Artwork Specifications – Best Format to Save Photoshop Files for Printing

What is the best format to save photoshop files for printing – for me this was another big question I had no answer to when I first started and it took me a long time to research and a lot of trial and error before I could start! In this post I will discuss the settings you need. (As I use Adobe Photoshop that is what I will be using in the most part here however the basics apply to most of the image editing programs out there);

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Artwork Specifications – best format to save photoshop files for printing!

When designing a print I always opt for the largest size that I produce – for me this is generally 16×20″ – if you are interested in what size prints to create read this article on What Size Art Prints Sell Best. I start by creating a blank photoshop file that is 16×20″ in size and that is 300 ppi resolution and 8-bit.

Resolution -Best Format to Save Photoshop Files for Printing

  • PPI refers to ‘pixels per inch‘ which is the pixel density of the file (the number of square pixels that show up in an inch of a digital screen) in effect this is therefore the quality you are producing your arwork at. 300ppi is the optimum quality for professional printing (whereas 72ppi is good enough for monitors); So you should ALWAYS make your artwork 300ppi resolution – this way you will always end up with print quality work.
  • DPI – I’m also going to cover this here as you may have come across this term. This term refers to ‘Dots Per Inch‘ and is a printing term which describes the number of physical dots of ink on a print. Designers sometimes refer to DPI when they actually mean PPI so you may have come across this;

Colour Spaces – Best Format to Save Photoshop Files for Printing (Color Mode)

Another thing to consider is the colour space of your print. I actually design in the RGB colour space (aka colour model) because I use professional giclee printers from time to time and this is the colour space some of them request files in. I therefore prefer to work in this colour space myself and it gives me a broader range of colours to work with. Commercial printers (i.e. not giclee printers) typically work in the CMYK colour space.

Colourspaces – this is a bit of a complicated subject and I am not an expert on this but I feel a little explanation is needed. A colour space is basically an organisation of colours;

  • RGB refers to the primary colours of light – Red, Green and Blue – which are used in TV screens, computer monitors, digital devices and scanners.
  • CMYK refers to the primary colours of pigment – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black.

The RGB colour gamut is much wider than the CMYK colour gamut. Certain RGB colours that you can see on your monitor (eg bright blue, red or green) can’t be replicated with standard CMYK inks. This means that you can create really bright, saturated and vibrant prints using the RGB gamut but these may never be able to be printed in CMYK by a ‘standard’ printer. This is is also the reason why giclee printers use the much wider RGB gamut.

 In photoshop if you would like to see how your design will look when it is converted to CMYK and printed then you can do this by using View > Proof Colours. If you are planning on using a standard printing company to produce your art prints it may be safer to work in the CMYK gamut to save disappointment later.

Colour Profiles – ICC Color Profiles

Colour spaces are expressed through colour profile files. Colour profile files are instructions on how images are displayed and printed – they are effectively a means of communicating colour between all your devices i.e. a means for your monitor to accurately instruct your printer that you want ‘that’ shade of yellow and enable your printer to produce an accurate representation of your artwork.

They are not specific to photoshop and can be provided by vendors (such as paper manufacturers) or can be created by you. Each one of them represents a colour gamut (aka colour space – see above) and therefore supports a certain range of colours; You can assign a colour profile when you first create a file or you can change it once it has been created. Many paper companies provide their own colour profile files which ‘go’ with their paper to account for the tonal and colour characteristics of their paper (e.g. some are more of a cream colour rather than pure white);

I personally like using the Adobe RGB (1998) ICC profile as I find this gives me the most vibrant colours – which I like! I do sometimes also use the colour profiles that ‘go’ with the paper I’m using – especially if this is fine art paper such as Hahnemuhle.

File Types – Best Format to Save Photoshop Files for Printing

I currently save my files as JPEGs for printing but other popular formats are TIFF and PNG. I save my files in the highest setting possible – this will be the lowest compression level – (for JPEGs this is currently 12 in Photoshop). I use JPEG’s because this is what I started with – I’ve not found there to be any problems using these (image quality wise) so for the time being I am going to carry on 🙂

  • JPEG Files (Joint Photographic Experts Group) – The JPEG file format uses lossy compression and so there is some loss in quality when the image is compressed and saved. JPEG files are also flat (no layers) so are no longer editable. JPEG files tend to be much smaller in size than PNG and TIFF files when saved.
  • PNG Files (Portable Network Graphics) – These use lossless compression which means the file sizes are bigger and are a good choice for illustrations and graphic art. These can be saved with a transparent background meaning you can place images on top of one another without having a white background as you would with a JPEG.
  • TIFF Files (Tagged Image File Format) – these use lossless compression and therefore maintain image integrity; These are industry standard. Professional photographers most commonly use these.

Tonal Variation – Best Format to Save Photoshop Files for Printing

In photoshop you can create images in 8-bit, 16-bit or 32-bit. This refers to the tonal variation of the image – 8-bit have the fewest amount of tones for colours and 32-bit files have the greatest. If you are using the CMYK colour profile and the 8-bit setting then there are 256 possible tonal values for each colour i.e. 256 for CYAN, 256 for YELLOW, 256 for MEGENTA and 256 or BLACK; In an RGB colour profile there are 256 tones available for RED, GREEN and BLUE;

Images that are set to 16-bits have 65,536 tonal values for each colour. 32-bit files have even larger values. Most printers at the moment run off 8-bit colour tonal ranges so it is best to replicate this when creating prints to create the best colour match. There are already some printers that print in 16-bits but these are not really widely used as yet (as far as I am aware)!

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