What DPI settings should you use for digital photos?

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Sometimes the problem with an image is not its resolution or the format in which it was saved. If you’ve printed something that was once flawless but now looks less than stellar, you probably want answers, stat.

Your original image may very well be huge and rich, but if your printer does not allocate the data optimally when printing the document, you may find it stretched, compressed, or distorted.

Bridging the gap between the digital image and how you would like it to appear on paper is easy with the help of something called DPI. The same goes for the opposite: DPI is extremely important when scanning photos and documents to a digital file, serving a more granular and detailed end product.

What is DPI?

Pixels per inch versus dots per inch.

Image Credit: Wapcaplet / Wikimedia Commons

Some people confuse the term “resolution,” or PPI (pixels per inch), with DPI, and while the two are related, there are a few key differences. DPI, short for Dots Per Inch, is actually a measure of something called print resolution.

When a printer creates a physical copy of an image, it does not stamp the document like a printing press. Instead, it uses the digital outline of the bitmap document, dropping millions of tiny ink pits wherever the document says there should be tone.

Imagine a one-inch square on all four sides. When a printer prints this shape, the number of tiny ink dots needed to complete the job will be the DPI the printer was set to.

DPI applications

Roy Lichtenstein mocked the concept of printing in his acrylic work.

Image Credit: Francis Helminski / Wikimedia Commons

The most obvious application of DPI is in a printing environment: digital printing, screen printing, any type of printing that takes an electronic image and translates it to a physical medium, such as paper or fabric.

Digitization is another area where DPI plays a key role. Instead of specifying how many dots the system puts on a piece of paper, DPI is the number of data points your scanner and computer pull from a physical image.

Do not confuse this concept with the DPI of the mouse. DPI for games refers to the relationship between the physical distance your mouse travels and the distance your cursor travels on the screen.

What is the correct DPI print resolution for your project?

Laptop and printer on the desk

While there is no one DPI setting that is suitable for all occasions, the general consensus is that a 300 DPI will roughly cover you when printing on a relatively small physical size, such as paper. ordinary printer. 300 PPI is the gold standard for high resolution photos, especially if you are looking for something rich and shiny.

What if you only printed paragraphs of text for a homework assignment? The lazy answer to that would be “who cares?”, However, you’ll at least want your essay to be readable and easy to read.

The default output DPI in Microsoft Word is 220 PPI, which looks oddly generous. Your Word document is guaranteed to look flawless under these settings, anyway. Unless you’re trying to save on printer ink, 220 PPI should be enough.

If you are scanning photos, drawings or documents, 300 PPI is, again, the lowest you should achieve. If you have the hard drive space and the time to wait, there is no time like now to skyrocket. Scanning images at 600 DPI, 800 DPI or even 1000 DPI is not unheard of, especially in the world of fine art and scientific imaging.

Related: The Best Photo Scanners For Backing Up Old Photos

Photos suitable for use on the web will generally have a DPI of 72, optimized for fast on-page consumption. Ideally, the image has already loaded before the user scrolls down to view it.

For sites like Instagram and Facebook, the smaller and lighter the file, the better. When uploading to platforms like these, you usually have almost nothing to say except maybe a little checkbox asking for your photo to be uploaded in “high quality”.

The bottom line: If you are creating media that will never be physically printed, then your display, screen settings, and eye will be the deciding factors when choosing DPI arbitrarily. If you are using a high quality monitor and your image is still beautiful and pleasing, there is no need to increase your DPI to the umpteenth degree.

These minimums are those that you can consistently rely on in a general sense, except for any storage space limitations you might encounter. If you need to reduce the file size of an image, PDF, or multimedia document, you can always reduce DPI to keep it reasonable and manageable.

Related: How to Compress PDF File

How to find the DPI of a document

Once you’ve figured out what to do with your image and where your document should go, all that’s left is to make sure it meets the standard. If not, you will need to change the DPI of the image.

Chances are you are working on a desktop computer. There are two easy ways to view the DPI of any image or document on Windows or on a Mac.

How to find the DPI of an image on a PC

How to find DPI on Windows.

First, navigate to the folder where you stored your document. Once you’ve found it:

  1. Right-click on the image or document and select Properties.

  2. Switch from the General tab to the Details tongue.

  3. Scroll down until you reach two attributes called Horizontal resolution and Vertical resolution. They must have identical DPI values. This is the print resolution of your image or project.

How to find the DPI of an image on a Mac

Open with preview option in MacOS

The process is pretty much the same for Apple users, with a little detour. Pull the document into Finder, then:

  1. Right click on the image or document.

  2. To choose Open with, then Overview.

  3. Under Tools, select Show Inspector. You will see the PPP Image is listed there.

Dots per inch: it’s all about the little things

As print media gradually becomes a living history, minute concepts such as DPI settings are sometimes abandoned in everyday use. If you have a future in art, design, or imagery in any capacity, this is a treat you’ll want to take with you. It really helps you make sense of it all, making your job easier and generally better in appearance.

Photographers, graphic designers and illustrators all know how important print resolution is. Whether you scan and print digital photos for a living or just throw them in your free time for a laugh, the right DPI will help your next project shine.


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