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How Large Can I Print My Photo? Understanding, Displaying and Managing Print Resolution

“How large can I print my photo?” is a question I get from Lightroom users all the time. The ultimate answer of course is – it depends. In the end you will need to do your own tests and find out what you are satisfied with. Below is some information that should help you with that process. It applies whether you do your own printing, or send your photos out to be printed.

Your photo has a limited number of pixels, or squares of information, in it, based on what your camera captured or what you cropped your photo down to.  For example, a capture from an old 6 megapixel camera is 3,000 pixels wide x 2,000 pixels high.  (There are various ways to display this information for a photo in Lightroom — try typing “I” once or twice in Library or Develop. Type I again to turn off the information display.)

lightroom-native-dimensions

When you decide on a print size, those available pixels get spread out to fit that print size. Here are some examples from that 6 MP camera:

4″x6″ print:  2,000 pixels / 4″ = 3000 / 6″ = 500 pixels per inch (ppi)

8″x12″ print: 2,000 pixels / 8″ = 250 ppi

16″x24″ print: 2,000 pixels /16″ = 125 ppi

This ppi is called the native resolution of your photo, at the given print size. It is what is inherently, or natively, available to you at the size you plan to print.

But guess what — your printer (or Shutterfly’s or Costco’s or anyone’s) doesn’t print at your photo’s native resolution!! It prints at what it likes to print at — i.e. at its own native resolution. Generally this is 360 ppi for Epson printers, and 300 ppi for HP, Canon and other printers.

Therefore, if your photo has less than 360/300 ppi, more pixels need to be invented. This process is called interpolation, or upsampling.You can have Lightroom do this upsampling before you send the photo to your printer (or printing service), or you can have your printer or service do it. All tests I have seen show that Lightroom does a significantly better job — so have Lightroom do it. (I’ll show you how.)

Lightroom does a great job at this upsampling — it looks at the lines and colors in your photo, and slips in pixels in between all the current ones, to continue those lines and colors.

lightroom-interpolation

However, eventually, when you want a really large print, and the native ppi falls way below 360, Lightroom has to invent so much new information that too much error is introduced, and your photo gets fuzzy. (Print output sharpening – which you should do – compensates for this up to a point, but only so far.)

How large can you print your photo before it gets too fuzzy, or in other words, how low of a native photo ppi is too low?

It depends — on expected viewing distance from the print, your printer and paper choice, and you or your viewer’s ability to or interest in discerning fine details.

For myself, given my printer, paper choice, and ability and interest in discerning the fine details, I find that a native photo resolution of 180 ppi is my own lower limit.  But do your own tests — print your photo at various sizes, noting the native ppi.   (If you can’t print really large at home, you can also take a smaller crop of your photo to start out with fewer pixels.) View the photos from a reasonable viewing distance.

In a workshop I taught last weekend, I showed students the prints of photos with the following native ppi:

  • 50 ppi: obviously very blurry — to get from 50 to 360 requires more imagination than even Disney had!
  • 150 ppi: they thought it looked decent.
  • 300 ppi: once they saw this, they realized that the 150 ppi print was softer — not as crisp, and not as much fine detail preserved.

So how do find out what your photo’s native resolution is, short of getting out a calculator?

In Lightroom’s Print Module:

1. Set up your desired print size (the how-to is beyond the scope of this post).

2. Turn on Dimensions in the Guides panel (4th panel down on the right):

Show Dimensions in Lightroom Print Module Guides

 

3. Uncheck Print Resolution in the Print Job Panel (last panel on the right)

print-resolution-lightroom

 

Now the resolution, in pixels per inch, will display at the top of your print display:

print resolution ppi show in lightroom

Once you understand your photo’s native resolution, and are ready to go ahead and print, re-check the  Print Resolution box in the Print Job panel and set it to your printer’s native resolution (360 for Epson, 300 for HP and Canon). By doing so, you are telling Lightroom to do the upsampling. Leaving this box unchecked will force your printer to do that upsampling, and it just doesn’t do that well.

lightroom print resolution and sharpening

I would also check Print Sharpening. I am satisfied with the Standard amount — do your own tests with Low and High as well. Set the media type to glossy for any coated paper; matte for any uncoated paper. (Here’s my post on Output Sharpening.)

If you are instead exporting to send to a printing service, you can accomplish the same thing in the Export dialog:  specify your size in inches, the resolution your printing service requires (most likely 300), and Output Sharpening.

lightroom-print-export

Experiment and have fun!

Interested in learning how to create great output? Check out my new video series, Lightroom 4: Producing Great Output.  Almost 12 hours of training on 55 videos, covering  all the conceptual output topics that photographers find so confusing, and then how to get great output with the Book, Slideshow, Print, and Web modules.

Related Post:

Viewing Photo Native Resolution in the Book Module

 

2017-06-28T20:49:39+00:00 June 17th, 2012|32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. Ryan June 18, 2012 at 7:54 am - Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing. I feel that I’m finally getting to a point in my craft where print is becoming more and more important. This will help greatly in determining how far to push my print sizes, if/when needed. Thanks again.

    • Laura Shoe June 18, 2012 at 8:23 am - Reply

      You’re welcome, Ryan – I am happy to hear it!

      • samantha December 22, 2014 at 7:19 am - Reply

        HI im wishing to export lots of pictures and put them on a disc and wonderingf what setting i can use for all sizes of photos weather it be 6×4 or 10×12 or even a large canvas x

        • Laura Shoe December 30, 2014 at 8:22 pm - Reply

          For the most flexibility, Samantha, I would uncheck “resize to fit” in the Export dialog, so that you export full-size copies. For maximum quality, set the JPEG quality to 100. Keep in mind though that full size files at quality 100 will be fairly large in megabytes – too big to email, but they should be fine on DVD.

  2. Mindy June 18, 2012 at 9:15 am - Reply

    this came at the perfect time, thank you!

  3. VJ Sharma June 18, 2012 at 10:02 am - Reply

    Thanks Laura for wonderful article again

    Last week during one of the Lightroom workshops, there was a lengthy discussion around DPI and it’s importance during Export workflow of Lightroom. We talked a lot about PPI & DPI stuff. I am going to share this link with every participant, so that things become clear from Print point of view.

    • Laura Shoe June 18, 2012 at 10:32 am - Reply

      Thanks, VJ!

  4. George Koklas June 18, 2012 at 11:44 am - Reply

    Great info. Regarding exporting for printing lab I wonder if you could “solve” for me the following scenario:

    Assume that you wish to use Print Module instead of Export from library

    Photo res: 3000×2000
    Destination Paper: 15×10

    1) Choose Print Module
    2) Choose “Print to Jpeg file”

    Print resolution has no check box and “@240ppi” is shown at the dimensions info on the photo.

    1) How do you check your native resolution?
    2) Since there is no check box, the resolution is always forced?
    3) Should I define paper size at “Print Job” panel –> Custom File Dimensions” (ie 15in x 10 in)?
    4) Also, is there a way to prevent enlarging of the photo, like there is in the export dialog?

    • George Koklas June 18, 2012 at 11:49 am - Reply

      Sorry, I meant @240ppi is NOT shown

    • Laura Shoe June 18, 2012 at 12:16 pm - Reply

      Hi George, you will have to temporarily switch to Print to: Printer to view the native resolution. Once you switch it back to Jpeg, where it says 240 type in the resolution your printing service wants (probably 300).

      You can define paper size there, or in the Page Setup dialog (bottom left button.)

      No, in Print to Jpeg there is no way to prevent enlarging a photo — you will have to check native ppi and see if it is under what you are outputting to.

      • George Koklas June 18, 2012 at 1:21 pm - Reply

        Thank you for your answer 🙂

  5. John Perry July 2, 2012 at 12:16 am - Reply

    Just like the LR4 DVD, you are so good at trranslating complex information into easily understood workflows. Thank you Laura:)

  6. Kathy Eyster July 2, 2012 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    Good article, Laura! And interesting tidbit about the Print to JPEG file option in the Print Module.

    May I add the following suggestion for your subscribers: When ordering prints online, most of the time you are NOT getting an inkjet print from an Epson/Canon/HP/etc. printer. You are getting a traditional, “wet” photographic print made with chemistry.

    Every lab producing this type of print will have a minimum as well as (usually) a recommended resolution. Be aware that the minimum resolution may not be sufficient for your needs. Personally, I consider 200ppi the minimum resolution I submit to photo labs for traditional photographic prints. This has produced satisfactory results for small 4×6 prints with the additional benefit of slightly smaller files (than those at 300ppi) which speeds the upload process.

    Kathy

  7. Carol Georgopoulos July 14, 2012 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    Where do you show us how Lightroom does upsampling? I”m trying to interpolate into a very detailed landscape which began in color and is now B&W. It seems to have more blownout white areas than it did in the color version. I’d like to see your upsampling process. Thanks.

    • Laura Shoe July 14, 2012 at 5:04 pm - Reply

      Hi Carol, my process to upsample is to check the Print Resolution box and set it to 360/300. Based on the native resolution of my photo, Lightroom will upsample or downsample as needed to get to 360/300.

      I don’t believe your issue has to do with resizing / upsampling, but rather with either your black and white conversion blowing out highlights, or less likely but possible, your printing process (some printers have a black and white mode.) I would start with using the Basic and/or B&W panels to adjust your photo.

  8. marina April 18, 2013 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    thank you ! this waa helpful 🙂

  9. Doug Coombs May 29, 2013 at 7:51 pm - Reply

    Do you still apply output sharpening even after sharpening in the the Detail tab?

  10. Ali July 29, 2013 at 2:17 am - Reply

    Hi Laura. Firstly, very helpful website you have here.

    I’m going to sound like such an idiot but here I go anyway :-). I’m struggling to grasp the process required to enlarge my photos for printing. I shoot in RAW with a Canon 7D which is 18mp. I use an online photo lab to upload my images to their site for printing. Once the image is uploaded, it tells you the quality of your print ie. 100% being the best quality. I’ve found that if I try to enlarge my photos bigger than an 8×10, the quality is often at only 60% or even less. For example, I’m currently wanting to enlarge a photo to 16″x20″. In LR4 I’m entering 16″x 20″ at 300 resolution at the Export stage but I’m still either getting a very low percentage of quality OR the image isn’t even loading. By pressing “I” on the pic in LR it says it is 2400×3048 if that helps. Thank you very much in advance and I hope you can shed some light for me.

  11. John Strazza April 22, 2014 at 4:55 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for clearing up these details … you are awesome. I’ve been misunderstanding this part of Lightroom and am so grateful for this article! Thanks so much.

    • Laura Shoe April 27, 2014 at 1:06 pm - Reply

      You’re welcome, John!

  12. John September 11, 2014 at 12:24 am - Reply

    Hi Laura
    What a fabulous series of videos and info you provide.
    I’m a new user to Lightroom using 5
    What a great piece of software I keep finding little bits hidden here and there.
    Not a professional but it had transformed my amateur status no end
    Thanks John

    • Laura Shoe September 23, 2014 at 5:16 pm - Reply

      You’re welcome, John – thank you for your note, and best wishes with Lightroom – I hope you come to love it as much as I do!

  13. Stephanie October 6, 2014 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    Help ! Somebody Help !!
    With all the technology that there is. Why is printing pictures so difficult. So many people use lightroom, but the print size & all this cropping business is so confusing to me.
    Sometimes you get a photo & just think, really I want to bring that persons face closer. I didn’t know you had to do it to a certain picture size.
    I don’t crop much but at the moment when I go on line, say to photo box it can’t print nothing. It says my resolution isn’t good. I put it up to 300 , still no good.
    If I print pictures from Mac Pro documents, it seems I can order what I want.
    What’s going on. I must be thick because I’ve never know anything so hard.
    What happened to printing big canvas pictures. How do we do that.
    I’m not interested in all the science, could anyone please give me the export sizing for email, desktop to be sent to a company for printing. That’s without how on earth do you do a photobook that’s not preset in lightroom.
    So you can see why I need help.

    Dummy’s guide please !!!

    • Laura Shoe November 3, 2014 at 10:53 am - Reply

      Hi Stephanie,

      Your photo has a certain number of pixels. If you crop to just a small part of it, you simply don’t have enough information to print large. (While some programs may let you print, the photo will be very blurry.) I would suggest joining the Lightroom Help Group on Facebook – some of the members have charts of how large your photo needs to be to print successfully at various sizes.

  14. Dee @ The Kitchen Snob September 13, 2015 at 5:36 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this tutorial.I’m trying to create my own print template that I can reuse. I think I’m missing something though. I have Lightroom 4. I can’t seem to find the box to check “custom file dimensions”. I’ve looked up numerous videos and tutorials and all show “how” to use it, but I don’t seem to have it. It was my understanding that this is available on Lightroom 4 but perhaps it was only introduced in LR 5?

    Thanks so much for your help.

    • Laura Shoe September 14, 2015 at 10:55 am - Reply

      Hi Dee,

      At the top of the Print Job panel, change “Print to: Printer” to “Print to: JPEG”.

  15. Doug December 22, 2015 at 6:48 pm - Reply

    Hello Laura
    Today I just came across your website while researching exporting images in Lightroom.
    Great Info…!

    I want to have images on my website for purchase, for example 8 x 12, 12 x 16 and 16 x 24. I would be having these images being printed through a print lab who requests 300ppi. Do I export as is at 300 ppi, or export at 300 ppi and re-size for each size?

    Doug

    • Laura Shoe February 10, 2016 at 3:11 pm - Reply

      Sorry for the delay, Doug. First, assuming you need to send your lab a file that is already sized: 8×12/16×24 and 12×16 are different aspect ratios/proportions/shapes, and may not be the same as the original – so you’ll need to crop in the Develop module to your desired aspect ratio. Then export, for example, for an 8×12, at Long edge = 12 inches at 300 ppi.

      Some labs, on the other hand, allow you to upload the full size file and crop and specify size online – in that case you don’t need to crop in the Develop module, and in Export, uncheck Resize to Fit.

  16. Jenny January 5, 2016 at 6:28 pm - Reply

    Help please! I went through all my pictures and when I send them to a site for printing (think Shutterfly, snapfish), it says my resolution is too low. What does this mean?!? I’m beyond frustrated and don’t know what I’m doing wrong!

    • Laura Shoe January 6, 2016 at 12:04 pm - Reply

      Your files aren’t large enough for the size you are trying to print, Jenny. This article explains how you can estimate how large you can print, given the size of your original or cropped photo.

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