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Why You Should Import RGB Images Into InDesign and Convert to CMYK On Export

Yes, we know you probably learned to convert images to CMYK in Photoshop before placing them in InDesign. And yes, we know that you’ve been doing this since 1989 with PageMaker 2. But you know what? This is the 21st century now and it’s time to wake up, smell the coffee, and change your ways for the better.

So, even though we’ve been saying this for 15 years, maybe you haven’t heard it… so we’re going to say it one more time, with emotion:

You can leave your images in RGB. You don’t need to convert them to CMYK. And in fact, you probably should not convert them to CMYK (at least not in Photoshop).

As we have traveled around the world giving presentations about InDesign, Photoshop, and publishing, we’ve been constantly amazed at the number of people who are still using the old, 20th-century “convert to CMYK” workflow. And we feel a bit like someone walking into a jail announcing, “Hey, the doors aren’t locked! You don’t have to stay in here!” Some people immediately jump up and taste freedom; some wake up to the new realization slowly; and others refuse to believe it, knowing that staying behind bars is more comfortable than facing the unknown.

True, in Ye Olden Days, the RIPs (Raster Image Processors) used by commercial printers to translate PostScript from graphics programs did a lousy job of converting RGB to CMYK, resulting in muddy, inaccurate color rendering. Thus it was that, in all the land, a decree went out, ordering that Thou Shalt Convert Thy RGB Images To CMYK Before Sending Thy Job To The Printer.

Fast forward to Modern times: Current print workflows perform excellent conversions of RGB to CMYK, and some printing processes — such as digital presses and large-format inkjet output — actually provide better and more vibrant output when fed with RGB content.

You’ll still encounter print providers who insist on the submission of CMYK content, partly because “that’s how we’ve always done it” (and partly because some very small shops might still be using antiquated equipment).

Of course, you should always consult the printer to determine how your job should be submitted — never assume!

But here’s the truth: InDesign can convert your images to CMYK as well as Photoshop can. It uses the same color engine, so you can get exactly the same results. (There are a few, relatively rare exceptions to this rule, which we’ll cover below.)

So now, in the 21st century, here’s the new rule: Keep your images in RGB as long as you can, place them, as RGB, into InDesign… and then, only if you have to, convert to CMYK inside InDesign when you make your PDF files.

We’re Talking Pixels Here

We want to be clear that we’re talking about pixel-based images here — bitmapped images, such as those from Photoshop. We’re not talking about vector artwork. InDesign can convert RGB vector artwork, too, but it won’t necessarily end up the way you’d expect. If you’re using Illustrator or a similar vector-drawing tool to make logos or illustrations that will likely be printed, we generally recommend using CMYK or spot colors, not RGB.

Similarly, when you’re applying solid colors to objects in InDesign—and those documents are headed for print—you should use CMYK or spot color swatches, not RGB, in the interest of predictable conversion. For example, if you apply a solid RGB color 0/255/255 (which is bright cyan) to a frame and then print it, you’re not going to see a perfect 100% cyan in print. Instead, you’ll get something like 52% cyan and 13% yellow. That’s just par for the course when it comes to converting solid RGB colors to CMYK. So if you want 100% cyan, you should spec it in InDesign as 100% cyan.

Tip: In the Swatch Options dialog box, InDesign and Illustrator both warn you if an RGB color falls outside what CMYK printing inks can reproduce (called the CMYK “gamut”). Click the yellow alert triangle to convert to the closest in-gamut RGB value, so you won’t be shocked when the color is converted to CMYK.

Swatch Options

Note that we’re emphasizing “for print.” If you’re creating documents that are primarily for on-screen viewing, then solid RGB colors are great, even in vector artwork!

Why Placing RGB Images is (better than) OK

What’s so wonderful about Red-Green-Blue? RGB is the native language of digital cameras and scanners, and it can faithfully portray a wide range (gamut) of colors, from vibrant oranges to brilliant greens, from bright white to dramatic black. Cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) printing inks can render a smaller range of colors, resulting in disappointing approximations of those oranges and greens, as well as other commonly desired colors, such as navy blue.

When you convert RGB images to CMYK, you lose those out-of-gamut colors, and they won’t come return if you convert back to RGB.

But here’s the important part: Just because you place RGB images into InDesign doesn’t mean you’re sending RGB images to your printer! InDesign can convert those RGB images to CMYK when you export your PDF file. (It changes them in the PDF file without modifying your originals on disk.) So by placing RGB images, you have a choice: send RGB or CMYK—and if you choose CMYK, then you have to decide which CMYK.

The “which CMYK” is a new question for a lot of people, because they think there’s just one CMYK. But there are thousands of different CMYKs! So when you convert an RGB image to CMYK in Photoshop you’re targeting (optimizing for) just one of those.  And, unless you use the correct target printing profile to perform the conversion, you may have stripped out RGB colors that could have printed successfully. For example, if you used a profile for uncoated paper when preparing images that will print on coated stock, your conversion is way off. Plus, printers who have implemented a full color-managed workflow want your images as RGB because they can convert to CMYK at the last stage before printing, optimizing output for the final printing platform.

Even better, sticking with RGB means you can use the same images for different jobs: the same document could be printed on Web press coated paper one day and then sheetfed uncoated paper the next. Or you can use the same image assets in multiple ways— for example, a brochure printed on a sheetfed offset press, and a companion banner printed on a grand format inkjet device. The results might be very slightly different, but you will be able to get the best quality from each, rather than target just one printing condition and then leave the other one to chance.

Keep in mind that most modern printers can handle RGB content. Converting to CMYK early won’t necessarily ruin the outcome, but might result in the loss of some color gamut, especially if the job is going on a digital press such as the HP Indigo or a wide-gamut device such as a large format inkjet printer.

So talk with your printer: If they say they can accept a PDF/X3 or PDF/X4 file, that means they can handle the conversion from RGB to CMYK themselves (and, again, they’ll probably do a better job of it than you can). If they say they need all your images converted to CMYK, then use InDesign to do the conversion when you make your PDF.

(Some of you are saying, “But I don’t make a PDF, I send my native InDesign files to the printer.” Well, um, that’s nice. We find sending PDF files to be far more reliable, assuming the file is created correctly. If you aren’t sure how to make a great PDF file, see the links to our video courses and books at the end of this article.)

Of course, your printer may request that you send an InDesign package with the PDF so that any necessary changes can be made more easily. Printers often have to modify otherwise perfect files to accommodate the final printing process. But if the file and the PDF is made correctly, they shouldn’t need to touch your original files.

How to Convert to CMYK When Exporting a PDF

When your printer tells you they do prefer CMYK images, here’s how to export your PDF files from InDesign:

  1. Choose File > Export.
  2. Choose PDF (Print) from the Format pop-up menu.
  3. Choose a PDF Preset (such as PDF/X-1a if you want to flatten all your transparency, or PDF/X-4 if you want to maintain your transparency).
  4. Set up all the other options in the Export PDF dialog box (compression, marks and bleeds, etc.)
  5. Finally (here’s the important part), in the Output pane of the Export PDF dialog box, choose Convert to Destination (Preserve Numbers) from the Color Conversion pop-up menu. Do not choose “Convert to Destination” (without the “preserve numbers”) part, unless you really seriously know what you’re doing. Preserve Numbers means “if I have a CMYK image or CMYK colors in my file, then leave those alone.” You want that.
  6. Then, in the Destination pop-up menu, choose which CMYK you are targeting. Again, in the best case scenario, your printer will give you a color “profile” you should choose. But if they insist on CMYK, and for some reason can’t provide a custom profile, ask if they’re running the job on a web press or on a sheetfed press; then you can at least use canned profiles. For example, for uncoated stock on a sheetfed press, you might want to use Uncoated FOGRA29.
  7. Click Export.

The PDF you get will be all CMYK and your printer will be happy.

When It Makes Sense To Convert to CMYK Before Placing an Image

There are a few times when we convert images to CMYK in Photoshop before saving and placing into InDesign:

  • First, if an image includes a color that must show up with a specific CMYK value. For example, let’s say you have an image of a banner with a giant corporate logo on it, and that logo has to be a particular CMYK value. Or if you have an image that contains an area of solid magenta that really is supposed to be solid, 100% magenta.
  • Second, there are some image retouching situations where you really need to adjust just one plate. The classic example is when you have an image of a model’s face and you want to adjust just the black plate.

In those cases, we would convert to CMYK in Photoshop and then adjust the color on individual channels/plates to match the required color. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

And, for goodness sake, if you are going to use Photoshop to convert from RGB to CMYK, choose Edit > Convert to Profile (instead of just choosing Image > Mode > CMYK). If you just change the image mode, Photoshop uses the values dictated by your current color setup (Edit > Color Settings). That’s fine if your current color settings match your ultimate printing process. But choosing Edit > Convert to Profile helps ensure that you’re choosing the correct target (“which CMYK”) each time.

For More Information

Want to learn more about preparing images for print, exporting documents to PDF, and managing your color? Check out:

David Blatner

David Blatner

David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at Lynda.com are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at 63p.com.
David Blatner

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Claudia McCue

Claudia McCue

Claudia McCue incorporates more than 20 years of traditional and digital prepress production experience in her current incarnation as a consultant, trainer, and author devoted to the graphic arts industry. Claudia's company, Practicalia LLC, provides custom onsite training for a national client base of design firms, printing companies and marketing professionals. She is the author of Real World Print Production With Adobe Creative Cloud (Peachpit Press, 2013), and a frequent presenter at industry conferences. She is also the presenter for several Lynda.com titles, including "Acrobat X: Creating Forms," "Print Production Fundamentals," and "Up & Running With Acrobat XI Pro." When not chained to the computer, she can be found riding her motorcycle on country roads. She swears it’s the cure for writer’s block.
Claudia McCue

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265 Comments on “Why You Should Import RGB Images Into InDesign and Convert to CMYK On Export

  1. It sounds great and thank you very much for the article!

    Although what really is frightening is that I then get this Indesign (CS5) Warning on Export:

    “The preset specifies source profiles that dont match the current color settings file. Profiles by the color settings file will be used”

    I only get this Warning when I use “Preserve numbers” like you strongly recommend. I checked, rechecked and adjusted the Indesign settings under Color settings, Assign profile and convert to profile in the EDIT Menu but can’t find a mistake and get this warning away.

    Thats why I unfortunatly still go back to photoshop and do the color conversion to CMYK there (an extra day of work usually).

    Any advice is warmly welcome

    Thanky you!
    Wern

    • Werner: That is very strange. Can you email me a very small document that has this problem and explain the steps you are taking (what PDF preset, etc)? I’m at david [at] indesignsecrets.com

  2. Hi David,

    You mentioned that this is great because you could then use the same image for a web and printing job, but shouldn’t one image be 72ppi while the other 300 of resolution?

    Thanks in advance!

    • Bill: I think we said “web press,” which is a type of printing press. But in general, the idea is the same: using RGB means you can export the same document for print or on-screen viewing (such as an on-screen PDF). But yes, the images would then have to be downsampled if you were creating HTML.

  3. When I follow your instructions for converting an Indesign file to PDF (maintain cmyk image format) it doesn’t work. At least, I THINK it doesn’t work. If it is not a stupid question, could you tell me please how I can check the resulting PDF – I mean, check the format of images which are in the PDF to make sure they are still cmyk and have not reverted to rgb? Many thanks.

    • In Acrobat, open the Print Production Tools. Choose Output Preview and, next to “Show,” choose “CMYK.” If nothing disappears, you’re good. Or, you could choose “RGB” and hope everything goes away. Keep in mind that Spot color content will remain spot — it will NOT be converted to CMYK.

  4. This works except for one issue.
    If my document contains incorrectly profiled cmyk images and rgb images, and I want to convert all to a new destination profile while preserving native cmyk objects. I cannot. If I use the correct “Convert to destination (preserve numbers)” option it still wont work despite the description stating “colours will be converted to the destination space only if they have embedded profiles that differ from the destination profile” which it does.

    I’ve run multiple tests bringing pdfs back in to indesign and it simply will not cover this situation. However I can runa convert colours option through acrobat that does. I’d love to cut out this extra step and do the whole thing in indesign.

    Am I missing something? :D

    Cheers

  5. We print many small newspapers from publishers who have limited understanding with printing processes, little understanding of InDesign features and not much understanding of CMYK vs RGB. We routinely get files with RGB graphics AND text. Though this process seems to work OK for graphics, in my tests with text that is spec’ed as RGB, it does not seem to work. We often get four-color text — which on a cold-set web press — does not work well. We want blacks to be 100% K, 0%C, 0%Y and 0%M. We regularly need to go in using PitStop and convert the Blacks to K only. And, yes, I have tried to educate our customers but our instructions never seem to stick. They are back the next month with the same issues.

    • Andy, I think what you are looking for is “rich black”, which is darker than 100%K
      Hope that helps, it is not too difficult to Google Rich black. Your press will have a preferred mix but you could start with a standard formulation

      • But you don’t want rich black in text: you want text that is only 100K. Andy’s complaint is that RGB “black” text becomes a 4-color mix when converted to CMYK (this can happen with some imported Word text, or images with text content, such as a screen shot). Rich black should be used only in larger color areas, such as an all-black back cover on a magazine printed on an offset press.

      • Angus, Rich Black is exactly what we DON”T want. We want 100% black with no additional colors mixed in. It makes it more difficult for our press operators to hold color on the press. We are printing on a web press and we have enough to keep us busy holding the colors on graphics without worrying about the text. We also need black to overprint when on background colors. Black that knock-out invariably pose registration issues as well particularly when serif fonts are used.

  6. While working on a brochure with CMYK vector logo elements and a CMYK rich black top and bottom border, layered over an RGB photograph, I have deep concerns about the photo not matching the depth of the surrounding colors if I do not convert first. I love the idea that I will not have to convert the photo, but are modern presses really clever enough to print in multiple color formats? Too many bad experiences with RGB looking like hell on CMYK presses. Advice?

  7. If you have an image with a black background (or any other consistent flat color), placed on top of a frame colored a matching tint, there’s a good chance those components won’t match; some RIPs color-manage raster and vector content differently, even if both are the same colorspace. What I’ve done in those cases is either silhouette the subject and place it on the uniform color background in InDesign, or this:
    -In Photoshop, make sure the edges of the image are a uniform color by painting it around the edges. Note the color value (whether it’s RGB or CMYK doesn’t matter).
    -In Photoshop, make a small image (1 inch by 1 inch would work), and fill it with the same color value, in the same color space as the image described above.
    -In InDesign, rather than making the background frame a tint of that value, place the small image in it and scale up. Doesn’t matter how much — 1000% even. This will work because there is no inherent grain in the flat color.

    As to your bad experience with RGB “looking like hell on CMYK presses,” some vibrant colors (such as bright greens, navy blues, bright purples) simply can’t be rendered in CMYK– there’s no getting around it. It’s a good idea to do a CMYK preview in Photoshop to get a more realistic idea of final print. In InDesign, choose View > Proof Colors to do the same.

    Hope this makes sense.

  8. Such an interesting article – thank you. I had a issue today. Bringing RGB photos into Indesign 6 and exporting the entire file to be printed RGB. The colours weren’t as vibrant as the original RGB photo. Thanks for your help in advance.

  9. Hi Claudia and/or David,

    Here’s my situation. (As a technical writer who has had to learn the Adobe Suite on the fly, any advice is much appreciated.)

    I use InDesign to create product documentation (datasheets, installation instructions, flyers, etc.) that is mostly posted to a company website for download/printing by the user. On occasion, some of these items are printed for trade shows or a document bundle is created and sent to a translation agency.

    The images used in this documentation consist of:
    1. Clean, straight-forward product photos (products are mostly grey, metallic, black, occasionally some color) that are CMYK/300dpi/.tif. Sometimes a .psd is used if it is available/background transparency is needed).
    2. Simple graphics (circuit diagrams, performance curves, dimensional drawings and the like) that are .eps mostly; however, I have to use a lot of legacy .tif files.

    In short, these are not high-end docs so I don’t need to deal with all the fascinating color, paper, printer, etc., considerations that many of the other folks here need to do.

    Here are my questions:

    1. Does the switch to RGB I’ve been reading about here affect both the photo and graphics formats?
    2. Would you please provide me with the parameters I would need to properly save any eligible files for placement into InDesign?
    3. Would you please tell me which option under “File/Adobe PDF Presets” I should choose to make the best. pdf for online viewing? Or, if a new option needs to be set up, provide the parameters I will need to do so?

    Many thanks,

    Kathryn

    • Wow… People pay me for all such advice. How about a course Colour Management at a training centre? Or follow a Lynda.com video course…?

      • Hmmm…Snarkiness, if there is such a word, I don’t need.

        This is not a color management issue. I have already done a good bit of research and was hoping a forum of experts could provide some time-proven, useful advice for a particular situation.

        I envisioned simple answers such as the following:

        1. Yes or no.
        2. Use 300dpi RGB .tif files (an RGB .tif file looks strange to me so I was hoping for confirmation), or something similar.
        3. Choose the fourth option on the list, or something similar.

      • The question was addressed to David and Claudia, but since we are piling in . . . .

        @Kathryn

        1. RGB workflow is specific to raster-based images, eg. images primarily in tiff, jpeg, psd format. If the graphics are vector-based, and you can edit them, put them in the profile colour space of the containing InDesign file.
        2. If you are receiving images in CMYK, it is best to just leave them in CMYK unless you are going to improve them in some way. They are already “cooked” you won’t gain anything by converting them to RGB, unless you are going to enhance the colour. If anyone will be comparing a printed version with your web pdf, enhancement might be introducing colour skews.
        3. The profile I use for web based pdfs is Smallest Size. This will downsample images and convert to sRGB which is a very conservative RGB colourspace. It does create small files. If you think there will be people getting them printed on indigo or high end presses, then align your CMYK colour space with whatever colourspace the images are coming to you in.

        The point of an RGB workflow is to maintain a large colourspace and allow the printer to tailor the conversion to fit the strength and weakness of a particular printing environment. I am seeing some UV ink CMYK offset printing on uncoated paper that is amazing. If images are profiled to look good on a piece of newsprint in 1980, then the artwork is sold short by converting too early.

        Kathryn If you are being supplied with images converted upstream to CMYK and you want to move to an RGB workflow, reread this article, take out a subscription to Lynda.com and watch David’s course, reread this article and get ready to plead your case to the powers-that-be. Old habits die hard.

      • Kathryn,

        FWIW, I thought your query was well-thought-out, cogent, and straightforward, without even a hint of “demanding.” You were respectful, gave pertinent information, and asked the questions in such a way that they could, in fact, be answered in a 1-2-3 format, as you suggested, and as Mr. Yocum was kind enough to do.

        In short, you formatted your query exactly as the experts on, and moderators of, most forums request. Good job!

        Much success,
        Ken
        ~~~~~~~
        Kindness is a commodity that pays you back in ways that you can never foresee, but it ALWAYS pays you back many times over.

  10. Perhaps not the right place to post this, but I just want to let InDesign Secrets know that I am continually amazed by how much I DON’T know. I figure the better trained I am, the more money I save for my clients, so I sometimes allow myself 15 minutes “on the clock” learning my craft. The problem is that I ALWAYS go over that allotted time (and have to go “off the clock”) whenever I begin perusing your site.
    Thank you SO MUCH for the site and all of the wonderful, helpful and useful information!

    • I agree Ken, I’ve been using Indesign a long time and there is so much I still don’t know! I’ve only just stumbled across this great sight and will be visiting often and yes kindness is free!

  11. Great stuff and right on point. All these CMYKs are intimidating, and preprint is full of dire warnings, so it’s good to hear that there are some warnings we can actually ignore now that the world is catching up to our needs.

  12. Excellent article, thank you! I’m adding Illustrations for a children’s book to my InDesign document. Is it best to place these as RGB (like they currently are) or convert to CMYK first? I look forward to your answer :)

    • Thanks, Claudia. I wasn’t sure as the article mentioned to think twice about illustrations. I appreciate your help ;)

      • … And if you carefully read the rest of the thread, you will also see that modern day PDF print publishing workflows call for color conversion (along with transparency blending) at the RIP/DFE, regardless of whether it is a digital press / wide format printer or a traditional offset / flexo / etc. process. Virtually every RIP/DFE from the last decade handles color conversion correctly; whether the prepress operators know that or not is a separate question. Welcome to the 21st century!

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