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Choosing the Right PDF Preset

Choices, choices. InDesign’s Export Adobe PDF (Print) 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, which we covered in a different post.)

The Export Adobe PDF dialog box

InDesign shares its PDF presets with many of the Creative Cloud desktop apps. If you export or save a PDF out of InDesign, for example, you’ll see the same choices in Photoshop and Illustrator. All PDF presets are stored in a common location. Depending on the versions of each application, your PDF presets might not be compatible between them.

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

Choosing a PDF export preset

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 Professional. Acrobat can handle live transparency and produce high-quality separations.

The next three 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 encourage 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 PDF/X-1a:2001 and PDF/X-3:2002 presets set Acrobat 4 compatibility which flattens a file’s 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.

PDF/X-4:2008: Use this PDF/X preset when you want to maintain transparency. It sets the compatibility to Acrobat 7 (PDF 1.6), employs high image resolutions, can handle non-CMYK color-managed workflows, and allows color data to be grayscale, RGB, CMYK, Lab, spot, and ICC-profile based. The main advantage to the PDF/x-4 preset is that—in an Adobe PDF Print Engine workflow—it can harness the ability to manage color and transparency at the latest stages in the RIP stream. (Notice that the actual PDF Standard is PDF/X-4:2010. For reasons unexplained, the naming convention didn’t keep up.)

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. Acrobat 6 compatibility is the default, which allows for transparency and the use of Acrobat layers).


We are refreshing our oldest and most popular posts with updated information and screenshots. This post on choosing a PDF export preset was originally published September 15, 2006. For the most current comments scroll to the bottom of the page.

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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