Prepress Definition

Traditional hands-on prepress tasks are changing

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Prepress is the process of preparing digital files for a printing press—making them ready for printing. Commercial printing companies usually have prepress departments that review their clients' electronic files and make adjustments to them to make them compatible with printing on paper or other substrates.

Some of the typical prepress tasks can be performed by the graphic artist or designer who designed the project, but this isn't required.

Graphic artists usually apply crop marks and convert the color of modes of their photos to anticipate any color shifts, but much of the prepress process is handled by experienced operators at commercial printing companies using proprietary software programs that are customized to the companies' specific requirements. 

Prepress Tasks in the Digital Age

Prepress tasks vary depending on file complexity and printing method. Prepress operators usually:

  • Examine digital files carefully to anticipate and correct any problems that could prevent the document from printing as expected.
  • Double-check fonts to make sure they print correctly.
  • Make sure graphics are in the right format and convert RGB files to CMYK, the format used for printing full-color documents on a printing press.
  • Set the trapping, which is a minuscule overlap of certain colors to prevent gaps where the colors touch in a layout caused by minute shifts in the paper as it runs through the press.
  • Set the imposition of the file—putting pages in the right order for printing. It is common to print four, eight, 16 or even more pages on a single large sheet of paper that is later trimmed and sometimes folded into a single unit.
  • Produce color digital proofs.

Some prepress tasks, such as trapping, imposition and proofing, are best handled by a trained prepress technician at the commercial printing company.

 

Traditional Prepress Tasks

In the past, prepress operators photographed camera-ready artwork using large cameras, but almost all files are completely digital now. Prepress operators made color separations from photos and added crop marks to files. Most of that is done automatically now using proprietary software. Instead of using film to make the metal plates for the press, the plates are made from digital files or the files are sent directly to the press. Much of the hands-on work that traditional prepress technicians once performed is no longer necessary in the digital age. As a result, employment in this field is declining.

Prepress Technician Qualities and Requirements

Prepress operators must be able to work with the industry-standard graphic software programs including QuarkXPress, Adobe Indesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, Corel Draw, Microsoft Word and any other software that their clients use, including open source programs like Gimp and Inkscape.

Some prepress operators are color specialists and make subtle adjustments to client photos to enhance their appearance when printed on paper. They have a working knowledge of the printing process and binding requirements and how they affect each printing project.

An associate degree in printing technology, electronic prepress operations or graphic arts is the usual entry-level education requirement for prepress technicians. Good communication skills are needed to address client questions and concerns. Attention to detail and troubleshooting skills are essential.