When it comes to printing your photos, it can be as confusing as understanding your camera’s histogram. Like a lot of photographers, it might be months or even years before you actually print one of your photos and when you do, it is important to know how big you can print them, how to supply your file to the place printing it, and how you can make sure that you’re going to get a good quality photo back from the print lab.
In this article, I’ll discuss how to sharpen your images for print, things to consider when thinking how big can you print your photos, how your local print lab can help you, and the benefits of getting test prints done.
FACTORS THAT WILL AFFECT HOW BIG YOU CAN PRINT
The size you can print at is based on the megapixel size of your camera, but it isn’t just all about file size – there are other factors that will influence the size you can and will be able to print your image to.
1. The megapixel of your camera will play a huge part in the size you’re going to print, but whether you shot your images as JPEG or RAW will also affect the final size and what can be done with your file. A RAW file contains a lot more information than a JPEG and therefore will be able to handle enlargments much better than a JPEG.
2. When printing your image you need to take into consideration the medium you’re printing on. Occasionally I will have a customer request an image printed a certain size on photographic paper or mounted to acrylic which needs a glossy print, but their chosen image will not produce well at the size they’re asking, whereas printing on canvas at the same size will be much kinder and yield a better result because it has a textured surface.
3. You also need to think about the viewing distance as well. If you’re wanting to push your image to its limits or even beyond it might look great at 2 metres away, but if you got closer to, say, 50cm then you could see the image isn’t as sharp or detailed. When you print big it is hard to appreciate the whole image unless you’re at least a few metres anyway so it’s important to take that into consideration when deciding what quality is acceptable.
4. Image capture quality will also play an important part. Your file may have the pixels and dpi to print big but the image itself may have capture issues like poor focus and depth of field, motion blur, noise due to high ISO, etc. This is where printing large will make these problems stand out and unfortunately in those cases you will need to settle for a smaller sized photo.
5. The industry standard for printing is 300 dpi, but photos can print extremely well at 200 dpi, canvas printing can be dropped lower if needed. However if your dpi is too low for the print size then you are likely to notice quality issues when printing large.
DON’T OVER-SHARPEN YOUR MASTER PRINT FILES
When editing images, some photographers tend to fully sharpen them at the end so they look nice and crisp before they save them to their hard drive as the final master file for that shot. This isn’t a good practice.
You can do some minor sharpening when processing the RAW file, but the bulk of the sharpening should be part of a printing or web display process. This is because the amount of sharpening you apply to an image is relevant to the size in which it is going to be printed or displayed on line.
All your edited and processed images should be sitting on your hard drive with only a small amount of sharpening.
HOW TO SHARPEN YOUR IMAGES FOR PRINT
In Photoshop there are many ways to do sharpen an image for printing, but this is the process I use. It was recommended to me years ago by another professional photographer on how to sharpen images for print and I still use this technique today.
Step One: Resize your image to the size you’re wanting to print.
Step Two: Use the Unsharp Mask filter in Photoshop. Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask.
Step Three: Set the preview window to 50%.
Step Four: Apply a radius around 1 pixel and adjust your amount accordingly to the point where the image just looks slightly over sharpened. The reason for this is when going from screen view to viewing your print your images will slight unsharpen anyway and the image will also unsharpen as part of the printing process slightly. Don’t apply any threshold.
That’s it. Simple and Effective.
ASK YOUR PRINT LAB FOR ADVICE
When you take your images to places like Harvey Norman the level of quality you’re going to get is going to be very hit and miss. At one place you can get someone who knows what they’re doing and you will get a consistent result, but then that person can leave and then the quality disappears.
When you take your images to a professional photo lab you will be talking to someone who actually knows about image creation, their systems will be colour managed, their printer will be profiled for the printer they’re using and the paper they’re printing on. If you get a photo printed there today and then printed there again in 2, 6 or 12 months later it will look that same as the first print as their system is consistent. Also a good photo lab will be able to offer advice as to how large you a print your photo and provide other suggestions on how you can get the best results.
The ultimate test to knowing and understanding how your images look is to print it. But nothing says you have to print a large image just to see. You can ask for a test strip.
What you do is you resize your image to the size you want e.g. 900x600mm @ 300 dpi, then you take your crop tool and crop the image at an area where you think it best represents the detail you will want to see in the image. Send that test strip off to the print lab and what they will do is print off the strip and then you’ll be able to see exactly what your shot will look like at that size in regards to the detail and colour.