Some conditions necessary for obtaining high quality large prints from your digital camera
1. The images should be captured using a high quality camera that preferably has a large sensor (as discussed below).
2. The camera should have a high quality lens.
3. The images should look sharp, in focus, and of high quality when enlarged to 100% in an imaging program.
4. The printer and photographic paper should be of high quality.
5. The images should be printed at no less than 150 pixels per inch (as discussed below).
6. The distance from which most people will view the prints is also a factor in determining the maximum acceptable print sizes. The further the distance from which you view the prints, the less you will notice small defects in the prints.
Use of a high quality camera with a large sensor
An image from a small compact camera does not capture as much fine detail as an image from a digital single lens reflex camera ( DSLR), because the DSLR has a larger sensor. The larger sensor of a DSLR enables each pixel to be larger than is possible with a smaller compact camera. Therefore, the images from a 12 megapixel DSLR will contain more fine detail than would be the case with the images from a 12 megapixel small compact camera.
A full frame camera, such as the Sony A900, has a sensor size of approximately 36 mm x 24 mm, which provides images with approximately 24.6 megapixels. With an aspect ratio of 3:2, the image size from the Sony A900 is 6048 pixels x 4032 pixels. If you multiply 6048 by 4032, this gives an indication of the megapixel rating of the camera.
Note that many DSLRs use a smaller sensor, known as APS-C, which has a size of approximately 22 mm × 15 mm (approx. 60% of the size of the sensor in a full frame camera). Therefore, a full frame camera, such as the Sony A900, can capture more fine detail than a DSLR with an APS-C sensor. Click here to read more about the basics of digital camera pixels.
Calculating the print size
The width of the print can be calculated using the following formula:
Width of print = number of pixels width of image divided by required pixels per inch (ppi)
The same formula is used to calculate the height of the print, but substitute the word "height" in place of the word "width" in the above formula!
For example, because the image size of the 24.6 megapixel Sony A900 (with an aspect ratio of 3:2) is 6048 pixels x 4032 pixels, when the image is printed at 150 ppi, the print size is a huge 40.32 inches x 26.88 inches (6048 / 150 and 4032 / 150). However, if the image is printed at 200 ppi, the print size is reduced to 30.24 inches x 20.16 inches.
With a 10.3 megapixel camera, the image size (with an aspect ratio of 3:2) is 3888 pixels x 2592 pixels. If the image is printed at 150 ppi, the print size is 25.92 inches x 17.28 inches. If the image is printed at 200 ppi, the print size is reduced to 19.44 inches x 12.96 inches.
However, note the point mentioned above, that a very large print from a 12 megapixel camera that has a small sensor, will not be of the same quality as a print from a 12 megapixel DSLR camera that has a large sensor. Therefore, the Sony A700 12 megapixel DSLR, which has a large sensor (23.5mm x 15.6mm) can produce very good large prints. For example, click here to read the views of members of Photoclubalpha about an article that compared the quality of prints from Sony A700 images, with prints from Sony A900 images.
The controversy surrounding the number of pixels per inch needed to obtain high quality prints
In the above example, the pixels per inch were 150. However, it has often been suggested that, when printing an image from a digital camera, the resolution should be at least 300 pixels per inch (ppi), or even higher, say, 350 ppi or 360 ppi.
For example, if an image from the Sony A900 with a size of 6048 pixels x 4032 pixels is printed at 300 ppi, then the print size is only 20.16 inches x 13.44 inches. However, it may be extremely difficult with the naked eye to notice much difference in print quality between an image printed at 300 ppi and the same image printed at, say, 150 ppi or 200 dpi.
This conclusion is supported in an article by Gary Gray titled: "The 300 DPI Print Myth - The 300 dpi Myth Field Report". Gray suggests that the need to use 300 dpi is a myth and that even at 150 dots per inch (dpi), you can get a usable and good quality print. Click here to read Gray's article.
This topic was also discussed in some depth in June 2009 by contributors to the "Sony SLR Talk" forum on the web site of "Digital Photography Review (DPR)". Click here to see this discussion thread. There was general agreement that, even when the pixels per inch of a print are as low as 150 ppi, a good quality print can be obtained. One contributor reported that he has obtained excellent quality 36 inch x 24 inch prints from images captured by the Sony A900 (click here to read this posting).
Note that the terms "pixels per inch" (ppi) and "dots per inch" (dpi), are often used interchangeably. However, click here or here toread good articles about the differences between "ppi" and "dpi". It seems desirable to use at least 150 ppi, and possibly as high as 200 ppi, to get good quality prints from digital images. In these circumstances, the maximum usable print width for images from the Sony A900, is somewhere between 30 inches and 40 inches.
Practical tests for determining the maximum print size
In practice, before finalising an important large print, it is often useful, in the first instance, to make test prints of just small parts of the image.
For example, click here to see examples of crops that have been made of just small areas of some images taken by the Sony A900 camera. If you print just the cropped area of an image that has been saved at high quality, this will give you a good indication of the maximum print size that can be achieved for that image.
For example, when testing whether an image that is 6048 pixels wide will make a successful 40 inch wide print, it may pay, in the first instance, to print, say, one quarter of the width of the image at a width of 10 inches, and then determine whether this print is acceptable. If this result is not satisfactory, then further tests with print sizes of say, 8 inches or 6 inches can be made. For example, if one quarter of an image prints out successfully at a maximum width of 6 inches, then the maximum width of the whole print will be 24 inches.
Upscaling digital camera images
The purpose of upsizing digital camera images is to use interpolation software that can increase the number of pixels in an image so that larger and / or better quality prints can be obtained.
For example, assume that the dimensions of a Sony A900 digital image before upscaling, are 6048 pixels x 4032 pixels. If this image is printed at 150 ppi, then the print size is 40.3 inches x 26.9 inches.
Now, if interpolation software is used to upscale this image by 50%, its revised dimensions are 9072 pixels x 6048 pixels. If this image is printed at 150 ppi, then the print size is increased by 50% to 60.5 inches x 40.3 inches.
Click here to read an article that deals with different brands software that can be used for resizing digital camera images. In addition, click here to read a DPR posting on this topic.
Instead of upscaling a single image, an alternative way of producing a very large print is to use a computer program to "stitch" several different images together. When this technique is used, the photographer could, for example, capture each image using a 70mm lens, rather than using, say, a wide angle 24 mm lens.
For example, the photographer may need to use a 24 mm lens to capture a single image of a very wide panoramic landscape. However, stitching together several images captured with a 70 mm lens, would probably produce a large panoramic image that has much more fine detail than could be obtained by making an upscaled image of a single image of a panoramic landscape that was captured using a 24mm lens.
Click here to read an article that discusses in detail several of the issues related to making panoramic images using Photoshop to stitch several images together.
Click here for a discussion about some factors you should consider when deciding whether you need to upgrade your digital camera.
Click here to go to an article titled "Advantages and disadvantages of cropping images to gain extra reach".
Click here to read an article about the crop factor, and the mathematical relationships between pixel density and pixel size (based on both linear and area measurements).
Click here to see some pictures that demonstrate the amazing amount of detail in images taken by the Sony A900.