Workflow for printing very large photos
November 20, 2017 9:28 AM   Subscribe

I have a new house with lots of white wall space, which I would like to populate with very large prints of my own photos. I need some help figuring out how the best workflow for doing so without completely breaking the bank.

I'm an amateur photographer who is lucky enough to have a lot of wall space in a new home, and I'd like to blow up some of my photos for display. When I say 'blow up' I mean really big, like up to 40x60 inches. The main problem is that it is expensive to get prints these large even on basic photo paper, so I would like to minimize the possibility of making mistakes. I'm trying to figure out how to do this, and have a few very basic questions about workflow:

(1) How do I get some reasonable idea of what photos will look like extra-large? I'm thinking that I should first print a poster-sized enlargement at a drugstore, before committing to a bigger, better-quality print at a dedicated online photo printer. Can I assume that a drugstore print will be a reasonable predictor of a more high-quality print, or are the quality differences too great?

(2) Speaking of better-quality printing, is there anything I should know? Online research (I'm in Montreal, Canada) has led to me to Blacks and Technicare. Are there any others I should consider? How do I decide?

(3) I'm intrigued by the idea of printing on metal. Does anyone have any experience with this? This is very expensive - $50 just for an 8x12 - so it's tough to experiment to get a feel for how much I'd like it.

(4) Finally, do you have any tips on anything regarding processing for very large prints? Are there rules of thumb for brightness, saturation, etc? These are photos that have been taken in RAW format on a Fuji or Canon camera; I generally do processing on an iMac in Iridient Developer.

posted by googly to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
For question #1, you should probably be more concerned with whether the photo in question has enough detail to look good at that size than whether the printer can do a good job (though there's no doubt better and worse printers). Even if you're a serious amateur, you may start hitting the limits of resolution of the equipment you're using at the sizes you're talking about.

A reasonable way to asses this is to print a representative crop of the photo you want to blow up at a much smaller size (but cropped such that the DPI is similar). Meaning: if you have an image that's 4,000x6,000 pixels (for ease of math) and you're wondering how it would look printed at 40x60 inches, crop out a 400x600 pixel chunk and print it as a 4x6.

This is obviously not perfect, and you may want to print a few such crops, but it's a cheap way to check whether the image is going to work or not.
posted by tocts at 9:36 AM on November 20, 2017 [6 favorites]

This post on the Blue has several ideas, including Engineer Prints.
posted by soelo at 10:24 AM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've also been looking into large-format prints lately, and I've found a couple of options that bring the price down significantly. So far, I've been happy with They sell 36x48 prints -- B&W for $20 and color for $25 -- and I've been happy with the print quality. It's not glossy photo paper -- they're printed with a large-format engineering printer that uses regular paper -- but the quality is good enough for my purposes and the price can't be beat.

Another option I've been looking at (though I haven't had a chance to try it yet) is blueprint & architectural printing vendors (there are many online). They offer large-format prints on interesting materials (from paper to tyvek to vellum to mylar) at extremely reasonable prices. For instance, I was looking at this vendor, which offers 36x48 prints between $1.50-$24 depending on the substrate you're printing on. The mylar might be particularly interesting for you if you're curious about metal prints. The reason I haven't tried them yet is because they only accept PDF files and I'm not sure what that's going to do to my photo resolution -- however, at these prices, it seems worth experimenting a bit!

You could always use these lower-priced options as test runs, then switch to an art printing service later -- or you might find you're satisfied with this quality of printing. Either way, I hope these options help!
posted by ourobouros at 10:26 AM on November 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

The thing you're missing here, is how you hang these things on the wall. a 40x60" frame with a mat that looks good will be hundreds of dollars not including the print. When you start looking at the metal print prices remember that frames are really expensive.

1: I do something similar to tocts, but just on the computer screen. I resize the image (uncheck 'resample' in Photoshop) to the inch size I want to print, then using View>New Guide create an eight and a half inch box. Then I zoom in on the image while holding up a sheet of standard copy paper to the screen, when the 8.5" box is the same width as the paper, that's what the image will actually look like.

2: Get a little pile of 5x7s printed at any shop you're considering using. Pick a darker image, lighter image, colorful, black and white, etc. Get each of your images printed on all the available paper types they have. At a given shop if small prints don't look good big ones wont either. I tend to use AdoramaPix, no idea how the cost will compare since they're in the US. I did recently get a 59x59" print made at UPrinting for $100 including shipping. The quality was ok. So cheap.

3: Metal prints look pretty good. I take a photo or two of the bride and groom at a wedding, and then give them a metal print of the photo as a wedding gift; they love it. I get mine done at AdoramaPix, again not sure about US vs. Canada, but a 12x12" runs about $40. Remember though, metal prints are ready to hang. No need to spend $250 on a 40x60" frame/mat/plexi!

4: Not really editing/process wise. Just make sure that you don't crop; you're gonna need all the resolution you can get. Not sure what kind of camera you're using, but for a second lets pretend it shoots 24MP photos. you'll get an image that's about 4000x6000 pixels. Image quality wise a photo will always look good at 300pixels per inch (ppi). So, 4000/300=13" & 6000/300=20". If you drop down to 100ppi you get to 40x60" Depending on the image 100ppi might look fine or it might not.

Before you send an image off to be printed, I would resize your image to at least 200ppi at the dimension you want to print. Photoshop will do a better job resizing than the printer at the shop. If you want 40x60" resize your image to 8000x12000. Also adding a little bit of film grain to a resized image will make it look better. In Photoshop Filter> Camera Raw Filter -- Zoom to 100%, click on the "FX' tab close to the top righthand corner of the window, and then set grain to maybe 20 or 30.

If you want to try this out on the cheap, it's hard to get cheaper than this: There are color laser prints called 'Engineering Prints'. They look kinda pleasantly lo-fi. Call around to local print or blueprint shops and see if they do them. Staples for example will do a 36x48 for $7. Add a magnetic hanging rail for $60 or just use thumbtacks.

On preview, sorry about repeating all of you guys
posted by gregr at 10:57 AM on November 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

Take your pixel count; divide by 300: that's the maximum number of inches that's going to look good. You can divide by 200 and get "it's okay from a distance," which should be fine for most posters, but lower than that and it's very obviously a low-quality image.

If you need to test it, print your image to a large-size PDF first, and then print a single-page size pic of that by *not* shrinking to fit. (If you need technical help with that, MeMail me.)

Be aware that the photo proportions are not likely to fit exactly with the blown-up page size, and there'll be white borders on one side or the other.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:19 AM on November 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone; all very helpful answers. I hadn't thought about resolution, and the alternative printing ideas are fantastic.
posted by googly at 4:01 PM on November 20, 2017

Regarding resolution, definitely test it if you're unsure. As seen above, people will argue you have to have 300 DPI, but it can really vary based on the composition. I've had a 30x20 print at 100 DPI come out amazing because the scene was low-detail and low-contrast. I've also had prints at 200 or 250 DPI look pretty meh because the subject matter really needed the added detail.

The location you're going to mount it matters, too. Billboards don't print at super-high DPI (in fact they are often pointillistic) because nobody is supposed to view them at closer than 50 or 100 feet away. It won't be as extreme for you, but if you're going to mount something in a place where someone can't reasonably be closer than a few feet, that's going to change acceptable levels of detail (compared to someone standing inches away and looking closely).
posted by tocts at 7:46 AM on November 21, 2017

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