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I teach an introductory graphic design course (PS, Illustrator, InDesign) for Media Arts students. I try hard to re-evaluate the material and grading criteria regularly so that I'm focusing on aspects they'll realistically run into doing the work and not just dogmatic repetition. Suffice it to say that I have historically spent a lot of time talking to my students about why JPEG and WebP are not appropriate formats for print production.

I understand the fundamentals here, but realistically is this still a problem? I stopped making a big deal about CMYK vs RGB some years ago because the offset printers I work with for my own work didn't seem to care that much anymore since their RIP output is functionally identical. So is it the same for using a JPEG in your InDesign layout these days? Especially considering they mostly work with stock photography that comes to them as a JPG regardless?

EDIT: When I say "I understand the fundamentals here." what I mean is that I understand the concepts of lossy image compression and generational loss. But when I was coming up and learning desktop publishing principles, JPEGs were considered fundamentally incompatible with offset print production regardless of their compression level (full color JPEGs could come grayscale in production) and a designer submitting a Quark package containing JPEGs would have their work instantly rejected by offset printers for production. So I'm not asking whether JPEG (I confess I just threw WebP in there) is the best choice for print production (which is a much bigger conversation with many competing factors), I'm asking if JPEG is still fundamentally incompatible with the offset printing process the way it was a decade ago.

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  • It depends. What quality of JPEG are you talking about? If it's highly compressed it may not be usable. If it's good quality, with low compression, it might be absolutely fine. As for using RGB images, it will depend on what your printer thinks. Many still insist on CMYK images. I don't think it's possible to generalize here.
    – Billy Kerr
    May 18, 2023 at 18:16
  • @BillyKerr No see that's the exact question I'm asking—if it's possible to create a JPEG that flows through the production pipeline correctly, then JPEG is an appropriate image format (i.e. the format itself is no longer fundamentally incompatible). Also, I've not spoken to a single offset printer in the last decade that hasn't adjusted their workflow to accommodate RGB images because that's what they're going to get submitted no matter how much they protest.
    – grovberg
    May 19, 2023 at 17:56
  • @Growberg - JPEG sure, as long as you don't compress the hell out of it. As for the RGB/CMYK issue, it's going to depend on the printer. I wouldn't wish to speak for them. Also might depend if you getting a colour proof to check. To be perfectly honest with you, I'd rather not leave anything to chance. Reprints can be expensive.
    – Billy Kerr
    May 19, 2023 at 18:12
  • I added a final line to my answer. You normally send a PDF, not a native file.
    – Rafael
    May 20, 2023 at 2:11

3 Answers 3

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For me, I ditched the myth of "JPG not for print" some decades ago.

If you have control over your process, using the maximum quality, the data degradation is less than 0.5%. Meaning that only some zones of the image will have a change in the value of the pixel of 1, this is 1/255 Probably no one On the planet will visually distinguish that difference. Even in CMYK, we use jumps on values of 1/100!

Here are the tests and methods I used. https://otake.com.mx/Apuntes/PruebasDeCompresion/2-CompresionJpgCalidad.htm (I really need to update that page! and make an English version)

I am working on a comparison of the degradation between JPG and WebP (And AVIF), but again, on the maximum settings, the degradation is imperceptible. Avif and WebP declare that have a lossless mode, (but one of them, according to my limited testing is not. But I do not remember which one is it. It is on another hard drive)

The problem is that if you open the doors of using JPG to "normal people" chaos will erupt. Complaints on final quality over a "downloaded image from the internet" will be all over the place.

As long as you keep a good workflow, and know the limitations of it, you will be fine.


P.S. Regarding your edition on the question.

You almost do not use "native files" for print production. You generate a PDF, so, the JPG files are for the design phase, not necessarily for the prepress phase.

Exporting to a PDF saves you time, duplicated files (original images on RGB and converted images to CMYK) give you the flexibility to change color profiles, make modifications to source files, protect the project vs unwanted changes on fonts, etc.

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    That P.S. is an excellent point and effectively answers my question. It's funny because I explicitly teach my students that PDF is ultimately what you submit to an offset printer for production, but failed to update my own rubrics for evaluating the InDesign packages I have them submit to me for assignments. So I really appreciate you pointing out that (obvious in hindsight) hole in my thinking.
    – grovberg
    May 20, 2023 at 17:40
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Depends on the output quality expected. I used JPEGs in Quark for newspaper production (offset printing on newsprint). I would not use JPEGs for high-quality book or brochure production. A lossless format (TIFF, etc.) is so much more reliable, and space (RAM, disk) is a miniscule concern compared to years ago.

But the question was, what should you teach? I would teach practicality -- that JPEGs can lose quality but it is just one consideration among many publication decisions. Preflight, press checks/contact proofs, and other quality-assurance steps are much more important than the digital image file format. Many students in graphic design seem to have no practical understanding of offset printing at all. Those of us who cut rubylith, burned plates, made halftones with a process camera and did separations by hand have the advantage of knowing how it all works and what can go wrong.

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  • "other quality-assurance steps are much more important than the digital image file format" so true.
    – Rafael
    Aug 16, 2023 at 16:44
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The problem with jpeg has nothing to do with print production, but rather signal degradation: when the image is saved, closed and flushed out of memory and subsequently reopened and decoded in preparation for editing, it is an imperfect reconstruction of the image that was in memory at the time of the previous encoding. This is compounded every time it is saved. Very similar to duping mix tapes in the dark ages of the previous century.

It is not a big deal in many cases, and they can mitigate it by always using high-quality settings, but they ought to know why and how it happens so they can make reasonable decisions about workflow. Mainly out of habit, I usually store in a lossless format (TIFF with LZ compression usually) but frequently emit jpeg versions from these "masters" for other uses. Jpeg will print fine.

A minor issue is that CMYK JPEGs are not as universally supported in software as RGB. They should be prepared for this since many times the software will still open the file but the color looks broken somehow.

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