I decided to write this two part discussion because a lot of people seem to think that going with a mirrorless camera, or a smaller sensor size, or using less than X amount of megapixels means you lose your ability to print big. Person 1 says, “Im so excited I just got rid of my DSLRs and its so great to have this smaller setup!” Then you hear person 2, “oh…I guess you don’t print big… or you should have considered this instead since you like to print…” Uh…lets dispel that.
Traditionally people that printed big (24″ and larger) used larger film. Yes…it looked better because you didn’t need to enlarge the negatives as many times. an 8×10 piece of film is only enlarged 2x to get a 16×20. That’s what less than a 35mm piece of film. Times have moved on. You no longer need to lug a giant piece of furniture with a blanket around to make a decent 40″ print. Times have changed. Yes an 8×10 scanning back or the excellent 80mp medium format backs DO resolve amazing amounts of detail. And their prints do look unreal when printed large so we can appreciate all that detail. But do we need that to make a good looking print? Can you even see that when not printing huge? So lets get back to that in part 2. For now lets look at our actual files and see what we can do.
Generally files will look best printed at no less than 180dpi. This is from my experience preparing, and printing images. I have used online print shops, collaborated with local master printers, and I print as well. I own an Epson 3880. As you can see not even an 80mp file prints natively at 360dpi larger than 30 inches. Everything needs either a lower of dpi in the print, or actual enlargement. We will get to enlargement in part 2 of this blog post. I have listed some different camera examples along with their megapixel count and their file dimensions. I display their native print size (no enlargement) at 3 various DPIs. (dots per inch) I am sure there are plenty of people that can get a lot more scientific and obsessed about this than I. Just browsing for this stuff will bring up some incredible results. Bottom line for me is can I print my file to a certain size, and can I expect it to look good assuming proper technique was used and the image holds up otherwise.
Blue = 360dpi
Green = 240dpi
Red = 180dpi
12mp: X100 4288 x 2848 // 11.9″ x 7.9” @ 360dpi // 17.8″ x 11.8″ @ 240dpi // 23.8″ x 15.8″ @ 180dpi (3:2)
16mp: E-M1 4608 x 3456 // 12.8″ x 9.6″ @ 360dpi // 19.2″ x 14.4″ @ 240dpi // 25.6″ x 19.2″ @ 180dpi (4:3)
20mp: GX8 5184 x 3888 // 14.4″ x 10.8″ @ 360dpi // 21.6″ x 16.2″ @ 240dpi // 28.8″ x 21.6″ @ 180dpi (4:3)
24mp: A7ii 6000 x 4000 // 16.6″ x 11.1″ @ 360dpi // 25″ x 16.6″ @ 240dpi // 33.3″ x 22.2″ @ 180dpi (3:2)
36mp: D810 7360 x 4912 // 20.4″ x 13.6″ @ 360dpi // 30.6″ x 20.4″ @ 240dpi // 40.8″ x 27.2″ @ 180dpi (3:2)
42mp: A7Rii 7952 x 5304 // 22″ x 14.7″ @ 360dpi // 33.1″ x 22.1″ @ 240dpi // 44.1″ x 29.4″ @ 180dpi (3:2)
60mp: H5D60 8956 x 6708 // 24.8″ x 18.6″ @ 360dpi // 37.3″ x 27.9″ @ 240dpi // 49.7″ x 37.2″ @ 180dpi (4:3)
63mp: E-M5mkII 9612 x 6912 // 25.6″ x 19.2″ @ 360dpi // 38.4″ x 28.8″ @ 240dpi // 51.2″ x 38.4″ @ 180dpi (4:3) Hi-res RAW)
80mp: IQ380 10,328 x 7760 // 28.6″ x 21.5″ @ 360dpi // 43″ x 32.3″ @ 240dpi // 57.3″ x 43.1″ @ 180dpi (4:3)
Note: Between the 20mp GX8 and the 24mp A7ii there is a sensor ratio difference. The A7 is 3:2 ratio…its wider than the m4/3 4:3 ratio which is more square. Keep that in mind as the difference otherwise is virtually negligible in real life.
Note: I am gearing this article towards dslr, mirrorless, and other advanced cameras. I am not counting your 15 megapixel security camera, your web cam, your phone, etc… They might be great, and print great…but I am only considering images coming from cameras that we have majority control over how the image is created.
Virtually EVERYTHING out there at the moment will make an EXCELLENT print up to 18″ in length. If your prints look bad…it’s not your camera. Sorry. (I would love to be proved wrong about this!)
24″ to 30″ prints are also easily attainable by just about everything out there. Anything less than 24 megapixels “might” need a small enlargement for the best quality at those sizes…but it will be content based and situational.
Anything larger than 30″ will need a little attention from just about any camera except those exceeding 36mp.
You must take into account viewing distance. An 80″ print viewed at 20 feet for example will be indistinguishable whether it came from 16 megapixels or 100.
These numbers ive posted really take into account being up close and detail inspecting the print. Remember, things look different on the wall under nice light and at a proper viewing distance. They look a lot better. Way better. And if you print on canvas you can practically get away with murder with some images! Do not feel you MUST upgrade your camera for just printing
potential” reasons. Unless you shoot with a 6mp camera. Maybe its time.
Yes you could technically crop a 40+ mp sensor and still get a natively printable 8×12 at 360dpi. You have to keep in mind pixel and final image quality. When you crop you will be magnifying any imperfections as well. So if there is slight motion blur or vibration shake that is not visible in the full frame image, it may be VERY visible when you crop in. Same goes for chromatic aberrations, coma, astigmatism, and other lens issues. Cropping is not an excuse for not getting composition right in camera. (im talking about cropping because you didn’t shoot the image you wanted to…when you could have!) Poor technique is poor technique as well. When you start printing large you will know if you have bad technique. Don’t worry. This is our craft though. We should take pride in doing the best work we can, with what we have, to the best of our current abilities while pushing forward. If you KNOW and intend on making prints…strive for the lowest ISO you can use. Strive for the tripod. Strive for shutter timers and proper focus, etc… Learn to hold a camera steady. Learn to slow your breathing down, learn to relax while shooting. Learn to stabilize the camera in different ways when handheld. It makes a difference. It makes MORE difference than the camera itself.
Let’s also remember that these numbers don’t reflect anything but native print size. I guarantee you there are shots I can make with an X100 that I could not dream of with an IQ180. There are physical limitations to the equipment. If I got the shots I wanted because the 12mp camera allows me the means to make them in a better way than the 80mp camera…but I have to print for a gallery 60″ images…guess what… Ok. Thank you to the gallery for even wanting to show my work. Those 12mp images will be carefully prepared, up-resed by a master printer and editor, and printed to look their best at that size and the distance they will display at. NOBODY will think twice about what they were shot with. At the end of the day it is the content of the image that matters. Not what you made it with. Worry not about potential ability. Who cares that you MIGHT want to make a large print. Make the large print! When you do, ask someone who processes better than you to help get the most out of it if your skills are not there. Leave EGO at the door! When medium format cameras hit 22mp everyone was jumping for joy! Commercial photographers were printing wall size prints with their amazing new 22mp sensors. The rest of us were still debating on forums about out brand new 8mp cameras and how to print. Nothing changes. We will keep going around with this when we are 200mp cameras. It’s like we have no long term memory!
Yes, an 80mp image will have more fine detail in a 60″ print than a 24mp image. At 24″ there will hardly be a difference that matters to 99.99% of critical photographers. Normal people won’t have a clue. Even at 30″ you would be hard pressed to tell any differences if you nose wasn’t 2″ from the paper. At proper viewing distance it will still be indistinguishable at most large sizes.
Have you printed your work large? Have you seen what your camera can do at different sizes on paper? On canvas? Have you stepped back and appreciated your work as a real product of your labor yet?
Bottom line…I print my images. I share my images as real photographs people can hold. People can appreciate my work because I offer them a piece of my work they can hold, save, cherish, and pass on. When my hard drives fail and the internet is not accessible, my images can still be enjoyed by family and friends by the fireplace, in books, loose prints, and on the wall. I print my images.
— In part two we will look at actually making enlargements and how to do that along with some video and image examples —