Article by Pro Photo Supply Lab supervisor, Gina Kelley.
Your European vacation was a success and you finally have the chance to sort through your memory cards. One really great shot pops out from the rest—a white dove eating out of your child’s hand in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Never mind that you had to slather the kid all over with hand sanitizer afterward, you want to blow that picture up big. It just captures the whole trip. Maybe it can go above the fireplace so your friends can see what a great time you had.
So now you’re wondering: exactly how big can I print my image? It’s a tricky question because there’s no single exact answer. There’s actually a lot of leeway on any given image depending on several factors, including what your tolerance is of flaws, how much money you are willing to invest in the print, and how the image will be displayed. This article will help you determine the range of printing options you have with a given file.
The first step is to determine the resolution of your image by looking at the pixel dimensions of your original file, or a file that has been manipulated with non-destructive editing (meaning you haven’t cropped it or changed it in any way that will affect the quality of the image.)
What is the resolution of my image?
Resolution is a topic that may deserve its very own article. For the intents and purposes of this post we will just use the pixel dimensions of the image. This is the most basic and universal way of referring to resolution, and doesn’t run the risk of being misconstrued. For the technical minded, you can check out an informative Wiki article on resolution here.
The pixel dimensions of an image are displayed fairly often in various places on your computer and in your camera. It’s easy to identify because it will be two sets of numbers, for instance: 1200×1800. If you’re not familiar with finding this, you can always save the image to the desktop of your computer to easily find the pixel count.
On a P.C., simply hover over an image on your desktop. A dialog box will come up that has the pixel dimensions of the image.
On a Mac, Control-Click (or Right-Click) the image on your desktop and select “Get Info.” A dialog box will come up.
Click the arrow next to “More Info” and the resolution comes up next to “Dimensions.”
Print Size Chart
Once you know the pixel count of your file, you can figure out how big it can go. This chart is set up so you can quickly find the basic range of sizes your image can be printed. Notice that it varies quite a bit.
|Pixel Dimensions||Full-resolution Print||Largest Print Possible|
|@ 300 ppi||@100 ppi|
|400×600||1.3” x 2”||4″ x 6″|
|1000×1500||3.5″ x 5″||10″ x 15″|
|1200×1800||4″ x 6″||12″ x 18″|
|2000×3000||6.7″ x 10″||20″ x 30″|
|3000×4500||10″ x 15″||30″ x 45″|
|4000×6000||13″ x 20″||40″ x 60″|
|4800×7200||16″ x 24″||48″ x 72″|
|6000×9000||20″ x 30″||60″ x 90″|
|12000×18000||40″ x 60″||120″ x 180″ (10′x15′)|
The Largest Print Possible
For the purposes of this chart, under “Largest Print Possible” I’m giving you the maximum size you can print the image without seeing hard-edged pixels, or little squares, in a print made on a typical printer. Some printers do a better job than others of printing files that are pushed to their maximum print size. You might not see actual pixels, but when you view the print up close you should expect to see:
• softness (the edges and details aren’t crisp)
• artifacts (weird anomalies in the areas that should be smooth)
• choppy transitions between tones
• any flaws that the lens captured will be magnified – you might see color fringing, distortion, spots, or any number of other flaws that wouldn’t be noticeable on a small print
I haven’t included any image sizes smaller than 400×600 because images that small are typically considered unprintable. If your file is that small then it may be a thumbnail, which is a type of file your computer may generate automatically to represent the image on the screen. See if you have an original file with a higher resolution.
A Full-Resolution Print
A full-resolution print is your ideal print size using the full image-reproduction capabilities of most printers. Printing at full resolution usually means printing at 300 pixels per inch (ppi), or sometimes 240 ppi. This file configuration gives you optimal quality on most printers. This isn’t to say that your print will necessarily be perfect. If your subject is out of focus or you have a bad exposure (meaning the image is too dark or too light) the print may not look good printed to this size. Full resolution prints refer to the printer’s ability to render the information accurately. Having a good image to work with is a whole other flock of pigeons.
Can I Make Smaller Prints than a Full-resolution Print?
For any given image, you can almost always safely print smaller than the full-resolution print. However, sometime making a very large jump down in size can make an image slightly soft due to how the printer or print software interprets all that excess information. If this is a concern you can re-size the image with appropriate image manipulation software like Photoshop. I’ll get into how to properly re-size things in a different article.
So, what should you do with your photo of the Piazza San Marco? Now you can make an informed choice knowing your parameters from the print size chart. The way you are going to display your image will be another factor in your decision. If your image is only 2000×3000 pixels but you still want a 16×24 to put over the fireplace, I say you should go for it. It’s unlikely that anyone will be stepping up onto your hearth and examining the print up close. You want to give people a sense of what that journey was like from anywhere in the room, so a large print size is more important than the tiny details. If your image gets selected for a gallery show and you want to do the highest-quality fine art print available, that’s another story. You might want to bring the size down so it looks nice and sharp when people look at it up close in a gallery setting.
If you’re still a little lost, go to your local photo lab and your customer service representative should be able to help you weigh your choices. If you’re bringing in an image to print at Pro Photo Supply’s Lab, one of our lab staff can help you sort it all out.
Do you still have questions about how big to print? Write about it in the comments so we can hear all about it!