Big Images From Digital Cameras

Digital Blowup • Lasting Impressions • Size Matters • Put Your Best Print Forward • How Much Space?

Tech Tips: Digital Basics For Outdoor Photography

I’m shooting with an 8-megapixel digital SLR. I submitted some images to a lab and requested 24×36-inch prints. I was told that my digital file wasn’t large enough to produce prints of acceptable quality in this size. I’ve had prints made as large as 86 inches from slide film. Do I still need to shoot film for large prints?
T. McGraw
Kansas City, Missouri

From your 8-megapixel sensor, you have a better file than would be produced by a scanner at 4000 dpi, even though it’s smaller. The size of the file isn’t the determining factor when it comes to making large images. The file from a digital camera is first generation and thus cleaner than a scanned transparency or negative, which has a grain structure that’s emphasized in the scanning process. I can assure you that if your image is of good quality to start with, you can make a 24×36-inch print from your camera that will be better than if the image was scanned from a 35mm slide.

I’m assuming that you sent the full, uncropped file to the lab and, if so, I don’t know why they should have refused to print your enlargements on the basis of file size. But there are other considerations to make when determining whether a file can produce enlargements of acceptable quality. Be honest with yourself when you evaluate the sharpness, contrast and color of your image.

To hold up in a large print, the original image, whether a digital file or slide, must be perfect. You can’t get a good sense of the printing result from enlarging the image on your computer screen, so it’s not easy to predict the results the lab will get on a large-format printer. But if you have a smaller printer at home, you can blow up the image to 24×36 on your computer and then crop an 8.5×11 or 13×19 section from it and print that. Keep in mind that you don’t look at a 24×36-inch print from eight inches away, so stand back a bit when evaluating your results.

When you blow up an image on your computer, the process of interpolation enlarges the image and fills in the expanded spaces between the pixels. A number of programs do a very good job of filling in the blanks as you enlarge the image. Within Photoshop itself, use Bicubic Smoother to accomplish the interpolation. Three other programs that claim to do the job better than Photoshop are PhotoZoom Pro 2 by BenVista, Blow Up by Alien Skin and Genuine Fractals 4 by on One Software.

Lasting Impressions
I want to get into the gallery scene and start to sell my prints. I’ve heard a lot about different papers to use for fine-art photo printing, and I’m not sure what to go with. Do you have any suggestions about which papers would be best to produce color fine-art prints that are both high-quality and archival?
T. Donovan
Via the Internet

If you’re considering placing your prints in a gallery, the ink is actually more important than the paper. The two types of inks available are dyes and pigments. On nearly every kind of paper, pigments have a longer life than dyes. Not long ago, dyes would last barely a couple of years be-fore showing signs of fading. A number of today’s dye-based printers have greatly improved dyes that last many decades, but still, pigment inks last longer.

The people purchasing your prints will expect them to last for their own lifetimes and possibly to pass them on to the next generation. So if you’re going to exhibit and sell in a gallery, you should consider using a printer with pigments instead of dyes.

Then choose your papers from an aesthetic, rather than archival, standpoint, since nearly all professional papers will last a long time with pigments. Choose a glossy or semi-glossy surface if you’re emphasizing detail within the image. You might choose a fine-art watercolor or smooth rag paper to lend a painterly mood to the image.

If you use standard frame glass, reflections will obscure the detail and color of your images. Museum glass, which is much more expensive, allows the detail to come through without reflections.

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Size Matters
Can you explain how to get an image in a standard print size (4×6, 5×7, 8×10) in Photoshop CS2 to print on standard-sized media? I have downsized an image to 4×6 and want to print it onto 4×6 paper. I always get a message in print preview that says‚ “The image is larger than the paper’s printable area; some clipping will occur.”
C. DiCarlo
Via the Internet

I’m assuming that the file you want to print has been set to an exact 4×6 inches, which can be done in Photoshop CS2 within the cropping menu. This would mean that you’re trying to print a borderless print. If your printer allows borderless prints, you should ignore the “clipping” message and proceed, being sure to set up the printer driver for borderless printing.

If your printer doesn’t support borderless printing, you’ll need to resize the image to be slightly smaller than the 4×6 media before printing (you also can check “Scale to fit media” in the Scaled Print Size part of the Photoshop Print dialog box). The “clipping” message also will be displayed if you’ve asked for a portrait orientation and the paper is set to landscape, or vice versa. Check to make sure.

Put Your Best Print Forward
At our photo group meetings, we have a print competition. We receive entries with everything from gaudy frames and mats that overpower the images to plain borderless prints lying on tables. Do you have a suggestion for a simple, yet effective way to present prints that isn’t too complicated, extravagant or expensive?
J. Griggs
McPherson, Kansas

I’ve judged many competitions, and I often see excellent images that are rendered substandard by their presentation. Make no mistake: the presentation is part of the image when it’s being viewed and assessed by others. One of the worst errors is brightly colored mats; combine that with a frame that also detracts from the image, and there’s little chance that the print’s fine points will be appreciated.

My advice is always to mat a print to protect it from the unknowns of the display surface. Mats themselves can become a distraction if they become too complex, as in using several mats within a box frame. Is it about the print or about the presentation? It should be about the print, and the presentation should enhance, rather than distract from, the print.

There are some simple and inexpensive ways to display images in photo competitions. A white, one- to two-inch mat will draw the eyes to just the image and protect it as well because viewers will handle the print by the mat. My favorite simple presentation is to print the image smaller than the paper, leaving at least one inch of white border, with a small, two-pixel black “stroke” (line) surrounding the image from the border.

The print with its built-in mat can be mounted to adhesive foam core. If needed, the print can be placed into a simple black or white metal frame, making for an elegant and inexpensive presentation. If placed behind glass, add a simple mat to keep the print from adhering to the glass. White mats and black or white frames are standard for museum displays of photographs.

My suggestion is that your photo group should invite a knowledgeable person, perhaps a framer, to give a program on methods of presentation. This would serve to influence many of your members. But without guidelines, even simple ones, there always will be those who think that unusual presentation will set their work apart.

How Much Space?
I just switched to digital from shooting slides a few months ago. I know I need to store my images and back them up. What are the best ways of doing this, and how much internal and external hard-drive space do I need?
J. Snyder
Via the Internet

You can never have too much storage space. When buying a new computer, always upgrade to the largest hard drive available. There are a number of hard-drive systems designed to protect you from the loss of data if the drive fails—and it will.

Simply backing up (mirroring) your files on a second hard drive should be enough to protect yourself. The odds of both drives failing at the same time are very low.

One of the options for setting up hard drives is to connect several drives to act as one large drive. In my sad experience, this isn’t a good idea, however: if one drive fails, all the data is lost.

Working between your computer and external drives is tedious, but you need to be consistent and back up without fail. External hard drives have been dropping in price, to the point where last week I purchased a 500 gigabyte drive for approximately $200. For a beginning digital photographer, two external drives of approximately 250 to 300 gigabytes should last for some time and keep your images safe.

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One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.