self-publisher's forum: a steep learning curve
22 January 2006
Frank Mafrici gets all technical on me:
I have been working on a series of individual, mostly A3 sized, drawings that are gradually developing a theme. I would like to drop them into a digital format that could eventually turn into a self published comic or graphic novel. I would really appreciate if you would spare the time to explain how you scan your images, at the correct file size and build each page in whatever software you use. I don't know anything about what a printer would want from a self publisher to make it all happen.
The final specification of your files depends on exactly how the printer you intend to use prefers them. These days, compatibility between file formats are greatly improved and most large print companies can work from many different formats. Usually though, they will prefer to work from certain file types and within certain programs or platforms, so it's best to ask the printer you're using to specify how they want your files to be supplied.
Brenner Printing in Texas have a particularly informative page on their website, detailing the F.A.Q.s of supplying them with files.
Therefore, it's best to stick to industry-standard software when preparing your files. PhotoShop is pretty universal for creating images, while Quark Xpress is the traditional choice for DTP (page layout). I personally use PageMaker, while another alternative is Adobe's InDesign, which is fast becoming accepted as standard.
Once upon a time, all pro print shops only used Apple Macs and owners of other machines were ridiculed and shown the door. These days, most printers will be happy to accept files from either Windows-based machines or Macs.
The first step is to scan your images. These days, scanners are such that even relatively cheap ones can produce high-quality images. As you say that many of your drawings are A3 sized, this presents a problem in that the vast majority of the available scanners are A4 of slightly larger.
A3 scanners are quite scarce and very expensive. My A3 scanner cost me more than my car! But I have seen one or two cheaper models recently - though still very costly compared to an A4 machine. One solution is to get your drawings reduced in a copy shop, but this would only work for simple line drawings. Anything else I would recommend proper scanning. There are bureaus that will do this for you and supply the images on a disk for a fee.
What I ended up doing for many issues of Strangehaven was to scan my pages (and even my covers) on my A4 scanner in two or three parts, the paste them together in PhotoShop. Obviously, this is time consuming and potentially very frustrating - especially if the separate parts of the image don't line up. It's actually very difficult to keep the artwork exactly parallel when laying it on the scanner glass. But it's certainly doable if you want to do the scanning yourself and have a little time to play around with it.
Your scanning software should allow you to select different modes depending on the image type - i.e. line, greyscale or colour. I always like to scan line images as greyscale and convert them to bitmaps images later in PhotoShop, although you can scan line art as a bitmap. I also like to scan at a higher resolution than the final supplied image will be - not always strictly necessary, but if you intend to sell your artwork at a later date, it's best to keep very high resolution scans for safekeeping.
Line images should be scanned at least at 600ppi (pixels per inch - or more commonly described as dpi - dots per inch - although that's not technically correct). I like to scan at 1000ppi.
Greyscale and colour images should be scanned at least at 300ppi. Sometimes I scan at 600ppi, but, be warned, in colour this creates enormous files and can take a long time to scan an A3 image. If you're using your own scanner, I'd suggest simply experimenting with different modes and resolutions until you find a middle ground that you're satisfied with.
Once you have your image safely saved and backed-up, you can reduce to the required print size. Cue lots of measuring, calculating and trial and error. I like to work in direct proportion to the finished art, so that when the image is reduced, it's done, for example, from nine inches wide to six inches wide. This maintains the quality as much as possible and avoids unpleasant artefacts like jaggies and aliasing. Don't reduce this reduced image further - always work from the original image if you need to correct the size, else the image quality may suffer.
Using PhotoShop's Image Size command, you must not only define the physical dimensions, you will also need to specify the ppi of the reduced image.
For line work, 600-1000ppi is best to avoid jaggies. If you have scanned line work in greyscale, you need to prepare the image by using PhotoShop's Threshold command, which will turn each pixel either black or white. Save it in bitmap mode (50% threshold) which will create a very small file. Don't worry if the image looks a little jagged - it will print much better than it looks on screen.
Always save your files out as tiff files. This uses a 'lossless' compression that does not degrade the image. Saving out as other file formats such as jpegs can degrade the image. There are many formats in which to save your image, but tiff files are widely used.
Most printers like greyscale and colour images to be supplied @ 300ppi at the printed dimensions. Any higher than that, the files become too large and unwieldy. Any lower and image quality is compromised.
If you intend to add text and graphical elements like borders or word balloons, then you can do this in PhotoShop itself, or import the image into a DTP program. Many professional comic creators use a 'vector drawing' program called Illustrator to create panel borders and lettering, and combine these with the tiff files in their DTP program of choice.
Personally, I like to add everything within PhotoShop (due to a historical hatred of importing files into multiple programs and having to save them out again before working on them in the original program), including the lettering. As I use greyscale files, the borders, balloons and lettering can look a little 'soft'... this is due to the fact that printers use 'line screens' to break up greyscale images into little tiny dots for lithographic printing. Increasing resolution here won't help.
If you require razor-sharp edges, then you need to create these items in your DTP program or vector-drawing program. There is another way, which I used for the Alan Moore biography in the Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman book - and that was to create a separate, 1000ppi bitmap image containing the graphical elements and overlay that on top of a 300ppi greyscale image in PageMaker. Not recommended for faint hearts.
The last step is to combine all the final layouts in a single DTP file - a recent issue of Strangehaven typically has 24 PhotoShop tiff files for the comics pages, plus a number of text pages wholly created within PageMaker. This DTP file is burnt to a CD (or DVD) along with all linked files containing the images used, fonts and suchlike. There is a growing trend for printers to accept PDFs (usually created in Adobe Acrobat) - which are more difficult files to prepare correctly, but have the advantage of being less inclined to go wonky at the printer's side.
Then it's just a matter of popping the disk into a padded envelope along with a 'dummy' copy of the publication and mailed off to the printer. It's also possible these days to simply upload the files over the Internet using FTP. A long way from the days when I had to FedEx huge parcels packed with my original artwork from the UK to Canada.
© 2006 Gary Spencer Millidge. All rights reserved.
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