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So, let's assume I have taken some great shots, and secured a gallery presentation. I have shots of extremely varying aspect ratios, and many themes. Now I have to order prints.

What size should I print at?

I am assuming that the shots were taken at a high resolution, so the prints can get pretty damn big before they lose quality, but there is a huge range of sizes I could pick below the maximum.

I know that this will depend on the shot, the space, the subject, the room lighting, and hell probably even the weather, but where to start? Is there some information written about how to make this decision, or can someone offer some rules of thumb or even suggestions?

This question seems overwhelmingly subjective, but I am hoping, somehow, that we can come up with some advice that is universally useful at least.

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  • I couldn't think of any better tags, if I missed one, just add it.
    – BBischof
    Feb 4 '11 at 1:52
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    Converted to CW. I also threw in the tag [presentation-format], as it seems to be what this question is asking about.
    – jrista
    Feb 4 '11 at 2:11
  • Sounds like a very sensible, practical question to me. I don't think you need to worry about it being too subjective. (but that's just my opinion ;)
    – AJ Finch
    Feb 4 '11 at 12:27

10 Answers 10

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ALERT ALERT rant warning

I personally feel that an image hanging on a wall needs to be able to withstand three different viewing distances fairly well

(1) too far (i.e. way past ideal--like 5 feet for a 4"x5" print)

(2) ideal

(3) with a magnifying glass.

probably most images will handle 1 and 2 fine. Nearly anything hung in a gallery looks freaking awseome when lit up and surrounded by beautiful people. That's the function of a gallery, right? That and to confer the laurels of respect and therefore price. #1 and #2 have a lot of 'atmosphere' lent by the white walls, super cool concrete warehouse space, second glass of wine, etc. #1 in particular has a lot to do with just not messing up (i.e. hang the image straight on the wall) more than doing anything special.

I personally can't stand when supposedly 'professional' images can't deal with #3. I'm being a bit bombastic by saying magnifier close, but I am dead serious when I mean, really, really seriously looking at the physicality of the pigment on the paper close. I mean, you are a serious photographer right? Now we are talking about galleries here, not billboards or some other commercial application where it's understood that the image is there to pimp something else and you as photographer don't get the final say so corners might be cut for the man. In a gallery, it's 'art'--photographer in complete control. No cutting corners. Full on 100% integrety to the 'work'. Sacred space, etc.

To me, if you are on a gallery wall, you are saying you are a pro, like the real thing and you take it seriously and sweat the details--like "please, viewer, take a moment and really look, 'cos I worked really long and hard on this and thought about all the details and sweated mightly on this effort." So say you actually get someone who isn't just there as a pretense to pick up chicks, someone who is really engaging the work, who is willing to concentrate for like over a millisecond to really look at it. Well, you gotta meet that engagement all the way. And that to me means you gotta make the print quaility super mega high--magnifying glass close. It's just not meeting your end of the bargain to say it's only in bounds to stay 20" away. That's just not fair to those who are actually willing to focus. I mean, really? Diagonal of the print and no closer?

Back in the ol' film days when it was unheard of for people to 'send out for prints', there was a lot of emphasis on really honing the print quality craft. Not easy. It doesn't seem like a lot of folks raised digitally are very aware of what it means to actually take an image to pigment on substrate. It's much harder to work that end of the craft when it just goes to a black box (the print house) and comes out the other side done. Not that I'm dissing on digital--just that there seems to be generally a lack of appreciation for the physical print quality given that a majority of images never make it onto paper. In other words, back in the bad old days of film and darkrooms, you basically only had a 'photograph' when you had a print (ok--some people worked in chromes so I'm cheating a bit here). So it was a significant part of becoming a photographer of any sort to actually get pigment deposited on a ground. Now that Photoshop has overtaken (mercifully) photochemestry, a lot of really good photographers haven't a clue what 'a fine print' actually looks like & what it takes to make one. Printing is sort of an afterthought at best.

Oh, to answer the question: you need to print at an LPI that can withstand the magnifying glass, which, in turn, will dictate the maximum size a particular image can go before it falls to pieces. This site has some great threads on printing and LPI. I personally do not enlarge so my native uncropped 18MP file at 360 lpi to match my epson printer ends up with something like 11x15 prints, just as an example.

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    Some great points here. Many obvious. Others not at all. +1
    – BBischof
    Feb 4 '11 at 15:37
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I am a believer in presenting art in the size and aspect ratio that best compliments it. I know that we are a world of standards, and there are some very common and readily available aspect ratios such as 3:2, 4:3, 4:5, 1:1. While a standard set of well-established formats makes it easy to produce printers and papers that meet the average persons needs in a cost effective way...I don't really think it best services the needs of art itself.

If you have some great photos in an odd-ball format, I so go with it. Have a 1:8 size vertical image? Print it in a 1:8 format, and frame it as such. Have some complimentary 3:1 panoramic shots? Print 'em in 3:1 canvas, and display 'em in a vertical triptych format. Or, for that matter, split a single 3:1 panoramic into a 3 slice horizontal triptych.

If some prints look better huge, and others look better small, then display them that way. You can put your complimentary images together in a random collage, or you could even print complimentary images such that a variety of formats fit together into a cohesive whole. An example of this could be a 3:1 panoramic, a couple 2:1 rectangulars, and a couple 1:1 squares put together in a square composition.

I guess my approach to displaying art is that the display is a form of art itself. There shouldn't be any specific rules that dictate what is or isn't appropriate for every photo you display. Every photo should, and probably will, dictate its own best form of presentation. Sometimes you need to experiment with a variety of framing and mounting options to find the form that best compliments each specific piece. Sometimes that means putting a photo in a nice frame with complimentary matting. Sometimes it means a simple frame with standard white matting. Sometimes it means canvas or triptych, and others it may mean art block mounting by laminating it strait to a piece of MDF.

It is probably also important not to overlook the effect of the display environment on the form of display. Some forms of mounting may not work well with a particular environment, such as a gallery. Some galleries may work better with consistent mounting, while others may lend themselves better to a variety of display forms.

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    +1 only due to the limits of the site (and I hope the vote made it -- I have a lousy connection at the moment). Like creating a painting, it's not about "fitting the couch", it's about the picture itself. If it demands to be a jewel-like 4"x5" picture to be given complete, undivided attention up close, then that's the proper printing for that picture. There probably ought to be some commonality across a collection or a series, but it's the pictures, not the camera or printer capabilities, that should do the talking.
    – user2719
    Feb 4 '11 at 3:41
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That may be defined by where you show.

The last gallery I showed at had a very simple rule: Everything came in on 16x20 mats. period. They placed the mats in their frames which were attached to their rails. My handfull of images were then mixed around the gallery with images from a dozen other photographers. At the end of the showing, they boxed my mats up in the same shipping box I had delivered them in, even wrapped in the same craft paper, and returned them. Within those 16x20 mats I could pretty much do whatever I wanted. So one print was an 8x10 smack dab in the middle, another was two 4x4s and a 6x6 aligned in an interesting pattern for a triptych. By far the majority however, were 8x10s at a 90 degree angle and so called "bottom weighted" display (center the window, use the same width of spacing on the top as the two sides, let the bottom run with whatever is left (usually more)). Why? because that's what I saw the most of when I went and walked through the gallery... it's what everyone there was doing, so I did it to fit in.

By contrast, there's a gallery here in town that seemingly will take ANYTHING. Their walls are total chaos of images, sizes, frames, styles, everything. There used to be the most adorable little 3" or so square print, centered in like a 10" square plank of wood that filled the space between four huge canvases arranged in a square-ish-plus-shaped arrangement.

If you are showing solo, or you are showing somewhere that will allow anything... then see jrista's answer. :) Personally, I tend to go with what the image tells me it wants. This one for example kept telling me it wanted to be HUGE. So I printed it on a 30x40 gallery wrap canvas: http://wall-art.smugmug.com/Featured/Impact/15105178_TeJix#1129060408_AyPvS-A-LB It was right, it's a huge impression... it needed to go big or go home.

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The size that feels right to you

It's your art, so start with what feels right to you.
What size would serve to best present your message in your image?
I understand that this might be hard to establish before having the image printed.

As large as the gallery will allow

If you don't have any specific feelings on size then bigger is usually better.

... All just my opinion, but I hope it's helpful.

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    I feel like this is the obvious implicit answer... But somebody SHOULD post it. Thanks. +1
    – BBischof
    Feb 4 '11 at 15:36
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On the many sites I tend to read on the topic of photography, one of the things that becomes clear is that gallery prints are often done somwehere between 240 and 300ppi, with 300 being the desired end, which is why many art photographers lean towards medium format, the image sizes lend themselves better to such print resolution and very large outcomes.

However, smaller formats can produce stunning prints, but the key to that is viewing distance. One of my friends, recently, got a pretty good look at a billboard close up and was surprised at how "bad" it looked from that view. I wouldn't be surprised, the image is intended to be viewed from hundreds of feet away and printed accordingly, and that's the point. If you scale up an image to print on a larger medium that exceeds the 240 to 300 figure I mentioned, then the viewing distance has to grow with it. Hard to do in a gallery, but not impossible, and software is getting better with this as it progresses.

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I like (and upvoted) most of the answers here. But there is one further point that really needs to be considered. And that is inventory management. Gallery represented artists must deal with this or you both crazy and/or broke. Yeah, not print quality, no esthetic rule of thirds guidelines, nothing about metal or wood. But inventory.

Face it, prints are relatively cheap compared to frames, mattes, and glass. I'm seeing about a 5:1 ratio between my frame supplies cost and my printing costs. With this is mind, you need to realize you can afford to print photos that won't sell but you can't afford to buy frames for photos that won't sell.

And this means you must be able to re-use your frames and mattes.

The easiest way to do that is to restrict yourself to a small number of sizes. Personally, I only sell 11x14 and 10x20 prints. I have stocked materials for 12x12" prints but frankly, I don't shoot much in that size and the ones that I have haven't sold.

And yes, this does affect your craft. Sometimes a shot just can't be cropped to either of those sizes. But you know what, it probably can.

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In my opinion, the optimal "gallery size" that provides professional-grade resolution hinges on the native resolution of the camera (megapixels). Following is a rough rule-of-thumb:

  • 8 MP = 11 x 14"
  • 6 MP = 8 x 10"
  • 5 MP = 6 x 8"
  • 4 MP = 5 x 7"
  • 3 MP = 5 x 7"
  • 2 MP = 4 x 6"
  • 1 MP = 2.5 x 3.5"

Based on the human eye, any advantage gained from greater than 8 megapixels is highly elusive ;-)

Roger-in-FL

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    Why did you stop at 8Mpx? Few cameras (newer than 3-5 years) have that low resolution. Apr 3 '12 at 9:04
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Great question. Unfortunately there is no one or right answer. I will refrain from lecturing you on the old days of film and chemical development, as that is irrelevant to your work. Base your sizes on your resolution, and how you want to fill the gallery space. I suggest using many different sizes for interest. The days of a slew of photos all sized the same in the same frame with white 4 inch mat…well, boring to exhaustion. This is your art, your show. Do what turns you on, and everyone will know that you are secure in your work. If anyone creeps up to your photos with a magnifying glass, make sure to get a shot of that…hilarious. So go with resolution allowance, and taste.

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This is a messy question.

How is the gallery laid out?

  • An 8x10" print is typically viewed at arms length or a bit closer. Think, cover of time Magazine.

  • A 16x20 works well at 5 feet.

  • a 32 x 40 works well at 10 feet, but you now are getting to have an interesting time with mounting and framing.

13 and 19 inch are magic numbers in printing as the largest width a printer mere mortals can afford. Yes you can have them printed elsewhere, and introduce a 1 to 2 week delay in proofing, unless you have a local printer who loves good printing.

How is it lit?

Most galleries pay close attention to lighting, but the light in a gallery is NOT the same as the light in someone's house. I would strongly suggest taking a picture of a macbeth colour chart with white balance set to off so that you can create the right print for that space. You will want to print a few and check how they look BEFORE you exhibit.

Also: For unknown (to me) reasons, gallery walls are white. Many pictures will look dark and muddy on a white background. The glare from the white will constrict your pupils, reducing light from the image. This is critical if you have details in deep shadow.

Choose your matt accordingly. Mid to dark grey (18% grey card to light charcoal) is neutral and can be reused for many prints. For certain types of prints you can echo a theme from the print. E.g. fall leaves/harvest shots, try a iron oxide red, a deep goldenrod, Burgundy. For a winter scene, try a very pale blue, or a royal blue.

Frames: If you need to display a lot of pictures, Ikea has inexpensive frames that don't look awful.

If you are doing many prints, it's worth your while to get set up for matt cutting. It's not rocket science, but you need a good matt knife, and straight edge. I have found that most University book stores have a reasonable selection of matts. Your local frame shop does too.

You can get clear varnishes that will protect your print, are archival quality, and block UV light. This allows you to NOT use a glass on your image, which makes it jump to life.

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First, let me try to address this issue from different points of view.

First, this, in theory, is in the scope of museography as a discipline. This would take into account the flow of people, the type of pieces the gallery is showing, the space available. But it is pretty hard to find information about this. So let me go to the next best thing I have: Viewing distances from tv manufacturers.

It seems to be some consensus on defining the viewing distance forming a 40° angle of view to the base of the monitor. I am assuming most of them are 16:9 proportion.

This results in a very easy operation. Take the diagonal and multiply by 1.2x. For a 75 inch monitor, you get 90 inches in viewing distance.

But another manufacturer gives some other relation. Multiply the height of the monitor by 1.5x. After some calculations, this gives the viewing angle of 62° on the base.

As this starts to be math-consuming let me post a table.

enter image description here

In short, this is a table of viewing distance vs size of a 16:9 image. In orange we have dimensions and in green we have proportions.

But let's think we can take some numbers from here and apply them to any other 2-dimensional image.


The range is between 1.37 and .84 on the longer side, the base of the image.

As I am a bit lazy, I always round the "recommended" viewing distance to the largest size of the image (within certain proportions). If your viewer will be at let's say 60cm or two feet, keep the longer side that size.


Social distances?

These viewing distances vary when it is a public space. Normally people tend to view the pieces from a greater distance, fearing blocking the view for other people. But also there are people trying to peep closer to a pice.


Impact of the pice

An exhibition is an experience, so "impact" is a keyword. Watching some monumental photography is always interesting. The limit on which size would I print is a more technical one. Can the original image hold the print resolution?

Depending on how sharp the motive of the photo is, you can notice fewer or more pixels. Imho it is hard to notice a pixel below 100PPI, but in some cases, for example on a portrait, the eyelashes or hair can show them more than on the chin. Someone could think some resampling is not allowed, but I think a 200% resample is applicable to hide these pixels, making the print resolution 200PPI. You probably will see the droplets of ink before distinguishing one pixel.

A 24Mpx image can hold 60 inches on the long side. If the image is worth it of course. 30 inches if the print quality is exceptional.

But remember, as an exhibition is an experience, I am sure you could print some photos to cover a wall.


The photo as an artwork.

If you intend to sell the photos, probably you do not need to go that big, but only up to a certain size.

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