What Is the Best Resolution for Printing Photos?

When it comes to megapixels, more isn't necessarily better

It's easy to be confused about the number of pixels you need in an image. But, when making a determination, it all boils down to how you'll be using the photo and the dimensions of the print. Here's a handy chart to help you determine how many pixels you need for printing standard-size photos on an inkjet printer or through an online printing service.

It's important to understand terms related to image size and resolution:

  • Pixels Per Inch (PPI): A measurement of image resolution that defines the size at which an image will print
  • Dots Per Inch (DPI): A measurement of printer resolution that defines how many dots of ink are placed on the page when the image is printed
  • Megapixels (MP): One million pixels, though this number is often rounded when describing digital camera resolution

Less than 2 MP

Suitable only for on-screen viewing and wallet-size prints

2 MP = 1600 x 1200 pixels

High quality: 4 x 6 inches, 5 x 7 inches

Acceptable quality: 8 x 10 inches

3 MP = 2048 x 1536 pixels

High quality: 8 x 10 inches

Acceptable quality: 10 x 13 inches

4 MP = 2272 x 1704 pixels

High quality: 9 x 12 inches

Acceptable quality: 12 x 16 inches

5 MP = 2592 x 1944 pixels

High quality: 10 x 13 inches

Acceptable quality: 13 x 19 inches

When you get beyond 5 megapixels, chances are you're a professional photographer using high-end equipment, and you should already have a handle on the concepts of image size and resolution.

Megapixel Madness

Photoshop print settings.

Digital camera manufacturers would have all customers believe that a higher megapixel count is always better; however, as you can see from the chart above unless you have a large-format inkjet printer, anything greater than 3 MP is more than most people will ever need.

Sometimes, though, more megapixels come in handy. They can give amateur photographers the freedom to crop more aggressively when they can't get as close to a subject as they'd like. The tradeoff is larger files that require more space in your camera's memory and more storage space on your computer. The cost of additional storage is likely worthwhile, though, especially for those times when you capture that priceless photo and want to print it in a large format for framing.

Remember, you can always use an online printing service if your printer can't handle large-format prints.

A Final Note

The most critical thing to understand is that you shouldn't increase the PPI value of a photo by increasing image size and resolution values in Photoshop or other image-processing apps. When you do so, the final file size and image dimensions increase dramatically, and the color information in those new pixels is only a "best guess" on the part of the computer. Bottom line, if an image has a resolution of 200 PPI or less, it just shouldn't ever hit a press.

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