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"Print Ready" process and gradient banding

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  • "Print Ready" process and gradient banding

    I am going to self-publish some sheet music using a printing company. The front and back covers have gradients on them, and after I upload to the printing company, the automated web-based "print ready" process converts my lossless PNG file into a super lossy PDF. When I preview the PDF (or pay for a hard copy proof to be mailed to me), I see severe bands / stepping in the gradient that were not there in my original PNG.

    The printing company keeps telling me that MY file has banding in the gradient. I can't even see the banding in my PNG, and it drives me crazy since the banding that appears via their print-ready process is blindingly obvious (it's downright awful)... and yet all they seem to want to talk about is some supposed banding in my original PNG that is so subtle that I can't even see it.

    I am hoping some people might have time for two questions:

    1) Does the referenced PNG (see attached link) appear perfectly smooth, or is there any banding/stepping in the gradient? I would have uploaded the PNG, but it's too large for the filesize limitation in this forum. I also wanted to FTP it to my web host, but that would allow people to identify who I am. Hopefully the Dropbox link works.

    2) As an amateur graphic designer myself, I am unfamiliar with the world of professional printing. Is it normal for a "print-ready" process to take high-quality graphics and downgrade them into a lossy PDF with severe artifacts (I assume because the PDF is using JPEG compression)? Or is this process something abnormal, perhaps something this particular company is doing out of convenience, to help automate bulk self-publishing orders they receive? (If so, this would explain a lot of why the company seems so unwilling to acknowledge, let alone discuss, their own lossy print-ready process.) It just seems wrong to me that I can produce a perfect gradient on paper using my PNG file and my $80 Canon inkjet printer, and yet a professional company that is devoted to nothing but printing apparently can't.

    Thanks so much!
    Last edited by KitchWitch; 11-03-2017, 12:32 PM. Reason: fixed link

  • #2
    Hi Fortissimo and welcome to GDF.

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    • #3
      PNG is NOT a print file format. Standard photoshop formats for print are .psd and .tif. While some online companies do take JPG files, I'd be in doubt of one wanting a PNG.
      What was the original file format before producing the png? Photoshop?
      If Photoshop, what was the file resolution (ppi) at full print size?

      Converting to PDF is industry standard and is not lossy at all. Not sure where you got that concept.
      ( isn't lossy unless you are submitting a file with the resolution way way beyond optimal parameters.)
      The thing about online proofing via PDF is that it is nowhere near color correct and a lot of times will show banding in a gradient that might not print that way. All I can suggest is to get a proof.

      Gradients band. I can't download your file at work to see what colors you used, but there are definite rules on the way gradients are handled within adobe programs. White to blue, green to yellow, red to black are the three most notoriously painful to work with. We actually use Photoshop to fix gradient banding in files when the gradient layer is active, or in the case of Photshop, not flattened. Expecting an online place to do any more than push the button is expecting an awful lot.
      Go here and scroll down for creating a smooth gradient. Step 12 is important, but is also somewhat dependent on your file resolution:

      Did the company supply any profile support that you are required to download? Perhaps something called a Job Options file?
      Last edited by PrintDriver; 11-03-2017, 01:00 PM.


      • #4
        1) I use Photoshop CS3, and I do consider myself fluent with Photoshop. It is full 300dpi 8.5x11 (actually, both covers are 17x11 together, but I'm only showing people here the half of the cover that is most affected by gradient stepping). I only provided PNG because the company asked for it. Taken directly from their upload page: "Your file must be a PDF, JPG, GIF or PNG." That's right, you saw it... they accept GIF for printing. I know, I thought the same thing. When I originally submitted, I saved the file as JPG using maximum quality 12. Even with lossy JPG, at quality 12 it still produces a gradient that is smooth enough to be considered "smooth." But then the website's print-ready process really hacks it up after that. They blamed my JPG for the bad final product, so I was forced to resort to PNG, the best option available.

        2) PDFs can be lossless or lossy depending on compression algorithms used. Please see One cannot say for sure if the PDFs this company is generating are lossy because of this, but this has been my suspicion - I think their PDFs are using lossy JPG compression. They won't confirm or deny this. I did get a proof, and the proof came back looking abysmally worse than if I print my own PNG file using my $80 Canon inkjet printer.

        3) I realize gradients band, but if the banding is only 1 or 2 pixels at a time, then the human eye will not see banding. I would even go as far as to say that such banding is only "philosophical banding" because we only know it's there in theory, but we don't really see it. I'm not concerned about that kind of banding. The banding I'm referring to (that the company produces) is probably 100 to 150 pixels for each shade (i.e. the bands are a good half inch when printed). I would be very interested to see if you consider the PNG file I link to banding in a truly practical sense or if it's just "philosophically" banded.

        4) I downloaded a Photoshop template from the company that I used in order to get resolution and margins perfect. My proof copy came back flawless in every way, from centering to location of spine text... but the banding was terrible. I've corresponded with the company, and they do not find anything wrong with my supplied graphics except that they claim that they still see banding in the PNG file. It's really difficult for me to believe that whatever banding they see is anything beyond negligible.

        Thanks so much for your time, and I'd really love to hear others chime in here after viewing the supplied PNG. There are a bunch of blocks on the PNG that I added because I didn't want to identify who I am or what I'm publishing here.


        • #5
          P.S. The gradient is a fairly light pink/salmon (hex code #ef9a97) to white. I used a light color precisely so that it would make the gradient all the more gentle.


          • #6
            The banding is not to be seen on the file. But I went ahead and printed it on a Konica C7000, a mid level digital press, and the banding is ever apparent. To be honest, it may not even be your file. If your printer is printing digital, it could very well be the output of the machine itself. If I have time tonight, maybe i'll set up one the NexPresses And run it there. I guarantee the Kodak with be able to render enough screens from one end of the gradient to the other that the banding will be just shy of invisible.

            Newer digital presses are specifically targeting gradient rendering. Equipping machines with 150, 175, 200, 300, 600 Clustered Dot screens - 150, 200 Rotated Line Screen and FM Stochastic Screens.
            These new toner dithers are remarkable compared to what we've seen in the last 10 years.

            Anyway. My point is, it could be the equipment. Not the file.


            • #7
              As already noted, PNG is not a print format, but that's another matter.

              As for the banding, it's not in the PNG itself. It's in the print output. There are a number of steps between your PNG and it being printed, and the final step -- ink being printed on the paper -- is only an approximation of the digital file, not an exact reproduction. I wouldn't necessarily blame the printing company, however, this kind of thing is just a limitation of the printing process and the equipment being used.

              Usually, the inaccuracies in good printing are not especially noticeable. However, when you have a clean, linear gradient from a darker shade to a lighter, those little inaccuracies are more apparent since there's nothing hiding them (sort of like a dusty footprint on a white carpet that wouldn't even be noticeable on a patterned rug). So just for example, if this salmon color is made of, say, four process colors, each of those inks at every step along the way must be perfectly synchronized with the other colors. If at some point on the gradient, the magenta or the cyan, for example, prints just a little darker or lighter or makes a sudden jump from, say, an 8% density to 9%, it can result in very noticeable banding and color shifts.

              The best way to avoid this problem is to use gradients sparingly and know which kinds of color gradients are most likely to band. In your layout, the gradient dominates the entire page, which is a recipe for a problem. If it were me, I'd redo the layout. As a workaround, though, sometimes you can mitigate the banding problem by introducing noise into the gradient using Photoshop (filter menu > noise > add noise).


              • #8
                Wow Biggs097, printing it out yourself and then possibly printing it again on more equipment is way above and beyond what I would ever expect from users in a forum, so thank you!!

                B, I'm totally with you - PNG is not a print format, and I've never in my life used PNG. But PNG seemed to be the least lossy option available out of the four options they provided.

                Both of you seem to indicate this may be an equipment thing. However, after I upload the PNG to the website and click "next," the website displays a progress bar while it generates the print-ready preview. What results is a PDF that looks exactly like the final output once printed. That means the gradient bars are being digitally generated before actually printing. Two possibilities occur to me:

                1) Their "print ready" processing unintentionally creates the banding
                2) The "print ready" processing intentionally creates the banding in order to show the client what the printed product will actually look like (i.e. printing simulation, a kind of "proof of the proof").

                I can live with either of these possibilities, but what has frustrated me to no end is that, for the life of me, 1) I can't get the company to acknowledge that the banding resulting from their image processing is much worse than whatever banding they're seeing from me, 2) In fact, I can't even get them to talk about their own image processing, 3) it feels like they're exaggerating or even fabricating the idea that my original PNG has banding (why would they do this?) and 4) the one time they referred to their own image processing, they referred to it as (quote), "image 'enhancement' (for lack of a better term)".

                I do indeed have a plan B - I have a gritty texture that I was going to overlay (semi-transparent) onto both the back and front cover, to give the gradients texture. The back cover of course is as lame as lame gets when it comes to graphic design, but keep in mind many sheet music books have nothing at all - it's just plain white, plain yellow, etc. This was my way of "at least doing something" (why not) when I really didn't feel like putting any time into it. I actually have a really nice design on the front cover involving many gradients separated by bold lines with a composer's portrait, and while the grainy texture may look better on the back cover, smooth gradients look better on the front, so I wanted to try for smooth gradients before giving up and going to plan B.

                Thanks again everyone!


                • #9
                  Originally posted by fortissimo View Post
                  Both of you seem to indicate this may be an equipment thing. However, after I upload the PNG to the website and click "next," the website displays a progress bar while it generates the print-ready preview. What results is a PDF that looks exactly like the final output once printed. That means the gradient bars are being digitally generated before actually printing.
                  This is precisely why I mentioned there being several steps between your PNG and the printing. Digital proofs are made by running the job through the same RIP as the one used for the final printing. Any problems showing up there can be expected to show up in the final printed pieces. If you had sent them, say, a vector gradient, you could have run into even more software-caused gradient banding issues.

                  I still wouldn't be inclined to lay the entire blame on the printing company, though. You're seeing it as being their software/equipment and they're seeing the problem as the result of you sending them something that was destined to cause banding issues. You're actually both right, but who's right or wrong is neither here nor there. The fact of the matter is that large gradients from very light to dark, like the one you've shown, can cause banding problems and are best avoided because of it.

                  For what it's worth, any printing company giving only PNG and lossy options for submitting artwork is a company I would avoid. I see no obvious reason why they wouldn't accept Photoshop or tiff files. In any case, the banding problem is separate from that. Good luck with the gritty texture option. Are the smaller, more complex gradients on the front cover looking okay on the proofs?


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by B View Post
                    I still wouldn't be inclined to lay the entire blame on the printing company, though.
                    All along, I've been perfectly happy to accept whatever the reality of the situation is. I agree that if printing technology can't produce good gradients, then this is neither my fault nor their fault. My frustration is that the company simply won't tell me that this is the case. Instead, they keep insisting there are bands in my originally-supplied PNG file, which as we've seen is just simply not true. If they were to walk up to me and hold out three fingers while insisting they're only holding up two, I would feel similarly frustrated. Discerning the difference between a smooth and bandy gradient requires zero experience in art and zero training in graphic design. It just requires eyeballs attached to a working brain.

                    Originally posted by B View Post
                    For what it's worth, any printing company giving only PNG and lossy options for submitting artwork is a company I would avoid.
                    I would love to get recommendations of companies that can produce an 8.5x11 "saddle-stitch" binding book (basically staples down the middle of 17x11" paper) with a glossy color cover, or slightly larger (like maybe 18x11.5" since most sheet music is slightly larger than 8.5x11). Unfortunately, this company was the only one I could find that seemed to do what I want. I am not interested in their marketing packages - I'm going to sell it myself. I just want to order 100 or 200 copies to start things off.

                    Originally posted by B View Post
                    Are the smaller, more complex gradients on the front cover looking okay on the proofs?
                    I haven't checked yet, but I'm 98% sure it will be fine. I expect technically the banding will still be there, but the graininess of the texture will work with this banding to make the effect look unnoticeable at best and deliberate (artistic effect) at worst... making a virtue of necessity.
                    Last edited by fortissimo; 11-03-2017, 11:38 PM.


                    • #11
                      Let me correct...
                      PDF in a professional print environment is a lossless process. There are plenty of ways to make it lossy.

                      It may be that their press is incapable of handling gradients from 100% to 0%. Some presses are 95-5 or even worse.

                      Just about any local printer should be able to do a better job than an online place taking lossy photoshop files. Including your odd size.
                      But the cost on a 100-200 piece job will probably be higher.
                      The way to find them is to look around for a small to mid-sized shop that isn't a chain, or at most 2 or 3 locations, that's been in business for at least a decade or two.
                      They will have what you want.
                      They are getting harder and harder to find as they are being eaten by the large conglomerates that think profit over quality and phase out some of the more custom options.


                      • #12
                        Very interesting - thanks for the advice! I just Googled [my city] printing, and found a bunch of places that have good reviews. Didn't even think to do that. I may end up going this route.






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