Resolution and print quality

Occasionally we ask customers for a higher resolution image. Why, and what does that mean?

Here’s the problem:

In the above label example, the guitar image on the left looks fuzzy, or chunky. We’re pretty sure you would want your labels to look more like the image on the right—crisp and clear!

What we’re really asking for when we ask for a higher resolution image is a better quality image. Resolution is an important part of achieving a high quality print. However, as we’ll see, it’s not just about the resolution number—72, 300, 600, etc.

The overall dimensions of your image also play a critical role.

Pixels – the more the better

Digital photographs are an example of images that are created by combining dots called pixels. Resolution refers to the number of pixels being used to create that image.

You may hear this number expressed as dpi (dots per inch) or ppi (pixels per inch). In either case, the higher the number the better the resolution.

Many pixels will yield a richer, more lifelike image. Fewer pixels results in a fuzzy or pixelated image.

Below are some examples at different resolutions. Examples A, B and C range from terrible to bad. Our high resolution example D is the benchmark. It’s not always possible to reach depending on the source of your image but it’s good to know what to aim for.

Resolution can only be decreased

It’s important to note that in order to create these examples, we started with the high resolution image and worked backwards, degrading the image by degrees. The reverse does not work!

If your original image looks like A, B or C, you cannot improve it by “playing with the numbers” in Photoshop or other image editing software.

Resolution and size work together

Generally speaking, high resolution is considered to be 300 ppi at final print size.

So what if you have an image that is much larger than its final print size but the resolution is less than our 300 ppi ideal?

For example, say your image is 72 ppi and measures 18″ wide but you only need it to print at 3″ wide for your label. Chances are, your image will print very well.

The reason is that as the image size is reduced for printing at 3″, although its total number of pixels does not change, the number of pixels per inch increases, increasing its resolution relative to its reduced size.

In this case, the resolution goes from 72 to 432 pixels per inch, a six-fold increase. So your final resolution is 432 ppi at 3″, your final print size—more than enough to achieve a crisp, high quality print image.

So by reducing the size of this 72 ppi image we have effectively increased its resolution so that at this smaller size it will print beautifully whereas if we’d printed it at its original 18″ dimensions we might not be so happy with the outcome.

This is why the resolution number in and of itself doesn’t determine print quality. Size or the image’s physical dimensions are equally if not more important.

The bottom line

When preparing your images for print, you should aim for 300 ppi at 100% of your final print size. For instance, 300 ppi at 3″ (or larger) for a 3″ label.

Image sourcing tips

Avoid low-resolution image sources:

  • Images taken from the web
  • Computer screenshots
  • Cell phone screenshots

As a rule, these images do not print well. They have been optimized to look good and to load quickly on a screen. This results in a file that is usually low resolution, small and compressed—the opposite of what you need for a good quality print.

Sources for high-resolution images:

  • Web graphics are usually generated from a high-resolution master image; this is what should be used to get a high-quality print. 
  • For most candid or informal photos, if you are using images taken with your smartphone’s camera, you should be in good shape. 
  • When taking product images, using a digital camera or a newer smartphone with at least a 12MP camera is highly recommended. Stabilize the camera with a tripod or phone stand for crisper, clearer images.
Related reading
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David Hamma (2 Posts)

David is Production Manager and designer at Evermine. Husband, father, musician and letter enthusiast, he can sometimes be found playing guitar with Moon Debris or prowling the typography section of Powell's. Favorite beverage: earl grey. Pictured is his kitty, Chilton.


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