Connecting the Dots – DPI Tips that Matter

Output resolution is one of the most misunderstood topics in digital photography.

What is the correct DPI or PPI to export an image to produce beautiful prints or display on a screen just right?

Unfortunately there is no simple answer; resolution, DPI and PPI are all different terms, and although inter-related are each distinct concepts in the photographic world.  So let’s dig deeper into a basic primer on output resolution and DPI.

First let’s look at each of the three terms individually.  Resolution is the most important concept of the three, as it has a direct impact upon both DPI and PPI.  Resolution is simply the amount of pixels in an image, usually expressed by the number of pixels the image is wide by the number of pixels the image is tall.

Examples would be 640 x 480 or 1024 x 768 – common computer monitor display resolutions.  The first example would be 640 pixels wide and 480 pixels tall (VGA resolution in tech speak).  Resolution in digital photography is also often referred to in terms of mega pixels.

A megapixel is derived from multiplying the length of an image by its width, which accounts for all the individual pixels an image is composed of.  A VGA image has 307,200 pixels in total; divide that by 1 million and you get .307 or 1/3 of a mega pixel.

To bring the resolution idea home a bit further, let’s look at a popular DSLR, the Canon 5D.  The camera has a 12.8 mega pixel sensor, with a maximum image resolution of 4368 x 2912, or 12,719,616 pixels.

When taking images, feel free to think in terms of megapixels, but once you are ready to edit your images, it is a good idea to think of resolution in terms of length by width, it will make your life easier when it comes time to prep for print or web.

The next term we should consider is PPI or  Pixels Per Inch.  This concept refers to the amount of pixels that a computer monitor can display in a linear inch, or pixel density.  Monitors vary greatly in the amount of pixels contained in an inch, but for standards sake, most refer to an average density of 72  pixels per inch.

When you read to use 72 PPI or 72 DPI for an image destined for use on the web, this is the concept being referred to.  Pixels Per Inch is the proper terminology for pixel density on a monitor, but has been superseded in the vernacular by DPI or Dots Per Inch, and it the grand scheme of things it is just as well we use DPI for the concept.

Proper DPI is directly dependent upon the printer or digital-optical printing machine used for output.

DPI is the standard unit of print density for images, and was used originally to measure the print density of printers.  Much like PPI, DPI measures the amount of dots per linear inch.  The higher the DPI, the more fine an image will print.  However there is no “standard” correct DPI for printing images, as the proper DPI is directly dependent upon the printer or digital-optical printing machine used for output.

Some photo labs will recommend images be 300 DPI images, whilst others will ask for 240 DPI images.  Ink jet printers will even differ from model to model as to the optimum print resolution, so it will pay to do some research on your particular model. General consensus is shoot for 300 DPI output density for Canon and HP printers and 360 DPI for Epson.

Now that we have covered the basic concepts, we can go on to formatting you images to the proper resolution and density to create optimum prints.  Here I am going to draw a line in the sand that many will disagree with me on, but I have never had a complaint about prints I have printed for my customers.

In my opinion, when sending an image out to a pro lab, Wal-Mart, Jessop’s, Adorama Pix, or wherever you get prints made, you should export your images for print at 300 DPI….minimum.  Others will say that you can get by with a lower print density, especially for larger sizes, and they are right as well.

But I want every ounce of quality made available to the photofinisher, if their equipment prints out at 240 DPI, the extra image information is redundant and ignored.  However, if their equipment outputs at 300 DPI and you send in 150 DPI prints, either you image will be up-rezzed by the printer or be printed at a less than optimal quality.

You can find your cameras native print resolution at 300 DPI simply by taking the length in pixels and divide by 300 and then do the same for height.

Now that my little rant is out of the way, let’s look at how resolution and DPI correlate.  Let’s look back at the maximum image size for the Canon 5D again, 4368 x 2912.  At 300 DPI the 5D’s native resolution prints at 14.56 inches wide and 9.71 inches tall.  You can find your cameras native print resolution at 300 DPI simply by taking the length in pixels and divide by 300 and then do the same for height.

The results from the equations give you the native resolution of your camera in inches when printed at 300 DPI.  This is useful to know, as if you desire to print bigger than the native print resolution, you will need to print at a lower print density or up-rez your image.  Lowering print density for larger prints is usually no big deal, as larger prints are viewed from further away.

To prove my point on exporting for print at 300 DPI for most situations, I created a sample image comparing 5 different exports of the same image exported for an 8×10 print.  In Lightroom I exported the same image at 72, 150, 300, 360 and 600 DPI, opened them in Photoshop and zoomed in on an area of high detail.

All 5 frames have a similar zoom and crop in Photoshop and really show the difference in detail at different levels:

DPI Sample Low Res

If you want to see the full size image, click here to open

Viewing this full resolution image above allows you to really see the difference between the different DPI levels.  As you can see 72 DPI has horrible quality for print, at normal size 72 DPI look great on your monitor, but an 8×10 print at 72 DPI would look terrible.

150 DPI is noticeably better than 75 DPI, but compared to 300 DPI it doesn’t look hot either.  150 can look fine when viewed at a reasonable distance on a large print, but under scrutiny it falls apart.

The density of the pixels at these lower resolutions is not dense enough to trick the human eye into seeing smooth lines.

Now take some time and look really close at the 300, 360 and 600 DPI samples.  Notice much difference?  Neither do I.  300 DPI is just about perfect for prints that will be look at while held in your hand or viewed.  As you increase DPI much further you start to meet the point of diminishing returns.

Theoretically a 600 DPI is much better than 300 DPI, but you also start to run into the resolving power of the human eye at that point.  360 DPI is special however, and should be used if printing to most Epson printers.  For some reason Epson printers create images best at 360 DPI, but that has to do with Epson’s native printing DPI of 720 DPI.  Most other inkjets will do fine at 300 DPI.

Now that you have seen the importance of DPI in printing, let’s talk about use on the web.  Of course you want to have your images look the best when view on the web, for many of us our image’s appearance on a computer monitor is the difference between selling a print or not.  All the knowledge of printing DPI is worthless if you don’t need to make prints.

As we discussed earlier, most computer monitors have a PPI somewhere in the neighborhood of 72 PPI.  Some monitors have more pixel density, others less, but 72 PPI has become a de facto standard on the internet.  In fact, it doesn’t matter if you export an image at 72 DPI or 720 DPI for the web, the computer will display the image at its native resolution regardless of how you export the image.

Where the PPI of the monitor and DPI of your image come into play for images on the web is the size you need your image to be.  I export most of my images for web use with a long edge of 1000 pixels, which will keep the image viewable in either Portrait or Landscape format on the majority of modern monitors.

When that image is exported at 72 DPI with a long edge of 1000 pixels, the image will be about 13 inches long or tall when viewed on my meager 19 inch monitor.  The same image printed at 13 inches long at 72 DPI would look terrible, but on a computer monitor it looks spectacular.

You want to resize images for web use to keep download times low and to deter unwanted use of your images.  You may want to go bigger, but my recommendation is to export for web with you long edge at 1000 pixels at 72 DPI.  It’s big enough to appreciate the image, small enough to stay under 1 megabyte in size.

Most DPI articles would now take the time to give you charts of minimum resolutions for different print sizes at differing DPI levels.  It’s a safe assumption if you are viewing this blog then you probably have Lightroom, and that makes it pointless to waste time recreating a chart you can find anywhere on the Internet, so let’s take a few moments to walk through exporting images in Lightroom to the proper print DPI for a given print size.

First, find the image you are planning to export.  In the Develop Module click on the crop tool and choose the crop ratio you want to export to:

img_DPI_1

I am going to choose an 8×10 crop.  If your crop size of choice is not listed, choose ‘Custom’ and enter your desired print size.  Now go ahead and crop your image for your desired composition:

img_DPI_2

Hit Enter and make sure the crop looks good.

Now, right-click or control-click on the image to bring up the contextual menu:

img_DPI_3

Select Export and then click Export in the sub-menu.  Once the Export dialog box pops up, make sure it is set to the Files on Disk option at the top:

img_DPI_4

Set up all the export options the settings you desire for the image file, except for the Image Sizing options:

Now scroll to the Image Sizing tab.  Make sure Resize to Fit: is checked:

img_DPI_5

Change the option box to Dimensions:

img_DPI_6

Now change the dimension option box to ‘in’ for inches (or cm if you deal in metric print sizes).   Since I am exporting for an 8×10 print in Landscape orientation, I will then set the dimensions to 10 and 8:

img_DPI_7

Now make sure Don’t Enlarge is not checked, this will allow Lightroom to adaptively scale to image to increase resolution if needed:

img_DPI_8

Don’t worry, Lightroom does pretty good at up-rezzing for reasonable enlargements:

img_DPI_9

Finally, make sure the Resolution option box is set to pixels per inch. Since I am sending this image off to my local photo lab for printing, I also set the resolution to 300 pixels per inch (also known as DPI).  Once everything is set, click the Export button.

Your image is now baked with proper resolution for a high quality print at the size you requested.  No need for resolution charts, let Lightroom do the thinking for you.

Now to export for web use, start out in the Export dialog.  Just as before, set all your options as you see fit.  Make sure the Color Space option is set for sRGB (the default color space for the web).

Now in the Image Sizing tab, make sure Resize to Fit: is checked.  Now set the option box to Long Edge:

img_DPI_10

Make sure the measurement option box is set to pixels.  Now set the dimension to 1000:

img_DPI_11

For good measure set the pixels per inch option to 72 to create a 72 DPI image:

img_DPI_12

Click the Export button and let Lightroom do the work for you.  Lightroom will scale-down your image to maintain the aspect ratio, setting the long edge of the photo to 1000 pixels.  A nice small file that will create an image that fills most of any users screen, leaving in plenty of detail for viewing online.

Now you know how to wrangle Lightroom through the steps of making high quality files for both printing and web use.  Lightroom does a good job of scaling your image up, but it has its limits.  If you are going huge, like 20×30 or even 11×14 from a 6 megapixel camera, you need to export the file to Photoshop and increase the resolution with OnOne’s Genuine Fractals.

In my opinion it is the only way to make massive enlargements without losing a lot of quality.  It’s adaptive enlarging utilizing their fractal technology can take your final file up to 800% its native size with minimal loss of quality.  If you have to go big, OnOne is your best friend.

The process to increase size in Genuine Fractals is very similar to Lightroom’s, and if you have the plug-in you probably already know how to do this.

Hopefully this gave you a bit more understanding of DPI and resolution when it comes to printing or publishing to the web.  When using Lightroom, you don’t have to sweat the details and resizing in Photoshop is not too different.  Just make sure to choose the right settings for your use and Lightroom will take care of you.

Just remember 72 DPI for web, 300 DPI for print, and 360 DPI for printing to an Epson printer.  Now go make some prints and don’t let anyone tell you 150 DPI is good enough for an 11×14, it might be fine from a few feet away, but you know someone is going to look close and ask why the picture looks like crap.

Michael W. Gray

Michael is an artist who has been working for years to blend technology with traditional film photography.

COMMENTS (12)
  1. Michael,
    Lightroom uses PPI over DPI as a resolution measure. PPI is actually the more correct term. The Print module did in fact originally call it DPI, but it was changed to the correct term. DPI is indeed the Print Density.. But the terms are not actually interchangable, even though people do get the meaning when they see 300DPI.

    Here’s a quick read on DPI vs PPI http://www.tildefrugal.net/photo/dpi.php

  2. Excellent points Sean, and I wont argue the fact that they are not interchangeable terms. PPI is the only resolution measure that truly pertains to an image being edited on a screen in any application. I should have been more clear on that point in the article.

    While PPI and DPI are not interchangeable, they are inherently interrelated. The vagueness of the nomenclature for the measurement of point (pixel or dot) density leads us to often viewing them as the same concept.

    While the Export dialog does refer to the resolution as “pixels per inch” when you export the file for print, that value becomes the image’s set DPI for printing applications. An incorrect DPI value assigned in a file can create improper prints if the printer or its software does not compensate, which is why setting the export PPI to the desired final DPI is important. That is also why I refer to the term DPI when referring to export for print.

    The misunderstanding of DPI vs PPI is wide spread. Sitting here at my Windows 7 beta machine, I open the properties for one of my sample images I exported(the Epson sample)and it reports Horizontal Resolution as 360 DPI and the same for the Vertical Resolution. Not that Microsoft is an authority on imaging, but when the most widely used OS refers to it as DPI it sets an understandable precedent.

    Simply put, you are absolutely right, and the resource you cited is an excellent, concise explanation. PPI is the density of pixels displayed on a monitor, and DPI is the correlating density of droplets printed or pixels projected in the process of making a print. However as far as Lightroom and Photoshop are actually used, the PPI of an image becomes its default DPI when printed, unless overridden.

    It is another case of similar, but different concepts being used incorrectly, but in a functional manner.

  3. Thanks for a great post. Very helpful – particularly the workings of Lightroom.

  4. Hi Michael,

    I frequently get confused over these concepts, as do many. But I have a few comments on this article (which I actually believe increases the confusion – sorry).

    (1) All the 5 images above look exactly the same to me (in both versions). This is what I would expect, because :

    (2) The PPI/DPI you save an image at is completely irrelevant for screen/web display purposes. It’s just a number stored in the image file.

    So, I am confused where you say in one place :

    “In fact, it doesn’t matter if you export an image at 72 DPI or 720 DPI for the web, the computer will display the image at its native resolution regardless of how you export the image.”

    Which I believe to be correct.

    But you later say :

    “Just remember 72 DPI for web”

    Why ? When in fact it makes no difference. The only thing which will affect the image (on screen) is the resolution in pixels.

    (I am excluding considerations of JPEG save quality and up/down ressing here, as they are separate unrelated issues).

  5. Frank, I assure you there is a noticable difference in the quality between the 72, 150 and 300 DPI/PPI versions of the sample. On the large sized image, look at the edges of objects in the 72 and 150 and compare to the 300. Of course the samples will all look the same scaled down in the small version. There is a noticable lack of jagged edges and better clarity of detail in the 300 and higher versions.

    Also the sample images we exported and resized at export by Lightroom to create 8 inch by 10 inch prints at the varying DPI values. Then they were zoomed to equivilent sizes to show the difference in output from Lightroom as formatted for printing. As all the images were resized for output, uprezzing and downrezzing are pertinant here, and was mentioned as such. The samples show the result of the export. Not simply assigning a different PPI in software. They were rendered at size for the desired DPI.

    As far as exporting as 72 DPI for the web, it is simply a good practice. When submitting images for web use, most agencies and clients as for images resized to a particular siza at 72 DPI/PPI. If you are uploading to Flickr or your own blog it doesn’t matter. But some are particular.

  6. Also depending on your web browser, you may have to click the linked image once it loads to view it at full size. That may be the issue with difficulty viewing the difference.

  7. True, I am showing the difference in resolution, which is very important when it comes to printing to a specified size. The idea is you have to adjust resolution to the correct size for the desired output DPI. Image sampling, uprezzing and down rezzing are integral to producing the correct amount of pixel in an image to print an 8×10 print at 300 DPI. That’s what the sample shows, is how different resolutions of the same image printed at the same size relates to image quality in a final print.

    As to the 72 PPI issue, the display of the large sample image is a good example. I have a Firefox plug-in that automatically scales images on screen to the set DPI in the image. I don’t recall what it is called, I just use it to proof my galleries I generate. That plug-in is reading the set DPI/PPI from the image and displaying the image at 100%. A 72 PPI image will still display as it is intended, but an image and 150 will be twice normal size. Currently this is not an issue, but as monitors increase in resolution, technology advances and Web protocol changes it may become a bigger issue. Reszing an image and applying a PPI of 72 to it will kind of future-proof the image for display. You never know what changes can come down the pipe and complete alter the way an image is viewed. At least that is my though on the PPI issue from my perspective as a photographer.

    Another consideration for 72 PPI could be layout software in environments such as newspapers and magazines. The editor may want an image on both paper and web, and request images in formats that require a 2×2 inch image for magazine and the respective web-version. To keep the same appearance, they could request the image to be submitted as a 2×2 image at 300 and 72 DPI, requireing resizing. Many in this situation have art departments that take care of it, but smaller operations may request this of the photographer themselves. To many, reday for web, means resized for correct display at 72 PPI. So it very well could make a difference in that situation.

    What makes it a good practice to export to 72 PPI/DPI for web use would be that consideration alone. With automated content management systems and various applications across different machines using DPI/PPI as a standard makes sense, as it aides in gauranteeing desired final display.

    Again, these are just thoughts in my head, no research involved. Just reasons why I can see 72 PPI making a difference.

  8. “”Also depending on your web browser, you may have to click the linked image once it loads to view it at full size.””

    ESPECIALLY true with Firefox.

  9. Hi Michael,

    yes – you’re completely right about the difference. My browser had resized it to fit on the screen. The expanded image clearly shows a difference.

    However, I think what you’ve shown is part of the reason that there’s so much confusion caused by this issue. My point was that the export value at 72DPI or 600DPI makes absolutely no difference to the image (on a screen). What you’ve done is to show 5 different resolution images – which will of course make a difference. The issue is further confused by the fact that software like photoshop can automatically resize your image, depending on how you enter the values.

    So to clarify – what I’m saying is that for a give image resolution e.g. 800×600 pixels it makes absolutely no difference if you save/export it at 72DPI or 600DPI – it will be exactly the same on the screen. So exporting as 72DPI (or any other value you might choose) is completely irrelevant and meaningless. So I can’t see why it should be good practice.

    It took me quite a while to get this clear in my head – once I grasped that, it made the other aspects a bit easier to grasp. Still working on it though !

    Thanks. F.

  10. I think maybe we are talking about slightly different things. Your comments on print are fine. However, I am only referring to screen/web display. Here the PPI/DPI value on export is irrelevant.

    A given image with a PPI set to 72 will display at the same physical size as one with 650. The only thing affecting the physical size of the image on your screen will be : (a) Your screen resolution/size and (b) The image resolution (in pixels).

    Sure, software can decide to display the image at a different size (like FF resizing the sample image we discussed earlier) but that has nothing directly to do with the PPI setting on export.

    This is one of the articles I found useful in clarifying this for me :

    http://blogs.dummies.com/photography/2008/12/19/of-pixels-ppi-and-internet-myths/

    I’ve tested this BTW, and it works for me.

    So to me “web ready” means the right resolution (pixel dimensions) and the compression quality level (for JPEGs).

    People often specify 72DPI for web images – but if they do, they don’t
    really understand that it actually means nothing.

    Print, of course, is different.

  11. I just had a detailed discussion about this with a friend and googled “dpi doesn’t matter” to get more.

    This is the only post in that search result to seems to try to argue that DPI does matter, but it does not.

    I think your five image example is misleading. The “DPI” of all those images are identical, they are whatever DPI your monitor is currently using at the moment. The setting you chose using some software is just a confusing shorthand used by uninformed software designers.

    The lower numbered images do look worse because you’ve blown up a small pixel dimension image.

    DPI only matters when converting from the real world to digital (scanning) or vice versa (printing).

    If you are shooting in a digital camera for use on the web, all that matters is the pixel dimension. The DPI is a phantom value that is more trouble than it’s worth.

    Think of a DPI setting on a digital image as a luggage tag on a bag you’ve packed. I want this bag to go to New York, so I put a New York tag on it.

    But if the baggage handler decides to send my bag to the moon, he just ignores that tag. The content of the bag have not changed, though on the moon it will feel lighter. Then it’s sent back to New York, where it feels heavier, but again the contents have not changed.

    When you print an image, your printer diaolgue box will have a DPI setting. This may or may not honor the tag set in the image file. It’s the setting you use here that matters, and this is the only time DPI matters. The setting in the image file, the tag, is nothing more than a request. It does not affect the contents of the image file.

    (unless you actually resample the image, which I suspect is what you did, but that is identical to if you resized it using absolute pixel numbers, which is all that really matter)

    Scanning and printing, totally different. There DPI is critical. But digital to digital to digital, DPI is meaningless.

Comments are closed.