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Choosing the Right PDF Preset

Choices, choices. InDesign’s Export Adobe PDF dialog box presents us with seven panels worth of options. This is where PDF presets come in. They group together all these choices into common workflows, and let us choose a preset which works best for what we’re currently doing. (Those who are more expert can create their own presets but we’ll cover that in a different post.)

ID PDF Presets

InDesign CS2 shares its PDF presets with other members of the Adobe Creative Suite 2. If you export or save a PDF out of Photoshop CS2, Illustrator CS2, and even Distiller 7, you’ll see the same five choices. (Distiller calls these settings files, but they are the same. There are also some more specialized PDF presets in other members of the Suite, but those don’t appear in InDesign.) All PDF presets are stored in a common location. If you’re using an earlier version of InDesign, your PDF presets aren’t compatible with other applications.

In this post, we’ll just focus on the initial five presets and when to use them. One is aimed at general desktop printing, three are designed for commercial print workflows, and one for on-screen or web posting.


High Quality Print: Use this preset to create a PDF document for high-quality printing on desktop printers and proofers. Color and grayscale images are downsampled to 300 ppi. Colors are left unchanged (they aren’t converted to another color space). Transparency is retained (Acrobat 5 compatibility is the default).

Press Quality: Use this PDF preset for high-quality commercial printing where the printer is comfortable receiving a PDF with live transparency. Acrobat 5 compatibility is selected, and transparency isn’t flattened. Color and grayscale images are downsampled to 300 ppi (considered an industry standard for commercial printing). RGB images are converted to CMYK; CMYK values are unchanged. This would be a good choice if your printer is sending this to an imagesetter or platesetter out of Acrobat 7 Professional. Acrobat can handle live transparency and produce high-quality separations.

The next two presets follow PDF/X standards: To reduce printing errors and enable the successful exchange of files, Adobe worked with other vendors and professional users to develop the PDF/X standards?a family of ISO standards which are a subset of PDF designed for print workflows. Many printers are encouraging their customers to use PDF/X. They’re also a good choice if you’re not sure what your printer wants.

PDF/X-1a:2001: Both of the PDF/X presets in InDesign set Acrobat 4 compatibility which flattens transparency. (Therefore, if you choose either of these choices, be sure to visit the Advanced panel and select the High Resolution Transparency Flattener Preset to retain the quality of your type and vectors.) PDF/X-1a supports CMYK and spot colors but doesn’t allow color management. RGB images are converted to CMYK; CMYK values are preserved. Image resolution settings are the same as the Press Quality preset.

PDF/X-3:2002: This PDF/X preset is similar to PDF/X-1a except that it also supports embedded RGB profiles and color management. This standard is more widely used in Europe than in North America. Choose this option for color-managed environments where you expect the printer to optimize color reproduction for the specific printing environment.

Smallest File Size: Use this preset for onscreen display, email, or the web. Color images are downsampled to 100 ppi, grayscale images to 150 ppi. Transparency is retained (Acrobat 5 compatibility is the default).

Steve Werner

Steve Werner

Steve Werner is a trainer, consultant, and co-author (with David Blatner and Christopher Smith) of InDesign for QuarkXPress Users and Moving to InDesign. He has worked in the graphic arts industry for more than 20 years and was the training manager for ten years at Rapid Lasergraphics. He has taught computer graphics classes since 1988.
Steve Werner

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74 Comments on “Choosing the Right PDF Preset

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  16. Is it possible to modify an InDesign PDF export preset to include the Enable Usage Rights in Adobe Reader feature from Acrobat?

    Having to export a 50+ page PDF from InDesign, open said PDF in Acrobat, then extract-delete-Save As..–>Enable Usage Rights–>Save As.. is a complete waste of my time. There has got to be an easier way to to this…

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  18. hi,

    i have the problem that i can´t chose the Standard Option PDF/X-3 2002. I can see it in the drop down menu but i can´t chose it!!!

    can anybody help me, please?

    thx in advanced

  19. Am I crazy? I could swear that I used to be able to Save my entire set of PDF presets from the Define dialog box. Now it only lets me do one at a time. Can’t find any .joboptions files on my hard drive except those supplied by printers. Thanks!

  20. This is so helpful! I’m new to the publishing business and have struggled to satisfy printer requirements in the past. With this advice, I feel much more comfortable with my exports. THANKS!!

  21. I’ve been successfully using PDFx 2001 for many years with a variety of printers, local and national. Font handling, color conversion to CMYK, and transparency flattening have been the most valuable features for my work. I also use custom PDFx 2001 profiles for lower resolution client comps and color copies, finding that fonts, colors and transparency look the same from design thru print.

    I am curious if there are advantages to replacing 1a with more recent PDFx 3 and 4 versions [perhaps there is something newer]? My prepress skills are not savvy enough to make on-the-fly, per job decisions between each of them, so I would be inclined to fully adopt a newer PDFx version.


    • I am thinking if you’re using RGB elements or colour space i.e. Images/Photo in the file, and sending the PDF to be printed on modern digital production printers with colour servers (Xerox, HP Indigo etc), it could be worth using PDFX3 or High Quality Print which preserves RGB info.

      The servers are usually able to interpret and simulate RGB colours with the best paper-toner-printer combinations, giving higher colour gamut reproduction compare with the same PDF converted all into CMYK.

      But if it was meant to be printed on offset then converting all to CMYK (using Press quality or PDFX1) would probably easier for the printer.

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