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InDesign Export to PDF Settings Explained

| April 7, 2014 | 11 Comments

InDesign PDF export settings

Magazine and print designers must be versatile in many areas. Design and typography is a must, image color correction is a good bonus, but to be able to work on your own, which means creating print materials from beginning to an end, you have to know lots of stuff about prepress process. Creating error free print ready PDF files is one such thing. 


Some 15 years ago, there was no PDF output. To export pages of your magazine to printing house you had to print pages to a .ps (PostScript) file. This process was called Print To File. Then the prepress team in the printing house sent those files to a RIP (Raster Image Processor) which converted PostScript files so that the image setter can recognize them and create four sheets of film, each in one process color.

Later came PDF output. But in the beginning it was not direct exporting to PDF. Again, you had to create Postscript files. Print ready files were then “distilled” in an application called Distiller, which resulted in the PDF file that was ready for print.

Today InDesign can directly generate PDF files without the need for Distiller. Of course, Distiller is still available to convert PostScript files into PDFs, if necessary, but directly exporting PDF files is the recommended method of creating PDF files. It’s faster and easier to generate PDF files through direct export.

Again, as in other production related posts we will deal only with the necessary options that will be of use to you.

All of the screen shots in this post are from my custom preset which is set up from the joboptions file I got from the printing house with which I work very often.

Before we start it is good to point out that the images in your publication have to be in CMYK color mode and at least in 225 dpi resolution. 300 dpi is the default one, but if you cannot have images at 300 dpi, 225 dpi will work fine. You can go lower than this, but than this will affect the quality of the images in print.

If you are not sure if all of your images and documents are print ready, check out our post about preflight which will help you determine if your layout files are error free.


An Overview of PDF settings

For a start, let’s go through some of the important settings in export PDF menu.

  • Adobe PDF Preset indicates whether a default preset or a user-created preset is being used. If you’ve started with an existing preset and modified some of its settings, the preset name is followed by the word “modified”. You will always work with your own presets so we will show you how to create one of your own. Other presets can be really handy. For example, Web preset is good if you have to export small sized PDFs, with 72 dpi resolution, that you have to send via email to your clients or team members. Print preset is fine for printing PDF files on your local printer. This will shorten the time that the printer needs to process PDF files and images are exported in 150 dpi, which is just enough for printing on conventional desktop or office printers.
  • Compatibility indicates the minimum version of Acrobat required to read the file. The label in parentheses shows the PDF file specification that applies; for example, “Acrobat 5 (PDF 1 .4)” indicates that the resulting PDF will be compatible with Acrobat 5 .0 and later, and that the file meets the PDF 1 .4 specifications. Proper compatibility also affects other applications that must process the PDF, such as imposition software and RIP. While an Acrobat 9/10-compatible file may seem more up to date, your RIP may not allow you to use it. Consult with the prepress team in your printing house about the requirements for your RIP, to determine the appropriate compatibility setting.
  • General includes basic file options, such as page range. The choices such as Bookmarks, Hyperlinks, and Tagged PDF affect only interactive PDFs and do not pertain to print-ready PDFs.
  • Compression allows you to specify settings for compression and downsampling of images. Additional options let you compress text and line art, and crop images to frame limits. Always use compression settings, because if you do not compress the images in the PDF, the file will be huge in size and it may cause problems to the RIP when processing those files.
inDesign PDF export settings

Always compress your images. This will save you time and PDF files will be significantly smaller.


  • Marks and Bleeds options let you include crop and bleed marks, as well as page information, bleed, and slug area.
InDesign PDF export settings

Printing house with which I work does not need printer’s marks at all, so every check box is empty. I set up bleed in my documents by default so I checked this option.


  • Output controls how colors are converted (or preserved), based on your choices and the color management settings in effect.
Indesign PDF export settings

Important option here is to set color conversion to “No Color Conversion”


  • Advanced controls font embedding and subsetting, OPI comments, transparency flattening, and the inclusion of JDF information.
inDesign PDF export settings

Select “High Resolution” in Transparency Flattener option.


  • Embedding includes the entire character set of a font in the resulting PDF; subsetting is a form of embedding that includes only characters used in the document, and results in a smaller file size. It is advised that you never create a PDF without embedding or subsetting fonts.


Default PDF presets

Here we will discuss the three most commonly used presets. You can modify each of these and re-save them. As you can see from my own preset drop down menu I modified all of them to suit my needs. I will point out which options to change. By adjusting them you will get presets that will suit you much better, PDF files will be smaller in size and quality will be sufficient for the intended purpose.


 Smallest File Size

Appropriate for online distribution or e-mail attachments. Do not use it in commercial printing, where reliable viewing, online proofing, and reproduction of the original content is crucial.

The Smallest File Size option aggressively compresses and resamples image content, and converts all RGB, CMYK, and grayscale content to the sRGB color space. This may result in noticeable color shifts from the original artwork.

Settings include:

  • Compatibility: Acrobat 6 .0 (PDF 1 .5), which maintains live transparency and layers
  • Color Images: Bicubic downsampling to 100 dpi. You can change this to 72 dpi, which is sufficient for display viewing; Compression = Automatic (JPEG); Image Quality = low. You can change it to medium.
  • Grayscale Images: Bicubic downsampling to 150 dpi. Again, you can change it to 72 dpi; Compression = Automatic (JPEG); Image Quality = Low. Change to medium.


High Quality Print

Intended for printing on in-house and desktop printers. Any RGB, Lab or spot-color content will remain in its original color space, not converted to CMYK.

Bare in mind that printing with these settings in no way will correspond to the final, traditionally printed output. For the most accurate printing resemblance, print your pages on proofing printers. For that you will use either custom made preset or the Press quality preset.

High Quality Print settings include:

  • Compatibility: Acrobat 5 .0 (PDF 1 .4), which maintains live transparency
  • Color Images: Bicubic downsampling to 300 dpi. You can change this to 150 dpi, which is sufficient for desktop and in-house printers; Compression = Automatic (JPEG); Image Quality = Maximum.
  • Grayscale Images: Bicubic downsampling to 300 dpi. Again change it to 150 dpi; Compression = Automatic (JPEG); Image Quality = Maximum .
  • Output: No color conversion; includes tagged source profiles.


Press Quality

The settings of the Press Quality preset create a PDF that converts color content to CMYK using the specified destination profile, which locks the output to a particular device.

  • Compatibility: Acrobat 5 .0 (PDF 1 .4), which maintains live transparency
  • Color Images: Bicubic downsampling to 300 dpi; Compression = Automatic (JPEG); Image Quality = Maximum.
  • Grayscale Images: Bicubic downsampling to 300 dpi; Compression = Automatic (JPEG); Image Quality = Maximum.
  • Monochrome images:  Bicubic downsampling to 600 dpi; Compression = CCITT Group 4.
  • Output: Convert content with profiles to destination; preserve color numbers for untagged content; maintain spot colors

Some printing houses will say it is OK to send them PDF files created with this preset but most of them will ask for you to create PDF files with their joboptions file, which leads us to the next chapter.


Custom made PDF preset

Each printing house has its own rules and regulations regarding the way that the PDF files should be made. Some like to have a whole magazine outputted as one large PDF file, some like it page by page. Some prefer all page marks to be on, some like them to be off.

Talk with your printing house and ask them what kind of PDFs should you send them.

The majority of printing houses will send you their joboptions file which you will save in User/Library/ Application Support/Adobe/Adobe PDF/Settings on Mac and on a PC, they’re stored in C:\Documents and Settings\User\Application Data\Adobe\ Shared Documents\Adobe PDF\Settings.

This is the easiest option for you, since the joboption preset will be visible in your presets menu. All you need to do is to select it and all of the settings will be adjusted automatically.

If they do not have joboptions file ready and you need to adjust preset on your own ask the prepress team what options to include and what not to include.

To create custom made PDF preset, follow the next steps:

  1. Choose File > Adobe PDF Presets > Define.
  2. Choose the appropriate preset for a starting point. I recommend adjusting the High Quality Print preset. The majority of the settings that you need for print output are already set up in this preset and you will need to adjust only few of them.
  3. Click the New button, and name the preset. I always give it a name that is the same as the magazine or the printing house for which it is intended.
  4. To modify the bleed settings, choose Marks and Bleeds, and set the appropriate bleed amount for your workflow. It is not sufficient to check the option to Use Document Bleed Settings. If a document has been set up with zero bleed, the resulting PDF will be without bleed. Rather, set the bleed amount to an appropriate number (usually 3 mm or  0.125 in).
  5. Choose any printer’s marks you wish to add. Ask printing house prepress team, which ones, if any, to choose.
  6. Click OK to save the PDF preset
  7. To save the PDF preset give it a brief name (InDesign adds the extension .joboptions to the name), and save the preset.
  8. To load a predefined PDF preset, choose File > Adobe PDF Presets > Define and click the Load button. Navigate to the supplied file and click Open. The preset is added to the list of available presets in InDesign.


This concludes the topic of PDF file creation. As always, if you have any questions or misunderstandings please feel free to contact us or leave a comment.



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Category: Production

Comments (11)

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  1. Irina Nalivaiko says:

    Hi, thank you for your incredibly simple yet immensely intelligible post.

    I’ve always wondered though. Say I’ve created a print ready PDF. If I were to then insert pages from another print ready PDF (say a client has provided me with print ready pdfs of adverts or content) into it… would it mess everything up (page numbering, color profiles)? Is this unadvisable?

    Which leads me to my second questions. If I were to extract those pages from the PDF I received and insert them straight into my InDesign (as I would a photo or an advert) and then make a new complete final PDF… will that save all the features of the pages I received? Is this the better option?

    Thanks and looking forward to your reply!

    • Nikola says:

      Yes, second option is much better. In fact I never use the first one.
      Many times PDF files received from advertisers contain crop marks which you may not need. Also there can be some spot colors in those files which need to be converted to CMYK.
      So, always inspect the received PDF file, and if it is OK, place it in Indesign. For example you have editorial page on the left and ad page on the right. Import the pdf and at the end export all of the files to PDF with your settings. In this way you will retain your settings.

      If you need more info, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

  2. NIcole says:


    What are the best settings to use to export a PDF for online viewing?

    Thank you!!

    • Nikola says:

      For online viewing you should use “Smallest File Size” setup. Additionally you can change the bicubic downsampling of images to 72 dpi under the Compression settings.

      In the article there is explained how you can create your own setup so it can suit your needs more precisely than the InDesing’s default settings.

  3. Ann says:

    Once you’ve exported your PDF pages, you will need to organize them into a magazine, meaning compile a magazine. The existing magazine publisher software is extremely dated and expensive, requires training and time to complete this simple task. Try Pagesorter and sort pages in a instant, without training or software downloads. It’s so easy- your puppy could do it

    • Nikola says:

      All of this is easily done in Adobe Acrobat Pro. No training needed and it is included in Adobe Creative Suit.

  4. Hanna says:

    Hi, thank’s for that interesting and informativen article.

  5. Sakina says:

    Some PDF, it cracks images & text when zooming in. How to avoid such things? Pls advise

    • Nikola says:

      First of all zooming can distort PDF. Look at it in 100% zoom. But the best thing is to print the page. If it is ok on paper it will be OK in print. Even better to print it on digital proofing device. The thing you see on the screen does not have to be the problem. Mostly it is bad rendering. But sometimes thin gap lines can occur This happens when you place cut out PSD file without background. For example if you place cut out image on sold one in InDesign and export to PDF lines where you closed the photo box can occur. Hard to see but they are noticeable.
      In your case it looks like bad rendering and everything should be fine in print. But again I cannot say for sure since I cannot see the problem by myself.
      Hope I helped.

  6. mene akata says:

    Thank you for taking the time to explain this important but complicated topics in a very simple ways. I came across this article because I have been looking for a good in house but good laser printer for starting my own magazine business. Every articles I read talked in general terms but did not go into the specific kind of printer that can do the job.Can you help please. Looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks.

    • Nikola says:

      Hi Mene
      Well, home printers won’t do the job! Maybe for some fanzines. The disadvantage of home printers is that you cannot print to the edge of the paper. Also there is an issue of binding pages together after you print them. But if you are not using any elements that go into the bleed or across a spread you can print it on home printer. But in low quantities. My advice is to contact some digital printing house which can help you.

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