by Sandee Cohen and David Blatner
This article was originally published in InDesign Magazine issue 57 (December 2014–January 2014). Subscribe now!
Some designers who grew up in the days before InDesign were taught to only use EPS or TIFF files. Others, who grew up in the days of the web and smartphone cameras, can’t imagine anything except JPEG or PNG. Is there a best file format to use for everything? Unfortunately, no. Instead, the “right choice” depends on the image, how you’re using it, and a host of other concerns.
Fortunately, choosing a file format to use is not rocket science, and we’re going to lay out the pros and cons of each format for you here.
BFF Files

While there are over a dozen file formats in which you can save your images and graphics, there are some we like to call BFF formats—the ones that work the best with InDesign. You get the most opportunity for control when working with these types of files.
Photoshop (PSD)

Native Photoshop (PSD) files are the most useful for working with bitmapped images in InDesign. InDesign honors the transparency in the PSD file. It also lets you turn the layers on and off from right within InDesign. You can use Photoshop’s layer comps to turn layers as well as adjustment layers on and off from within InDesign. You can create spot color or bump plates for special print effects. You can even save duotones, tritones, or quadtone images in the PSD file format.
There are only a couple of significant limitations when working with PSD files. First, while you can create a duotone with transparency in Photoshop, you can’t actually save it in any format that InDesign will recognize (it is always flattened with an opaque background). Second, and more importantly: You can create vector text and “shapes” in Photoshop, but if you save your file in the PSD file format, that information will be rasterized (turned into pixels) when you print or export as PDF from InDesign. Instead, if you have a Photoshop document that has vector information (such as type layers), you need to use a Photoshop PDF to maintain that information.
By the way, you may have seen Large Document Format (PSB, or Photoshop Big) files. PSB is a special format that supports files as large as 300,000 x 300,000 pixels. (At print resolution, that’s about 34 meters, or 111 feet, wide.) However, InDesign can’t handle PSB files. In order to place one in InDesign, you need to resample the image to no more than 30,000 x 30,000 pixels and save it as PSD.
Illustrator (AI)

Native Illustrator (AI) is the best vector-drawing format for InDesign. Like its Photoshop PSD cousin, the AI file format offers a lot of flexibility. For example, InDesign lets you quickly hide or show the layers of an Illustrator file. When you save as an Illustrator file, make sure you select the Create PDF Compatible File option. (It’s on by default, fortunately.) This adds the information that InDesign uses to display and print the file. Without that setting, you won’t be able to see the file on your InDesign page!

The PDF file format is almost ubiquitous now—?you can save it from most programs and you can import it almost anywhere. InDesign is no exception, of course. That makes PDF very flexible and tempting as a file format when working in InDesign. However, make sure you understand the following tidbits when working with PDF.
Photoshop PDF files: It’s rare to save a PDF from Photoshop, but as we mentioned earlier, PDF has an important use, especially for us InDesign users: PDF files maintain the vector information in text and shape layers, where PSD does not. So does this mean you have to save both the original Photoshop PSD file and the Photoshop PDF? No, as long as you’ve enabled Preserve Photoshop Editing Capabilities in the Save Adobe PDF dialog box, you can open the PDF back up in Photoshop as you would the original Photoshop document.
Illustrator PDF files: If you’re only importing your artwork into InDesign, then saving an Illustrator document as a PDF has no real advantage. You might as well just save it as an AI file. That said, there are two reasons you might want to save Illustrator files as PDF. First, if you may need to place the graphic in other programs (Word, etc.), then PDF gives you more options. If you do this, be sure to enable the Preserve Illustrator Editing Capabilities checkbox when saving the PDF; that way you can reopen the PDF in Illustrator without losing any information (you’ve got the complete Illustrator file inside the PDF). A second reason is that you can make the PDF much smaller than an AI file, by turning off that Preserve Illustrator Editing Capabilities checkbox. However, if you do that, you can still place the PDF in InDesign just fine, but you can’t really edit it properly back in Illustrator again later—?you lose all your swatches, brushes, groups, live effects, and other goodies inside the original Illustrator file. It’s the closest thing you have to “flattening” an Illustrator file.
Other PDF files: As we said earlier, almost any program can save a PDF, and that means this file format is typically the best way to place information from primitive or out-of-date software. For instance, you may want to use the charts and graphs from Excel in your InDesign layout. Saving those files as PDF is the best way to get the artwork into InDesign. Warning: there may be color shifts, as Excel works in RGB.
Note: If you’re going to be making PDF files from other programs such as Excel, we recommend you not use the Save as PDF command at the bottom of the Mac OS Print dialog box. Instead, install Acrobat Pro and use the Save as Adobe PDF command. This creates a higher-quality PDF, suitable for professional printing.
InDesign (INDD)

InDesign makes it easy to repurpose pages from one InDesign document into another: You can simply place one InDesign (INDD) file into another as though it were a graphic! For instance, many companies use the same reply card for all their ads and brochures. Instead of copying and pasting the frames from one document to another, you can just make one reply card file, and then place that file into your other InDesign documents. 
The Also-Goods

While we generally recommend the BFF formats, there are several other formats that are also reasonable to use in professional workflows.

What makes JPEG special is file size: This format isphenomenal when it comes to compressing bitmapped images to their smallest possible size. For example, a 30.2 MB PSD file saved as a low quality/small file JPEG might be only 178 K. However, the key phrase is “low quality”—?JPEG is able to achieve these sizes because it’s a “lossy” format. That is, the more you compress your file, the more image degradation you see. When you save a JPEG you can choose a balance between quality and compression. At lower quality settings, you have to be careful of artifacts, such as halos around the edges of objects in your images. At higher-quality settings, you get very few noticeable artifacts, but you can still save a lot of space.
JPEG is also the format that most digital cameras use. You have the choice as to the size and compression of those images. Watch out: The default settings for those cameras can apply more compression than you expect.
We know plenty of people who say you should never use JPEG files for print. Ignore them. There’s nothing wrong with using JPEG files saved at Excellent/Maximum quality for print—?you save a huge amount of space on disk (and transmission time across the internet), and it’s extremely unlikely that you’re going to see any image degradation. You can even save CMYK images in the JPEG format. However, JPEG isn’t so good if you’re going to be editing and saving the file repeatedly in Photoshop. It’s really a final-version file format. Also, JPEG doesn’t support Photoshop layers, transparency, spot colors, or vectors; it’s a pixel-only
format designed for photographs.
By the way, there is a cooler version of JPEG, called JPEG 2000, that handles compression even better than JPEG files. That means better quality at even smaller sizes. Unfortunately, InDesign doesn’t support it yet, so it hasn’t really caught on.

While JPEG offers terrific compression for photographic images, PNG is usually a better format for synthetic images, such a screen captures or images that have large areas of solid color (like type on a white background). And, unlike JPEG, PNG files support transparency! We save all our screen shots for InDesign Magazine as PNG files.
For the longest time, PNG was seen as an on-screen-only format, used almost exclusively for websites, interactive PDFs, tablet apps, and so on. However, there is nothing wrong with using PNG for print. Yes, PNG is a pixel-only format, and only supports RGB (no CMYK); but you can save and place high-resolution PNG files into InDesign and they’ll print just as well as PSD or TIFF. So, if file size and transparency are important, consider PNG.
Older Formats

These are the formats that were top of their game years ago, but have been knocked out of the running. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these files, it’s just they’re not as helpful as the preferred formats nowadays.

EPS (Encapsulated PostScript) files used to be important, but this is considered a legacy or deprecated format now. There are two types of EPS files: the vector graphics created by Illustrator (or Freehand or CorelDraw), and the bitmapped images created by Photoshop. Years ago, the only way to
silhouette an image (create transparent areas) was with a hard-edge clipping path saved in an EPS file. Today, InDesign can use any path in a PSD as a clipping path. However, most designers prefer to use transparency channels (like soft-edged masks) rather than clipping paths.
The crazy thing is that there are still many printers and companies that insist on everyone using EPS. However, when pressed, they admit that they do this because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”While there’s technically nothing wrong with EPS, you should really move away from them if you can. (If you already have artwork saved as EPS, it’s probably okay to leave it that way. But don’t save new images in this dying format.)
By the way, the new QR codes in InDesign CC and the patterns made by the PatternMaker plug-in are actually EPS files that are placed and embedded into your layout. Don’t worry about it; it’s just that it’s sometimes technically easier to write EPS than other formats.

TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) used to be the most popular format for raster images but has been supplanted by PSD files. But why? TIFF offers almost all the same features as PSD files: you can save transparency and layers, use paths as clipping paths, and both formats have lossless compression to keep the files small without artifacts. The only major difference is that you can turn layers on and off and read layer comps from within InDesign for PSD files—?but not TIFF images. Yes, there are some programs that can’t read Photoshop files, but there are fewer and fewer of those. (Even PowerPoint can import Photoshop files.) So there is nothing wrong with using TIFF, but we generally just stick to PSD now.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” formats

There are some formats that InDesign can technically read, but they’re just not worth using. You might not even have heard of some of these. We’ll mention them just in case you come across a floppy disk that contains them. Think of it like your grand­parents telling you stories about the first time they saw a television.
Desktop Color Separations (DCS) files were invented by Quark Inc. and used for applying spot colors to graphics. They separate the art into individual files for each color channel. We don’t know anyone who uses them—?not even our friends who are still using QuarkXPress.
Graphics Interchange (GIF) format was created for web pages. They’re based on “indexed color” so they contain no more than 256 colors (generally, the fewer the colors, the smaller the file). They are best used for solid images such as logos or spot illustrations, not photographs. The creator of the GIF format has stated that the correct pronunciation is with a soft “g” as in “Jif” peanut butter. GIF has only one clever trick that sets it apart: you can create a multi-frame animation. The only reason to use a GIF with InDesign is (and we’re stretching here): You could place an animated GIF into InDesign and then export it as HTML to be viewed in a web browser.
PICT (it doesn’t stand for anything) files were the original file format for Macintosh computers. A cross between vector and bitmapped data, they offered limited text support and had trouble printing. With the development of OSX, PICT graphics were replaced by PDF. Believe it or not, we still have PICT files on our Macs from the late 1980s, so we can confirm that InDesign can place them, but it’s little more than a curiosity now.
Place vs. Paste

Why even bother to save your images in any of these formats and then use InDesign’s Place feature? Why not just copy and paste them into InDesign? The answer depends on what kind of graphic you have. You can copy vector artwork from Illustrator and paste it into InDesign, but it doesn’t always work. So we use these rules:
You can copy and paste simple vector objects (such as basic paths and shapes). Complex graphic elements (gradient meshes, special effects, and so on) may be altered or get stripped out; or the objects may get converted into a format you won’t be able to edit anymore, so it’s just not worth the hassle.
Only copy and paste objects from Illustrator if you need to; that is, if you need the outlines in InDesign because you’re going to edit them further or use them as InDesign frames. Otherwise, save as PDF or AI and then place the file in InDesign.
On the other hand, we very rarely copy and paste pixels from Photoshop into InDesign! It’s generally not a good idea for several reasons. First, pixel data is large (often very large), and pasting it into InDesign bloats your file size. Second, you have very little control over how this image data will print; the color may change in unexpected ways. Third, it’s really hard to edit the image later. While we might copy and paste a small bitmapped icon (especially if we’re creating an interactive document in InDesign, rather than a print doc), in general, it’s usually a much better idea to save it in a file format such as PSD or JPEG and then use File > Place to import it into your document.
Camera Raw

Camera Raw or Digital Negative (DNG) files are the highest quality files you can get from a digital camera—?no information is resampled or lost when captured. The cool thing about camera raw is that you can manipulate color, tones, sharpening, and a whole slew of other enhancements to the image and then go back to the original image at any time without loss of quality. Unfortunately, InDesign doesn’t support placing Camera Raw files. David wrote up a technique that he saw Mike McHugh present at the InDesign Conference a few years ago. The basic trick is to open the DNG file as a Smart Object in Photoshop and then save the document as a PSD. Since InDesign is a BFF with PSD files, you can place it. The Camera Raw file is embedded into the PSD file and can be modified at any time.
Placing a Transparent Background

When you import an AI, Adobe PDF, or INDD file into InDesign, it usually comes in with an opaque background. However, you can turn on the Show Import Options checkbox in the Place dialog box, and when you open the file, InDesign lets you control the import more precisely. For example, you can choose which pages you want to import. And you can select the Transparent Background checkbox to avoid importing the white area behind your artwork.
In Conclusion

There are even more formats we haven’t mentioned here. Some are for extremely specialized workflows. Others are ancient history that has gone the way of the horse and buggy. In general, stick with InDesign’s BFF formats—?those “native” formats such as PSD, AI, and PDF. If you’re working with a vendor who asks for certain types of files, you should be able to explain why you do or don’t want to use that format. And if you find an old logo that needs converting, you’ll know what to do.
Sandee Cohen is the author of the InDesign CC Visual QuickStart Guide as well as the co-author, with Diane Burns, of the new book Digital Publishing with Adobe InDesign CS6.
David Blatner is the co-host of InDesignSecrets.com and co-author of Real World InDesign (Peachpit Press).

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