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The Road to Success is Paved with Good Separations

(March 2004) posted on Thu Mar 11, 2004

Discover the separation programs available today specifically for garment screen printers and learn how these programs can benefit your shop.


By Ben P. Rosenfield

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The ability to create high-quality color separations is essential for successful multicolor garment printing, whether your shop uses a manual press or a fleet of automatics. Since the early 1990s, garment screen printers have relied on graphic-design software to accomplish most of the separation tasks they face. But even with Photoshop, Illustrator, CorelDRAW, and other powerful programs at their disposal, garment shops still face a tedious sequence of steps to generate separations that they can output for screenmaking.

The problem is that mainstream design software was not created with the screen printer in mind. While most popular design applications support process-color separations as the default separation option, the programs typically default to standard web-offset values and settings that are inappropriate for screen printing. Garment printers who wish to create accurate process, simulated-process, index-color, or other multichannel separations must understand the intricacies of these programs to achieve their goals. Developing the skills to effectively separate images with standard design applications can take hundreds of hours.

What many garment screen printers need are programs specifically made for creating screen-printing separations--programs that reduce the steps in the separation process and require less user interaction. The good news is that third-party software developers have heard screen printers' pleas for help and have responded with a number of plug-ins for standard design software (particularly Photoshop), as well as standalone applications, that simplify and accelerate the separation process. This article presents an overview of the separation programs currently offered for garment screen printing and explains how to find one that best meets the needs of your business.

An overview

Separation software runs the gamut, from inexpensive plug-ins that eliminate much of the grunt work in image separation to more pricey systems that provide extensive control of all facets of the separation process. The programs are available with functions to suit beginners, experienced printers, and those in between, and they can make the separation process less cumbersome for shops of any size. The main attraction of separation software--particularly the programs aimed at novice screen printers--is that it performs its routines in the background, which means the user isn't always bogged down by menus or stuck responding to endless "Are you sure?" prompts.

The amount of work separation software can do and the accuracy of the results it provides are primarily determined by the algorithm (mathematical procedure) it uses to identify and select color values in an image. When the software is able to carefully choose colors and create accurate color channels, the need for user input to manipulate color, adjust tonal curves, etc., is reduced. The ability to separate images without haggling with the computer about colors is a benefit to the novice screen printer. As Greg Davis, owner of Serichrome Software puts it, "There's a lack of knowledge and experience, and most people don't understand color theory. This software gives them a good start."

One of the challenges faced by the garment printer is reproducing the colors in an original design with a much smaller palette of ink colors, the size of which is limited by the number of available print stations on press. "We're trying to take a design that has thousands of colors and make it work with half a dozen colors. It's difficult," says Scott Fresener, president of the U.S. Screen Printing Institute. To help printers achieve this smaller palette, separation software makes some very complicated decisions about color, whether the design is an illustration comprising spot colors or a photographic image that will be reproduced as halftones.

Separation programs let users select the number of color channels into which a design will be separated, up to the maximum number of channels supported by the product (generally around 12-18 colors). Some of the available programs will automatically generate underbase channels, highlight white channels, black plates, and other components that help improve the realism of the printed image. Other programs require more user input to determine whether these additional plates should be generated and to establish other color benchmarks. "Creating separations is just as artistic an act as any other part of the creation of art," says Lance Gilbert, president of Second Glance Software. "If someone is looking for a cookie-cutter method, they're going to get cookie-cutter quality."

No software solution is perfect, so the user may have to go back and make adjustments to the separated colors and other facets of the design. If the red would look better with a greater amount of blue in it, the operator can bump the color in that direction. If the yellow channel is too intense, the user can pull the color back to a more pleasing level. "You have to adjust," says Ray Smith, manager of PolyOne's Wilflex EasyArt product. "[Plug-ins] aren't end-all, do-all tools; they're shortcuts."

Once you're satisfied with the separations, you can output your results in a number of ways. Some software products allow you to print directly from Photoshop and other applications, while a RIP may be necessary in other cases. Several separation-software developers produce RIPs you can purchase for use with their separation software, but most of these applications also will work with the RIP supplied with your output device.

The vast majority of separation-software products support the Desktop Color Separations (DCS) file format, which is a type of Encapsulated PostScript (EPS) file. Some separation solutions automatically generate DCS version 2.0 files, but you also can assign the DCS 2.0 format to a file when saving a document in Photoshop. DCS 2.0 allows you to save an image file along with its multichannel, CMYK, or spot-color channels. You can then drop the DCS file into design and layout applications, such as Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and Quark XPress, make additional adjustments if necessary, then output. There are as many ways to output your seps as there are software products to generate them, so be sure to discuss your shop's computer and output equipment with separation-software manufacturers as you shop. You may be able to use the software right out of the box without investing in new hardware.

Separation apps vs. Photoshop

Can you create separations in Photoshop? Sure. But we're talking about garments here. "You can't look up screen-printing separations in the Photoshop manual," says David Cran, president of Squaredot Software. "I've seen probably 200 ways of using Photoshop to do seps."

Photoshop won't create underbases for you. It won't automatically generate highlight-white channels. And it won't walk you through ways to avoid moir


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