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How Big Can You Print with Your Camera’s Megapixels?

In Photo Basics by Jim Harmer36 Comments

Printing megapixels vs size

Print size chart created by the author – Jim Harmer

I'm frequently asked how big of a print a photographer can make given their camera's 24, 16, 12, 18, 8 or whatever megapixel count they have on their camera.  I understand why it's a confusing question, but the truth is that my answer is almost always “Go for it!  It'll look just fine printed that big.”

When it comes right down to it, most cameras manufactured in the last few years (really anything 16 megapixels and up) are capable of printing billboard-size prints.  However, if you want the ultimate in print quality perfection, then there are limits to how big you can print before you start to lose a small amount of print quality.

Note about the chart above!
PLEASE NOTE: A yellow check mark on the chart above does NOT mean the print quality will be bad… AT ALL.  It only means that it won't be the PERFECT magnifying-glass pixel-peeper perfect image quality at that size.  Don't stress it.  Even a few of the red X's could be ignored if you take viewing distance into account.

Why Most Cameras Can Print HUGE Even if They Have a Lower Megapixel Count

A very common resolution for printing an ad on a very large outdoor billboard is 1800 pixels on the long edge and 1200 pixels in height (about 15 dpi).  That equates to a mere 2.1 megapixels.  Sound crazy?  Well, it's actually not.  And understanding this principle will help you to be able to print at much larger sizes than you think you probably can.

The secret is that as print size increases, so to does viewing distance!  If you were to stand right up in front of a billboard, you'd clearly see that the resolution is AWEFUL and the print looks pixelated.  But nobody stands with their nose to a billboard.  We see them from far away.

The same thing happens on a smaller scale with prints.  When you print an 8×10″ print, it's likely that someone will hold it an arm's length away from their face.  So we need a resolution that will be as fine as our eyes can resolve (and the printer can pull off) at that distance.  But when you print very large (like a 24×36″ print), no one would stand that close to it.  Since the viewing distance is further, the print resolution does not need to be as fine.

So the first question you have to ask yourself when determining how large you can print is, “What will the viewing distance be?”  But don't worry, we don't need any complicated math and you don't need to measure anything.  Just realize that bigger prints mean longer viewing distance, and that's why I said in the opening sentence that almost all modern cameras can produce a good quality print of any size.

What PPI Produces “Perfect” Print Quality? (Green Check Marks)

In the chart on this page, where I mark “Perfect” as the print quality, I mean 300ppi.  That isn't to say that some printers can't print at a higher resolution than 300 dpi, but that the difference becomes scientific after 300 ppi.  It takes an impressive eye to be able to tell the difference in a print between 300 and 400 dpi–and probably a loupe would be necessary.

The gold standard in printing is usually regarded as 300 ppi.  

But that's completely different in printing compared to viewing an image on screen.  When you're saving a picture in Photoshop and it asks you the resolution, that box is COMPLETELY irrelevant if you'll be showing the image on a screen (internet, Facebook, email, etc).  You could put 1 in that box or 2,000 in that box and it won't make a lick of difference. https://improvephotography.com/ppi-test/  Why?  Because the screen's resolution sets the resolution!  Put whatever number you want in that box and you'll see the file size stays exactly the same.  All that matters when you're putting an image on a screen or sharing it on the web is the overall pixels wide and high.

In the chart, I show you how big you can enlarge your print to get perfect, 300ppi print quality.  300ppi print resolutions are marked with green check marks in the chart.

However, remember what I mentioned previously, that this really only matters when you're inspecting the print under a magnifying glass.  In reality, as the photo gets larger, the viewing distance scoots back.  But if you want the ULTIMATE print quality, this is a handy guide.

But remember that the difference between a green and a yellow checkmark on the chart above is mostly scientific.  More on that below.

For Very Good Print Quality, Follow the Yellow Check Marks for Resolution

On the guide at the top of the page, I marked with a yellow check mark all of the print sizes that I'd feel completely confident in printing.  I've printed at all of these resolutions with cameras at most of these resolutions.

You'll be surprised at the quality and detail you'll see in a “yellow check mark” print.  In fact, the difference between the yellow and green check mark sizes is so tiny that most photographers couldn't dream of telling the difference with a naked eye at the proper viewing distance (without putting your nose up to the print and squinting through a magnifying glass, for example).

5 Tricks to Help You Print Big Even If You Don't Have Enough Megapixels

Sometimes you want to print big, but you may not have a camera with enough megapixels.  In those instances, here are some handy tips that have helped me to print HUGE prints even on lower resolution cameras.

  • Shoot a panorama – When you shoot a panorama, you take multiple pictures and combine them together to produce a wider or taller image.  Since you're combining resolution, you have a HUGE resulting file.  I use this frequently when shooting landscapes on my 16 megapixel Fuji XT1.
  • If your camera has a high megapixel mode, use it! – You may be lucky enough to shoot a camera that has a high megapixel mode.  For example, some of the Olympus Micro 4/3 cameras usually shoot 16 megapixels, but can use sensor shift to make a true 40mp file.  There are limitations in using something like this when there is motion in the scene, but it produces a fantastic file.
  • Use higher-end programs to resize before uploading to the printer – Whatever you do, don't just upload a low resolution file to the printer.  Some printers handle this well, and others do not.  Take the time to up-res your lower resolution file in Photoshop and send that to the printer.  By doing the up-res yourself, you can add in some of the clarity and contrast that is usually lost when enlarging a photo.
  • Add a texture to the photo – If it works with the artistic goal you have in mind for the picture, you may consider adding a texture to the photo.  That masks a lot of the loss of resolution and can be a creative effect.  A matte finish can do the same thing.
  • Print on metal, canvas, or matte paper.  Avoid glossy paper. – Glossy paper is the most likely to show the lower resolution affecting the print.  If you print on metal, you can EASILY get away with a very resolution picture, because the inks smear on the metal.  Canvas and matte paper are just very slightly better for low resolution when compared to glossy, because the inks bleed just a tiny bit.

Conclusion, and an Important Printing Resource!

Much more important than the number of megapixels in your camera is the quality of the printer you choose to do your printing.

About a year ago I ordered the exact same 3 prints from about 12 different printing companies to compare the prints and to see which company produced the highest quality and least expensive print.  I was shocked to find that the cheapest lab produced the best print, and one of the most expensive labs produced the worst print.  There's actually a HUGE difference between the labs in terms of print quality.

You can read my full print test article here, and keep in mind that NONE of the companies paid me a dime to do the test.  It's completely unbiased.


About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. Jim travels the world to shoot with readers of Improve Photography in his series of free photography workshops. See his portfolio here.

Comments

  1. Good point about the viewing distance! I’ll also add that the megapixels of your sensor mark only the maximum theoretical DPI you could produce with an optically perfect lens. No lens is optically perfect, so the actual perceived detail is always lower–often less than half the number of megapixels when using ideal technique, and perhaps lower than that with motion blur, camera shake, diffraction, etc.

    For example, most entry-level cameras come with a 24 megapixel sensor and a kit lens that produces only 9 megapixels of detail in optimal conditions. Based on your chart, they wouldn’t get perfectly sharp 11x14s when viewed at the minimum distance.

    Thanks for the great article!

      1. Even considering this, I don’t think it would change anything on this chart really. It may move some green check marks to yellow but in practice nothing would change. Plus there is no fool proof way to know the technical ability of your lens. DXO mark does a test but no two copies of a lens are the exact same. In your case Jim, they don’t test any Fuji lenses anyway since DXO software (like Lightroom) is incapable of getting the most out of X-Trans RAW files due to it not using the traditional Bayer array.

  2. Great article and chart. But fewer people are printing photos these days and looking at them more online, and via their TVs. I would have found it helpful to understand what is an ideal pixel size for viewing images on a 40-60″ TV – covering the 720, 1080 and 4k resolutions – what is the best setting for that display media?

    1. Much easier: just follow the screen resolutions: minimum ~height of 2160p for 4K, 1080p for FHD, 720p for HD, etc. Aim higher whenever possible. (I have a 65″ LG HDTV, 4K capable) Also note your seating distance. I like to be close (under 6ft away), but many have bigger rooms, farther off furniture & tables & other more elaborate room arrangements. The further the viewer from the screen, the better a lower res image can seem to them.

      Hope that helps! ^-^

  3. Thank you so much for this explanation. Printing sizes were one of those things in digital photography that I just could not seem to grasp. Despite endless blog, forum, and web posts the whole “How large can I print?” concept would not click with me.

    Your chart is going up on my wall today.

    But a question if I may.

    If I shoot an image with a camera capable of X megapixels and then crop so the final image is lets say 70% of the original size (length & width), what does that do to the maximum print size on the chart? Does the final file size affect where on the chart I should be looking?

    Thanks again for a hugely useful post.

  4. If you crop your images you will not be able to print at the same size with the same quality. Let’s say you have 36 Mp camera (7360 x 4912 pixels) to start with. If you crop 50% on both sides you will have an image which is 3680 x 2456 pixels, equaling 9 Mp. In this case you will only be able to print half the size with the same print quality. You can see the same from the chart.

  5. One more note for those planning to print on canvas – and it’s good news. The maximum print resolution on canvas may be lower than the gold standard 300 DPI. For example, CanvasOnDemand (generally spoken of positively on the podcast) only asks for files and prints at 150 DPI. You therefore can GENERALLY print in the yellow “Good” range with no perceived difference from the green “Perfect” range at this lower DPI.
    Unless I’m somehow totally wrong…

  6. When you mention metal prints, is there a specific type of metal printing you’re thinking about or referring to? Also, think you could have an article in the future comparing the different types of prints?

    Thanks

  7. Hello,
    So it isnot possible to print my photos in large print with my nikon d90 of 12mpx!!

    1. Author

      You can only push megapixels so far before they start to look… not good.

    2. I have a D90 I’m wanting to sell because of the mega- pixel issue and wanting to enlarge images.

  8. I’ve printed 16×20″ with 8mp and even 6mp on a 2005 4/3rds camera and kit lens and they look great, even up close. I also print the same w/16mp and could do so with major cropping. The prints are probably better now with more mp, though I haven’t tested side by side same subject. ..but I don’t think the extra MP make prints this size miles better. You’d really have to get out a microscope to tell the difference. Other variables are probably more important. This might be a guideline, but take it with a grain of salt. Maybe the chart is just an oversimplification, but it’s not gospel. At 11×14 I don’t think you could tell apart side by side. Noise disappears too in print. The D90 will do just fine for you Christophe.

    Nice website though. Useful stuff, well explained.

  9. How does cropping affect this? Are you just going by a straight non-cropped image megapixel to print size?

  10. nowadays more pictures are view on a screen than print
    So the more important question is how much megapixel one need to look good in a 4k (8 megapixel) display and the future 8k display?
    even at 4k because of different dimension, 16 megapixel may be approaching 100% pixel viewing

    My take is that it is OK if u are using good lens like Leica 15mm F1.7 but not OK at not if using inferior lens
    low resolution display like 1920×1080 will hide lens fault but will be clearly reveal in 4k display

    I know this first hand with a Sony NEX-5N on a 1920×1080 display with kit lens. It look good at normal viewing but when I use a program that zoom in and out of the image for a special effect. Suddenly the image is not good at all and blur become obvious. This is because now I am viewing closer to 100% than before

    Please comment, thanks

  11. I’m fairly new to photography and this has been an extremely helpful post, but I have a question. Can I print a 24″ x 36″ print at 300dpi from a photograph made with my Canon T4i and 18-55mm kit lens? According to your chart I shouldn’t be able to but I know of a photographer who makes 300dpi prints that size and he says he uses a Canon T2i with an 18-55mm kit lens for all his work.

  12. Jim,
    The print test is invaluable. I was just going to do a similar test. I’m glad I happened across this article. I have to spend more time on your site, clearly.
    Thanks,
    Joe

  13. Tim, your friend is lying to you. But probably on accident as he likely has no idea what he’s talking about. The T4i is only an 18-megapixel camera with a resolution of 5184×3456 pixels. At 300dpi, that resolution only yields images of 17.28″ x 11.52″. In order to print at 300dpi on a 36×24 print, you would need an image with a resolution of (36×300) by (24×300), or 10,800×7,200 pixels, or a 77.76-megapixel camera.
    The only way your friend could do that would be to significantly upscale his images, which effectively would be completely defeating the purpose of trying to achieve that 300dpi print resolution since when upscaling, you’re not actually increasing resolution, just increasing pixel dimensions.

    1. Your math may be fine but your numbers are simply wrong – you can print a 24×36 print from a file that is only 1200×1800 and even under a loop you will not tell the difference. How do I know, I own a 60″ printer and regularly print at that resolution for a 24×46 and don’t think twice about taking my 6mp files from my D70 and printing at 40×60. That T4i with an pixels dimention sof 5184×3456 will easitly print a 40×60 with doing nothing at all to the file.

  14. This was incredibly helpful and gave me a LOT of confidence in figuring out my camera in a basic and easy to understand way. Thanks so much!

  15. Just discovered your podcast and this amazing website. Excellent article on printing rez with so many helpful tips. Thank you and fantastic work!!

  16. I’ve just discovered this site and have found it very useful.

    I have a query. My wife has two compact digital cameras with different size sensors. Images done with a similar number of pixels on each one indicate they will print out with different sizes when I check them in my editing program. I’ve looked at the EXIF imformation and the one that will printthe larger image is 96dpi and the smaller one is 128dpi. What is the signicance of this and what will give the better quality print. The higher dpi but smaller one printed to size or the lower dpi larger one scaled down to fit?

  17. You need to use a tripod to hold the camera steady while setting a lower shutter speed. For landscape photography a good tripod is indispensable.

  18. So is it true that the higher megapixel number equates to a better quality picture if an adeqaute len and other elements are optimized?

  19. Also I want to buy a Pentax K-3 SLR Camera which has 24,9 mega pixels. I have lots of Pentax lenses and I like the Pentax system. Is the 24.9 mega pixel Pentax a good camera. I don’t do much challenging photography. I love taking pictures of buildings, my spaceship models, my condo and things therein. Rarely I take pictures of people mostly without much or any movement. Being autistic I am not a big moving people, moving object photographer.

    I wanted a 24 megapixel camera because; this is to be my last upgrade on the megapixel escalator. 11×14 is the same length as a legal sized document while being just a bit wider. For me the real issue is not how well the images in print but how do they look on HD large screen tv’s, phones and HD monitors. I have a 65 inch Samsung my 5MP pictures look like crap on the 65 inch samsung. I have a 16 MP Pentax and the image is much better but I can see minor flaws. (Grainy fuzzy noise. )

    I’m hoping 24 megapixels in the new Pentax will give me near perfect pictures. My friend has a 36 mega pixel camera and his pictures look awesome on my 65 inch Samsung. It is just a picture of my building so there was no movement.

    Oh yeah and thank you so much for a clear and easy to understand article. I am as green a newbie to photography as anyone can be. Once I understand photography a bit better I’ll take some classes at my local college.

  20. All very good side points that you make us realize. It is not only the Mega pixels that counts.

  21. We have a surprisingly good 8×12 at Maccu Picchu we took in 2003 from a 6.3MP DSLR.

  22. A tripod will help, but I think there’s another reason you shouldn’t worry about shooting landscape with a large aperture (well, there are reasons to worry, but they’re different). This is my semi-amateur understanding; would be happy for corrections/input.

    The reason not to worry: The thin depth of field at a large aperture is more relevant the closer the subject is to your lens. If you focus to infinity, objects that are all many hundreds of meters away (even if a few meters apart from one another) should all fall into the same slice of DOF. Think about two portraits at large aperture — one of a face right in front of your camera, the second of a person several meters away. In the first, you may only be able to get one eye sharply in focus, and the nose and ears may be blurred even though they’re only inches apart depth-wise. In the second, you can probably get the whole person pretty well in focus, and the surrounding background will be blurred. Obviously everything in optics is relative, but I think that’s how it works in terms of relative differences.

    The reason to worry: This depends on the lens, but many lenses lose sharpness at larger apertures. My Sony 35m f1.8 prime (shooting on an a6000) offers lovely bokeh and thin DOF wide open, but only offers critical sharpness at f4-f5. For a landscape where you want good detail across the frame, this may be something to consider.

  23. You make no mention of what part the sensor size plays in this, surely 24 megapixel full frame sensor will produce a better quality and larger print than a 24 megapixel micro four thirds sensor or am I not only missing something but also wasting my hard earned cash by buying a full frame camera

  24. I’m trying to transfer on to silk and I need my images to be around 54 or 60 inches wide , that’s how wide the fabric is Problem is I have small objects like a 2 square inch gemstone .I need to blow it up and crop a section and need that section to enlarge to 54 -60 inches. Help!!!jgerardi

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