The Challenges of Color Printing

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Color print and media is so common nowadays that most of us take it for granted, but it is much more complex than Black & White. When we decided to go to a full-color publication, we knew we had to get the color right; bad color looks a lot worse than black & white. We wanted Bicycle Quarterly’s presentation to match the quality of its contents.

Many readers’ loved the understated quality of the magazine. Over the years, we got many letters and e-mails: “Please keep it black & white forever!” I appreciated that sentiment, but I also knew how stunning the photos of our test bikes and rides looked before I converted them to black & white. The brown leather of a well-worn saddle, the blue sky above a mountain ridge covered with dark green evergreen trees, the tan color of a dirt road – they all lost some of their beauty in black & white.

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To make this possible, we first had to think about our cameras and photography. How large a camera can we carry on our rides, and how small a camera still will take top-quality photos? Many of our locations are very remote. We don’t want to do photo shoots where bikes and riders are driven into the backcountry for a “make-believe” re-enactment of what a real cycling adventure looks like.

Once the photos are taken, they are processed by The Color Group here in Seattle. These wizards adjust the many aspects of color and value in the photos, so they “pop off the page” without looking unnatural. We give them good photos, and they make them great. The last step in the process of creating the color is Consolidated Press, a local printer specializing in quality magazines.

These two companies are nearby, so when proofs are ready, I can just cycle over to review them. (And there are multiple sets of proofs until everything is signed off and ready for printing.) Sometimes I wish I lived where I could go straight from my back door onto a forest road to ride up a mountain. But in this case, having this “industry” nearby saves time and money, facilitates discussion and improvement, and also reduces the pollution of couriering proofs across the country or the world. It’s neat to work with local outdoorsy people who know what the terrain looks like where we ride, and thus can make our photos look even more realistic.

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Color printing even improves the B&W photos of our historic articles, as the added browns and sepias give the photos a richness that pure B&W cannot match. In fact, the photos now have the same evocative quality as the originals from our archives.

We have really enjoyed the positive comments about the magazine’s change to color. We hope the new images bring you more delight and inspiration. Most of all, Bicycle Quarterly now looks like I had envisioned it when we started 12 years ago!

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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28 Responses to The Challenges of Color Printing

  1. Ogando says:

    fyi just a famous insider link for your color experts in case they shouldn´t already know this source:
    European Colour Initiative – a lot of tools for the color management – for printing insiders among the cyclists ;-)
    http://www.eci.org/en/start

  2. Jeremy M says:

    With the Autumn 2013 issue right next to the computer, this post motivated another quick flip-through to check out the photos again. Loved the B&W, love the color! Though I have no connections at all to the Northwest, really appreciate the support of (and your compliments to) your local businesses.

  3. Steve Palincsar says:

    So what cameras do you bring with you?

    • For our studio photos and features in the magazine, we use a Nikon D600 digital SLR. The image quality and speed are hard to beat, even if the camera is a bit bulky. It does fit into my handlebar bag, but there isn’t much room left for food and clothing.

      For blog features and rides where the Nikon is too large, we use a Panasonic Lumix with a Leica lens. It’s amazing how good the images from this small camera are, and how durable it has been. The Lumix also can be used to shoot while riding…

      • Steve Palincsar says:

        I agree completely about the Lumix. I had a LX3, now have an LX5. It’s light and small, but takes very high quality images with all the manual control you could want.

  4. Ron says:

    Jan,

    I only recently subscribed to BQ, but have purchased 3 volumes of back issues already and will most likely purchase all of them over time. While I’ve enjoyed them, I agree that color photos are vastly superior in most cases to black and white and I love the newest edition I received a few weeks ago.

    More than that, I really appreciate your enthusiasm and love of classic cycling, and I thank you for being a champion of this somewhat lost tradition. Keep up the great work!

    • I like that you say “Classic Cycling” – and you are right: Our focus is on riding, not on the bikes. Great rides are possible on any bike, as evidenced by the carbon bike we tested in the current issue.

    • David Pearce says:

      Hear, hear! I agree entirely, and second your thanks to Jan! Classic cycling, and classic rides. It IS amazing what our forebears INVENTED, and then IMPROVED, and DID! Human imagination combined with passion is a wonderful thing.

  5. GuitarSlinger says:

    Actually .. if I may .. colorizing [ along with digitizing ] those old B&W’s removes a good 25% – 35% of the detail . Color .. be it film , digital .. or even eyesight .. is a compromise on the best of days . So when it comes to those ‘ classic ‘ B&W photos … take a cue from David Wilcox and ..

    ” Leave it like it is… its Fine ” ;-)

    • We actually don’t add color, we just scan the images in color. The sepia tint is partly original and partly yellowing from age. The digitizing is inherent in re-printing any image that wasn’t generated digitally.

    • Bill Gobie says:

      It’s not digitizing that degrades detail, it’s halftoning — breaking the image up into tiny blobs of ink with smaller blobs for light areas and larger blobs for darks. BQ is using a pretty high quality press. I can barely see the halftoning in light areas. There are other printing processes that are higher quality, but staggeringly expensive. Adding color to a B&W photograph — duotoning — can improve the quality of a halftone reproduction at little cost.

  6. Adam in Indiana says:

    While the black and white printing did have a certain character to it, I also feel that the color printing is superior, and was very excited to see the last issue in the mail. An excellent job well done, much thanks!

    Also, I loved the write-up and illustrations on downtube shifters. I’m currently saving for a custom frame, and as someone who doesn’t shift much and prefers to “sit and spin” on hills, I plan on installing downtube shifters on this bike. Still haven’t completely decided between the Silver shifters and Shimano’s Dura-Ace, though.

    That reminds me, have you ever thought of resurrecting the Simplex design in a modern shifter for sale through Compass Bicycle? What would be the hurdles of a manufacturer attempting this? It seems like there would be quite a market for them.

    • The hurdles for the Simplex shifter would be making a forging die for the levers and making the springs to very close tolerances (much closer than cantilever brake springs that may look similar). The other parts are turned, which is relatively easy. It wouldn’t be cheap, unless you can amortize the die costs over tens of thousands of units.

      • Nick Piper says:

        Although the photos look great in colour or black & white, it’s the quality of the writing and research that makes BQ so good.

        A new version of the Simplex shifters would be great; however we’re all still waiting on the new production of the Rene Herse Nivex derailleur…

  7. David Pearce says:

    I am loving the entire magazine, and color just adds to it. I love the whole package–the thick, high quality paper that can take repeated close readings and flipping-through; The footnotes; The Featured Rides, which I think are almost my favorite parts. Everything.

    My mother subscribed to the New Yorker, read each one from cover to cover, and they are now saved in our “New Yorker Room” from 1960 straight on, and partially dating back to 1956! I grew up on these and other good quality magazines, absorbing like a sponge the advertisement catch-phrases and the cartoons, and the familiarity of the three columns of text, even if I read so much less than she. I like the way Bicycle Quarterly emulates the great magazines of the past, with paper that won’t degrade and is not made to just be thrown away in a week or a month. And your print schedule, four times a year, is perfect, just about MY reading speed; It allows you to research topics deeply, respond to readers in a prompt enough fashion, and still have some time for some rides and fun.

    “You’ve got to watch out for your fans–they’ll tear you apart!”, it’s sometimes said: Will all the black & white photos now be in sepia, with true black & white represented only by the technical line drawings? I wouldn’t mind to have some of the black & white photos in pure black/white, though I think the sepia in general is much easier on the eyes. Anyway, thanks Jan! Happy riding!

  8. Ulrik Haugen says:

    The color looks great and i also really like seeing what issue it is on the back. I just wish you’d go back to the envelopes without the metal clasp that damages the cover.

  9. J Coleman says:

    I am neutral about the color/black and white issue (no pun intended), but as a book conservator, I know well that the new glued spines will deteriorate quickly, and in any case it is not as easy to hold and page through as the black and white saddle-stitched issues were. With the folded issues, they can be sewn together and bound into hard covers after a full year’s worth; for the glued issues, the pages will fall out over the years.

    I am also concerned that the new issues are shrink wrapped in plastic instead of being mailed in recyclable paper envelopes. Not exactly something for the nature lover…

    • Your concerns are valid, and we considered them. For us, the perfect-bound magazine looks nicer, and it lays flat. The latter means that it’s less likely to get damaged in moving and shipping. In the past, we had dozens of crumpled magazines with each issue that we could not send out to subscribers. This time, we’ve had only two. That alone is a significant savings of resources. Similarly, the plastic wrap reduces the losses in the postal system. The envelopes with the periodicals permit imprint looked too much like junk mail, and the USPS has been a bit cavalier about delivering them. Our losses are less than half of what they were. Beyond that, it’s unclear whether plastic or paper grocery bags are more environmentally friendly. (The grocery bag solution is bring your own.)

      Regarding the longevity, my family has many National Geographic magazines dating back to the 1950s, which have the same glued spine. Even after many decades of reading and re-reading, they aren’t falling apart. It is true that you cannot easily bind the magazines into volumes. That is too bad, but realistically, there aren’t many readers who do that.

      • David Pearce says:

        Goodness, Jan! “Everyone’s a critic!”, no?? Decisions, decisions, decisions, compromises, pros & cons, it’s enough to fry anyone’s brain, especially mine! My God! Alps on Alps arise! I feel for you and salute you!

      • David Pearce says:

        Bound into volumes? Yes, I know that exists, but why do it for just four issues a year? Isn’t it good enough to merely store them / stand them in the standard (hopefully acid-free) magazine boxes, where each one can be taken down individually, without having the whole year necessarily rest upon your desk or upon your stomach. Anyway, if one was a stickler for bound volumes, couldn’t you use binders with four locking metal bars that could keep the issues in yearly or numerical volumes, but still allow the ability of removing one particular issue at a time for up-close rereading?

      • J Coleman says:

        Thank you for your thoughtful response. I am glad you considered these options. It is unfortunate that the postal system handles plastic better than paper. I think we all have enough plastic in our lives.
        I hate to tell you this because I am also a lifelong lover of National Geographic, but they were stapled in addition to being glued at the spine. If you feel carefully, you can feel the staples under the covers.
        Older steel staples do have the problem of rusting over time, and so do metal clips as David has suggested.
        The care, treatment, and production of printed materials is indeed a field with many complicated decisions as David has suggested–almost as many decisions as choosing what kind of bicycle to ride. Having access to good information can help in making these decisions. I like BQ because it contains a lot of good information on the kind of bikes and riding I like–I would like it more if it were still saddle stitched, but I’m sure I’ll continue to enjoy it in whatever format it takes.

      • You are right about the staples in National Geographic – I do remember them on some particularly frayed examples. I checked my 25-year-old issues of Classic & Sportscar (I used to read that when I was a teen), and they are just glued, yet holding up well.

        As you point out, staples can cause their own problem, as on the old issues of Le Cycliste, where they have rusted and discolored the paper all around them.

  10. I’m a relatively new reader of BQ. One of the things that drew me in is the classic style and feel of the magazine — no flash, no sensationalism, just quality writing and in-depth reporting. I must say I cringed when I read that you were moving into color. I even grumbled when I got the new issue in the mail, but as soon as I opened it up . . . wow! As if the quality of the writing/reporting weren’t good enough, the photos made me want to ride that bike, in that place, right now!

  11. Matt Stonich says:

    I view the Color Issue in the same light as I do Carbon Fiber bikes, I’m not a fan of either. I enjoyed the B&W, because the Colors you’ve seen on your rides are the Colors you’ve seen, and the B&W’s would give me a yerning to see the Colors for myself. As for Carbon Fiber bikes, just because they’re the latest thing in technology, doesn’t mean I’d replace my 30 year old Beautiful and Wonderfully built, Handmade Steel Frame bicycle. I wish you had kept the B&W print and had added an on-line subscription for the Color enthusiasts.

    • The new printer provides a print quality that is second to none. We are excited that the presentation now matches the quality of content and writing in the magazine. Using color doesn’t preclude us from doing features in black & white when we think it will be better. It simply gives us more options. I am a great fan of classic B&W photos, whether the landscape images of Ansel Adams, or the steam locomotive protraits of Winston Link or Jim Shaughnessy. When the subject matter allows it, we’ll definitely run B&W features.

      As for carbon bikes, we want to know how good the new bikes really are. So we test titanium, carbon, aluminum and maybe bamboo some day. The majority of test bikes still are steel, simply because steel is easy to work and entails fewer compromises with regards to geometry and features. With a steel fork, you can simply rake it a bit more to optimize the geometry for 650B tires. Carbon forks come in pre-set rakes, and I know of only one that might be suitable for a low-trail machine. Similarly, steel chainstays can be bent and indented to fit around 42 mm tires. With carbon, you are limited to pre-manufactured parts.

      Not testing alternatives to steel would mean that we are afraid to find out that our steel bikes are surpassed in their performance. Eventually, that may well happen, and then it becomes an aesthetic choice to continue to ride a steel bike. In most other bike magazines, any steel bike immediately will be categorized as quaint and charming, but slow, without any meaningful testing.

  12. David Pearce says:

    The “Cyclists Special” video (YouTube) is one of my favorite British Railways movies. What a nice intersection of trains and bicycles, isn’t it? My question to you is, do you agree with the film that the best way to transport cyclotouring bikes is to hang them by their front tire, as is shown in the movie?

    • Hanging your bike from the rear wheel is better if you have flexible fork blades, but yes, hanging the bike like that is the best way to store a bike, period. In fact, French trains do that even today, and so does the Amtrak Cascades. I guess the only problem is for riders who aren’t very tall and strong, and who have heavy bikes… since you have to lift the bike quite high. On Amtrak, you don’t get to load your own bike, unfortunately.

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