Making good photography prints is a great way to decorate your home: it is cheap, unique and timeless, and it will allow you to create artwork that goes beyond the single photograph. For instance, you can play with combining different images to create visual effects. It is often not about shooting “the perfect photo” but just about throwing images together and letting the ensemble tell the story, in a similar fashion than when we build a mood board (scroll down for some Pinspiration!). So, whether you have awesome photos you want to display, or whether you are focused on creating image compositions (I’d say both imply a slightly different talent), you will need to pay attention to a few details in order to print the best images possible.
In this post I am writing about how to optimize your photographs for print. Even for a person with a background on graphic design like myself, it took a lot of trial and error until I realized that there are “laws” on how I should be preparing my images for print. The idea is not to spend tons of money on images that end up having a sub-optimal finishing, and for this we need to do a little editing, and a little math 🙂 The success of your print will depend on two factors: optimizing your image, and choosing a good printing service.
(click here to see the whole board on Pinterest)
Optimizing your image
This may sound very obvious, but the reason number one why our prints fail is because we try to print our images in the wrong sizes, and / or we forget to edit our images so that their quality really is print-ready. The first thing we need to do is calculate the size of the photograph we would like to print. This makes sense, right? We can do this operation in two different ways, and each of these ways has a purpose: 1) Calculating “Pixels to size” and 2) Calculating “Size to pixels” (I’ll get to in this one later)
When you calculate “pixels to print size”, you are basically determining the largest size you can print a photograph with the image size you’ve got. This is comparable to finding out how many glasses of orange juice you can produce with the 5 oranges you already have.
This is very important because if you try to print your photograph larger than its natural print size, it will most likely look bad.
In order to calculate the print size, you need to know the image size and the resolution. One easy way to find out these parameters is by right-clicking on your image (if you are on a Windows machine) and selecting properties>details. There, you can see the size in pixels, as well as the resolution (ppi–pixels per inch, but often mislabeled as dpi–dots per inch).
The screenshot on the left is from one of the online calculators I use, Photokaboom, which makes the process of calculating image size very easy. In the example you can see that the size of my photograph was 4896 by 3264 pixels (roughly 16MB), and the resolution is 300ppi. In this case, the maximum size I should be printing my image at is 41 by 27 centimeters.
What? My mega-awesome camera only produces A3 pictures? Fear not
I have always wondered, after getting acquainted with the rules of image resolution, how large prints are made. It is often the case that companies make photo contests where fans can submit their phone-shot photographs, and the winning images are printed onto large display posters. If an iPhone camera today can shoot images that are 12mp, how can they be printed at a larger scale?
If you want to make a large poster out of your photograph you first will need to calculate how many pixels your image should have. This is where the “size to pixels” calculation comes in handy. Once you select that option into the calculator (you can use the one I linked above), you will be able to input a size and a resolution, and the program will tell you the amount of pixels your image should be. So, if you want an image that measures 100 by 75cm, and you want it printed at a good resolution (300), you should be sending to print an image that measures 11811 by 8858 pixels.
But, the photo I have is half that size! This is why programs like Photoshop and Lightroom, as well as other software such as “A sharper scaling” (this one free!) have worked hard on their algorithms, so that you are able to resize your image while trying to minimize the amount of (unwanted) noise that will be added to it. Just so that you understand, remember that I was talking about orange juice a minute ago? Well, imagine that you want to have one full glass of juice but you only have half a glass of nicely-flavorful orange juice. Enlarging a photograph is much like adding water or some other substance to turn that half a glass of juice into a full glass of juice. Only smarter. But be careful, there is just so much you can enlarge an image. If you ask Lightroom to produce an image that is double the size from the original size, it is going to have to “invent” or “guess” all those extra pixels, so it will always result in a degradation of the quality.
Tip: take a look at the format your camera produces, and make a few edits.
Before you export your image, you should make sure that it looks good, has good light, contrast and is nice sharp. If your camera takes pictures in jpeg, information about contrast, sharpening and other parameters may already be set in the moment you press the shutter, which means that you get a compressed image to which certain presets (the ones that either you or the camera determined) have already been applied. When you apply lots of extra filters to these (already-compressed) images, you will be in for quality loss.
Instead, if you have a good camera (or even a good phone!), you may want to shoot an image with as much information as possible (in raw format), and then adjust these parameters on your own during post-production. You can edit your Raw images in most image editors –it does not need to be specifically Photoshop! Below you can see an example of a RAW image I shot. It is completely unedited, and it looks OK, but as you can see below it, when you add or remove sharpening to the image, it makes a huge change!
Tip: be careful with over-editing. Always bear this in mind: the more you edit an image, the more visible this may be in print, so don’t go all bananas or your print will lose a lot of quality. The key is to try and do the cleanest job you can. I will post about the controversy around heavy-handed photo effects another day.
Choosing a good printing service
I know the supermarket around the corner has a print service with attractive prices. Here in the Netherlands (where I live) nearly every supermarket and hobby shop offers such services. Until quite recently it’s been the only services I used, in fact. And how blind I was! It turns out there are photography-specialized online business out there that will do outstanding prints for you for, really, almost the same price! WHAAAAT?? I know, I thought the same…
This summer, I signed up for a free photo voucher from Saal Digital (available in several European countries) in order to test their photo services. I saw this through a Facebook Ad, and although I often tend not to trust these, I decided to give it a shot. All I can say is that I am really impressed: their software works flawlessly (and without crashing), the quality of the images they produce is impeccable, and they are super efficient in dispatching their orders.
The first order I made with them was an acryl glass print of a photograph I took in a trip to Oslo and the result is gorgeous (much more than can be appreciated in the pictures below!). Other products that I have printed with them are a Christmas present photobook, and it looks incredible (the whole family is impressed!). One of the things about their photobooks I like best is that you can really do two-pages spreads, and the image will not look weird in the middle (scroll down for an example). The third product I have printed with them is the test version of… my wedding invites!! I will not post pictures of those, as they are meant to be a surprise, but they also look incredible, and you have several paper options and templates if you don’t feel like designing the cards by yourself!
Just one last tip. To be sure of what you are doing before you start spending time and money, you can try printing samples beforehand: make a few small prints on a regular printer and play with different compositions on a table to see which images will look good together, and if you would like to test how big you can print an image after enlarging it, you can crop a small piece of the image, export it, and send it off to print in a small (not so expensive) size. Then, you only need to print the images at a larger scale and arrange them. Now you are ready to go!
♥ Ingrid ♥