Is Print Size a Myth?

Printing isn't something most of us do when we're first starting out, but as our careers develop it becomes more and more important to deliver the highest quality images to clients for them to print and use for advertising in magazines, posters, and maybe even billboards. But does size really matter?

James Popsys is a photographer and graphic artist. His argument is that the size of print of an image that comes from your camera can be enlarged as much as needed as long as the viewer is at the logical distance from the print.

I've been up close to some billboards, and it's true, all you see are dots of color. It's about the distance you'll be standing from the print that makes all the difference. 300 DPI will work for a magazine print, but a billboard won't need so much detail so the dpi can be reduced. If you're at a distance from a large image, your eyes can still make sense of the image, without it coming across as being of less quality. 


Firstly, print some of your work and go through the process of checking all the different aspects that affect the color and quality of the print. Secondly, don't worry too much about the size of the sensor or what the web says you can print at. The fact that you shoot, with whatever gear you have, is the most important part of the process. You'll most likely be able to print at whatever size you need.

Lead image: Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

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michaeljin's picture

"as long as the viewer is at the logical distance from the print."

This is pretty much the big caveat. You generally can't get close to billboards because of the obstacle of distance, but in a gallery or similar viewing situations, people will often get much closer than what might be considered a "logical distance" to examine an image and they will still use the results of this examination to judge your work.

So yes, as long as you can enforce a "logical" viewing distance, you can print however large you want from just about any camera, but in most viewing situations where viewing distance cannot be strictly enforced, it's important to keep your print sizes appropriate to your digital file or negative in order to preserve the quality of the viewing experience.

Having said that, even lower end modern cameras output files that can be printed much larger than most photographers will realistically be printing without any quality issues.

Kirk Darling's picture

Absolutely, Michael. If you observe viewers at a gallery, if they are captivated by a photograph, they will almost always mosey as close to the photograph as physically possible.

This is different from how people view other artistic imagery. Audiences have a different expectation of photographery--audiences expect a photograph to reveal more information the closer they get to it.

People also have different expectations depending on the subject matter. There is a great expectation for most landscapes to reveal more data on closer examination. I once saw a guy whip out a loupe to examine a landscape. That's why many landscape artists still use large format film.

OTOH, portraits have a definite limit of audience expectations of detail. Audiences like to see sharp facial hair, maybe even skin texture. But nobody wants to see eyebrow mites.

There are also subject considerations that interact with the digital medium itself. Digital interpolation is absolutely fantastic at interpolating lines and tones. If the unresolved detail of the subject is merely a matter of filling in lines and tones (such as of an automobile), you can interpolate such subjects to the moon, no problem.

But if the unresolved detail is real information-like the leaves of distant trees or the blooms of distant flowers--then interpolation fails quickly.

John MacLean's picture

He’s misusing DPI. He means PPI.

I wrote the following in his YouTube comments:

I agree with everything you’re saying, EXCEPT you are saying DPI, and you should be saying PPI. DPI is dots on paper, and PPI is what you adjust your file resolution to, feeding your printer from your computer. Sounds like semantics, but it’s not. When an outsourced lab asks for 300ppi they’re not printing it at 300dpi. Just look at the specs on any inkjet printer. They typically print “photo quality” at 1440 or 2880, not 300. I print 40x60” to my Epson 9900 printer and I feed it upsampled files at a resolution of 180ppi. Otherwise as you said, you’d see the actual pixels if it were lower resolution.

Michael Kuszla's picture

To summarize, the PPI is the input resolution of your file, and DPI is the output resolution for the printer.
Anyway, softwares such as Photoshop are now using PPI, so there is no error possible.

For those who aren't designer (what? this is a photography community?), read this article:

Kirk Darling's picture

Part of that DPI/PPI confusion stems from the world of halftone (press) printing, which is a different kind of DPI from that of inkjet printing. Halftone DPI on paper is very much visually akin to PPI on a monitor. In both cases, the lower limit that a continuous tone can be interfered without being resolved by sharp-eyed audiences is 30 seconds of arc, which measured out to 1/300 of an inch at normal reading distances.

John MacLean's picture

And halftone printing typically has a resolution that’s half of the file’s PPI, or more accurately the file resolution is typically double the halftone DPI.

Kirk Darling's picture

The halftone resolution is the final filter before the image reaches the eyes of the audience. The photographer doesn't usually control how much the image might be cropped before that point. Sometimes the editor can't even fully control it. But the image must always have more resolution than the halftone, not only to avoid pixellation but also to avoid moire, which would crop up when the image PPI becomes close to the halftone DPI.

Mark James's picture

I have large prints from a 12mp M4/3's GF1 hanging in hotels and they look great. If you have a good file, you have a lot of latitude.