You can create and tweak your files using any programs you like, but if your pages don't print properly at their destination, you're sunk. Whether you send files to a service bureau or a magazine's advertising department, you must prepare them correctly to avoid extra costs and headaches. In this inaugural column for print pros--veteran and new--I spell out steps to take with every file you hand off.
Talk with Your Service Bureau
As any psychologist can tell you, the key to a good relationship is communication. And this holds true when you work with a service bureau or commercial printer--before you start, ask questions.
Use the Right Format Because different service bureaus prefer different file formats, ask whether yours wants a native file (for instance, the QuarkXPress document) or an Adobe Acrobat PDF copy of the file.
I dislike sending native files; it's just too easy for someone to change them. However, photographer Jeff Schewe taught me a great safeguard: burn your files onto a CD, and send that. If there's ever a discrepancy, you can point to the "pure" file on the disc.
A PDF file is almost always a good option; the file can't be altered accidentally, and you're less likely to forget to include your fonts (or to make other mistakes discussed later in this column). However, most folks have trouble printing PDFs that contain spot colors or duotones. In these cases, stick with sending native files.
Send a Report It's crucial to include information about your documents when you hand off your files to a service bureau; without certain details, the staff may not be able to print your files or troubleshoot if something goes wrong. Most shops offer a form that asks you for a complete list of fonts and graphics used in your document. You should also make clear your job's specifications, including whether you want crop marks printed at the pages' corners, film or paper output, and so on.
QuarkXPress's built-in Collect For Output feature creates a report that includes most of the necessary information. However, many QuarkXPress 4 users don't realize that to make a legible report, they must import the data into the Output Request template. (Look for this template in the Documents folder, which is in the QuarkXPress folder on your hard drive.)
Proof Your Files
One of the biggest mistakes that you can make when you're preparing files for print is not carefully proofreading them both on screen and on paper.
Stop Simple Mistakes Look at every word, preferably at a magnified view, to make sure it's correct. This may seem obvious, but many typos and mistakes end up in print because people are too busy to proof files. The next time you're tempted to rely on a program's spelling-checker feature, think of this: soft wear wont sea z this s wrung. (Most spelling checkers ignore single-letter words.)
Print and Send a Proof If you get a file to print correctly, there's a good chance the service bureau can, too. Test-print your document on a PostScript laser printer. If it's a color document, print separations to make sure that images separate correctly and that your overprints and knockouts act as expected. Incorrect or ambiguous trapping commands sometimes cause QuarkXPress to make type appear fat, and you can see this only on separations. Send these proofs to the service bureau with your file.
To save paper, you can use Adobe Acrobat ($249; 888/724-4508, www.adobe.com ) as a software PostScript printer: distill your PostScript files with Acrobat (in other words, make a PDF file), and then proof your document on screen. If Acrobat can distill your file, your service bureau will usually be able to print it. But watch out: Acrobat cannot display halftones, and many people find it easier to proof color separations on paper.
Prevent Graphic Errors
Most image problems boil down to one of three things: missing files, incorrect resolution, and problem file formats.
Send High-Resolution Graphics When you import an image into QuarkXPress or Adobe InDesign, the program typically embeds a low-resolution preview and creates a link to the external high-resolution version. So if you send your native document to a service bureau, you should also send your TIFF, EPS, and DCS graphics files. Otherwise, the result will be a low-resolution, pixelated image (or a late-night phone call from someone asking where the files are).
Use the Right Resolution Your image may turn out ugly and pixelated if its resolution is too low (that is, if you don't have enough pixel data for a high-quality print). You must save your photographic images with a resolution of about 1.5 times your halftone screen frequency (the correct resolution is usually 120 to 150 ppi for newsprint and 200 to 250 ppi for the glossy paper used in magazines). Line art (in which each pixel is either black or white) must have a much higher resolution--400 to 600 ppi for newsprint, and 800 ppi or higher for magazine paper.
Choose the Proper File Format When it comes to bitmapped data (for example, Adobe Photoshop files), use the TIFF format whenever possible--it's the easiest file format to color-manage and print. Duotones must be in the EPS format, and images with spot colors must be in the DCS format. For just about everything else, I use TIFF.
Photoshop gives you several options for compressing TIFF files (LZW compression, for example). However, compressed files occasionally cause trouble at printing time.
Sidestep PDF Pitfalls When you turn your document into a for-print PDF file, be sure to deselect image downsampling and choose ZIP as the image-compression option in the Distiller's Job Options dialog box. Otherwise, your pictures will become pixelated.
Avoid Font and Color Foibles
Nothing's worse than seeing your carefully chosen type print in an incorrect font or your lovely colors come out black. Fortunately, you have to watch for only a few mistakes.
Pass on TrueType Most imaging bureaus have trouble printing TrueType fonts, and many prefer that you use PostScript Type 1 fonts.
Send All the Fonts Collect your files and graphics into a folder, and don't forget to add your fonts--the ones you used in your documents and those in your EPS or DCS files. Be sure to send both the outline fonts and screen fonts.
Choose the Right Colors By default, every scanner scans in RGB mode. When you define a color in QuarkXPress, it is based on RGB unless you tweak the settings. But in order for your color pictures and objects (type, boxes, and so on) to print correctly, you need to change them to CMYK mode--unless you're using spot Pantone colors. If you send an RGB image to an imaging center, it'll probably print only on the black plate.
Try Helpful Software
If you're willing to spend some money, several programs can help you get your files together and avoid mistakes.
If you use QuarkXPress, check out Gluon's $149 QC 4 with Collect XTension (212/343-1755, www.gluon.com ). It can alert you to a number of potential problems in your document, such as images that are scaled too large. The great thing about this extension is that it gives you feedback while you're working on your document. When you're ready, QC Collect can also collect the fonts for you.
Preflight software can help find potential errors before you commit a file to print. Markzware's $399 Flightcheck (800/300-3532, www.markzware.com ) and Extensis Software's $400 Preflight Pro (800/796-9798, www.extensis.com ) both check font usage, picture resolution, color mode, and so on.
If you follow the steps we've outlined, you'll avoid the most-common errors and boost your odds of getting reliable, high-quality prints.
Contributing Editor DAVID BLATNER is the author of The QuarkXPress 4 Book (Peachpit Press, 1998) and a coauthor of Real World Photoshop 6 (Peachpit Press, 2001). Find him at www.moo.com.