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The Big Lie Your Photographer Is Probably Telling You

If you've hired a photographer who gave you a great deal on digital photos ("25 digital photos for $75 at my mini session!"), then they've probably said something like this:

"I'm giving you the high-resolution files. With your photos, you can print any size because it's the original file."

That, my friends, is a lie.

Well, technically you can print any size, but it just won't look good. Can you print 4x6s and 5x7s? Sure. And 8x10s? Probably. But anything bigger, and you might find yourself in trouble. The bigger you go, the higher the chance that your photo will lose quality.

Why won't an original file print at any size?

You have to understand photo paper and pixel dimensions, which requires a little math.

First, you should know that most photos papers, gallery wrap canvases included, recommend printing at 300dpi, or 300 dots-per-inch. At 300dpi, you'll have a high-resolution photo that looks pristine.

With that in mind, now you need to know the pixel dimensions of your photo. Let's consider the one in this article. The dimensions of this photo are 3512x5268. The biggest I can print the file at 300dpi without losing quality is 11.5x17.5, which is a pretty good sized-print. How do I know that's the biggest I can print? Simply divide each dimension by 300, and you get your photo size in inches. (3512 divided by 300 is approximately 11.5, and 5268 divided by 300 is about 17.5.)

But what if the family wants to print a 24x36 canvas? With the original file, my resolution will be less than 150dpi! (146dpi, to be exact.) Why? Just divide the original pixel dimensions by the print size: 3512 divided by 24 is 146, as is 5268 divided by 36.

That 24x36 will have its dpi cut in half unless someone does something to the original file. The original photo needs to be upscaled to the pixel dimensions 7200x10800, which is over twice as many pixels as the original file.

Consider this: what if your photographer had to crop out a large amount of the photo? Maybe they were too far away, or maybe the photographer was careless and moved the camera a bit. With a significant crop, maybe the original photo is now only 1500x2100. That's only enough pixels for a 5x7 at 300dpi! If you want the best--which you should, you paid good money for photos!--then you have to pay attention to pixels.

Here's some good news: Lightroom can upscale, and so can Photoshop. Just know that the original file alone won't get the job done. Someone needs to change its dimensions so that it will print big.

There's nothing too complicated about upscaling. Lightroom and Photoshop both do a great job adding pixels so that the new file looks as good as the original. But don't fool yourself into thinking that an original file is all you need. There's more to consider, especially if you print big.

I know what you're thinking: "Aaron, tell me something that will make this even more complicated!" You're in luck because there are two other variables you need to consider: the type of paper you're printing on and the anticipated viewing distance. Photo paper is different than canvas. Holding a photo in your hands is different than looking at a canvas on your wall from across a room.

In the end, there's much more to it than just using the original file.

Here's the best advice I can give: next time, just book a session with me and let me do the job. I use professional photo labs with archival materials, and I'll give that extra love and attention to every detail of our relationship. Click here to learn more about why I'm the best photographer for you.

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