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Creating PDF: Export or Use Distiller?

In last week’s post I discussed how using InDesign’s Export Adobe PDF feature and PDF presets make it quick and easy to create a PDF for a particular workflow?commercial printing, a desktop printer or the web. But you may work with a printer who insists that you shouldn’t send them directly-exported PDF files. Instead, they say that you should create a PostScript file and process it through Distiller. Why do they ask you to do that, anyway? Is it really better?

Before I answer that question, let’s look at the alternative method your printer is suggesting. In InDesign and all the Creative Suite applications, it’s easy to create a PostScript file from the Print dialog box. Just select PostScript from the Printer menu at the top of the dialog box. Then you can choose a PPD file (I’d suggest selecting your Adobe PDF printer if you have Acrobat) or Device Independent (removing any printer dependencies, useful for some postprocessing workflows like imposition). Make your choices in the Print dialog box, and then click Save instead of Print to create a PostScript file. You process that PostScript file in Distiller using the PDF settings file your printer suggests.

Creating PostScript

It sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it? It’s two long steps instead of one short one.

Not only that, but you’re going to lose a lot of information when you make PostScript instead of directly exporting PDF: Because PostScript is an older technology than PDF, here are some things that will be lost:

  • Transparency is flattened.
  • It’s not possible to create PDF layers, useful for versioning, for example.
  • The file’s structure (called tagging) is stripped from the file. (I discussed this in my post on Creating Accessible PDF Documents).
  • Forget about a color-managed workflow; embedded color profiles are discarded.
  • Interactive elements (bookmarks, hyperlinks, etc.) are thrown away.

So why does your printer suggest this? One possibility is that your printer may have had an InDesign directly-exported PDF file fail on their RIP because of a PostScript error. (Techie alert: If the rest of this paragraph makes your eyes glaze over, just jump to the next paragraph!) Your printer may have an older RIP (raster image processor) which doesn’t support font encoding called CID-keyed or Identity H, which was used by InDesign CS and earlier when it created PDF files. This font-storage method has been part of the PostScript specification for over a decade but some older, non-Adobe RIPs don’t support it. This method is necessary to store some fonts with a lot of glyphs like OpenType fonts. Actually, it’s pretty likely your printer just hasn’t forked over for a RIP upgrade since all modern RIPs do support CID-keyed fonts.

The good news is that InDesign CS2 no longer embeds CID-keyed fonts by default, so its directly-exported files are smaller and more compatible with older RIPs.

But another reason your printer may resist is just fear of the unknown. Many printers find it easier to stick with the tried-and-true Distiller method than experiment with something new. (Some of them also still refuse to accept TrueType fonts!) So if you can’t get your printer to try your directly-exported file, you should at least use Distiller faster by choosing the Adobe PDF printer. To use this, you need a copy of Acrobat 6, 7, or (in a couple months) 8 Professional.

Here’s how it works: (I’m describing it in Mac OS X; it’s similar in Windows.) Choose File > Print, and select the Adobe PDF 7.0 printer (or the version that matches your copy of Acrobat). This printer uses Distiller in the background, and uses exactly the same settings files as you’d choose in Distiller. Make your usual choices for printing. To get to the settings files, click the Printer button at the bottom of the dialog box. Ignore the warning message or turn it off, and click OK.

You’re now in the Mac OS X Print dialog box. In the menu that shows Copies & Pages, select PDF Options. You can then use the Adobe PDF Settings menu to select from all the PDF settings files (presets) you’ll find in Distiller. When you click Print, you’ll be given an opportunity to save a PDF file. The Adobe PDF printer will take care of creating it.

Adobe PDF Printer 1

Adobe PDF Printer 2

But, by all means, use the direct export method if at all possible. It’s more efficient and faster, and it can include all the elements that PDF is capable of handling.

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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92 Comments on “Creating PDF: Export or Use Distiller?

  1. please help! I work for a newspaper, and every ad we do is exported to a pdf for every proof we do. The problem is that even though we never (or at least very rearley ever export the file as anything other thatn a pdf, we always have to go to the drop down menu and select PDF everythime. Doesn’t sound like much, but if you do this 300 time a day…!!!!! please, can anyone help, or can you point me to someone who can? Thank you

  2. Ted,

    That sounds like a great use for scripting InDesign. I’m not a scripter, but I’d head to the InDesign Scripting forum on the Adobe User to User Forums. It may be that someone has already scripted that operation. Worth a look.

  3. Ted, don’t forget you can also export a PDF based on a pdf preset by holding down the Shift key while selecting from the File > Adobe PDF Presets submenu. This exports the file without you having to look at the dialog box.

    (Same thing works with File > Print Presets and File > Document Presets. Shift bypasses the dialog box.)

  4. We are on Quark 6.
    When we get pdfs from InDesign, most of the time we have to save it as a eps and run it through Distiller and it seems to work, but we have to do a lot of work to the pdf, because it comes over as rgb, however, when the client sends us the same thing exported as eps from the same InDesign job, it converts everything correctly. One of the main things is black appears on all plates for text, if we get pdfs instead of eps. so we ask clients to send both the eps and the pdf to us.

  5. Hello, I just finished reading the whole thing. Instead of guessing, I’ll do what Anne-Marie has suggested and talk to the printer about my prepress options.

    Thanks for all the information.

  6. How can I transfer an indesign page into a document that is editable with the same format I created in indesign (maintaining my layout)?

    When I export it, it is a pdf, which becomes an image when I try to make it a web page.

    From pagemaker, I used to be able to eventually make a page from the pdf into an editable page while retaining placement and format. But I can’t figure out how to do that with indesign.

    I want to be able to work on page layout in indesign and then save that page not as an image nor a pdf, but as a page with my text and images and with my layout from indesign, that I can then edit in frontpage.

  7. @Edie: InDesign cannot export the whole page as editable HTML, with all the page geometry (where things are on the page). You can, use the XHTML export feature to export the document, but not with the page positioning.

  8. I am exporting an magazine made in Indesign (using the press settings pdf), but cant quit give more color “punch” to the pdf’s. Is there a way to vivid the colors and contrast?

    Its a Portuguese mag so I use europe prepress settings (sorry my english).


  9. To O’Neill :
    Ask your printer to give you icc profiles, joboptions and other settings specific for its equipment. The result will be better.

  10. Hiya

    I have an issue at a client.
    They use mac osx and indesign and they export to pdf fine…..and save to their linux server fine. BUT as soon as they want to then resave a change to that same pdf on that same server they cannot do so….any other program works fine even notepad. We have definitely narrowed down the issue to indesign and pdf creation, any suggestions and help will be greatly appreciated :)

  11. I have issues with atomic regions, I work for a Newspaper and we edit photos for color correction, the things is that the photos have atomic regions and cannot edit due to photo’s are in pieces. Is there a fix?

  12. @Jim: PDFs with atomic regions are flattened, and I doubt there’s anything to preserve them other than having them saved in at least Acrobat 5 (PDF 1.4) format.

    At one of the papers I design, I rasterize the original page in Photoshop, delete all the non-photograph content, place both into a fresh document, superimposing the graphic with the corrected images. Or I suppose you could rasterize at 600 ppi, correct the images, and save the whole page as a PSD.

    If you’re worried about file size, you can delete the photos, atomic regions and all, from the original PDF with the Touch Up Object tool.

  13. I thought that PDFX1a would guarantee a CMYK conversion with 300 dpi images for litho printing.

    I just discovered that a PDFX1a file that I generated from Indesign contained RGB images. There are some transparency issues in that drop shadows are in the document.

    I was shocked when I did an “export images” from the PDF file and discovered the RGB images.

    So instead, I did Print to Postscript file, and then used
    Distiller to generate the PDFX1a file, and the PDF file indeed had correctly made CMYK images instead.

    Is there a different joboptions that I should be using in Indesign to generate Repro PDF files for litho printing?

    Thanks so much for any help you can give me.

  14. Jane,

    Choosing PDF/X-1a should definitely convert RGB to CMYK. Try restoring your InDesign preferences.

    Something is definitely WRONG.


  15. Hi,
    I am having problem when doing a File > Export to pdf. My Gulliver fonts become like this:


    All the space are replaced with “-“. Anyone can help?
    When I looked at font,
    Gulliver (Embedded)
    Type: Type 1 (CID)
    Encoding: Identity-H


  16. I just had an unexpected problem when i exported to pdf from IDCS3. (I used pdfx1a). A border on 1 of the tiff images was very weak, almost gone on 1 side. We had previously printed directly from the ID application w/no problem, but this time had to outsource for a bigger sht size than we could handle and i exported to pdf. Didn’t notice what had happened till i received the finished job. Thought it was their fault, bad blanket etc, but no- went back to the pdf and there was the problem area staring me in the face. Never had this happen before and now am gun shy and worried i will have to be going over every pdf i send out w/a fine tooth comb. What a bother. Anyone else ever encountered this?

  17. FRICK! you all have me so confused!

    I’m a new kid on the block and my printer wants the font to be flattened or curved…

    oh sheesh.. don’t want to stuff this job up :(

  18. I have just had a hard drive crash, so I had to hire a technician to install new drive and merge all my programs, preferences, etc. onto new drive. When I try and send a In-Design3 file to Level 3 Rip it says ”Printer Not Responding” can anyone help. It also happens from Quark 6.5 also. Only way around at present is to save file as .ps and drop into RIP.

    About the font problems above, has anyone thought about the flattener transparency option in In-Design, you can create a new one – call it say Hi-End and click on ”convert all texts to outlines” + ”convert all strokes to outlines”.
    This will create all text as outlines and there won’t be any font problems when saving as PDF.
    Sydney, Australia

  19. Ok..using a digital printer 6500 konica
    graphics dept. is confused how to package their files.
    some tpye missing ..some screens / pictures coming out without melding into design…
    Is there any advice on how to set-up a preset for them that will work on our printer.

  20. how do I set my indd cs4 to print PDFs at 300dpi for litho printing please? Or any other resolution I might require?

    I’ve just come out of the G3 Quark/acrobat 5 world and am now using an imac and cs suite 4.
    All was a POP (piece of p*** to use the vernacular) back then.

    In Quark I just went to page setup, pumped in the ad size, set to cmyk or greyscale, checked the preview, hit print and got exactly what I wanted. Turnaround time was brilliant.
    Why is everything now so predefined for me and confusing.
    I simply want to access PDFs at 300dpi for litho print!

    I can tell from a pdf file size whether something is of the proper resolution or not and when I read a csindd pdf ‘properties’ I know I’m not getting what I need.
    I ran a comparison between my old and new systems and got a difference of about a 30% between old Acro 5 of 922k (spot on) and new csindd (Export>high quality print setting) of 630k.

    What am I missing here?

  21. nick: sorry to say this, but PDF files do not “have” a resolution.
    InDesign will never touch images with a lower resolution than set in the “Downsample to — for images above”. All other images are inserted “as is”. Did Quark perhaps upsample your images?

    If you always need at least 300 dpi images (which is, by the way, a good number) it’s your own responsibility the images you feed into ID are good enough. Note you can have Preflight flag too low dpi as an error.

  22. They do? It sounds logical, as the transparency flattener pixelizes everything under the topmost transparent object.

    But I’d hesitate to use this as a way of upsampling lo-rez images automatically. I’m always very careful to feed ID just what I need — no less than needed for photographs, and, in reverse, no more than needed for deliberately low-res images, such as screen captures of web pages. When printed on an offset printer, these look very realistic and sharp in their original (low!) resolution but horrendous blurred when forcibly upsampled.

  23. Hi everyone, great forum. About mid way there was some mention converting a mixed size document (A3 and A4) to a pdf. I am a teacher with a little tech knowledge and have about 30 of these docx’s (between 40 and 80 pages long) to covert and need to maintain the mixed sized documents. I have the CS4 suit and tried to create pdf through Adobe Pro, Distiller and now through the Print option in Word 2007. When I conver, it reformats the pages so that they are all the same size learning reduce versions of original pages with lots of white space. My current solution is to pdf the A4 parts, then the A3, then the A4 parts, then the A3 parts and then merge -phew!!!

    Can anybody help?

  24. I think each printer has a preferred process and it is best to follow that process. They have seen all the errors and know how to prevent them. I output from InDesign to PS, then use Distiller to do the pdf, following all the specs the printer recommends. A 5 GB InDesign file will convert to a 8 GB pdf in this two step process, at the print quality and specs needed. Second guessing what the printer needs or why they do it is not a good idea. Just pick a good printer and work with their process.

  25. PDF Print Specific PS3 Emulation PDL PPD

    If printing to a device with PostScript 3 Emulation test it by distilling a PostScript file made with the device specific PPD. Compare to an Exported file using the same PDF preset options. On a Canon (PS3 Emulation PDL) we get noticeably better definition of type (OpenType, PS1, TT) using a PDF made with the Canon PPD / PS / PDF — or printing from the live application file, using the device PPD.


  26. Great post – helped me a lot with some PDF/Distiller questions.

    Where I work, we used to be able to use printers we chose but now have no say in the process and no contact with the printers which makes providing themwith their preferred print settings difficult. As a result, and after reading this forum, I will provide distilled PDF files now as it seems to be the safest option when I don’t have any communication with the printer. Particularly as I’ve had issues with transparencies in print recently.

    Thanks to all for the really useful info and all varying points of view and can make a more informed decision of what I provide now. I come from a print background originally and can appreciate how different each print shop is and why.

  27. Okay I’ve got a question that I hope be answered;

    How do I maintain my hyperlinks within Indesign (CS5) when I create a PS file (print dialog box) then use distiller to create the pdf? My links in the pdf don’t show.

    I use this method of creating a pdf because it generates a much smaller pdf then simply export out of Indesign.

  28. @Grahm: You cannot maintain hyperlinks or any other interactive stuff. I strongly recommend using File > Export instead, and figure out the right job options to match or get close to the file size you’re getting from Distiller.

  29. It’s been 6 years since Steve Werner wrote the original post…and I am wondering: What has changed? Are there still strong advocates for creating PDFs using Distiller, over the ease of using InDesign’s “Export to PDF” feature. If so, why the reluctance? Is it based on issues with your vendor, or have you experienced real issues when your files were printed?
    This question is very timely and pertinent, as I’ve just landed in an environment that uses the “postscript/distill” method…which I haven’t seen in a decade…and no one here knows the reason why.

  30. @Steve: Great question… yes, there are still adherents to the distill method, and most of them don’t know why they do it. “Our ancestors learned many moons ago that if we stood on our left foot (not the right foot!) while chanting hava nagilah, the document would print reliably.”

    I am sure there are still a few holdouts that really do have good reason (like if they have really old equipment), but the vast majority of folks should be using File > Export.

  31. A5 booklet in InDesign CS2 printing to pdf holds the crop and bleed marks but lowers the quality of the photographs. Exporting the file results in high quality photographs but displays crops marks only, not the bleed marks. What am I doing wrong? I cannot find any settings which would seem to cause the differences.

  32. Is there a way to save either a PDF or INDD to PostScript without breaking or stripping internal and external hyperlinks? If not, is there a way to manually edit the broken hyperlinks in the PDF? I’m able to add new hyperlinks to the resulting PDF, but I’m unable to edit existing links. Acrobat’s “Links” tool did not solve this problem. After saving to PostScript and then resaving as a PDF, hyperlinks that went over one line were broken (i.e., they still showed up as hyperlinks, but the URLs were missing any text that flowed to the next line). I tried to “Remove all hyperlinks,” but that didn’t actually remove the hyperlinks. Suggestions are much appreciated.

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  34. I am currently working with a printer that needs ABSOLUTELY a PS/distilled file. Problem is, when I use “save as”, the pdf turns ok. But when distilled, images are dropping and we can only see a white shadow of the images. I work with Illustrator CS3. I never had problems with any printer before this one.

    I ask 3 graphic designers and none can tell what the problem come from, neither can my printer…

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