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Print resolution: how to make images look their best for printing

Reading time: 8 minutes

Print resolution makes the difference between a print that connects with viewers and one that confuses them. A high resolution leads to vivid, impactful designs whereas a low resolution communicates a blurry, unprofessional impression.

Whenever you’re working with print, whether for marketing materials or a creative project, you’ll need to know the resolution basics to get the best results. There’s so much work that goes into the design process that the last thing you want is a blurry final product to show for it. We’re going to walk you through all the technical ins and outs of print resolution so that you can print your designs with confidence.

Table of contents

What is print resolution?

Print resolution is the number representing how many droplets of ink or toner a printing machine can produce per square inch. This will ultimately define how much visual detail will be in your final print.

Printers create images using dots; inkjet printers spray ink dots whereas laser printers fuse dots of toner (a dry powder) onto the material. A higher print resolution means a higher dot density, resulting in a sharper image with fuller colors. A lower print resolution means fewer dots, creating a less focused image with grainier colors.

Print resolution vs digital resolution vs screen resolution

Although people often use the umbrella term “resolution” to refer to both print resolution and digital resolution, they are two different things. However, because a print file begins as a digital file, digital resolution determines the quality of print resolution. Often, it’s the only aspect of print resolution you can control.

Digital resolution is the number representing the amount of pixels per square inch (that is, the degree of detail) in a raster image. Pixels are the tiny squares of color that make up digital images. A raster image is any digital image file format made up of pixels, as opposed to a vector image, which is created using mathematical equations. Using vector images for print is always preferable due to their ability to be stretched to any size while maintaining high quality.

Similarly, screen resolution is the amount of pixels a screen can display at once. While this may affect the appearance of your image on a computer or TV — leading you to perceive a lower resolution than the original image contains — it has no bearing on print resolution.

Now that you know the difference between print and digital resolution, let’s get into how they work together to produce a high-quality print.

DPI and PPI: the relationship between print and digital resolution

Determining resolution is all about controlling the number of printer dots and digital pixels, which is where DPI and PPI come in. Standing for dots per inch, DPI is the standard measurement for print resolution, whereas PPI stands for pixels per inch and is the standard measurement for digital resolution.

Set by the physical printing machine, DPI describes the highest resolution a printer can achieve. It’s a number to review when you are shopping for a printer or a professional printing service.

PPI is set manually within creative software (when creating graphic designs and illustrations) or by a digital camera (for photography and video). In the latter case, PPI is what you research when buying a camera. However, when you’re downloading an image from the internet, you’re stuck with whatever PPI the designer or photographer used. Although there are some techniques for increasing the PPI count that we’ll get into later on, be aware of resolution when sourcing your images (stock image sites usually let you choose the resolution when you purchase).

Print book cover design for a historical novel

Resolution in print designs containing photographs depends on the PPI setting of the original camera. Design by Boja

PPI translates directly into DPI when printing; one pixel will correspond to one dot of printed ink or toner. Think of your digital file as a set of instructions telling the printer how many dots to produce. In this way, PPI can influence DPI, but DPI cannot influence PPI. DPI represents the maximum print resolution, so no matter how high the PPI, the printer can’t produce more dots than it’s physically capable of. However, a low PPI can bring down the resolution of a print using a high DPI printer.

Print poster design of an illustrated steampunk robot for a networking group

Resolution in print designs with custom graphics depends on the PPI setting of the creative software. Design by Wintrygrey

The relationship between print and digital resolution works out like this:

  • A high PPI file and a high DPI printer produce a high-resolution print
  • A high PPI file and a low DPI printer produce a low-resolution print
  • A low PPI file and a high DPI printer produce a low-resolution print
  • A low PPI file and a low DPI printer produce a low-resolution print

What is the best resolution for print?

300 DPI is the standard resolution for commercial printing, including postcards, flyers, print ads, business cards, stationery, brochures, posters, product packaging, books and magazines. That means 300 PPI is the standard resolution for preparing your digital files for print and is the minimum resolution VistaPrint requires for uploaded images.

The best resolution is subjective and depends on your project and goals. Technically, the higher the resolution, the better quality the print is. At the same time, extremely high resolutions can come with drawbacks. A higher PPI means a bigger file size, making downloading, editing and file sharing more onerous, while a higher DPI means more ink/toner and more expensive prints.

While 300 DPI/PPI is the standard print resolution, a higher resolution is sometimes required for designs that mix photography and text. Design by Klassic Designs

If you’re uncertain, it’s always better to go too high with resolution than too low but lean on the expertise of your printing service. However, after a certain point — usually above 600 DPI for non-photographic images — the difference in quality becomes imperceptible and costly.

These are common resolution counts:

  • 300 PPI/DPI is the standard resolution for commercial printing
  • 72 PPI is the standard resolution for online images. If you’re printing from a source like Google Images, the print resolution will likely be poor
  • 400 PPI/DPI is often recommended for images containing text
  • If you’re looking to save money on printing costs, 150 DPI is the minimum recommended for billboards, signage and posters viewed at a distance.
  • 600 PPI/DPI is around the point where resolution quality becomes excessive for most commercial projects, although photographic prints may require higher

In designs that mix text, graphics and photographs, make sure the resolution is consistent across all imagery. Design by Alshimaa Mou

Other factors that affect print quality

If you are disappointed by the way your print comes out, resolution may not always be the culprit. Here are some other factors that affect print quality:

  • Inconsistent resolution: When combining multiple images and graphics in a print, a difference in resolution quality will be noticeable if the PPI on one image is lower than another
  • Sudden increase in size for print: Your print size should always match the actual size of the image. If, when sending your file to your printing machine, you increase the size in the options window that comes up, this will lower the resolution
  • Type of ink/paper: Ink and toner produce different results. Ink, for example, can bleed into common copy paper, affecting image quality. Research the paper type best used for your project and printing machine
  • Color differences: Know the difference between RGB and CMYK. RGB color mode is best for digital work, while CMYK is used for print products. You may need to print a proof to test out your colors before committing
  • The design: If something just feels off about the image, it never hurts to revisit the design

How to change or improve an image resolution

Adjusting the resolution of an image means changing the PPI or DPI. Although it’s always easy to decrease image resolution, increasing the resolution is not always possible. That’s why it’s important to plan for image resolution ahead of time. But in case you don’t, here are some tips.

Because DPI is dictated by the printing machine, modifying it often means buying a new printer or communicating with the printing service. Otherwise, optimized DPI compensates for low resolution by using more ink. In this setting, the paper moves slowly through the printer, causing the dots to overlap. This isn’t a perfect solution for increasing the resolution but it will deepen your colors. A personal or office printer may also print at a low DPI if in an ink-saving mode. Check the manual or Google the model for specifics on getting the maximum DPI.

Photographic packaging and print designs for a coffee brand

If the low-resolution asset is critical to your brand — like a photo that will be used across multiple materials — a new photo or a complete redesign might be the best solution. Design by smashingbug

Changing the PPI is the most common way to increase the resolution for non-professional printers. PPI has an inverse relationship with image scale; decreasing the size of an image increases its resolution because the pixels are squeezed into fewer square inches. To increase the image resolution without altering the size, which is called unsampling, your image editing software would have to add new pixels into each square inch. Increasing both the size and resolution is known as resampling. A computer doesn’t understand images the same way that a human does. Instead of a landscape, for example, a computer sees a grid of different colored pixels, meaning it can’t know what color pixels to add to reconstruct the image at a higher resolution.

While AI technology has gotten smarter in this regard (research AI upscalers), it’s never ideal to rely on digital automation. That’s why your first step in increasing resolution is to change the source image or redesign it if necessary. If the print is critical to your business and used for marketing materials you’ll need long-term, the investment might be worth it. Otherwise, unsampling or resampling tools in image editing software (the “Image Size” option in Photoshop, for example) are your best option.

Get the best print resolution for your projects

While print resolution can appear technical, it’s all a simple numbers game at the end of the day. The key to a good resolution is ensuring that both the PPI of your digital image and the DPI of your printing machine are at least 300. That means you’ll have to account for resolution early on in your project, namely when creating the design and sourcing the images. And if you feel lost, it’s never too early to connect with a printing service whose expertise you can trust.

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