How to Enlarge Photographs for Printing

A discussion on image cropping sparked up the idea to write this post after I exchanged a couple of comments in my “How to Photograph Birds” article with Tim Layton, who was concerned with cropping bird images and losing resolution for printing. He suggested to try to increase the size of cropped images with a product called Genuine Fractals 6, so that he could get to 8×10 or larger sizes. Since I have had experience with Genuine Fractals in the past and used it for some of my work, I decided to write a quick article about professionally enlarging photographs for printing, in addition to doing a comparison between the resize tool within Photoshop and Genuine Fractals 6 Pro.

1) How large can you print?

One of the most frequently asked questions by photographers who do not have much experience with the printing process is how big they can print their photographs from their DSLR cameras. Traditionally, the rule has been to divide the width of the image in pixels by 300 to get the highest quality print size in inches. For example, if you are shooting with the Nikon D90 camera, the image resolution is 4,288 (width) x 2,848 (height). This literally means that there are 4,288 horizontal pixels and 2,848 vertical pixels on the image sensor. If you multiply these numbers together, you will get to 12,212,224 pixels or 12.2 megapixels – the total number of pixels available on the sensor. So in the above case with the D90, dividing 4,288 and 2,848 by 300 gives 14.3 x 9.5 inch size prints. Why divide by 300 and what does that number mean? This number represents “DPI” (dots per inch) or “PPI” (pixels per inch), which means how many dots/pixels per inch the printer will print on paper. The more the number of “dots” per square inch, the more dense and close to each other the printed dots will be, resulting in smooth transitions and less space between those dots and therefore less “grain”. 300 dots per inch gives magazine-quality prints, while lower numbers below 150 introduce more grain and fuzziness to the printed image.

Given the above information, how large could you print an image from the Nikon D90 camera? Now that you know what dots per inch means, the first question that needs to be asked, is how good of a quality the print should be. Take a look at the following chart:

  1. Nikon D90 12.2Mp 300 DPI (Highest Quality) – 14.3″ x 9.5″
  2. Nikon D90 12.2Mp 240 DPI (Good Quality) – 17.9″ x 11.9″
  3. Nikon D90 12.2Mp 200 DPI (Average Quality) – 21.4″ x 14.2″
  4. Nikon D90 12.2Mp 150 DPI (Poor Quality) – 28.6″ x 19″

If you wanted to make the highest quality print for publication in a magazine at 300 DPI, you could easily print a full standard 8″ x 10″ page and could even afford cropping the image to fully fit the page or print at non-standard sizes all the way to 14.3″ x 9.5″. Some professional photographers print at 240 DPI and find it pretty good for the work they sell, so you could go a little lower. Going below 240 DPI, however, is not acceptable by most photographers due to loss of quality and “fuzziness” or “blur” (if the image is not properly resized) in the images.

So, does it mean that you are limited to such small prints with your DSLR camera? What if you want to hang your beautiful picture on a 24″ x 36″ frame? This is where proper image resizing can help you achieve great results with your prints.

Printing photographs during the film days was pretty easy – photographers already knew the print size from 35mm or medium format films and it was easy to find out what sizes could be printed without losing much details and sharpness. With the invention of digital photography, everything is now different, at times more complicated with all the DPI/PPI language and image resizing options with different algorithms. The new advancements in digital image processing are now allowing much larger prints with minimum loss of quality and details. Let’s take a look at the two most frequently used methods to enlarge images by professionals.

2) Enlarging images using Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop is the most popular graphic program used for enlarging images. The tool within Photoshop to enlarge images is called “Image Size” and it is available under Image->Image Size in the top navigation menu. Once you open an image and go to Image Size, you will see something like this:

Photoshop Image Size

The initial width and height indicate the size of the image you loaded into Photoshop. In the above example, I took an image that was 1024 x 768 and quadrupled its size by changing the width to 4096 (the height automatically changes since I have “Constrain Proportions” checked). As I increased the size, the middle section is pointing out that if I printed that photograph at 240 DPI, I would get a 17.067″ x 12.8″ print size. If I change the value from 240 to 300 DPI, the print size gets lowered to 13.653″ x 10.24″, while keeping the image size the same.

Let’s jump to a real example and see what we get by enlarging a photograph using Photoshop. Here is a bird image I picked that I shot earlier this year:

Full Resize

It has plenty of details and is very sharp, so it is a good sample to test. Here is how the image looks like when viewed at 400%:

Photoshop 400 Percent

Viewed at 400 Percent

As you can see, it is very “pixelated”, meaning that there are lots of squares in the image. This happens because the original image is comprised of pixels and when you increase the size of the image, the only thing the computer can do is increase the number of pixels that represent a single pixel. In the above case, approximately 4 pixels now represent a single pixel, because the image is viewed at 400%, hence the “pixelated” image. If you were to do the same for print, it would not look good at all with all those squares. To fight this problem, Adobe came up with several image interpolation algorithms that go through the image and convert the square pixels to smooth transitions for both increasing and decreasing image sizes. However, Adobe highly recommends not to increase the sizes of images, because the additional pixels are created by analyzing the neighboring pixels and then coming up with a neutral colored pixel in between to have a smooth transition, which ultimately results in blurry details. Take a look at the following image that was enlarged through Photoshop using the “Bicubic Smoother” image interpolation algorithm:

Photoshop Resize 4x Enlargement

Photoshop Resize 4x Enlargement

As you can see, the pixelated areas are gone and replaced by smooth transitions. However, the edges are now too smooth and the image lost some of its sharpness that was there in the original image. This might not be very noticeable when the image is viewed from a distance, but when viewed very closely, the lack of sharpness will be quite obvious. Some additional sharpness could be added manually after resizing, but it has to be done carefully, as sharpening could introduce more artifacts and unnatural-looking details.

3) Enlarging images using Genuine Fractals 6

One tool that is quite popular among photographers for enlarging images is OnOne Software’s Genuine Fractals 6 Professional – an advanced resizing tool for professional photographers that is specifically designed for enlarging images for large and gigantic print sizes. Compared to Photoshop, it has a more complex algorithm that not only analyses the nearest neighbor, but also does a decent job at retaining the sharpness and details of images. Here is how it looks like:

GF6 Pro Window

Using Genuine Fractals 6 is very easy – all you have to do is type the new image dimensions or indicate the print size from the “Document Size” panel and the program will automatically enlarge the image and crop it to the selected print size. For more control over transitions, the program allows you to specify the type of image using the “Texture Control” panel:

GF6 Pro Resize

As you can see, I picked “High Detail”, because I wanted to retain as much detail as possible for feathers and other parts of the bird. Here is how Genuine Fractals rendered the image after I clicked “Apply”:

GF6 Resize 4x High Detail

GF6 Resize 4x High Detail

Now compare Photoshop’s Image Resize with Genuine Fractals 6 Pro:

Genuine Fractals vs Photoshop Comparison

Genuine Fractals vs Photoshop Comparison

Pay attention to the amount of blur from the Photoshop image (right) and relatively good retained details on the Genuine Fractals image (left). And that’s without applying any additional sharpening on the Genuine Fractals image!

4) Enlarging images using BenVista PhotoZoom Pro

Another software package that is very similar in its functionality to Genuine Fractals is Benvista PhotoZoom Pro. Here is how the product looks like:

BenVista PhotoZoom Pro 3.1

BenVista PhotoZoom Pro 3.1

And here is the same image processed by PhotoZoom:

BenVista PhotoZoom 4x Crop

BenVista PhotoZoom 4x Photo Detailed

Compared with Genuine Fractals:

Genuine Fractals vs BenVista PhotoZoom

Genuine Fractals vs BenVista PhotoZoom

BenVista PhotoZoom seems to retain sharpness a little better than Genuine Fractals, especially in feathers. I used the “S-Spline Max” patented algorithm to get the above results and chose the “Photo – Detailed” preset.

5) Conclusion

If you are thinking about printing your images on large paper, you do not have to be limited by the number of megapixels on your sensor. As I have shown above, you can enlarge your images using the available tools and algorithms for proper image resizing from various manufacturers. I’m sure there are other products in the market that can achieve the same or similar results, so you can certainly give them a chance and see how you like them. If you want professional-looking prints, however, you should seriously consider investing in such great tools as Genuine Fractals 6 Pro or BenVista PhotoZoom that will give you large prints and still preserve as many details as possible.

Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Gyula
    August 3, 2010 at 7:29 pm

    Hey Nasim,

    I have used another software earlier for a mural project in a kindergarten. The software called PhotoZoom Pro: http://www.benvista.com/photozoompro
    I have never compared with Genuine Fractals Pro tho.

    • August 3, 2010 at 8:47 pm

      Gyula, I have just added the comparison of PhotoZoom to Genuine Fractals to the article :)

  2. 3
    ) Pasquier
    August 3, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    Very useful article, Nasim – I’m definitely going to give Genuine Fractals a try.

    • August 18, 2010 at 1:46 pm

      Thank you Pasquier! As you can see, it is a comment response day for me today ;-)

  3. 4
    ) Dax Tobin
    August 3, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    Hi Nasim,

    Thank you for the simple yet very useful review here. Have you had occasion to use/compare Alien Skin’s “Blow Up” program. I’ve heard good things about it compared to Genuine Fractals.

    Take Care

    • August 18, 2010 at 1:47 pm

      Dax, no, unfortunately I have not tried Alien Skin’s Blow Up yet, but will certainly give it a try when I have a chance!

  4. 5
    ) Gyula
    August 4, 2010 at 4:12 am

    Great Nasim,

    that was quick. :D

    Thanks!

  5. 6
    ) Noreen
    August 4, 2010 at 8:58 am

    Nassim,

    This is a very useful article! I have saved it already in my favorites so it will always come in handy for me.

  6. August 4, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    One trick to better results enlarging in PhotoShop is to do it several times, but only in 10% increments each time: http://www.depiction.net/tutorials/photoshop/upscaleimages.php

    I’ve used Genuine Fractals a few times and have been pleased with the results for bulletin board sized prints. I’ve never heard of BenVista PhotoZoom though and will have to try the demo. Your results look impressive.

    • August 18, 2010 at 1:50 pm

      Aaron, enlarging in 10% increments vs enlarging to the size you want at once is the same thing ;-) That approach might have worked on early versions of Photoshop, but if you try it on CS5, you will see that there won’t be any difference. You are still creating extra pixels from existing ones…whether it is a 10% or higher increment.

  7. September 2, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Interesting article and great side-by-side comparision. thanks!

  8. 14
    ) Andre
    October 20, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Thanks for the very informative site.
    I have dumb question. How do you convert a DNG photo into a good quality JPEG with Lightroom3. When I export a photo from Lr3 it creates a small poor quality picture of ~100-200KB even if export setting is on highest quality. Thanks.

    • October 22, 2010 at 2:18 am

      Andre, make sure to uncheck “Resize to Fit” during the export process and you should get a full version of the file.

  9. 16
    ) Rania
    March 25, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Hi Nasim,

    I have a Nikon D90 and whenever I take pictures and wanting to print a 4×6 the top and bottom gets cropped off and I want to be able to print the whole view without cropping anything off…is there a specific setting that I need to change on my D90?

    Thanks

  10. 17
    ) ray
    March 27, 2011 at 8:50 am

    hi nasim,

    After making your post processing on LR3, do you typically save it as jpeg file? And what is the file size and resolution do you set? How about for uploading photos on the web, what is the typical file size and resolution to use?

    Thanks a lot

    • 24
      ) Jim
      October 31, 2012 at 8:13 am

      If you want better print quality, try saving as a non-compression file such as .tif I have found that using jpeg results in a slightly less “sharpness”. You may want to use .tif throughout your processing steps for the same reason. One way to minimize the losses that accompany jpeg is to resize the image in Photoshop/LR3 to give you the size picture you want on the web and then save it at the highest resolution jpeg. All the photos on JRMaynardPhotography were done that way. See comment 20 below for other printing ideas.

  11. 18
    ) Jan Kölling
    September 20, 2011 at 3:30 am

    Dear Nasim,

    I’m shooting a 10 mp leica d lux 4 camera which also creates a raw file together with the jpeg.

    How large could one go on 10 mp?, – the end result of course has to look professional.

    Is it better to to look into the options ( if there are ) to enlarge the Raw file?

    Thank you for your time,

    Jan Kölling

  12. 19
    ) Mike Keller
    January 30, 2012 at 11:43 am

    This was helpful. Thanks for the article. I’m interested in blowing up several panoramic sized images (most likely 12×36). What is the best resolution for printing that size? Also,mow much much $ (approximately) does Genuine Fractals 6 run? Thanks in advance for your comments to these questions.

  13. 20
    ) MArc
    February 1, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Finally, someone that can answer my questions. :-)

  14. 21
    ) Jim
    February 16, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    Hi Nasim,
    First, thanks for all the work you put into your site. It is very professionally done with clear explanations and examples to back up your conclusions.

    In reading your discussion about printing and the need for 300 dpi for the best quality of the print, it occurred to me that you might discuss another printing technique, called giclee, that is commercially available and that only needs 150 dpi to give excellent results. Obviously then prints can be twice as large with the same number of pixels as would be possible with a printer requiring 300 dpi. My limited experience has been that the results are obvioulsy superior to those I have gotten from commercial laser jet printers. As I understand it, giclee prints are made with inkjet printers, which also use a greater number and colors of inks. Giclee prints are frequently done on higher quality papers or canvas, but I have had large format prints made with excellent results on “mid range” photo paper stock. Your readers may be unaware of this method as a way to make larger prints with excellent clarity and color accuracy.

    Thanks.

  15. 22
    ) Andre Goeloe
    May 16, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    hi,
    i just start wit a D90 and a speedlight SB-700 and like to get a better setting for better qualety pictures
    pleas i need help. Thanks

  16. 23
    ) Henrik
    October 31, 2012 at 6:49 am

    What an excellent and user-friendly review. It’s rare to find such clear and coherent descriptions – I assume you have experience in writing user-manuals. You’re certainly very good at it, Sir.

  17. December 21, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    I just wanted to leave a complimentary comment about how clear and easy to understand your article was. I have been struggling to properly understand image enlargement for a few months now and I think I’m finally beginning to get my head around it thanks to you!
    I often want to enlarge digital images of vintage illustrations etc. (as opposed to photographs) and find that sharpness isn’t so much of an issue as some ‘grain’ or ‘bluriness’ can be complimentary to the aged feel of the image.
    Another thing I am still trying to better understand is the enlargement of small hard-copy images (such as old photos). Any advice regarding this?
    Thanks so much

  18. January 4, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Hello,
    I consider myself a serious amateur photographer with a lot to learn. I recently took some pictures of a family who wanted to print the images on canvas (16×20). I used lightroom and cropped accordingly. The mother asked if I could print them for her at Walgreens (which I oppose to but that’s another rant) because she had a coupon. When I uploaded the file online I was given an error message regarding picture quality. Needless to say she had to settle for a smaller canvas print.
    Now, I have a D7000 and shoot jpeg fine. Can you shed some light on why this image was receiving this error message? Should I have shot in RAW to get prints this size? If you need more information before answering please let me know. I only have lightroom 3. Other post processing software is way way way beyond my budget right now.

    P.S. Your website is a very good resource for many. Keep the articles coming.

  19. 27
    ) Herb
    January 11, 2013 at 8:57 am

    Hi,

    Question: When printing from Lightroom 4 one can specify the number of pixels/inch to be printed. I assume Lightroom is invoking a smoothing algorithm when required, for printing significant enlargements. How would a program such as Genuine Fractals 6 be used in a Lightroom environment to avoid double smoothing?

    Appreciate your insights, thanks.

  20. 28
    ) Flutter Shy
    December 17, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    this helped during my photoshop exam

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