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One of OrderArtwork.com's customers had a photo scaned badly, he asked OrderArtwork.com to fix the photo so that he can make his photograph bigger with minimal loss in quality.

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Understanding Resolution

Digital Vs. Analog

The traditional analog world was easy to understand. Negatives and prints were continuous tone and one simply made an enlargement from the negative or transparency to the size needed. Today, in the digital environment, many newcomers get-tripped up by the concepts of input and output resolution and terribly confused as to what settings to use, and when.

To understand these issues clearly one needs to start with an acceptance of certain physical limitations of the human eye. Our vision is incapable of discriminating detail below a certain level. This varies from individual to individual and even by the same individual on different days, but more or less this point is at about 200 dots per inch ( 80 dots / centimeter).

When an image is composed of dots smaller than this they appear to the eye as continuous tone. This has been relied upon by the printing trade for a couple of hundred years. Every photograph and every image that you see in every book, magazine, calendar and art reproduction is comprised of dots of ink, at resolutions typically ranging from 70 to 300+ dots per inch.

What is resolution?

The closest analogy that digital photography resolution has to conventional film is grain. Normal film is not a continuously variable media it is limited by the underlying granularity of the light sensitive film. Grain tends to increase as light sensitivity (ASA rating) increases. Regardless of what you do you can't get more detail out of a negative than what the grain permits.

The equivalent to grain in digital photograph is the pixel, the pixel is a single point in the image that can take on any one of many millions of colors. Image sizes in digital photography are measured by the number of pixels wide by the number of pixels deep. This is the same measurement as used for computer screens, for which typical measurements are 800 x 600, 1024 x 768, 1280 x 960.

To put it another way a digital photograph is an image that is made up of millions of dots, each one of which can take on any one of millions of colors. Got the picture?

The resolution is the number of pixels in each inch of an image and is measured in ppi, (pixels per inch) or dpi, (dots per inch). At first, it can be a little confusing because it can have different significance depending on what you are doing. When scanning an image resolution affects its clarity; higher resolution scans are more precise. Once an image is in the computer, it takes on a whole new meaning. Now it represents image size. If you change resolution, the number of pixels remains the same, but their individual sizes and proximity to each other changes. So, if you scan an image at one resolution, and then increase the scanned image's resolution to a higher one, the resulting image, when printed, will be smaller. However, if you look at it on your monitor, you will see no changes in the size because your monitor's resolution and the total number of pixels did not change.

Resolution and Pixels Defined

Resolution, when referring to an image, is the number of pixels displayed per unit of printed length. It's a measurement used in printing and it's stated in dots per inch (dpi). This makes perfect sense because printers print dots, and that's what a printed image is composed of.

When referencing an image onscreen -- on a computer monitor, TV, plasma, or projector -- resolution is stated in pixels per inch (ppi). This too makes sense because digital images are displayed in teeny, tiny individual blocks of color called pixels.

How Resolution and Pixels Work Together

The resolution measurement dictates how closely the pixels are packed together. Increasing an image's resolution means the pixels will be packed together more tightly, resulting in a smaller physical size, but generating a smoother, higher quality print. Lowering an image's resolution means loosening the pixels, resulting in a larger physical image size, but generating a blocky, lower quality print.

Think of the resolution measurement as density. For example, the tighter a substance is packed, the denser it is and the less surface area it takes up (like brown sugar). The more loosely a substance is packed, the more surface area it consumes and it becomes less dense.

The confusing part is that when it comes to imagery, printers are the only devices that can do anything with the resolution measurement. Because our eyes can only process so much information, a 72 ppi image onscreen looks identical to a 600 ppi image onscreen. However, a printer isn't hampered by the human eyeball and can take advantage of resolutions much higher than 72. (Actually, scanners can, too, but that's a story for another time.)

Choosing the right resolution

The best resolution for an image displayed on screen may be quite different than that for printing. When an image is intended for displaying on screen, there is little advantage to assigning a resolution greater than the highest intended screen resolution. Further, when scanning, higher resolutions come at a significant cost in file size and memory requirements. (Changing the resolution of an existing file changes the physical size, not the file size.) For printing, choose a resolution matching that of your printer for best results.

The more points at which we sample the image by measuring its color, the more detail we can capture. The density of pixels in an image is referred to as its resolution. The higher the resolution, the more information the image contains. If we keep the image size the same and increase the resolution, the image gets sharper and more detailed. Alternatively, with a higher resolution image, we can produce a larger image with the same amount of detail.

For example, the following images illustrate what happens as we reduce the resolution of an image while keeping its size the same - the pixels get larger and larger and there is less and less detail in the image: Original (400x262), Half Size (200x131), Quarter Size (100x65), Eighth Size (50x32)

As we reduce the resolution of an image while keeping its pixels the same size - the image gets smaller and smaller while the amount of detail (per square inch) stays the same:

        

Come The Resolution

Digital images, whether derived directly from a digital camera or from a film scanner, obey the same laws. If the resolution used to make a print is too low we will "see the dots", just as you sometimes do in a photograph reproduced on low quality newsprint.

What you end up seeing are the pixels. These are the discrete elements used to capture the image created by the camera or scanner lens system on the device's imaging chip. They are in effect the equivalent of the grain found in silver-based films or the dye clouds found in color negative and transparency films. The problem comes when trying to understand the relationship between what is captured and what ends up on a print.

Because a digital image has no absolute size or resolution. All it has are a certain number of pixels in each dimension. Obviously the resolution changes as the image size changes because the number of pixels that make up the image are being spread over a greater or lesser area. Therefore the resolution changes accordingly.

While there is no free lunch, it is possible to create extra resolution when needed ?? but within certain limits. You'll likely have noticed that the Photoshop dialog has a selection box at the bottom called Resample Image. If you check this box it decouples the locked relationship between Width and Height and Resolution and allows you to set them separately.

If you turn this box on by checking it you can make the image any size at any resolution you like. Where did that resolution and all those bits come from? They were invented by Photoshop. This is the same as when one sets a scanner to a resolution higher than the scanner's true Optical Resolution. These are empty pixels. In other words, there is no new data there, the program has just used the data available to invent new pixels.

"Well", you might say, "That's pretty useless. What's the point"? Actually, if done in moderation this technique can allow you to make prints larger than your original image would normally allow. The reason for this is that a large print is viewed from a greater distance than is a small one and therefore the effect is masked.

As said, the key word is moderation. One alternative is to use a stand - alone program called Genuine Fractals. This uses a different mathematical algorithm than does Photoshop and in our opinion does a much better job of ressing up. It's important to note though that in either case, the higher the quality and the larger the size of the original image, the better the ressed-up image will be.

Finally, you would also use this to res-down an image. If you're preparing a photograph for use on the web you want to have it at 72 ppi. You would turn on Resample Image, set the value to 72 ppi, and then set the Width and Height to whatever you needed. Photoshop will then throw away the unneeded pixels and create an appropriately sized file.

PPI & DPI

PPI (Pixels per Inch) and DPI (Dots per Inch) are frequently used interchangeably in this industry, by pros and amateurs alike. While wrong, this isn't a huge problem since we usually know what we're talking about. To be absolutely correct it's worth noting that scanners, digital cameras and screens are all measured in PPI while printers are measured in DPI. Just so you know the difference.

What Resolution Do I Need?

The final question is - how big is big enough? The answer depends on the device that your image will appear or be printed on. For example, images on-screen typically need a maximum of 72 PPI. If a file has higher resolution than that it simply looks no different on screen. The only real difference will be that the file will be bigger and will therefore be slower to download. All images on this site are at 72 ppi, regardless of their size.

High-end lab printers need different resolutions. The LightJet 5000, the most popular wet-process digital printer, needs a file of exactly 304.8 PPI. Check with your lab for the resolution that they need for their particular printer.

Inkjets

Most photographers do their printing these days with a desktop inkjet printer and the Epson Photo printers are the most popular so we'll use them by way of example. These printers, such as the models 870/1270/2000P are (somewhat misleadingly) listed as 1440 dpi printers. This means that they are capable of laying down that many dots per inch. But, to create a color image they need to use 6 different inks, so any particular pixel reproduced on a print will be composed of some dithered composite of colored dots using some or all of these inks. That's why you need more dots from your printer than you have pixels in your image.

If you divide 1440 by 6 you end up with 240. This is the true minimum resolution needed to get a high quality photo-realistic prints from a 1440 dpi Epson printer. Many user, myself included, believe that a 360 ppi output file can produce a somewhat better print. If our original scan is big enough to allow this we'll do so but we don't bother ressing up a file to more than 240 ppi when making large prints.

Increasing Image Resolution - Make Your Photos Bigger With Minimal Loss in Quality

One of the most commonly asked questions in relation to graphics software is how to increase the size of an image without getting blurring and jagged edges. New users are often surprised when they resize an image and find that the quality is severely degraded. Experienced users are all too familiar with the problem. The reason for the degradation is because bitmapped, or raster, image types are limited by their pixel resolution. When you attempt to resize these types of images, your software either has to increase the size of each individual pixel - resulting in a jagged image - or it has to "guess" at the best way to add pixels to the image to make it larger.

Not long ago, there weren't many options for increasing resolution other than using your editing software's built-in resampling methods. Today, we are faced with more possibilities than ever. Of course, it's always best to capture the resolution you need right from the beginning. If you have the option to rescan an image at a higher resolution, by all means, you should do that before resorting to software solutions. And if you have the money to put into a camera capable of higher resolutions, you might find that money is better spent than if you were to put it into a software solution. Having said that, there are often times when you may have no other choice than to resort to software. When that time comes, here's the information you should know.

Resizing vs. Resampling

Most software only has one command for both resizing and resampling. Resizing an image involves changing the print dimensions without changing the total pixel dimensions. As the resolution is increased, the print size becomes smaller, and vice versa. When you increase resolution without changing pixel dimensions, there is no loss in quality, but you must sacrifice print size. Resizing an image using resampling, however, involves changing the pixel dimensions and will always introduce a loss in quality. That's because resampling uses a process called interpolation for increasing the size of an image. The interpolation process estimates the values of the pixels the software needs to create based on the existing pixels in the image. Resampling via interpolation results in serious blurring of the resized image, especially in areas where there are sharp lines and distinct changes in color.

Common Interpolation Methods

Photo editing software generally offers a few different interpolation methods for calculating new pixels when an image us upsampled. Here are descriptions of the three methods available in Photoshop. If you don't use Photoshop, your software probably offers similar options although they may use slightly different terminology.
1. Bicubic is the slowest but produces the best estimation of new pixel values.
2. Bilinear is faster than bicubic, but does a poorer job. Both bicubic and bilinear interpolation result in a blurred image, especially when upsampling.
3. Nearest Neighbor doesn't use interpolation. It simply takes the value of the neighboring pixels and adds new pixels without averaging them. This is when you get the jaggies or stair-step effect.

Note that there are more than just these three methods of interpolation and even using the same method in different software may produce different results. In my experience, I have found that Photoshop offers the best bicubic interpolation of any other software that I have compared.

We Wouldn't Lie to You

Resolution doesn't mean squat until that image is headed for a printer. Because the same file can be measured at any resolution, it's the pixel dimensions that matter most. With enough pixels, a file can be measured at 300 or 3000 ppi. The magic is in knowing how to change resolution without changing the number of pixels. As long as you uncheck the Resample Image option, you can tweak the resolution until Cylons invade and you won't alter image quality. Honest!

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