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Resolving Resolution

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WaterShapes LogotypeEric Herman

I understand why so many people love digital cameras: You don’t have purchase or develop film, you can check your images instantly, and it’s easy to upload pictures onto your computer and send them to anybody, anywhere. For those reasons alone, it’s clear that digital cameras are here to stay.

There’s one more feature of digital cameras, however, that vexes many of us in the publishing business as well as many of you who’ve sought to publish articles about your work in WaterShapes and elsewhere: That “advantage” is the digital camera’s ability to cram dozens or even hundreds of images onto a single card or chip.

In terms of producing quality, publishable photography, that technical edge spells trouble. Big trouble.

I can’t count the times I’ve heard technophiles boasting about how many images they can store all at once. Not being nearly as avid a digital devotee as many other people I know, there was a time when I would let those comments slide right on by. These days, however, the desire that some people have to cram their digital cameras with scores of low-resolution images of their work is, quite simply, making me crazy.

The difficulty here is specific to the publishing industry, and it has to do with the production and printing technologies used to compile each issue of WaterShapes and all the other magazines you see: Quality photographic reproduction requires a minimum resolution of 300 dpi at the size of the image as printed. For a full-page digital image, that can mean a digital file size of upwards of 30 megs!

When people take slides or use print film, publishers seldom run into problems. But with digital cameras, the default resolution is 72 dpi – the standard for Internet images and digital video. At that resolution, image files are tiny to start with and, when resampled at 300 dpi, the images themselves are tiny as well – sometimes as small as or even smaller than postage stamps!

Too often, we’ve had to contact a writer with the disappointing news that we can’t feature a project because none of the images we have on hand are of printable size. This is particularly sad with stories where the entire construction process, from start to finish, has only been recorded digitally with low-resolution images. Finished shots can usually be retaken, but all of the steps leading up to completion – the kinds of shots we just love to publish to show how things are done – are basically lost in this way.

In this issue, David Tisherman devotes his “Details” column to the importance of photographing your work (click here). If you’ve followed the magazine, you’ve seen his photographs and may have noticed that they always look great. That’s because he shoots his work as 35-mm slides – a format we can print in just about any size with no trouble at all.

I’m not enough of an expert to quibble, as David does, that digital images are lacking when compared to slides or prints. And I’m not advocating by any means that anyone should turn a cold shoulder to the digital revolution – and am happy to report that we’ve published a large number of great digital images through the years.

If you are among those using a digital camera to record your work, however, I will make this simple plea: Please be sure to figure out what it takes to change the setting on your camera to a resolution that gives you 300 dpi or better at the largest image size you have available to you, be it four by six, five by seven or (hooray) eight by ten.

Yes, it will help us and others in the publishing business when the time comes to publish images of your work. More important, however, shooting high-resolution digital images (or quality prints or slides) will give you broad sets of options down the road when the time comes to show others the beautiful work you do.

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