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Is that image big enough?

“The appearance of a photo on your computer screen is not the best guide of size and resolution, but it can offer hints, if you know what you’re looking for.”

— Sonya Senkowsky

By Sonya Senkowsky
You’re no photographer. But your editor wants you to help dredge up photos from your sources. And, as is the case so often these days, what your sources have got is digital.

If you don’t know the difference between a pick-ax and a pixel, you could be in for hours of back and forth with a designer who keeps telling your editor that the picture you sent is “too small” (even though you can clearly see that it looks OK on your computer).and a subject who keeps asking “Well, what size do you need it?”

Here’s just enough photo lingo to get you through most such situations.

You need to know three things:

• What size do your editors want to run the image?
• What resolution do they need?
• What file type do they want?

Resolution is often expressed in “dots per inch,” or dpi, and literally means “how many dots per inch” will make up your image in the printout.

For newspapers and small images in magazines, a common size requirement is 300 dpi at a size of 5x7 inches. (If you need to guess, this is a good guess for most situations.) This means that a printout of your photo that is 5x7 inches will contain 300 dots per inch of ink. Imagine the same picture with half the ink dots taken away, and you can start to understand why 150 dpi would provide a lower-quality print at the same size.

For a Web site, you can get away with lower resolutions (though designers sometimes want to start out with the highest-resolution image possible and reduce the size themselves).

Then you will need to tell your subject what file type the designer wants. The most common file types are J-pegs, gifs or tifs — files ending with either .jpg or .jpeg, .gif, or .tif. Generally, photos for most purposes should come to you as j-pegs, which are high enough resolution for print, but compressed for easier transmission over the Internet. Tifs may also be desirable.

Ideally, you can arrange for your subject to e-mail the image directly to the designer. That way, any problems can be ironed out between them — and you won’t run the risk of your mailbox being filled up with a HUGE file. But if the image does come to you, one last tip may be helpful:

How do you know if it’s big enough? If you don’t have photo imaging software, you may not have an easy way to tell the resolution of a given image.Appearance on your computer screen is not the best guide, but it can offer hints, if you know what you’re looking for.

Here’s a cheat: Open the image using a browser such as Netscape or Internet Explorer. If the image fills up the entire page and takes a few moments to open, you have a higher resolution image that is likely usable in print. (Remember: Its final print size will be a fraction of whatever it looks like on your computer.)

If it takes up anything less than a full screen, you may want to ask the editor/designer to take a peek to make sure the image will work.

Coming soon: How to prepare images for Web — or “Is that image small enough?”

About the Author
Sonya Senkowsky is a freelance writer (and sometimes photographer) and founder of AlaskaWriters Homestead, which offers advice and a home on the Web to Alaska writers of all kinds.

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Photos of Sonya Senkowsky © 2004 David Jensen / David Jensen Photography.

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