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Why Does My High Res Image Look Low Res?

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Here’s a very common question that I see on InDesign user forums: why does an image that you know is high resolution look awful when it’s placed in InDesign? This can be especially confusing if you’re coming from Illustrator or Photoshop, which always display images at full quality.

Here’s a side-by-side, Illustrator vs. InDesign scenario. As you can see, InDesign’s preview of the logo looks very jagged and low resolution.

Example of logo quality in Illustrator vs. InDesign

See also: What’s My Resolution?

Why Does This Happen?

Why does the InDesign logo look so jagged? By default, InDesign uses a low-resolution thumbnail, also known as a proxy, to display the image in the layout. However, you’re not stuck with this low-resolution preview.

More after the jump! Continue reading below
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InDesign has three options for how images/graphics are displayed, which you can access via View > Display Performance.

  • Fast: Displays a gray box and you won’t see the image at all
  • Typical: Shows a low-resolution proxy
  • High Quality: Shows a high-resolution proxy

How Do I Control What I See?

By default, InDesign is set to display images using the Typical view, with proxy images for Raster and Vector. This means that you will see low-resolution images by default. But you can change this behavior.

Go to InDesign > Preferences (Mac) or File > Preference (Windows) and click on Display Performance.

InDesign Display Performance menu

In Options (Section 1 in the screenshot), there are two controls:

A: Default View, which determines which Display Performance is to be used (Fast, Typical, or High Quality).

B: Preserve the Object Display Settings, which we’ll touch on later.

In Adjust View Settings (Section 2 in the screenshot), there are the following controls:

C: A drop-down list where you can choose between Fast, Typical, or High Quality views. After you select one of these views, you can customize its settings in D, E, and F.

D: Raster Images: Adjust the slider to control the on-screen appearance of pixel-based images (like those from Photoshop) in your layout.

E: Vector Images: Adjust the slider to control the on-screen appearance of vector-based images (like those from Illustrator) in your layout.

F: Transparency: Adjust the slider to control the on-screen appearance of transparency effects.

Once you’ve set your preferences as you want them, click OK. Then you can go to View > Display Performance, and use those settings. Note that you can lose these settings if your preferences are reset, which can happen with a crash, update, or when installing plug-ins.

Outside the Preferences

Understand that when you select View > Display Performance > High Quality, this does not mean you actually have high quality Photoshop or Illustrator images, it just means that you’re telling InDesign to use the settings you defined for the high quality on-screen view. So, how do you check the resolution of a placed image to tell if it really is high res or low res?

Open the Info Panel, by going to Window > Info. Then select the image. The Info panel will show you the Actual ppi and Effective ppi.

Actual vs. effective ppi in InDesign Display Info

Actual ppi refers to the image at 100% scaling. For example, in the figure above, that’s 72 ppi, which would output as low res if you made no modification in InDesign.

Effective ppi refers to the image at your chosen scale.  For example, in the figure above, the image is scaled down to 29%. Therefore, effectively it is 248 ppi (72/29 × 100), and will output as high res.

See how the effective resolution is what really matters? How an image looks on-screen in InDesign is not always reflective of what you’ll get in final output. What you really care about is how it looks when printed or exported to PDF for digital documents. Just because it looks good on screen does not mean it will print that way—always get an accurate proof!

When the Info Panel Will Not Show Any PPI Information

If your image is a vector image, it has no set resolution, and is therefore scalable to any size! Placed PDFs will also not show any PPI information as these are containers for raster images, vector images, text and other objects.

The only file types that do show this information are raster images like JPG, PNG, GIF, PSD, TIF, and BMP.

Do I Have to Check Every Image I Place?

If you don’t want to check every individual image you place, you can use InDesign’s Preflight Panel to automatically check for low resolution images.

Go to Window > Output and choose Preflight.

At the top right of the panel is an option to Define Profiles.

InDesign Preflight panel indicating Define Profiles menu

Start by selecting the + symbol to create your own custom preflight profile.

InDesign Define Profiles menu

Navigate to Images and Objects and select what resolution you want to check for.

Now when you have preflighting turned on and your custom preflight profile selected, images that fall below your minimum desired resolution will be detected and flagged as errors. Then it’s up to you get a higher resolution image, scale the image down until its effective resolution is above your minimum, or decide if it’s ok to ignore the warning. If you don’t know, then your print vendor can help you out (or at least they should)!

See also: Customizing a Preflight Profile

What should the image resolution be?

As for the all-important question of what is the right resolution for your images, the answer is that it depends—talk to your print vendor for the best option. However, you will notice that the example above is set to 265 ppi, which is high enough for most printers. Requirements vary for newspaper, magazine, and high-end jobs, but typically most people request 300 ppi. It also depends on the content of the image. A 150 ppi foggy scene will print fine, but a 150 ppi close-up of a person’s face may not fare as well.

The output method is important too. Digital printing is a bit more forgiving than lithographic printing, so you could risk going below 265 for a digital print.

Again, for large format printing, signs, billboards, and so on, it’s completely different—speak to your print vendor.

Side Effects of Display Performance Mode Set to High Quality

When you have your display performance set to High Quality for all images, you can experience lag in InDesign, sometimes a serious lag. For a complex vector-heavy image (like a CAD drawing) set to High Quality all the time, you will almost certainly experience InDesign lagging, which can be frustrating! If this is the case, consider only using High Quality for rough layout purposes, then set it back to Typical when you are happy with the image positioning.

What Does Object Level Display Performance Do?

Another option for changing image display settings is Object Level Display Performance, which allows you to control the on-screen appearance of images on an individual basis. You can select an image and go to Object > Display Performance and choose Fast, Typical, or High Quality. For example, you may need a certain logo to always display at High Quality, but you might not care about the other images in the layout. So, you could go to Preferences, edit the Fast setting, and drag the Vector slider all the way to the right. Then in the layout, select the image, go to Object > Display Performance and choose Fast. Now just that logo will display in High Quality.

Summary

So, let’s review.

  1. InDesign will show images as a low-res proxy by default. This is set in the Preferences, using the following options (which you can edit to suit your needs):
    • A) Typical display performance mode
    • C) Display Raster as Proxy images (low res thumbnails)
    • D) Display Vector as Proxy images (low res thumbnails)
    • E) Transparency at medium quality.
  2. Displaying images in High Quality does not mean they are actually high res! Check the image’s effective resolution to see for sure. And check with your printers/print vendor for recommended guidelines.
  3. If the Info Panel does not show you the ppi, then check the image using preflight, or manually check images by opening them in Photoshop or Illustrator.
  4. Be aware of lag when using High Quality mode.
  5. You can set up and use Object Level Display Performance to control the on-screen appearance of individual graphics, separate from the rest of your other images.
Eugene Tyson has over 17 years’ experience in the graphic design and print industry. Currently a senior graphic designer and prepress operator, he delivers InDesign training and also works as a consultant for various companies and individuals within Ireland. You can reach him via his dedicated Google+ community for InDesign users in Ireland. You can also follow him on twitter @Euge_Tyson
  • coreenm says:

    Thanks for the tips!

    Question: Why does ID often Place my images at a much smaller size than the image itself? Usually this happens to me when I am working on a document that has the ruler measurements set in pixels (for ebook design). I’ll have a 300ppi image that is 2500 px wide and 4500 pixels tall. When I Place the image as an inline image (within an existing text frame), it is almost always Placed as a much smaller image. For example, 600 pixels wide (still proportional though). To fix it, I have to double click in the frame to select the image, manually change the width/height dimension in the top menu bar, and then manually make the frame fit the content. It’s extremely annoying and I have no idea why ID does this so often (yet not always, which makes it even weirder).

    • coreenm: InDesign is trying to be helpful and simply assumes that you don’t really want the image that large. After all, if it’s an inline object, you wouldn’t want it wider than the frame, would you? Usually it only does this for 72 ppi images, though.

      • coreenm says:

        That might make sense if the text frame was too small, but that isn’t the case in every instance. My basic text frame is about 500 pixels wide in the document I was just working on. Yesterday I tried to place a 200×315 pixel 300ppi res jpg image of a book cover as inline text (on a blank paragraph). InDesign decided I probably meant that I wanted it to only be 48×76.56 pixels, so it placed it at that size, with an object frame of that size. When selecting the too-small image, the link panel says that the actual and effective PPIs are both 300, and that the dimensions are 200×319. The menu at the top says its width is 48 and height is 76.56 and the X and Y scale percentage values both show 100%

        The issue only happens with non-72ppi images actually, and based on the math, InDesign is doing something to the dimensions of the image based on the ratio of 72:300. That ratio is 0.24, and a width of 200 times 0.24 gives us the 48 pixels wide dimension at which the image was placed. But WHY? And is there an option somewhere for me to tell ID to stop trying to decide what I want and just place the image exactly the way it exists?

        Here’s a link to an image I put together to show exactly what’s happening and all the settings and stuff: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/b4/dd/b2/b4ddb264239b5b4b060e476bb682de02.jpg

    • MarcoNi says:

      If the image is set to be at 300ppi, ID place the image at the dimensions you need to print it at 300dpi. Your image is 2500 px so to print at 300dpi it has to be 600 px wide. 600*300/72 = 2500 or 200/300*72 =600 (ID assume 1 px = 1/72 inch or 72 px =1 inch). The only way to Place an image at he exact pixels is to set it at 72ppi. it’s easy to make an action and a droplet in PS to change all your images to 72dpi (with Resample Image NOT selected!).

  • Eugene Tyson says:

    Excellent question! I don’t know the answer! But perhaps pop that question over on the forums – I don’t usually place inline or work on eBooks – and I’m not familiar with this issue.

  • Nice post, Eugene.

    Just to add my $1.05, I think the overprint preview is a more reliable preview as it also shows overprints (and when items that are overprint SHOULD NOT overprint, such as white overprints from illustrator).

    Overprint preview also overcomes an old issue that is still unresolved with InDesign, and that is false previews generated by the high res preview concerning multiply effects and spot colours (this was written about before in a previous IDS post: https://creativepro.com/indesigns-onscreen-untruths-overprinting-or-multiplying-spot-colors.php)

  • Eugene Tyson says:

    Hi Colin

    Very good point and well made. I agree the overprint preview is a fantastic option.

    Generally I have the preflight set to pick up white set to overprint. And other things of that nature.

    That way I don’t have to check all pages.

    Makes for a very interesting follow up post though!

  • Steven says:

    Thanks mate, solved my issue! Saved tons of hours work!
    I was thinking to get new images of high quality but it was the issue of the Indesign settings, which were solved after making these changes.

    Thank You

  • Eugene Tyson says:

    Just make sure to check the effective resolution of the images and that the number is the same or higher than your print provider requests!

  • Bjørn Seest says:

    I have set my raster image settings to ‘high’ as default, and the images are shown as such too… but sometimes one or more images suddenly turns into ‘typical’ quality on screen, and I can’t make it change back again by selecting a different page and return (force new page render). I have to relink the images one by one to get it shown in high quality again.
    Is it a known bug, or where does my problem inherit from?
    (InDesign CC2015 v.3 on PC)

  • Steve Hall says:

    After updating my raster image preferences the screen display looked fine.

    BTW, when I made a PDFx file with the old pixelated preference the PDF image looked fine.

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