of us photographers hate to think about – our work not being shown at it’s absolute best, have faith that your printer will be very good at what they do and things will turn out alright – especially if you’ve selected the right printer to work with. And remember, every photographer who has had work printed in any form has faced this dilemma at some point. I happen to be lucky enough to have an original Ansel Adams print, one which is also in one of his early books. While the reproduction in the book is very good, it does not compare with the original print. So he had the same problem.  

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On my last book, The Lewis & Clark Trail American Landscapes I worked with Stinehour Press and they made the separations from the original transparencies. There I had the magic of John Stinehour to help. They have, sadly, gone the way of many presses in the United States and are no longer around. I could say to John – “It needs your magic to make it pop” and he would do something and it would happen. There are moments in this process I wish I had John and his wisdom sitting next to me telling me what to do. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park: Thirty Years of American Landscapes book is mostly digital images which I am now converting for our new printer CS Graphics. And I am confident they will be able to make these images as beautiful as before, but I still hate it when I push that Convert to CMYK button.


Richard Mack

Choosing the Cover Image

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Thirty Years of American Landscapes 

For the last few months I have been hard at work editing the images for my next book Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Thirty Years of American Landscapes. Part of the process of course is editing your work, both in deciding what images to use in the book, and then in working with each image individually to achieve the best possible printed piece. While this later part is done in Photoshop – it is much like being in the darkroom and making sure the “print” you end up with is what you had pre-visualized in the field.


I recently was on a friends blog where he talked about editing film and how there was a space of time between when you took the image and when you finally had a chance to see the image in film form after processing. His thought was that the distance in time helped you make better decisions about the images because the emotion of the day when you shot it was not as fresh. There may be something to that, especially in the day of digital photography where folks tend to edit their work even while it is still in the camera! This is never, never to be done! How can you tell what it really looks like on a 2” low resolution screen? It’s great for making sure your close on the exposure – although the histogram is better – I would never delete an image based on what I see at that point. But I digress.

Having worked on images from over a thirty year time span I have found the same emotions, or at least ones close to them come streaming back as I look at the images. I happen to be able to remember almost everything about a photograph I have taken – too bad I can’t remember things like that in real life – but it makes it easier for me to remember what I wanted the photograph to say and thereby make the correct adjustments to an image. Creating an image which comes as close as possible to what I was feeling and intended the image to look like in the first place.

The hardest part of editing is deciding which images should make the grade and be in the book. An example is the cover shot. Because of its importance it also has some additional requirements which must be met. It has to pull people in, take it off the book store shelf and make them want to open the book. Therefore, I tend to look at the covers of similar books, in this case other photographic books on Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I do this because I don’t want my book to look like theirs. I look for an image which will say something about the book but also have a more artistic bend to it. I had a working cover image for a long time from a shot I really loved. But when all was said and done it did not make the grade. Another shot seemed to work better and had a more emotional pull for those who saw all three covers (hey we started with a lot more ideas but narrowed it down to three before subjecting folks to give their opinions).

GSMNP Book Cover - Choice #2


GSMNP Book Cover - Choice #3


I think in some ways, my friend might have been right about distance and time in editing at least in this case. I let go of an image I really liked and had an emotional attachment to. And now that I see the new cover image I like it even better than my first choice. So what is your opinion – let me know – I’d love to hear your opinions too!