Printing photos big is something you probably are going to do at some point if you have a new digital camera that is 6 mega pixels (MP) or higher. There is nothing more self gratifying (if you are a photography junky) than printing in large format that once in a lifetime shot that makes you feel that maybe you are not that bad behind a camera.
Unlike a few years ago you can pickup one of those point and shoot powerful cameras for only a few hundred dollars and still get incredible image quality. A lot of them have very complex but automatic settings built in that it makes getting relatively good photography easy for the amateur.
But what is the point if you are only printing 4 x 5s or at most 8 x 10s. Well really it is a waste since you can get a really good 8 x 10 from a 4 MP camera. So, if you did get that really nice digital camera and it is 6 MP or higher, what size can you print and still get good quality? Lets take a look.
First let’s assume you are using your camera at its highest settings otherwise you might not be shooting with the equivalent of 6 MP. Check your camera settings and make sure you are always shooting with its highest quality set.
Most digital cameras that I am familiar with shoot in a 3:2 aspect ratio. If you were to convert those to actual "inches", as an example, this would mean your photograph is 3 inches wide by 2 inches or if you want to think large, 30 x 20 inches. Of course your camera does not think in inches but in pixels. Pixels are those little dots of color data that is stored in the image file created when you take a picture. If you were to zoom in to your image after you transfer it to your computer, you would see that it is a mosaic of these color dots of light projected by your monitor that actually make up your pictures. This means that your 6 MP camera might capture the image and save it to somewhere around 3000 x 2000 pixels, give or take some.
Getting away from some of the technical jargon, let’s see what that 6 MP camera can print. Well it is safe to say that if you were to print an image with your 6 MP camera than you can get a fairly decent 30 x 20. Your actual resolution as a 30 x 20 would be 100 pixels per inch. I know all the labs say your photos should be 300 pixels per inch but the reality is it is rare that even the professionals go much past 200 pixels per inch for large format that size.
Remember, you won’t be looking at your 30 x 20 print close up anyway so if you do see any pixilation (this is where you can discern the individual pixels with the naked eye since the pixels have been enlarged within the print) then you are probably standing too close to the print anyway.
Overall, my recommendation is if you can stay 100 pixels per inch or higher for a large print you are going to get a pretty good quality print.