Digital Photography with an Eye to Prints

I promised Eric Coulthard I would tell him how to make his own panoramic wall prints, so I thought I’d share my printing secrets with the world. Arts Crafts time on explor8ion.com folks! I guarantee that unless you’ve looked into this topic already, you will be overwhelmed by the work that goes into getting a nice print from a digital photo or panorama. Try to stick with me though – once you’ve done it a few times you’ll realize there’s only a few important steps to the process. Mountains lend themselves to large prints and even larger panoramas. There’s so much scenery it can’t be contained in one shot – especially those summit shots that we all love taking!

If you’re like me, you have hundreds of these shots and some of them should be hanging on a wall somewhere or at the very least printed in a large landscape book. The larger the photo or panorama, the harder to print and mount. I like things simple so I do not get my mounts framed or glassed, but of course you can bring your finished print to any custom frame shop and pay another $200 – $500 to get it framed if you wish. I will be detailing how I mount and treat large prints myself, saving hundreds of dollars. I think a lot of folks nowadays don’t see the value printed photographs and that’s too bad.

Most photos are shared to Facebook or posted on a blog and that’s it. IMHO this is a real shame.  I have some of my best memories hanging on my walls and I get to relive and enjoy very special moments every day. Instead of family albums (which can take a long time to produce), I do a book each year that details our family experiences over that year. My kids and possible grand kids will never see explor8ion.com, so I have it all printed in books too – just so all my hard work will be around a little bit longer. I get to view the following panorama at 4 feet wide while sitting at the breakfast table each morning – what a view of twins tower – it brings back that clenching feeling almost every time I view it! The crazy Pol, Raf, also has this photo on his wall, since he’s the guy climbing in front of me and capturing his last Columbia Icefield 11,000er on this day.

A ‘clenching moment’ captured for posterity and a giant print at 2×4 feet hanging on my wall.

One of the biggest misconceptions I hear all the time from people is this notion that “megapixels don’t matter“. If you aren’t concerned about megapixels or which camera you’re using while attaining some of the finest memories of your life time, I think you’re making a huge mistake. You could regret this attitude later in life when those memories are faded and you have no way of bringing them back to life, because you weren’t concerned enough about pixels. You spend thousands on your climbing gear – why not a few hundred more on a decent camera / lens? I’ll make some suggestions on gear at the end of this article. Printing is a huge topic when it comes to digital photographs. There’s a lot of things to consider if you want a nice print. I can’t possibly go over everything there is to know about printing, but I’ll touch on the basics. For more information Google the topic – there’s a lot of wisdom out there on making photographic prints.

Digital Size and Print Resolutions

The very first thing you need to do is determine what size of print you can realistically produce from your digital photographs. This isn’t rocket science, but it kind of is. In general, the more total pixels your photo has, the larger it can be printed while retaining acceptable quality per inch of print. The measurement of pixel density, is called “PPI” which stands for Pixels Per Inch. A pixel is one “dot” of information in your photograph and in general a digital photo is pixels wide and y pixels in height.

The more pixels, or megapixels (millions) your digital photo contains, the more resolution it’s said to have, because for a given total size of photo and print size, you will be able to cram more or less pixels into one inch of print. A 4 megapixel (mp) photograph will have much less print resolution than a 24mp photograph of exactly the same scene. In theory, the 24mp photo will print much larger and much ‘nicer’ than the 4mp image (because for a given size, you can cram more pixels, or information, into each inch of the 24mp print), but as you can read in the sidebar below, both photos could look very similar on a computer monitor – other than dynamic range and other factors that more megapixels and better sensors can sometimes resolve.

Sidebar: Just to confuse the heck out of you, PPI doesn’t affect how the picture looks on a computer screen at all. If you don’t want people to steal your digital photos for printing, but you want them to look good on the web, simply make them a small size (i.e. not too many pixels tall or wide) and don’t worry about the PPI at all – or make it very small so that the file size is small. For an in-depth analysis of the so-called 72 PPI Myth read this article.

The catch is what you consider a “good” quality print. In general you should remember the following three numbers to keep things as simple as possible (see this article for more details);

  1. 180ppi is the absolute minimum print resolution you should ever use. Less than this and you are not going to be satisfied. On massive panoramas (say 4 feet or wider) this is a ‘good enough’ resolution because in general people won’t be viewing from as close. Billboards can have extremely low PPI because nobody views them up close and your eyes fill in the missing detail automatically from 50-100+ feet away.
  2. 240ppi is the minimum standard that I go for. It will serve almost any print size very well. It’s not the gold standard of printing, but unless you have a lot of pixels to work with, you may be uprezing your photo just to make this number (I’ll deal with this topic later).
  3. 300ppi is the gold standard. You should always start with this number and only ‘downgrade’ if you have to. There’s no point in going higher than 300ppi – the human eye won’t notice the difference and neither will most printers.

So how many megapixels does it take to make some standard size prints? The math is easy. For a given size in inches, simply multiply the x(width) by the number of pixels you want to fit in each inch of print (ppi). Do the same for the yvalue (height). Multiply those two numbers to get a total number of pixels needed. So a 4×6″ print at 240ppi would go like this;

  • 4 inches wide x 240ppi = 960 pixels wide
  • 6 inches tall x 240ppi = 1440 pixels tall
  • Total resolution needed is 960×1440 pixels or 1.3824 megapixels

Following are some common print sizes that I’ll be talking about, along with the corresponding number of megapixels you need to generate that print in the given print resolution (ppi). As you look over this table, ask yourself if you still think megapixels “don’t matter”.

Print Size 180ppi 240ppi 300ppi
4×6″ 0.7776 1.3824 2.16
5×7″ 1.134 2.016 3.15
8×10″ 2.592 4.608 7.2
12×18″ 6.9984 12.4416 19.44
16×24″ 12.4416 22.1184 34.56
24×36″ 27.9936 49.7664 77.76
24×48″ 37.3248 66.3552 103.68
24×60″ 46.656 82.944 129.6

There are exceptions to the rules depending on the situation and on the gear itself. For example the following photograph was taken at dawn with a Sony RX100. This is a 20mp camera so in theory it should generate a pretty good 24×36″ print – especially when compared to a 12mp camera right? Wrong. I do have this print hanging on my wall and it looks decent, but the sensor in my 42mp Sony A7RIII would produce a much nicer 24×36″ print in the same low light conditions. Due to it’s tiny sensor (1″) which doesn’t handle low light very well, the RX100 starts with a much more degraded image than the A7S would have in the same conditions. Crap in. Crap out – that’s the rule that rules above all others when it comes to printing!

A gorgeous scene taken from the summit of Mount Amery at dawn. I only had my Sony RX100 II with me at the time (in order to save weight) and for web photos it’s more than capable. When printed large however, this photo looks more like a painting thanks to the poor low-light capabilities of the RX100 II compared with larger sensors and heavier cameras. Nothing’s free!

Sidebar:  I need to make a comment on post processing (pp) photos. Some people seem to think that a digital photo can just be downloaded from the camera and voila! You’re done! Others seem to take it one step further and imply that any pp is violating some sort of photography ethic – no photo should be manipulated afterwards or the photog is somehow ‘cheating’.

Pure Poppycock.

Especially if you’re taking RAW photos, but even with most JPEG’s, you should be processing almost every photo you take – especially the ones you’re going to print. I may do another article on this later, but suffice it to say that correcting the white balance, adding some contrast, boosting the shadows, lowering the highlights and adding some vibrancy and local contrast enhancement is needed on almost every shot I take with any camera at any setting. I even do pp with my iPhone photos.

Some cameras like the Olympus and Sony produce very nice JPEG’s so I shoot RAW+JPEG if I’m too lazy to pp before displaying on my blog, but the RAW’s are what I use for prints and they always need work. RAW photographs are like digital negatives. In the good ol’ days of film, you bought Astia, Provia or Velvia film – in the better days of digital you can produce all three looks with one photograph by applying the correct pp. Crap in – crap out. Post processing your photos is critical to getting a nice wall print or a nice digital one.

Remember that print I have hanging over my kitchen table at 24×48″? I printed it at 240ppi which means I needed over 65 megapixels of information to generate that print! Do you own a 65mp camera?! Neither do I! As a matter of fact I only had a 16mp camera with me on that climb. So how did I make the print? Read on – the secret’s about to be revealed.

Sizing Photographs for Printing

By now you should be aware that even for moderately large prints, say 12×18″, you will need a 20mp image for a 300ppi print. Many of the cameras I’ve used over the years are nowhere near that many megapixels. Even the $2500 camera that I used for a lot of my 1100ers was ‘only’ 12mp! The Sony A7S is an amazing camera, but it doesn’t have a lot of resolution compared to most other modern cameras. Even though it’s only 12mp, I can still get large prints from it. I just sold the following photo taken of Mount Columbia and King Edward from our Alexandra trip. I sold it as a 24mp image even though the original is only 12mp. (It will be hanging in a boardroom of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta in Edmonton.)

Chess Group at left, King Edward at center and Mount Columbia at right.

So how did I get a 24mp file from the 12mp original? The answer is fairly easy, of course. I uprezed it. “Uprezed” is shorthand for “Up Resized” or “Enlarged”. I enlarged it. Yes – I could have just written that in the first place but I’m trying to be all cool about printing so I’m using the lingo. Deal with it. Resizing digital photos is pretty simple. Open in Photoshop or another image editor and resize using bicubic resampling (for enlargement) or any of the other options that make sense. It really is that simple, but there are a few “gotchas” (read this article for more information than you ever wanted on the topic);

  • Nothings free. If you start with crappy pixels and make more of them through enlarging, you will only end up with more crappy pixels. My Sony A7S produces wonderfully detailed pixels from its full frame sensor, and its RAW images can usually be uprezed by 100% with very little loss of quality. The same is NOT true of every 4, 12 or even 24 megapixel camera!
  • If you only shoot JPEG photos, these cannot be uprezed nearly as good as RAW photos. JPEG’s are already compressed and are so-called lossy output (that’s why they’re so much smaller than RAW files on your hard drive). Because JPEG’s have already thrown out a lot of information to make themselves smaller, the uprez algorithms have less information to work with – hence a crappier uprez than with RAW files.
  • All things being equal, it’s always better to have as many megapixels to start with as possible. I really wish my A7S was 24mp instead of only 12. I currently own the 42mp A7RIII and it’s RAW files are big to work with but wonderfully easy for printing. Personally I think 24-30mp is the sweet spot for now. 

Before you get all depressed because you only have JPEG photos from the past 10 years and they’re all small – you don’t have to print large in order to enjoy them! I would recommend a collage of small photos (i.e. put 1 year of photos into 1 giant 24×36″ print) or make your own printed books, which have smaller images (check out Blurb.ca for one option that I use and love). If you print a book make sure you add some details so that when you’re 60 years old you can remember which peak you’re standing on in the photo.

Before you run out and spend $3,000 on a Nikon Z7 and a nice lens, you should know that you can probably generate massive files from your existing digital camera. There is a way to ‘trick’ your camera into producing files that would make it look like a mini-medium format beast.

Stitching to get Size

I can produce massive digital files and correspondingly huge prints from a relatively ‘small’ 12mp Sony A7S. You can even generate panoramas that will print at 24×48″ with a 6, 8 or 10mp camera – quite easily. The secret is photo stitching. Stitching photos together to form massive photos used to be a PITA. Nowadays it’s pretty darn easy. In the field you simply point and shoot your camera at the landscape and fire away – overlapping each shot with the one previous by about 1/4. You can do simple panoramas, or complex matrices where you go across and then up or down. The only limit is your patience while waiting to stitch them together back at home. Of course, nothing’s free, and there are situations that work better than others. The more static a scene (i.e. no moving parts such as water or wind blown artifacts), the easier and cleaner it will stitch. The following scenes are much harder to stitch properly than static landscapes;

  • Waves
  • People
  • Fast moving clouds (usually not an issue though)
  • Animals (that are alive – haha)
  • Fighter jets (that are flying – I’m on a role aren’t I?)
  • Macros (because usually the thing is moving a bit)

One thing a lot of folks don’t realize is that you don’t have to do a panoramic shot to stitch for massive prints. Say you have a 10mp camera and there’s a beautiful landscape in front of you that you’re sure you want to print some day. Instead of doing a classic panorama, just point your camera at the scene and do a fast sequence of shots – of the exact same scene! Do NOT use a tripod for this. The way it works, is that each frame will be slightly shifted from the others due to your movement (hence no tripod). Even just 1 or 2 pixels shifted is enough. This means much more information (i.e. pixels) in your stitched photo! Your 10mp camera just produced a 50mp image from a static, non-panoramic scene simply by holding down the shutter release button and rapidly firing off a sequence of shots. Cool eh? Modern cameras with image stabilized sensors now do this for you via a special mode called something like “sensor shift high resolution mode”.

The following photo is a 12 image stitch with my Olympus OM 135mm lens from our camp at the Alexandra bivy. I wanted a high resolution shot of the Milky Way above our remote location. Rather than just do a single shot, I panned the lens 3 times across and the 5 down for a total of 15 shots. Accounting for the overlap between photos, there is still at least 144 megapixels of information in this photo – shot with a 12mp camera. 

The Milky Way rising above Queen’s and Alexandra at 04:00 makes even 11,000ers seem pretty darn insignificant. The Andromeda galaxy is obvious about halfway up the night sky here.

As you can see, the above photograph isn’t a ‘classic’ panorama. Obviously the more classic wide or tall panoramas work exactly the same. Simply take a whole series of vertical photos in the field and stitch them together when you get home. If you have a 4 or 8mp camera, just take lots of overlap and lots of photos and you can still print a panorama 5 feet wide with tons of detail (assuming the lens is decent and you expose the photo properly – remember if you start with crap you’ll end up with crap). The 24×48″ panorama that I have above my kitchen table was taken on a 16mp Olympus E-M5 camera. But it took at least 65mp of information to make. I fired off a series of 7 vertically oriented shots and managed to get a photo large enough to print at 240ppi or even more if I wanted (7×16=112 megapixels). The moving climbers didn’t affect the pano because I made sure they were in the middle of one of them (don’t put moving things on the edge of your photos if you are planning to stitch them later).

A very common issue that I run into all the time, is that I don’t have enough room on the bottom and top of my panos to stitch them how I’d like. This is why I recommend taking vertical oriented shots when making summit panoramas – you get a lot more room at the bottom / top of your stitch. If you don’t correct for distortion, you’ll get a pano like the following one from Mount Beatrice;

Gorgeous views of the glacier between Stanley Peak (L) and Beatrice Peak but there’s obvious distortion on the horizon from the stitch. This can be used creatively but might be a short-lived fashion statement.

Sidebar: What about HDR photos – aren’t those stitched as well? Yes and no. HDR photos are generated by taking a number of photos of the same scene, with different exposure settings. Than a program like Photoshop is used to combine the different exposure values into one photograph with all the exposures – basically it expands the range of shadows to highlights without blowing them out. You get more dynamic range. This is a different topic that I might address in another article some day.

Sharpen before Printing

Phew! We’re almost ready to send the file to the printer. Almost. There’s one more critical step in the process. If you don’t do this step properly your photo will not pop the way it should. Remember – crap in, crap out! The same goes for unsharp photos. Obviously the photo should be focused properly, but this isn’t the same as ‘sharp’. Sharpening is another topic that you can research extensively, but at the very least you must do what’s called output sharpening on any photo you’re either printing or displaying on a screen. You must size your photo first and only then apply the output sharpening. For photos that I display on the web I use a two-step process where I over sharpen slightly and then downsize for display which can work well on super high resolution displays. 

A very simple rule-of-thumb that I use for prints is to view my photo at 50%, after first sizing it correctly for width, height and resolution (ppi). I then apply sharpening to the photo until it looks nice and sharp on my monitor at the 50% viewing size. That’s it. Usually I only have to use the “sharpen” command in Photoshop once or twice and I’m good to go. Very easy. You may have to experiment a bit but a basic rule of thumb is to over sharpen slightly. The final step is to save the photo before delivering it to your printer. I recommend either saving it as a compressed TIFF or a 11 or 12 quality JPEG. Both of these options will generate very large files – but that’s a good thing! Large means lots of information and lots of information means a “lots” better print.

Sidebar: When printing photo books it’s way too much work to resize and sharpen each individual photo for its final size since I often resize them while building the book. In this case I output every image for the maximum size of the book page (i.e. 12 inches wide) and sharpen for that size. If I end up resizing to 4 or 6 inches it’ll still look good since downsizing usually adds the effect of a sharper image anyway. I just use the default sharpening setting in Lightroom for matte paper when doing my batch exports for books.

Printing your Photograph

FINALLY! Well almost. There is one more step (or series of steps LOL) you can do if you’re fussy. Most professional printers and print companies will generate color profiles for their printers. These can be used in conjunction with your image editor and a good computer monitor, to ensure that what you see as “red” on your computer screen is going to look like the same “red” to the printer and on the final print. The area of color management and printer and monitor profiling is way beyond the scope of this article but you can start reading about it here if you’re interested. At the end of the day usually the default sRGB profiles will work just fine. Like everything else in our complicated world, there is such a thing as going too damn far when it comes to photography for the average person.

A panorama over the city of Trinidad in Cuba which I printed huge. This is taken with an iPhone X and looks wonderful on my wall.

Most printers don’t print panoramas very easily and certainly not cheaply! The easiest way to get small panoramas is to assemble and cut them yourself. Say you want two 12×36″ panoramas. Simply create a new image in Photoshop at 300ppi and 24×36″ in size. Size and sharpen your two panoramas at the same ppi and 12×36″ each. Copy and paste them into your 24×36″ image and save it. Send this to the printer and cut it into the two panoramas yourself at home (see next section). This works great for almost any size panorama. For huge panoramas (24×48″, 24×60″) I usually have to talk to the printer and sort it out beforehand. The files are so big I usually have to deliver them on a USB stick myself anyway. You won’t be uploading a 100mp image to your printer’s online photo site! I should point out that there are more and more cheaper print sites nowadays that will print panoramas, so make sure you look before doing too much work yourself.

I get my large prints done at a professional print shop (vistek.ca). Obviously there’s a lot of other options from home printing to Costco and Walmart. Whatever you can afford and whatever you’re happy with is good enough! The thing I like about Vistek is I know what to expect and they can handle huge files for panoramic prints. I’ve printed to 5 feet wide with them and with excellent results almost every time. They also give you the option of previewing a slice of your final print ahead of time so that you don’t waste $100-$200 on a surprise output.

DIY Photo Mounting

(Before reading the following section you should know that I found out recently that Michaels will mount your photos for you on foamcore backing as long as you bring them the print. This saves you having to do the entire following section and only cost me around $25 – apparently they have a machine that does it. Who knew?!)

I think Eric only expected to see this last section when he asked me about printing panoramas. He got a lot more than he bargained for, I’m sure! The final step is to trim and mount your prints. You’ll need to go to Michaels (or any hobby store) and get the following items;

  • Foam core backing in the right size and color for your print. I usually get larger than I need if possible and usually get white. Black can look nice too.
  • Photo mounting glue – get lots and make sure it’s spray, not glue stick!
  • Adjustable trimming knife – make sure it is good quality and if possible has a guide on it so you can run it down a straight edge. It has to cut through the foam core and mounted photo.
  • Photo preservation spray – prevents UV harm and protects the photograph from aging effects.
  • A straight edge that can be used in conjunction with the trimming knife to guide a long, straight cut. A long, narrow metal ruler is perfect.
  • A rubber roller for rolling the image onto the foam core when gluing, to get rid of bubbles and make sure it’s mounted flat.
  • Double sided photo mounting squares or tape for hanging the foam core on your wall (note: this will take paint off when removed).
  • A clean, flat surface that can withstand a few knife cuts without resulting in a divorce.
  • A ventilated area.

The first thing to do is mount and glue the photograph to the foam core. For large prints, spray both surfaces. The tricky part is lining everything up. Large prints will want to roll back up on you while you’re trying to spray the glue and then mount them on the foam core. The glue sticks pretty fast so there’s no time to waste. You can cut combined panos (i.e. two 12×36″ on one 24×36″ print) either before or after gluing onto the foam core. I do it after gluing so I only have to cut once. Gently roll the photo flat onto the surface of the backing using the rubber roller. Don’t press too hard or you’ll make dents in the foam core that won’t come out. Once the photo is glued, spray it with the protective spray at least twice, following directions for drying times and safety measures. You have to watch that you don’t get glue on the roller or you end up smearing that all over the photo. I speak from personal experience here. Usually my panos come wrapped in brown paper that I use to protect the photo while I’m cutting and rolling it.

Now the trickiest part – cutting to size and trimming the white edges from your print. There’s no magic here, but you need to practice a few times before you’ll generate a nice straight and precise cut. If you’re mounting the photo directly on the wall, like I do, you want a nice clean edge. Trust me – trimming a 5 foot long image without screwing up is nerve-wracking. A very sharp knife and steady cut along a straight edge (that doesn’t move halfway through the cut) is crucial. After cutting is complete and the photo glue is completely dry, apply the double sided mounting tape and hang on your wall, or bring it to your custom framer.

Summary and Camera Gear

So there you go! Pretty simple right? Haha. It isn’t that bad once you go through the process a few times. Here’s a summary;

  1. Take your photos with as many good megapixels as possible. 
  2. Try to take RAW photos. RAW + JPEG works too.
  3. Resize, sharpen and save large for printing.
  4. Print photos.
  5. Mount photographs or make a book.

One last note about camera gear. In today’s market there’s an overwhelming amount of choice for (good) camera gear. I would recommend either micro four thirds gear from Olympus or Panasonic, or the Sony RX100 series for most trekkers, climbers, hikers, bikers or skiers. Other great choices are the new Canon and Nikon full frame mirrorless options or the Canon M50 series. If money isn’t as much of a concern for you, check out the full frame Sony A7 series. These cameras are all very powerful. The absolute best camera system for adventure photogs who want premium results in as small a package as possible has got to be the Sony A7RIII with either Zeiss or Sony GM lenses (note this is not a ‘smallest’ option, but it is the best one).

Any decent camera isn’t going to be cheap – but nothing’s free remember? With the micro four thirds gear you can expand your lens choices to a staggering degree and with the RX100 series you are getting a lot of power in a very small package, including very good HD video. There are certainly cheaper options out there that will work very well, but you’re probably going to have to either compromise on size and weight or quality of the lens to go much cheaper than these two options. I’ve been chasing the holy grail of small, light, perfect camera for over a decade now and am reminded all the time that no matter what I choose there are compromises involved.

The Canon EOS M50 Camera with the 15-45 and 55-200mm lenses.

Currently I own two camera systems due to differences in weight and size. Sometimes the Sony system is just too big and heavy, but that’s the first system I go to when I need uncompromising quality.

Sony A7 System

  • Sony A7RIII w/ Battery and Memory Cards (750g)
  • Sony 24-105mm f/4.0 Lens (733g)
  • Sony 70-300mm f/3.5-5.6 Lens (900g)

Canon M System

  • Canon M50 w/ Battery and Memory Card (390g)
  • Canon 15-45mm (24-70mm) Lens (130g)
  • Canon 55-200mm (80-320mm) Lens (260g)

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.