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Pixels, Printers, Video

What's With That?

These basics are pretty much about the single issue: How do I use my image, how to I make it be the proper size for viewing, for printing, or for the video monitor? All this is really quite easy, digital is just a new concept. It is like learning to drive - once you learn an easy thing or two, it is a skill helpful for life. When you know, you will simply just know. But yes, it does seem that we could subtitle this: Details that no beginner wants to know. However the point is: You'll never grasp digital images until you get it ... until you know what digital images are, what to do with them, and how to do it.

Seriously, once we accept that pixels actually exist, then all this stuff is rather easy. It's all about pixels.

We just gotta know about pixels, and if any mystery, a short primer is here: What is a Digital Image Anyway?.

This page tries to be a quick summary of the digital concepts, about how things work. The answer to virtually any question about image size starts with one of these basics. To be able to use digital images well, we need this understanding. This may perhaps be written a little like an argument, refuting the dumb incorrect myths we may have heard about how digital works. The concepts below are instead what you need to know to use digital images properly. It is actually rather easy to grasp, if you get started right.

The Most Fundamental Digital Concepts

The size of an image might be, for example, 4000x3000 pixels. That is 4000x3000 = 12 megapixels. Or, 4288x2848 is also 12 megapixels (rounded off). We tend to think of this as the "resolution" of the image. The pixels do indicate the "fineness" of the smallest possible digital detail (a pixel, which is a dot of one color). This example is borrowed from the image Resize page, to show the idea about pixels.


400x500 pixels, 0.2 megapixels

The concept of pixels: This is an enlarged view of a tiny 58x58 pixel area of this picture (at arrow near center), shown at 800% size to be able to see the pixels.

Brief Digital Concepts

Pixels are how digital reproduces a scene and its colors. The digital camera merely takes many color samples (each is a pixel), of many very tiny areas, in this way shown. Film uses tiny specks of silver or emulsion dyes instead of pixels, which is not digital numbers, but film does the same sampling idea (colors of many tiny areas). Film areas actually show the color, which we can see. However, digital is totally about pixels, which are numbers representing the color. For example, the reddest orchids above have RGB components of about RGB(220, 6, 136), each on a scale of [0..255], so red is bright, green is weak, blue about mid-range. This color describes that shade of bluish red in one tiny area, a pixel. We don't have to know much detail, but more is at Wikipedia about the RGB color system.

The main concept of digital is that each pixel is just NUMBERS, binary data describing ONE RGB COLOR for one tiny area, a tiny dot of color, much like one small colored tile in a mosaic tile picture. The numeric concept may be new today (called digital), but the tile concept is 5000 years old. Our brain recognizes the reproduced image in those pixels or tiles. But enlarge these enough, and all you will see is the pixels (or the individual tiles). Pixels are all there is in a digital image, and we must think of it that way. Ignoring them will Not grasp the concept. Digital will make sense when you do think of pixels.

Pixels are real, they exist, in fact, pixels are ALL that exist in digital images. There is nothing else in a digital image. We don't need to see the individual pixels, but the image Size dimension in Pixels is the First Thing To Know about using any digital image, because this size in pixels is what is important for any use. The size of a digital image is dimensioned in pixels.

FWIW, we see some fanciful things in movies, where tremendously enlarging photo prints provides clues to solve crimes. The resolution decreases as the size increases, so it really does not work that well in that degree (enlarging film is much better than prints). Enlarging digital excessively only shows pixels.

Human eyes have rods and cones which are a similar sampling system of tiny areas. Cones are color sensitive, with red, green or blue cones. Sampling the color of tiny areas is not unlike pixels in that way. The color difference of adjacent areas is how image detail is perceived. We see a black power wire running across a blue sky because the colors are different. Color difference is the detail that we perceive (including slightest tonal shades of same color). In our digital pictures, a pixel is the smallest dot of color that can be reproduced, so we do think of more and smaller pixels as greater resolution of detail.

However, digital reproduction is a "copy" of an image. We should also realize that it is the camera lens that creates the image that we will reproduce digitally, and pixels are the detail of reproducing the lens image. For example, in a DX cropped sensor camera, the original is the image from the lens projected onto the 24x16 mm DX digital camera sensor. The image has this 24x16 mm size there, comparing to the size of an APS-C size film image. Then, the camera pixels merely digitally sample that lens image (very much like any scanner samples an image, meaning taking many color samples called pixels) to try to digitally reproduce (convert to numbers) the image that the lens created. A pixel is just numbers, three binary RGB numbers representing the red, green and blue components of the color of the area of that pixel. The pixels do NOT create the image, and cannot improve the lens image detail. The pixel sampling merely strives to reproduce its detail. At best, it can hopefully be a very good reproduction. A 24 megapixel DX image and a 24 megapixel FX image are NOT equal, because the FX image is simply half again larger (36x24 mm), and so does not have to be enlarged as much to show it.

Essentials to Know about Using Digital Images

Image Size and Data Size Calculator

Numbers Only.   A NaN result means an entry was "Not a Number"
Image Width: pixels Image Height: pixels
Data Type:
If Printed at: pixels per inch

This calculator tries to make the point that images involve four different sizes, used for different purposes. The numbers used to describe the actual size of the image is width x height, in pixels.

Data size is the uncompressed data, the actual data size - how large your uncompressed image data actually is - normally 3 bytes per pixel (usual RGB, for example JPG files). Compressed File Size in bytes is the least useful number, only of interest for internet transfer or memory card capacity. But pixels is the important number which determines how an image can be used.

When in editor memory, Raw is converted to 16 bit RGB. However JPG is always 8 bits per RGB channel, or 24 bit color.

The compressed file size will be smaller (variable cases, but JPG will be much smaller, file perhaps only 10% or 15% of data size).

Exif data will be added, and a few formatting bytes. Camera Raw image files also contain a Large JPG image too (this JPG is to show on the camera rear LCD, and it provides the histogram too).


FWIW, I am saying dpi for "pixels per inch". I am aware that nowadays, some instead prefer to say ppi for same thing, but I am also aware it has always been called dpi. Yes, I am aware that printing devices have another second use for dpi, meaning ink drops per inch, including halftone screens. If interested or confused about dpi, see more details here.

Common Case Examples

A scanned image has different creation concerns than a digital camera image. At any one setting, the camera makes images of the one size, dimensioned in pixels. The pixels are already defined and created, and it is what it is. However, the scanner requires we specify scanning resolution to create the image size our goal requires, so there is a little more to it.

The one overall rule remains: Printing is best when we have about 300 pixels per each inch of paper to be covered (300 dpi). Note again that dpi is NOT a property of the camera image, it is simply "just some number" inserted into the image file to establish print size (the inches are on the paper). Review the dpi section above again.

I compare learning to use digital images to learning to drive a car. Driving is easy, we just do it, no problem. And so extremely useful, we simply must know how. So we learn, all of us do, and it's really handy, we use that necessary and valuable skill all of our life. However, if trying to describe how to someone that has never seen it, the descriptions can get complicated. Even before the car moves... how to insert the ignition key into the lock, and turn it right, but not too long, let go when the engine starts, etc. Details to adjust seat and mirrors. Seat belts. Get it in gear. Watch traffic before pulling out. And later, like how to watch when turning left, both directions, and the left mirror, etc. Learning the rules of the road, WHEN can we turn left, etc. Even the map about WHERE to turn left. So descriptions can get tedious, but for images, it seems like when we simply understand that we have some pixels, and that we print 300 pixels per inch on paper, then all else falls out as obvious. We just simply know what to do (maybe after we have seen it before). But we must understand that pixels is all that we have.

Example: Printing a digital camera image

Plug your own numbers into these examples.

A ten megapixel compact camera image might be 3648x2736 pixels (3648/2736 = 1.33, which is 4:3 shape). However 8x10 paper is 10/8 = 1.25, which is 5:4 shape. Or 4x6 paper is 6/4 = 1.5 shape. The aspect ratio, or shape, of the image and paper are different. This image shape will not fit these paper shapes exactly, not without cropping.

Printing this image at 8x10 inches can compute either 2736 pixels / 8 inches = 342 dpi, or 3648 pixels / 10 inches = 365 dpi.

Most photo labs will choose the first option. But if you first crop the image yourself to 8x10 paper aspect ratio, you can choose what you will get. See the Image Resize page for more details.

A DSLR 12 megapixel image might typically be 2,848 x 4,288 pixels in size. 3:2 shape. Digital images are dimensioned only in pixels, and to use that image in any way, these dimensions are all important. And the image shape can be important, especially if printing on paper, which also has a shape.

If we upload it to an online photo lab and specify to print 8x10 inches, this implies printing at 2848 pixels / 8 inches = 356 dpi (and the long ends will be cropped). Their chemical printer is probably set to print at about 250 dpi capability, but this small excess will work OK. Possibly you cropped the image a bit smaller first anyway (cropping away excess blank space at borders improves many pictures).

But if we ordered a 4x6 inch print size, this one implies printing at 2848 pixels / 4 inches = 712 dpi. Which is absolutely outlandish, so the lab will first resample it smaller, to about 250 dpi size. No harm done, except your upload was much larger and slower than is reasonable for this goal. You could have prepared it better. See the Image Resize page for more details.

Example: Viewing an image on a HDTV or monitor, including web pages

Images for a video monitor are pretty small. A HDTV screen might be 1920x1080 pixels, or about 2 megapixels. More pixels cannot help it. Few computer monitors are larger. A Large web page image might (arbitrarily) be 900x600 pixels, about half a megapixel. Presenting a 12 megapixel image there works, but is pretty lame, since the viewing software must resample it smaller (every viewing) to appropriate size to fit the screen, which will be slow, and unnecessary. Viewing our original images one time on our monitor is one thing, but if on a web site (which intends to show it many times, and it has no use for a 12 megapixel image, unless maybe the site offers to sell large prints), we really ought to resample it to our proper smaller goal size, one time, preparation done right, instead of requiring every web visitor viewing to download all the excessive bytes and resample it again and again (which is truly lame). Most regular image hosting sites will do this resample for you, but on your own site, YOU have to do it first.


Example: Scan 35 mm film and print 8x10 inch on paper

Basics: Scanning Resolution for Enlargement

The way things work is this:   (if bothered by the numbers, just skip to the last paragraph below, Method B there).

One subtlety, important to some critical users:   The above works of course, quite well, but this computation may result in computing and scanning at an odd number like maybe 2642 dpi, or even 2700 dpi. The scanner sensor hardware can only scan at specific values (integer divisions of maximum resolution specification), like perhaps 1200 dpi, 2400 dpi, 4800 dpi, 9600 dpi (these will be its menu choices). This requires the scanner do that, and then resample the scan lines, and step the carriage motor unevenly. Perhaps of little concern for some, but when convenient, a common technique is to scan at the next larger integer division menu value (1200, 2400, 4800, 9600 dpi, menu choices), and then resample smaller to desired size at higher quality with a photo editor, which has all the data available at resample time.


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