Three Printing Concepts to Know

Three Printing Concepts to Know

I have to say that some artists used to come to the world of printing with a distinct disadvantage compared to photographers. This usually stemmed from the fact that photography, or at least how it used to be, tended to be much more print oriented than those working in other art forms like painting or drawing. Note that I say that is how it used to be with photography but so many new photographers tend to also have less experience with printing since most new photographers bypassed film and developing their own prints phase.  Admittedly as a photography hobbyist, I fit that category since I did not truly become excited by Photography until I picked up my first DSLR camera and as an artist I already had put away paint and brush in favor of creating digital artwork as far back as the mid 1990s. And even through I was well versed with working in a digital environment, it was not until I started to look at printing my work that I realized that I had a few things to learn. 
A good friend of mine Jim Landers, who is owns and operates Landers Photo School in the San Antonio area is always attracting new photography enthusiasts. He also founded and administers PhotoSA, one of San Antonio's largest photography club which we have the privilege of sponsoring. During those PhotoSA meetings I frequently have the pleasure to meet some of his students. Since they know that I represent FinerWorks at those meetings some of Jim's students frequently approach me, with his encouragement, asking questions about printing their images. I find it common that many of them do not print their work regularly so some of the concepts relating to printing they may have discussed with Jim tends to still be new and maybe a little abstract. It's not until they begin to print their images in which these concepts begin to make more sense.
When I speak with them as well as artists who are new to printing their work I find myself hi-lighting certain concepts that I think are the most important to start producing good quality prints. There is a lot of information out there to explore that will help but knowing where to start is sometimes difficult. One of the common statements is usually something like "there is so much information, I don't know where to start…". It is actually not that difficult and I break it down to the following three areas I think they should grasp: aspect, resolution and color. There are also other concepts and topics to look at but these are great places to start, especially with printing photography and artwork in a digital age.


For aspect, there are two points to discuss here. First is landscape versus portrait aspect. The second is aspect ratio. Landscape versus portrait aspect is perhaps the easiest concept to grasp. Understand it has nothing to do with the subject matter. Landscape aspect simply refers to the image or print being wider than taller. Portrait aspect means just the opposite. Where people get a little confused is when their image is landscape aspect but they choose to print it in portrait aspect. 

The following shows an example of landscape aspect versus portrait aspect

Portrait Aspect Landscape Aspect
Where aspect is less straight forward is when discussing the aspect ratio of an image and trying to match a print size that matches that aspect ratio. Let's say you have two rectangle. And then you have another rectangle which is closer to a square in shape. They would have two different aspect ratios. Shortly we will see what you get when this happens with an image that has one aspect ratio and a print size with another.

Below are examples of some differing aspect ratios commonly selected for printing

3:2 1:1 5:4 7:5
I tended to sleep through the subject of "ratios" in high school math classes so did not quite get this until I started to print my own work. But being a visual person it made perfect sense once I started to manipulate images for printing in Photoshop. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this it to visualize a very rectangular shape which represents your image. Then visualize another rectangle that represents the size you are going to print. Let us assume this second rectangle is closer to being a square. When you overlay your image over the more square like rectangle you find that they don't match very well. This is because they are a different aspect ratio. Generally this means you have three options. If you were to do all this in an image editing program you could distort the image to match the print size which you probably don't want to do (DISTORT). You can also shrink the image to fit within the print size you want (ZOOMED OUT). This will create space on two sides of the image. Or you can accept that you might loose some of the image due to cropping which is pretty much the standard process when you submit an image to be printed to any color lab (CROPPED). Oh, and there is is a 4th option when it comes to printing and that would be to simply choose a print aspect that better matches you image aspect.

The following shows your choices when you print an image not matching the print aspect




Most cameras today shoot very high resolution photos. The good news is the more pixels it generates the higher the print quality because the printer has more digital details to print from. The ideal resolution is 300 pixels per inch (PPI) but you can go as low as 150 PPI and still get a very sharp looking print. It's not unusual for even many professionals to be somewhere in this range. Anything higher than 300 PPI is not necessary.
Your image file, whether it is generated by a digital camera or scanner, has only a finite number of pixels which make up that digital image. The larger you choose to print that image, the lower image resolution becomes. Where you get into trouble is if you have too few pixels. As you have less pixels you have a less sharp image. Knowing how many pixels your image contains in width and height will help you to know if your image is high enough to print. Finding this information is not too incredibly hard. If you are on a newer computer (MAC or PC), simply locate the file in FINDER (MAC) or FILE EXPLORER (WINDOWS) and right click on the image. Under your MAC you will usually find this in the "More Info" section. In WINDOWS it will be under "Properties" and the "Advanced" tab. Also with WINDOWS you usually just need to place your mouse over the file and you will see something popup that indicates the dimensions. If those methods don't work you will likely need to open the file in an image editing program to find this out.

This illustrates an image file and its' pixel count and how it translates to print size. Notice the PPI (pixels per inch) becomes less as you choose a larger print size.

8×10 Print Each square inch uses300×300 pixels from the image (300 PPI) 16×20 Print Each square inch uses150×150 pixels from the image (150 PPI) Image File2400×3000pixels

Understand that whenever we talk about an image being at a particular resolution we are also talking about that resolution AT the intended print size. As the graphic above shows, the same image will have a lower resolution when printed larger. 


Color (including black and white) does not sound like it would be difficult on the surface to understand but actually can get quite complex. Fortunately at the basic level you only need to understand a few things to start. First, your computer monitor does not dictate how your image will print. The image file does. This means even if it looks a certain way on your screen the colors in the actual colors in the image might be slightly different. This is because computer monitors are normally not calibrated correctly. They enhance the appearance of the image making them more brighter and constrasty than they usually are. This means the print can seem lackluster and dull in comparison.
The second thing to know about color is your computer screen displays a lot more color than any printer can produce. This usually means some colors are lost in printing. It takes experience and training to detect this at times unless it is blatently obvious but it can yield to frustrations when trying to match colors to an original painting.
Realistically I tell artists doing art reproductions that there is still the possiblity that there are colors in their image the printer simply is incapable of matching but allow a level of tolerance. We have had some customers that have come to us incredibly frustrated with their previous printer because they could not get the prints correct according to them. I cases were they are using reputable color labs which I know practice proper color management and may use similar printers I have to be honest and tell them I can't assure them we will be able to do much better. We definately will try and many times these customers tell us we were successful but once in a while we are just limited by the technology we have.  I learned all this the hard way years ago when I did detailed commissioned illustrations for clients. In one project the final image was to be printed on vinyl 4×8 ft in size. When I took it to a sign shop that was going to print some tones kept coming out with too much of a magenta cast. I mistakenly assumed that the person doing the printing did not know what they were doing. It was not until a few years later when FinerWorks was born and we invested in our first wide format printer of a similar model that I learned about these limitations and realized that the problem was not the operator but the printer itself. On a positive note, the printing technology has gotten substantially better and color accuracy has come a long way. We get a much wider range of colors and accuracy then never seen before so you can be assured that you are getting better prints with a wider range in color than in prior years.
Where should you look up and lean more about aspect, resolution and color? YouTube has a number of great videos which show you walk throughs and examples. Just type in some search terms in Google and YouTube about these topics as they pertain to printing. The amount of material might seem endless but once you feel you have reached a basic understanding of these, try putting it into practive and see the images in print. One thing I can assure you is there is nothing as satisfying as looking down at a high quality print of an image you created. Still have questions about print sizes in relation to your artwork? We'd be happy to help. Just reach out to us by phone or Contact Us Now. Our customer service team is the best. Not only are they artists with BA degrees in visual arts but they have extensive experience in the production department. They will be happy to provide you help in making sure your prints turn out great.


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