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The Digital Pre-Press

By Donald Samson

The purpose of this site is to offer information to those who would like to send digital files to Marcus Printing for high-end, high quality printing.

I have been in pre-press and commercial printing since 1987 and have seen dramatic changes in operations due to the use of computers. I have seen the death of paste-up and can easily predict the end of traditional stripping and platemaking as well. I work in a 45+ person shop. We are a one to six color shop with highly advanced in-house pre-press equipment. We use Macs, PCs and high end flatbed scanners with the latest publishing software. We also have direct-to-plate capabilities, which guarantees high quality impressions. We have no traditional prepress equipment (imagesetters or darkroom camera) and we are proud of it.

Let's start with the list of do's and don'ts for designers sending files to printers. As many times as you may have heard this list, it still remains as the most important first step in the printing process. Remember you are now part of the production team. Having missing fonts on a disc is like handing in a blank piece of paper or mechanical and asking the camera operator for good sharp type. You can always call us at (413) 534-3303 if you have any questions regarding any of these topics.

The Basics, an Overview

  1. First and foremost be compatible, be sure that the programs/applications and fonts you are using will work for your printer or service bureaus. Don't be afraid to contact us if your not sure about a specific aspects of building an electronic file. This is especially important when crossing platforms, PC to Mac or Mac to PC. If you are a using a PC use this link also. If you have any questions about the following items, please contact us.

  2. Create the digital document the size you expect it to be when cut down and don't forget the bleeds, if applicable. Books should follow a normal order: Cover - page 1,2,3, etc. We will take care to impose the book for the printing press.

  3. Include all graphic files (EPS and TIFF) with your job. PICT (Mac), Windows Metafiles (WMF), GIF and JPEG are not appropriate file formats for this venue. Tell us if the pictures are FPO (For Position Only) or not. If they are only FPO, be sure to send us the pictures so they can be scanned. If your photos are in color, be sure they are in the CMYK color space, not RGB. If your images are pixel based be sure the resolution is at least 300 dpi at the physical size they are to be printed at and at least 600 dpi for line art.

  4. Send all Mac fonts or PC fonts used in the document. Don't forget the fonts hidden in imported graphic eps files.

  5. Make a mock up of the job so we can see what you expect and to check the bleeds and folds (copy should center on each panel).

  6. Provide color separated printouts. When doing a two or three color job it is very important to know that the correct colors will show up on the right plates. This is detailed intensive work and requires that no periods, dashes or eps colors are named wrong. Color printouts look great for your clients but will not help you find those CMYK colors in your spot color job. Name all spot colors exactly the same in the drawing/painting program and in the pagelayout program. For example (Pantone 249 CV) not also (Pantone 249 CVC).

  7. Let us know exactly what the file name is for your job so we can easily locate your job on your transfer media (Zip, CD's, DVD's, USB Flash Drives).

  8. A good trick for checking a file to see if all the elements are present on the disc you are submitting for output, is to open the file from that disc. If you are using a font management application (ATM, Suitcase, FontAgent, FontBook, etc.), reload all fonts from the disc too.

  9. Give all other relevant information on how to contact the designer and where to ship the job, etc.

Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) Files

PDF stands for "Portable Document Format". Its native software is Adobe Acrobat. It is the promise of PDF to be the final interchange file, ready for the printing plate. MPC uses PDFs for our intermediate file format between all Applications (Quark, Publisher, etc.), to our digital proofer and our page imposition software.

The main special features of PDFs are that they can be self-contained into one file and can also be properly compressed for printing to optimize their portability. A PDF can contain (embed) graphics (all formats) and fonts (all kinds). It is a good analogy to think of PDF as final "Film". There are limits to how much these files can be altered. In some cases PDFs can be locked so that no changes are possible. Also we can not imposition a locked or password-protected PDFs.


Not all PDFs are created the same. The PDF files that we create here at MPC have very specific parameters for our needs. Considerations for color space (Spot Color, CMYK or Grayscale), bleeds, folding, trapping (color fitting), size, and having the fonts properly embedded are very important. You must proof your PDF, not your native file. If the PDF does not conform to any one of these parameters, MPC may not be able to correct them and the process will be slowed or stopped.

The PDF must have the following features in order to be PRINT-READY:

1. Size: The document's size must be correct.
2. Bleeds: Must be at least 1/8 of an inch.
3. Folds: Must be considered in design.
4. Color Space: Must be correct: CMYK, Grayscale or spots colors. No RGB.
5. Fonts: All fonts must be embedded.
6. Images: Need to have the correct print resolution (300 dpi at the size to be printed).
7. Books: Need to be paginated in their natural order.
8. No Security or Passwords.
9. Proofread your PDF: The PDF must be proofread and looked over before sending.

If you follow these guidelines you can reap the benefits of a digital workflow, faster turnaround and the highest quality printing. Once again you are part of the production process and the trick is getting all the elements of your job from your computer to our computers. It's that simple!


Vectors, Pixels and Page Layout Applications

(In their native forms)

There are basically three types of programs used in the printing industry. They each have a unique strength and can be used together to maximize your graphic prowess. There are some applications that blend the power of all three (Denaba Canvas), but for our purpose here we will focus on the ones that are the industry standards and the ones we see here at Marcus Printing Co. All of these vector and pixel programs can export the graphics into a page layout program.


These drawing programs are sometimes referred to as "line and fill" or postscript programs. The kings here are Adobe Illustrator (.ai), and Corel Draw (.cdr). These programs are based on mathematical formulas that describe an object with a "simple" line and fill concept. Any typeface is a vector image and can be seen in it's natural form by converting it to paths or outlines in one of these programs. Here is a picture sample:


Notice the handles on each of the nodes. This allows you to change the curve. The power here is that each vector graphic has no "resolution" or dependent quality. You could take any of these graphics and blow them up the size of a house and the smoothness of the lines and the fills will be intact and suffer no quality loss. That is one reason why most professional companies have their logos in this format.


Adobe Photoshop (.psd) is the master here, sometimes refer to as a painting program. It creates images that are "resolution dependent". This means that the quality of your image is determined at the time it is created. That is to say that if you are using a digital camera or scanning in photos, you will determine the quality at that time and unfortunately we may not be able to help you after that. For examples if you should want to blow up your photo beyond its resolution capacity you will start to see these pixels.



Our rule of thumb here for the printing industry is that Grayscale and Color images should be 300 dpi at the physical size you are going to print it at. For line art (bitmap, black and white only) 600 dpi also at the size you want to print it out to. This is the dialog box in Photoshop that shows you the quality of the image by the numbers:


Page Layout

QuarkXpress (.qxd) and InDesign (.indd) are the top dogs here. CorelDRAW (.cdr) files are also welcome. MS Publisher (.pub) now has some support for working with color. All of these page layout applications are for the final assembly of all of your images and for book building. Ideally we would like to get all of our final jobs in QuarkXpress or InDesign. From here we will export the pages into a page imposition software and prepare the printing plates for press.


Word Processing programs such as Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect or Apple Pages also seem to have some capability to do page layout, however they do not support color spaces such as CMYK or spot colors needed for the printing industry. Also the formatting of the type may not be reliable from one computer to the other and typefaces may automatically substitute out without warning. We can take three different approaches to working with your word processing files. One, scan in your copy as if it was "camera ready", this raises the question whether your copy is good enough and leaves no room for editing the copy. Two, we can scan in your copy as OCR. This will cause reflow and we will substitute our typefaces. OCR allows for copy changes, reformatting and refitting to the page. Three, send us the native word processing file and we will reflow it into a page layout program. This give us the greatest ability to format and fit your artwork to your pages.

Spreadsheet programs such as Excel can sometimes be exported as postscript graphic files, however they are clumsy for us to work on. They have no support for color spaces such as CMYK or spot color so the color images they produce are always a hit or miss RGB.

Note: For us, it is not just a simple matter of printing out your files, we must be able to imposition your files on a printing plate and make sure that it meets certain printing parameters. This adds a layer of complexity to how we handle your files.

PC Compatibility

First, consult with our pre-press department if we have the same programs and fonts that you are planning to use in your document. All of the major Graphic Arts applications are now available on the PC and are being used here at Marcus Printing. They include InDesign, QuarkXpress, Freehand, Illustrator, Photoshop and CorelDraw. We also welcome MS Publisher files. We support MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint, however they are not suited very well for imagesetting. The text will often reflow and they don't support color separations. Understand that the fonts you use must also be used, translated or matched, so make a list of their names so that you can submit that too. If your printer is going to translate them for you, then you must go find them in your system directory and put them on a disc also. Also, the graphics you import should be saved in ".eps" format (see below). For bitmaps, ".tif" is the favored format. Tiffs are reliant on resolution ,so you can't enlarge them too much in your application, or they will look very jagged. Also read the basics on "The Digital Prepress" page; most all of this information pertains to you too. Mac or PC doesn't matter, we are speaking "Postscript," the language of printing.


TrueType fonts are what you are most likely using, and that's fine. Our systems will accept them. However, the history of the printing business is based on the Postscript language for high resolution printing, and on occasion TrueTypes do not play happy. If you are serious with what you are doing, you may want to consider using Postscript fonts.



This is not complicated, simply put, bleeds are the areas of print at the edges of the printed piece that will be cut off in the bindery. See these two pictures before and after triming down the job. So if you want bleeds just extend your art off the edge of the page about an eighth of an inch in your electronic file. Make your document the actual size it will be after trimming. For example, a business card document is 3.5 by 2 inches, bleeds or not.



File Formats

  • Encapsulated Postscript (.eps) is for high end commercial Printers such as Marcus Printing Co. However, it cannot be used with a non-postscript printer. It is the only file format that will hold spot colors in vector graphics. Fonts used in the .eps need to be supplied along with the files. This is our file format of choice for every graphic type (vector and pixel).

  • Tagged Image File Format (TIFF) (.tif) is a platform independent pixel format. This is our second choice for pixel based images.

  • Windows Metafiles (.wmf) or Enhanced Metafile (.emf) is a highbred format that contains vectors and pixels. They are proprietary to the Windows environment and do not support spot colors. They are an excellent format for graphics around the office.

  • PICT (.pic) is the same as a Windows Metafile but for the Macintosh platform.

  • JPEG (.jpg) is a compressed pixel format and is excellent for use on the Internet, it is not appropriate for the Printing Industry.

  • GIF (.gif) is also a file format for the Internet.

  • PCX (.pcx) is also a pixel based format.

  • Photoshop document (.psd). This is a native Photoshop document and should be converted to an EPS or a TIFF before placing it into Quark or InDesign.

  • BMP (.bmp) This is a picture file format proprietary to the Windows Platform, has no CMYK support.

A Bit About Fonts

It has been my experience that fonts are still the most troublesome area for prepress. A day rarely goes by that an electronic file doesn't have fonts missing when submitted. There are conflicts of font versions, names and type (truetype or type 1). So pay attention to which type faces you use and how you use them. Below I will show you how to look for and identify the type of font you are using and how to be sure you are sending all the elements of the font to your printer or service bureau.

Where to find them

For Mac OS they are usually in your system folder. However, better still if you are using a font management application such as Suitcase, Adobe Type Manager, Font Book or FontAgent.

True Type vs. Type 1

True Type fonts are great because you can bold a bold, italicize an italic and it only has one icon that you can easily identify and drag around. However, they don't always behave well through the Postscript intesive pre-press workflow, they are great for use at home but may not perform properly in the high end printing environment.

Type 1 fonts are Postscript (the language of printing) compatible. They are the ones we like to see, however they must be handled correctly in order for us to output them. They consist of two parts: screen fonts and printer fonts. The idea here is to match up the screen and printer fonts so you can provide us with all these elements that you used for your job. Unlike true types, you must give us the screen and printer fonts for the Regular, the Bold, the Italic and the Bold Italic face. If you Italicize a type using the the Type Style menu and there is no supporting printer font for it then it will not function properly through our pre-press workflow.

More Do's and Dont's

Don't rename your fonts. Give them to us the exactly the way that you used them. If all the screen fonts were in a suitcase when you used them, then that's the way we want you to copy them to the disc. Don't create a new suitcase for the screen fonts and throw them all in there.

If fonts were not converted to paths when you saved an .eps file from Illustrator or Freehand, then we must have those fonts too.


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