Digital Image Files ? Megapixels, Megabytes, or DPI?

When I promised readers that I was going to do an article on this topic I was scared. For two reasons - firstly, it's a HUGE subject. I get lots of questions about it, and I see a fair bit of misunderstanding about it. Secondly, there are already a lot of good articles about it on the web, like this one on luminous-landscape.com.

But I know that trawling the internet for technical information is not your idea of fun. That's my job! So here's my attempt at summing this up quickly for you:

DPI - Dots Per Inch

The most common question I get on this topic is, "My client / boss / nephew has asked me to send an image at a size of 300 dpi. What does that mean"?

The answer: Not much.

You see, DPI stands for Dots Per Inch. It's a useful measure of image resolution (in other words, how much information is resolved in the picture). But if you don't know the image size in inches (or feet, miles, centimetres, millimitres, or some other measure of size), then the amount of dots per inch doesn't mean much.

Using DPI to measure size is like using km/h to measure distance: "How far is it from here to the beach?" "Oh, about 60 miles per hour". For this to make sense the answer would need to be "about 10 minutes at 60 miles per hour".

Likewise, the size of an image needs to be expressed as, say, "six by six inches at 300dpi".

Different resolutions are used for different purposes. The most common are 72 or 75 dpi for screen viewing (Web use or PowerPoint presentations) and 300 dpi for printing.

OK, so to give an example - 1 inch by 1 inch, 300 dpi image would be 300 pixels by 300 pixels in size. A 2 by 2 inch image at 300 dpi would be 600 by 600 pixels in size. Here's where megapixels and megabytes come into it. Mega!

Megapixels

The term megapixels is usually used to describe the output size of digital camera images. For example, the Canon Ixus 50 produces images which are 2592 x 1944 pixels in size. Multiply these numbers together and you get 5,038,848 - just over 5 million. Hence this is described as a "5 megapixel" camera.

The last byte

On a couple of occasions, I've sent an image of a certain size to someone and they've said, "that's no good, we need a 10 megabyte file". Now, this I'm sure they were well-intentioned but they were also a little misguided.

The size in bytes (or megabytes - millions of bytes) represents how much storage the image takes up on your computer. This depends on all sorts of things, mainly the bit depth of the image and the file format - for example TIFF or JPEG.

So what should I do?

To avoid confusion, when specifying the file size you need, use pixels.

How do you work out how many pixels you need? Well, that's why I started this discussion with DPI. Work out the largest size you're going to want to reproduce the image, in inches; and the resolution - for example 72 dpi for or 300dpi for most print applications. Then just multiply the size in inches by the DPI figure you came up with.

Example: I want to reproduce the image A4 size in a printed magazine. A4 is 210mm x 297mm, or about 8.3 x 11.7 inches. The magazine needs artwork at 300dpi, so:

8.3 x 300 = 2490 and 11.7 x 300 = 3510 so I need an image sized about 2490 x 3510 pixels (about 8.7 megapixels)

By the way: 1 inch = 2.54 centimetres. Did you know you can also do conversions on google? Try it yourself.

Happy pixelling!

Steven Pam is a digital commercial photographer based in Melbourne, Australia, specializing in people, aviation and music photography. http://www.stevenpam.com.au

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