File Size

Clive R. Haynes FRPS

Our goal should be ‘photographic quality’
This can be achieved providing attention to detail is maintained throughout the imaging process.

In one respect the one of characteristics of a digitally-captured picture is very similar to traditional film-based photography – that is, the larger the original image size/information is – the better defined the printed picture will be.


What can we actually see?
At 'normal viewing distance', the human eye is capable of resolving separate details about 1 minute of arc apart and this translates to around 180 lines per inch - which from our point of view can further be translated into 180 pixels per inch.
To be on the safe side, and to give a little leeway, we can raise the pixels per inch to 200 or 220ppi. Resolutions in excess of this will not result in a visibly sharper image but could offer the advantage of a greater enlargement, should this be required. Bear in mind that the finer the resolution, the greater the ppi and the larger the file size will become.

Size is Important.
My preferred scanning-in resolution for 35mm slides or negatives is 2,700ppi (pixels per inch). This scanning resolution will enable me to print an A3 size picture of photographic quality. The resolution of the print at that size will be in the order of 220 ppi.

A starting point:
Scanning to give the same size print as the original
image (a bit like a photocopier)
To do this, a flat-bed scanner should be adjusted to give 200ppi if photo-quality results are required at a 1:1 ratio from original image to printed output.
For instance: An A4 picture is placed on the flat-bed scanner and you make an A4 print from the printer.

What if the print we are to make is larger than the original image?
Say a 35mm negative or slide from which we wish to make a large print
Well, if we scan something which has a smaller size than the the print we wish to make, we have to scan with finer detail (pixels) so that there are enough pixels to make the print without the individual pixels showing.

Bearing in mind the above and with respect to 35mm originals, the following information will provide a guide to resolution and file size.
Remember how small a 35mm frame is (24 x 36mm) and how large the print will be by comparison - so we need to pack a lot of fine detail (pixels) into the scan to ensure that the print looks 'photo-realistic'.
The number of pixels we generate during scanning (or within a digital camera for that matter) have to be 'stretched like elastic' over the much larger surface area of the print. The larger the print, the more thinly the pixels are spread and we must avoid dropping below the magic 200 pixels per inch.

Scanning at 2,700ppi, a colour 35mm negative or slide will produce some 8,000,000 pixels (8 mpxl) of picture information with a resulting file size of 20mb to 25mb (the figure does vary). When expanded to A3 size, the image will look fine at around 200 to 220ppi.
If the image was intended for a print no larger than A4 size, again at 200ppi, the scanning resolution could be reduced to 1,800ppi to produce a file size of around 11mb.
For A5 print, the file size would be in the order of 5mb or so.

Remember, changing the scanning resolution will alter file size and therefor have a direct bearing upon the maximum acceptable picture quality of the final image - which shouldn't fall below 200ppi.

If you’re uncertain as to the size required for the finished picture/print, always scan in at maximum. It’s too late to change file size later as for quality the option of ‘re-sampling’ is not an answer.

The Web
Images intended for the Internet / Web Pages require a resolution of 72ppi as this is the common resolution of most monitors. So if you need to scan an image for the web, the file size will be very small - and this in turn will be compressed into a 'jpeg' file.

DI Cameras
Many excellent digital cameras are now available but be wary and be aware of resolution/file size for prints larger than, say, A4 (a lot depends upon content, your requirements and needs). Some cameras use clever methods of interpolation to raise the pixel level - look at the specifications carefully.

So as a rough guide, cameras at a realistic price with a specification of around 6 to 7mpxls can be considered the lower limit for acceptable A3 prints. The 6 or 7mgpxl image when 'uncompressed' expand to around 18mb.
For A4 prints, 3.5mpxls would be satisfactory - as this when 'uncompressed' expands to around 10mb.
However, remember that if the image is 'cropped' to remove extraneous material, pixels are also 'cropped' and the resulting file size is therefore reduced.

The upper range of 'consumer' digital cameras is now providing some excellent results.

'High end' consumer (SLR) models such as the Nikon D70, Canon EOS 300and Fuji S3 Pro will yield excellent results from a compressed 6mb file, expanding to some 18mb, which produces very acceptable prints of A3 size.
However many 'consumer' ‘megapixel’ models will struggle to produce quality images larger than A4 (a lot depends upon content, your requirements and needs). Never the less, I have seen excellent images produced by models producing around 4mpxl and upwards.
There is also a big difference in quality (and cost!) between 'consumer chips' and 'pro chips'.

Digital cameras produce texturally smooth and grain-free images, the result of which frequently looks better than scanned-in slides or negs with their inherent grain structure and surface blemishes.

Pro cameras such as the 'full frame' mega pixel SLR's are fantastic but at a price beyond the budget of most most techno-dedicated, enthusiastic amateurs (we're talking about £3,000 to £7,000 price tags here!) They are, after all, aimed at the 'professional photographer'.

What is acceptable is of course subjective and depends upon content and the purpose for which the image is intended.

Quality digital cameras (usually of the 'SLR' type) shoot RAW file format and this allows 16 bit working to carry through into 'Photoshop'. For more information about 'RAW' click on the link below.

Related Topics
RAW Files
Bit Depth & File Size
Scanning Guide
Preparing an Image for the Web
Know-How Contents
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