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Sports Illustrated's digital workflow - Continued

In Houston, it's now 3:00am on Monday morning, about an hour after Fine found the image he likes for the cover. He and George Washington are done. They have cut 16,183 photos down to 86 selects, including at least two shots from McDonough's sequence of Brady running onto the field.

Phil Jache is getting ready to transmit the JPEG\RAW pairs of all 86 images to New York. He uses a "roughly T1" connection that is shared by all the print photo media trailers SI, Associated Press, Reuters, and several others. For the Super Bowl, SI opts for the speed of electronic transmission, rather than shipping DVDs, because the magazine is laid out on Monday and goes to press Tuesday morning. Every second counts.

Fine is delighted to be walking out of the trailer at 3:00am. In the days of film, SI brought two minilab film processors and almost a dozen assistants and technicians to a Super Bowl. Exposed film was processed as it came off the field, and all the negatives were cut and put in slide mounts. As many as five photo editors would edit the take from the negatives. The selects were then scanned and transmitted to New York, a process that typically lasted well into the day on Monday. With digital, the magazine needs about half the personnel and they're finished hours earlier.

Later Monday morning, not long after Fine and most of the rest of the Houston crew stagger back to their hotel rooms, photo editors in SI's New York office gather up the selects that Jache has transmitted and begin a color show. Managing Editor McDonell and his colleagues choose three candidates for the cover, including a shot from McDonough's sequence of Brady that will, in fact, end up as the cover of the Super Bowl issue. It's not the same shot that Fine prefers, but it's very similar. It features the same mile-wide grin, but Brady is running with arms spread, rather than high-fiving a teammate.

At this point, SI's imaging department gets in the act. They take the RAW originals of each of the three cover candidates and convert, process, and print a hard proof of each. The three proofs are sent back to the editorial department for another look-see.

It's the imaging department's job to prepare the magazine's pictures for printing. Eleven pre-press technicians work in the department, and the group's Director, Geoff Michaud, lets them choose the software tools they personally prefer. He says that most RAW conversions are made with the latest versions of the camera manufacturers' converters Canon File Viewer Utility and Nikon Capture, typically but some of his technicians use v1.0 of the Camera Raw plug-in for Photoshop 7. Generally, the department will make exposure and white balance adjustments during the RAW conversion process and most other editing moves with Photoshop.

Geoffrey Michaud (foreground), Director of Imaging at Sports Illustrated, prepares pages and photos in SI's New York office for the March 22, 2004 issue. Dan Larkin is in the background. (Photo by Sam Greenfield/Sports Illustrated)

Michaud himself prefers the camera manufacturers' RAW conversion utilities because he believes they allow for greater exposure compensation. He has tried numerous other RAW converters, including Phase One's C1, but he has seen no real advantage to them and prefers to work with as few software tools as possible.

The group uses Macintosh G4 450MHz computers, each with 640MB of RAM. Their monitors are a mixture of Sony CPD-G520 CRTs and Apple Cinema Display LCDs. SI manages much of its editorial workflow with Quark Publishing System (QPS), which isn't compatible with Mac OS X. That means Michaud's department must run OS 9.2.2 and that limits them to Photoshop 7 (the Mac version of Photoshop CS is only compatible with OS X). For noise suppression, a routine step for nearly all images, they use the Photoshop plug-in Grain Surgery 2 from Visual Infinity.

Grain Surgery 2 in action (Zoom in on plug-in)

SI uses an ICC color-managed workflow and has used a variety of profiling hardware and software, including the ColorVision mc7 Puck colorimeter and OptiCal software, the Monaco Optix XR Pro colorimeter and software package, and, for the LCDs, the GretagMacbeth Eye-One Pro spectrophotometer with ProfileMaker Monitor software. Michaud's department processes RAW files into the Adobe RGB (1998) color space, and now works in RGB (rather than CMYK) throughout their image processing workflow.

They print hard proofs with Canon imagePROGRAF W2200 inkjets using the O.R.I.S. Color Tuner RIP. When an image is finished and ready to go to press, it's converted by the imaging department from an 8-bit RGB TIFF to SWOP CMYK at 254dpi for printing with a 133-line screen. Each week, six different plants combine to print over 3 million copies of the magazine.

Digital photography has changed not only the magazine's workflow but also its visual aesthetic, says Geoff Michaud. "There's a different quality expectation with digital vs. film. With film, grain was accepted and tolerated. It was a by-product of sharpness. When we moved to digital we found that the expectation changed. I'm not 100% sure why. Now a softer feel image [is considered good], and when noise becomes apparent it's a negative thing, where it wasn't with film. I'm concerned with my operators now that because noise or grain has become a negative thing, sometimes they're holding off on sharpening. [Sometimes] I look at images, and I feel they're not quite sharp enough." That said, Michaud adds, "I think [the magazine] looks better now, but maybe that's because my expectations about what looks good have changed."

A spread from SI's coverage of Super Bowl XXXVIII

By the afternoon on Monday, the editorial department, after looking over the hard proofs, has decided that McDonough's shot of Brady will be the cover. The image is given to one of Michaud's colleagues, Imaging Manager Bob Thompson, for processing.

Thompson uses Canon's File Viewer Utility v1.3 to open the EOS-1D RAW file with about +1.5 exposure compensation. ("It was a little dark," Thompson explains. "We like our images to be open and bright.") In Photoshop 7 Thompson uses curves to reset the black point, makes some color saturation adjustments, uses the Grain Surgery plug-in to suppress noise, uses the History brush to restore some detail to Brady's face, sizes the image for the final layout and finishes with modest sharpening using Photoshop's Unsharp Mask filter. In a capsule confirmation of Michaud's comments about the magazine's new aesthetic, Thompson says, "I couldn't really push [the sharpening] on this one because there was a lot of noise with this shot, especially once I opened up the exposure."

Michaud says there is no standard group of settings for suppressing noise with Grain Surgery each image is different. For sharpening, Michaud sometimes uses a two-step workflow and sometimes sharpens only once, after the image has been sized for printing. With a relatively noise-free EOS-1D file, Michaud says, typical Photoshop Unsharp Mask settings for a two-step sharpening routine might be Amount: 150, Radius: 0.6, and Threshold: 0 for the first pass and Amount: 300-500, Radius: 0.6, and Threshold 0 for the second pass.

Most of the time, Michaud applies sharpening to all three channels of an RGB image, but occassionally he will limit it to the luminance channel. Again, he stresses, each image is different, and he trusts the judgment of his operators for the pictures they work on. When upsizing images, the department uses Photoshop's bicubic interpolation and uses a "stair-step" technique, increasing resolution in 110% increments.

si_cover.jpgFor color and white balance, the imaging department may use the in-camera settings as a starting point especially a custom white balance but they will readily override them, relying mainly on visual judgment verified by careful checking of the RGB numbers during RAW conversion or in Photoshop. As Phil Jache points out, "There's only so many pro teams, and we know what color their uniforms are."

By the end of Tuesday, the JPEG/RAW pair of Tom Brady that started out in the corner of an end zone in Houston inside John McDonough's EOS-1D and followed an intricate two-forked path from camera to photo editor to Managing Editor to imaging department to printing plant (and eventually to DVD archive) will be the cover of more than 3 million copies of the February 9, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated.

After 18 months of shooting digital, Sports Illustrated's workflow is operating smoothly. With the Athens Olympics looming that fact makes the whole photo department very happy. But Steve Fine is one of those guys who just doesn't like to settle.

"You know what I could use," he told programmer Sam Greenfield, as he walked out the door of the trailer early Monday morning. "This is what I could use. Voice-activated editing. Write something that lets me tell the computer what play I'm looking for, and then it brings up the pictures."

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