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Tips on How to Print Your Photos Much Bigger

Everyone likes to see their images in print, but what about printing them significantly bigger: what do you need to know?

I've had my commercial images printed billboard size, and I've had them printed at a fraction of a magazine page, but every time, I just provide a 300 DPI file and everyone else does the rest. The fact of the matter is, when it comes to printing, I don't know a great deal. I have a company that I always use and they always produce the results I'm happy with, and so are the clients. But when it comes down to explaining why those results look so good, you'd really have to ask the printer.

One area that appears to get a lot of misinformation about it, is DPI or PPI (dots per inch or pixels per inch). The industry standard is generally 300 DPI, but the bigger your print, the fewer dots or pixels you need per inch to attain a sharp and beautiful print. In this short video, David Bergman walks you through how DPI affects your images when you print.

What's your best tip for printing your work? Have you every printed on a large scale, and if so, how did the DPI or PPI affect the final product?

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R. P.'s picture

Delevering in 300DPI is moot. If you deliver a 2MP file in 300DPI good luck creating a legible billboard. But the key is always viewing distance.

Richard Tack's picture

The author states: "I just provide a 300 DPI file and everyone else does the rest."

He outputs his final file at X megapixels/300dpi and "delivers" it to the printer who sizes it, if needed, according to the output. (The photographer then has to have only a single master file that can be applied to any sizing format).

David Pavlich's picture

Thanks for the video! Now that we've covered Pixels Per Inch, how about Dots Per Inch? I have an Epson P800 and the largest I typically print is 16X24. I've done a couple of 17X35 as an experiment, but that's the exception. I usually print at either 240 or 300 DPI.

If I were to move up to a 44 inch printer, assuming that the file size is ample, what would be considered the proper DPI for something like that monstrosity that is featured in the video? Thanks for your help!

Kyle Medina's picture

Reading the manual. You can print up 2880 DPI for your printer.

Kirk Darling's picture

Inkjet dpi is an entirely different technology and for the most part can be ignored except when comparing printer to printer. A pixel on a monitor can be any one of several million colors. But the printer only has six or eight colors of ink.

So the printer "dithers" or mixes its few colors of ink by squirting much, much tinier dots of ink into the space of a pixel to approximate one of those millions of colors that pixel is supposed to be.

The smaller the inkdot squirted by the printer, and the more colors of ink available, the closer that approximation can be.

But the size of the printer inkdots is totally separate from the considerations of digital pixel size.

There also comes some confusion from the printing industry, where halftone illustrations are printed in dots. In that case, the "30 seconds of arc" rule also plays as it does for digital pixels, But again that can be ignored by photographers because we don't deal with that issue, even if our photographs will ultimately be printed in halftone.

We should never, ever use "dpi" in reference to what we are doing. It only applies to color being applied to paper in ways that we don't control.

David Pavlich's picture

Thanks for the reply!

Deleted Account's picture

"We should never, ever use "dpi" in reference to what we are doing. It only applies to color being applied to paper in ways that we don't control."
I can't believe people, especially photographers, still don't know the difference between PPI and DPI

Bjarne Solvik's picture

I think you should print 240 or 360 PPI with Epson due to the resolution of the printer/printhead. With HP it would be 300. Maybe Google that:)

I think 120 PPI on a large print will be ok, if lower then it falls apart.

Lightroom have good upscaling so you can print on 240 PPI even if less resolution in the file. Photoshop have some new upscaling that should work extremely well, and there are software for upscaling.

Kirk Darling's picture

There is, btw, a foundation for the "300 dpi" standard. It's based on the average acuity of the normal healthy human eye, which is able to distinguish between two dots that have 30 seconds of arc separation.

Imagine being in a boat at sea, looking up at the stars of a night sky. From horizon to horizon, you can a 180 degree arc. Directly above, there are two clear stars. How close could those stars get to one another before you could no longer break them out as two stars, but they would blend in your vision to one? If they were brought together to within 30 seconds of that 180 degree arc, they would blend as one.

At normal reading distances, 30 seconds of arc calculates to 1/300 inch. If two dots that are each 1/300 of an inch are separated by 1/300 of an inch, most people cannot distinguish between them at normal reading distance.

But if you increase the separation or the size of the dots, then the sharp-eyed among the audience will start to detect the tone breaking up.

The factor of "30 seconds of arc" remains constant with distance.

Paul Scharff's picture

I still don't understand why 300 DPI is so important. If I have a 9000 x 6000 file, what is the difference between a 30x20 print at 300 DPI vs. a 125x83 print at 72 DPI? The number of HxW pixels is unchanged.

I ask because I have clients that will say when they're going to print a 4500x3000 pixel file I've sent them where they're putting it on a brochure where it's going to appear as a 4x6 that it's not high-res enough for a 4x6, simply because my file was 72 DPI instead of 300 DPI. This is despite the fact that at 72 DPI the file is 42x62 in inch dimensions. So I just change the exact same 4500x3000 file to 300 DPI which makes the file 10x15 in inch dimensions, and suddenly it's perfectly acceptable for printing a 4x6.

I would love to be educated on this, because I just can't see the connection. Thanks for any wisdom you can provide.

Will Gavillan's picture

I've always seen it as what size would you like to print in terms of inches/feet/metric/whatever and at what distance will it be viewed. From that you determine what is acceptable dot pitch to view at that distance.

Kirk Darling's picture

From what I said earlier, at reading distances, 300 ppi (technically we should NOT use "dpi" in any of our digital photo discussions--we should always be talking "pixels") is the least pixel resolution that is safely out of discernment of the sharpest eyes at reading distance.

You can use less resolution at greater viewing distances, roughly proportionally. Therefore, if you can be sure your audience cannot get within, say, two meters of your print, you can go down to around 150 ppi. Obviously these are ball-park figures.

That is, IF you can guarantee keeping your audience that far away. The problem with photography is that audiences expect a photograph to reveal more and more detail the closer they get. So if a person is captivated by a photograph, the chances are they will mosey to within reading distance, if they can get that close.

Paul Scharff's picture

Thanks. But does a 4500 x 3000 photo really print differently at 72 PPI vs 300 PPI if the output is a 4x6 picture on a brochure? You still have the exact same number of pixels. I'm generally pretty geeky on this kind of stuff and I just can't wrap my brain around this.

J S's picture

Hi Paul - Agreed it can all be confusing but it's actually quite simple once you get your head around it. I'd say the client you mentioned may be struggling with the concept, which I have dealt with many, many times unfortunately. Some graphic designers don't seem to get the PPI vs DPI concept very well.

An image file can only be a certain number of pixels by a certain number of pixels - that's it. The image file itself has absolutely no "DPI" value baked into the file as dots per inch only applies to when it is printed and only to how it is printed.

So let's say we have a 3000px x 2000px file.

If you open that file on a 5K imac and view it at 100% it will take up about 60% of the screen as the screen contains about 5120 x 2880px. So you can view this file at 100% and easily see the entire image.

If you went back 15 years and opened that same file on an old 1024 x 768 CRT screen you would only see a fraction of the image at 100% as the other 2000px in the width would be off the screen and same for the height. Nothing has changed in that file - you are just viewing it on different screens with different PPI's.

The same goes for printing. If you sell an image to a magazine and they happen to print at 300DPI then that 3000 x 2000px file is perfect to print at 10 inches by 6.6 inches approx eg 3000px dived by 300 (DPI) gives you 10 inches. Now if you sell your image to another magazine and they print at 150DPI then they can print your image perfectly at 20 inches by 13.3 inches or below eg 3000px divided by 150 (DPI) gives you 20 (inches).

Nothing changed between the two magazines - one is the 5k iMac screen and another is the old 1024 x 768 CRT screen.

If you got hired by Coca Cola and they wanted your image for a billboard which is say at 10DPI then your 3000 x 2000px file can be printed at 300 inches wide. Exactly the same file - just different output device.

There's all sorts of caveats of course as good printers can work wonders with small images to wrangle them to almost any size they want and the bigger the output the longer the viewing distance so quality matters less. But anyway that's a whole other post.

The short answer is your 4500 x 3000px file is way big enough to print at 6x4 @ 300DPI - your client is very wrong. Really that file would be best at even lower res so there's no downsizing - 3000 x 2000px.

Will Gavillan's picture

A very important aspect of printing is color management. Calibrate your monitor that you edit on and use the icc profiles that your paper manufacturer provides, or better yet, create custom profiles for paper/ink/printer combos.

John Dawson's picture

I think it's more appropriately "much larger".

Mark James's picture

I've printed wonderful 18x24 inch prints from a 8mp point and shoot. I've also printed 36x48 prints from a 12mp m4/3's sensor that looked great. I resize and export everything from LR at 300ppi, but how big I can print them varies. My process to determine how big I can go, is to view it on the screen at actual size in PS. You can do this by zooming in or out until the ruler on the side and top measure correctly. For me and my screen, it's about 127%.

What I've found is, if it looks good on the screen at actual size, it will look good printed. At least in regards to softness and pixelation. Another one of my tests was to print a full size 8x10 of a small detailed area on my printer to make sure it looked how I wanted it too. All the prints came with no surprises.