Many a photo is so moving that you cannot help but feel inspired to blow it up. Enlarging a photo though will diminish its quality. Whether that matters or not depends on how you plan to display it.
The real question over the largest size you can print a photo is how much quality are you prepared to lose?
Several factors determine how big any photo can be printed with perfection.
Here’s a rundown…
The photo resolution
The photo resolution is entirely related to the print quality. It does not matter how good the photo looks on a screen. The resolution has nothing to do with screen viewing. It has everything to do with print quality.
If you go too big when you print your photo, you will notice imperfections. That is because digital photos are made of pixels.
The more megapixels your camera can capture, the bigger a photo you will be able to print without it becoming pixelated, which is when the pixels (tiny squares) can be seen in the print.
Printers do not print pixels though. They print dots per inch (DPI). There is a conversion involved. This is where the quality of the camera used plays its part.
A 16mp camera (meaning it can capture 16 million pixels) will be able to produce excellent quality prints up to 11” x 14”. A 30”x “40 print may be possible, but the larger you go, the quality will deteriorate.
The type of printer used affects the final size and quality too
There are many types of printers, the most common of which for home use is the multi-functional printer or just an inkjet printer. They meet the needs of regular printing for standard documents.
On the commercial side of printers, some are suited to traditional office use, while other business printers are speciality types developed for a particular demographic.
Take for example our requirements at The Picture Gallery. Many of our customers are photographers and artists so it makes sense for us to use the Epson SureColor SC-P9500 44” large format printer. These types of printers do not use sheets of paper, but instead, rolls of paper enabling custom sizes of prints to be done.
Additionally, rather than 4 colours of ink, there are 12 colours including green, orange and violet. The subtle ink blending done by the printer creates very close to the full Pantone spectrum (99%) that professional graphic designers would require for print runs - with much less cost than Pantone printing.
The distance the photo will be viewed from really matters
The distance a photo is going to be viewed from helps you to determine just how much quality you can afford to lose. The farther away the photo is viewed from, the less the quality matters.
Standard printing uses 300 dots per inch (dpi). By lowering the dpi, you increase the pixels resulting in the photo becoming pixelated. While that sounds like it will produce a rubbish print, it really depends on the intended purpose. Take for example billboard posters. Those are often printed with as low as 15 dpi and that is because, from a distance, the pixels cannot be seen. The closer a person is to the photo, the more obvious the pixels are.
So, how big can you print your photo?
Given the variations in camera quality, there are only guidelines. That being said, nearly always, prints have the pixels stretched slightly without diminishing the quality too much. To notice the pixels, the print has to be viewed up close, as in, at an inspection closeness - looking for imperfections.
For perfect quality, a 12mp camera can produce enough pixel density to print up to 11” x 14”, although if it would be viewed from a distance, you could get away with 20” by 30”.
A 36mp camera would be able to produce perfect prints at a max size of 16” x 24”, but again, if you were to factor in a farther away viewing distance, a 40” x 60” print would not be out of the question.
The two main factors that determine a photo’s maximum printing size is the original resolution of the photo, and the distance it will be viewed from once it is printed and framed and hung for viewing. Up close, a large format print of a photo taken on a low-quality camera will have noticeable pixelation. For framed photos for the home, it is rare.