How to use Adobe Distiller to create reasonably-sized PDFs


A few weeks ago, I was at my local gaming convention (TotalCon, if you’re in New England, is a great convention). For the Dungeons and Dragons games I was playing, I was using my iPad(s AAPL) to manage my character with a combination of i4e and a PDF in GoodReader.

The problem I encountered was the PDF from the Wizards Insider site was about 20 MB. In GoodReader, I had a lot of slow scrolling as I waited for pages to refresh. I noticed someone else at the table using the same setup, but his PDFs loaded a lot faster. So, I asked him how he did it.

“I save it as a PostScript file and use Distiller to create the PDF,” he replied.

Since I have a Creative Cloud subscription, I decided to give it a try.

Using Distiller

If you have Distiller installed (it installs as part of the Acrobat(s ADBE) Pro install, not a separate install), this is pretty much a one-step operation. Have the document you want to create a PDF of and open Print. Instead of choosing “Save as a PDF,” choose “Save as Adobe PDF.” An Automator workflow (the workflow is crated as part of the Distiller install) handles all the heavy lifting; all you’ll have to do is set your Distiller settings and choose where to save the file. About 2-3 minutes later, the PDF is done cooking.

I was amazed at the file difference. My 21 MB PDF was now 2.1 MB. GoodReader handled this with no scrolling lag. I then did another experiment that would have normally created a 300 MB PDF. The Distiller trick yielded a 21 MB PDF. My general math tells me that using Distiller to create a PDF moves the decimal point for the file size one place to the left (a 21 MB file usually created as a Save to PDF became a 2.1mb PDF in Distiller).

How I will use this

Aside from creating smaller-sized PDFs for my gaming convention, my day job requires me to create a lot of PDFs for circulation. Our email quota is only 100 MB, so every little bit I save is good. Even saving a megabyte will help someone’s email quota. I also create a lot of sheet music, and again, smaller PDFs are more manageable — especially if I’m going to be reading it on my iPad.

Some of the PDFs I create are screenshots from my iPad. If Guitar World has a song I want to learn, I’ll take screenshots of the score, combine them in Preview on my Mac, and then create a PDF from there (taking screenshots of an entire issue as a test is how I created the 120MB PDF). Distiller will really cut down on the file sizes.

It’s not cheap. The per-app Creative Cloud pricing is $19.99 per month. I create about 3-4 PDFs a week on a slow week, so this is worth it. It’s definitely something I will be using going forward.


Jeff Dickey

This works splendidly even when the PDF file is a collection of several (relatively small) PNG page scans.

I had one such file, that I’d created in Preview, that gobbled up 217 MB of disk space. After saving in Acrobat Pro as a “Reduced Size PDF”, it was a relative featherweight at 4.1 MB — less than 2% of the original size.

Yes, we have nice, big disks in modern computers (I started when a 5 MB drive was state-of-the-art). But if our files expand even faster than our ability to store and manage them, we might as well go back to the days of the ZX80.

Leonard Rosenthol

Thanks for raising the issue of PDF “bloat” due to the use of tools that don’t bother to optimize their output. Unfortunately, the method you suggest to correct it is one that Adobe does not recommend due to the fact that it is a very lossy operation. The process converts PDF to Postscript and then back to PDF. As Postscript hasn’t been updated in more than 15 years while PDF has continued to advance, there are MANY features of PDF that will be either thrown away or damaged during the conversion.

I wrote a white paper about this back in 2009 for the Ghent Workgroup. You can find it online at . There is also an excellent blog about the inherent dangers of refrying at worth reading as well.

So if you are producing documents for your own personal usage (and you still have the originals in case of error), this method works. However, you should NEVER distribute a PDF that has gone through this process. Instead, for those cases, look at other tools (such as Adobe Acrobat itself) that can optimize PDFs natively.

Leonard Rosenthol
PDF Architect
Adobe Systems


Adobe Distiller is a good tool if you have Acrobat (though I have never liked how Acrobat tries to control all www browser and PDF file interaction – nor do I like the Adobe Updater app as it seems to have a lot of background activity i.e. network queries and general system overhead – oh, and its quite expensive).

Another good tool for reducing PDF size without all the “extras” mentioned is “PDF Nomad” (Mac OS only). Though its still ~$50 (sometimes on sale) — it has great capabilities, is fast and simple, and no feature bloat that slows my machine. Complements Apple Preview quite well as it has many more features. Worth considering for Macs.

Larry Wood

The most significant variable in PDF size is the images. Consider grabbing screens at 96 dpi, then displaying them at 150 dpi – reducing their region by 1/3. They display crisply, and print reasonably.

For best clarity, consider saving all files as PNG files. TIFF preserves clarity, but at the expense of size. PNG has comparable quality at smaller file sizes. Avoid JPEG unless your images are all real-world photos.

Set up Distiller to use the STANDARD presets for most business / recreational use of PDFs when most people will download once. If your PDFs are ALL web-based, consider SMALLEST – but you’ll sacrifice visual (image) quality.

Deliberately Omitted

wow, now i know pdf files can be different sizes. btw, what was the bit about explaining the details?

pretty much a wast of time to read your story, stick to your day job

Mac II Clone

Open in Preview, choose “Save as” (hold option key to reveal it) and select “Reduce file size” from the popup. And it’s free.

Mark Crump

I have not been happy with the results when I do that. The graphics quality takes a big hit, at least from my experiments.

I should have mentioned that in the article. Thanks for reminding me.

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