Pixels, Digital Cameras and Printing 4×3 Inch Photos

Why is a 3 megapixel camera better than a 1 megapixel camera? It really depends on how you intend to reproduce the picture. The reason cameras produce pictures at 72 pixels per inch is that this format is standard in video uses such as television and DVD. So there is no noticeable difference in quality when viewing pictures on a TV or DVD. The difference appears when you are cropping and/or printing these pictures. If you are not familiar with the term cropping, I will explain it later. But first let’s talk about printing.

Even the most inexpensive of printers these days are capable of printing at 300 dots per inch (dpi). Most are capable of printing at 600 dpi and you can buy relatively affordable printers that print at 1200 dpi and above. You may have noticed that with cameras it’s called pixels per inch and with printers it is call dots per inch. The terms are hardware specific, but relate to the same principal. A printer prints a specific number of dots of ink per inch on the paper whereas a TV displays a specific number of pixels per inch on the screen. In either case, combining the dots or pixels creates the picture.

So how does this affect quality? If we’re printing a picture that has 72 pixels per inch from a 1-megapixel camera on 4×3 printer paper we’ve got a problem. (Here is where I have to crunch some numbers, so please bear with me.) Let’s figure it out. Four inches times 72 pixels (dots) per inch equals 288 pixels (dots) on the vertical line. Three inches times 72 pixels (dots) equals 216 pixels (dots) on the horizontal line. The total picture would have 288 times 216 or 62,208 pixels. That’s way short of one million.

So where did the other pixels go? If you’re printing this picture at a store or camera shop that has conversion capabilities, the machine that you are printing on actually crunches the picture down for you. The size of the picture taken by a 1-megapixel camera is approximately 16 inches x12 inches. (16×72=1152 and 12×72=864 and 864×1152=995,328 pixels). The machine makes this picture into a 4×3 by increasing the number of pixels per inch. The 4×3 picture is 1/4th the size of the 16×12 so there has to be four times as many pixels per inch to reduce this picture to 4×3. Four times seventy two equals two hundred eighty eight pixels (dots) per inch. With more pixels or dots per inch, the picture can be reproduced at a higher quality level making details sharper and more distinct. So a 1-megapixel camera can produce a reasonably good quality 4×3 inch picture on a 300 dpi printer. That’s what most amateur photographers get with their snapshot cameras. If you try to get larger pictures, then the picture quality begins to deteriorate. Part 2-2 will deal with larger prints.

Conclusion: If you have a printer with more than 300 dpi capabilities and all you want is 4×3 inch prints, then you are not using all your printer’s abilities. If you want prints larger than 4×3 inch, then you need a camera with a higher quality output capability. If all you want is 4×3 inch prints and video reproduction without cropping much, then a 1-megapixel camera and 300 dpi printer should serve you fine.

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