Ditch the pixelation: A quick guide to printing large photos the right way

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Printing large digital photos or images never seems to turn out the way you want it; so often you get pixelated, low-resolution photos instead of crisp, clear images. To help solve this issue, we’ve put together a handy guide on printing large photos and images without sacrificing picture quality. So before you get to printing, keep the following tips in mind and you’ll never have to print poor looking photos ever again.

Related: Our in-depth printer reviews and picks for the best wide-format photo printers

Mind the megapixels

Just because an image looks sufficiently big onscreen doesn’t mean it’ll translate the same way on paper. For instance, a 2-megapixel-resolution image only goes as large as 4 x 6 while keeping the best quality intact, even though the image might look great on your monitor. If you try printing an image larger than allowed, you’ll end up with something that is both pixelated and largely unusable.

Determining an image’s megapixels, as well as its largest printable size, takes just a few simple steps. First, use a program like Adobe Photoshop or the properties menu of the image file to find the exact dimensions of the image. Afterward, multiply the height by the width, then divide the result by 1 million – because 1 megapixel equals 1 million pixels. For example, an image measuring 4,608 x 3,456 equals 15,925,248 (in pixels), which equates to roughly 16 megapixels after you divide by 1 million.

When figuring out print size, simply divide the width and height dimensions (individually) by 300. Why 300? That’s the number of pixels per inch (ppi) – also a type of resolution – suitable for high-quality printing. Referring back to the last example, a 4,608 x 3,456 image would yield a 15 x 11 print. That said, you wouldn’t even think of printing a 640 x 480-pixel image larger than 2 x 1 inches.

Depending on the software, you may notice ppi referred to as dots per inch, or “dpi.” Despite being technically different, you’ll often see the terms used interchangeably. It’s a confusing topic, sure, but you should have little trouble if you remember to keep the dpi or ppi set to 300. We also recommend increasing the resolution using the photo-editing software of your choice if an image is set to 72 dpi, while making sure to deselect the “resample image” box if you do. If your software doesn’t offer such fine-tuning – some offer “best” or “normal” as options – simply recall the aforementioned math to calculate just how large an image should be.

If you are willing to sacrifice quality in order to gain a larger print size, there is the option of slightly cheating and lowering the resolution. However, we do recommend you check the final print quality to assure it’s up to your liking. Simply put, quality will suffer if you lower the resolution and increase the print size.

Keep images as large as possible when capturing photos

Digital cameras have the ability to record photos ranging in size from large to small, or high to low. Some even shoot high quality, uncompressed RAW images, opposed to standard compressed JPEGs. Saving your photos as small as possible takes up less room on a memory card, but considering just how inexpensive high-capacity memory cards have become, why would you? Try to use every megapixel your digital camera has the ability to muster. Like we mentioned above, the more megapixels in an image, the higher the resolution, and the better the photo will look.

Shooting with smartphones

Thanks to high-end smartphones like the iPhone, more people are now taking photos. While those photos are nice to look at onscreen, printing them is a different story. Despite the high-megapixel count, smartphones use much smaller sensors that produce images that are highly compressed and have a low ppi. While an 8-megapixel iPhone could theoretically produce an image that is 10 x 8, we found through testing that prints larger than 4 x 6 exhibit quality issues. Apple is running an ad campaign touting the iPhone 6’s camera prowess, through large-print billboards, but you need to take into consideration the post-editing work that’s been applied, as well as the viewing distance between the billboard and a person’s eyes. For casual home printing, our recommendation is to keep it at 4 x 6 or smaller.

Next page: Avoiding “Image Resize” features and using a scanner

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