When you take a photograph and blow it up so that it fills an entire wall, it is important that the image you are using is at the highest quality resolution.
To get the right quality doesn’t require the world’s best camera or the most expensive lenses. However, it does mean that you should take care when shooting your photos to ensure that they will enlarge well.
This short guide will give you some tips and pointers on how to make a photo the best it can be with any camera.
You probably already know that manufacturers describe a camera's resolution in megapixels. Many point-and-shoot cameras today have between 12-20 megapixels, while today's larger and more sophisticated DSLR cameras usually have between 18-36 megapixels. The quality has dramatically improved over the years, point and shoot cameras today have more pixels than professional cameras had ten years ago.
So does that mean that simply by having a lot of pixels will mean that your camera has sufficient quality for a huge enlargement?
Well, the answer is yes and no. While the pixel amount will help, other very important factors will help determine the overall resolution in an image.
First, what is resolution? A very simple answer is the sharpness of an image. Another answer to that question, which is equally correct, is the size of an image. If you have a lot of megapixels, you will get a large image out of your camera, but you may not get a sharp image every time.
In this example, you can see that the camera's megapixels are only one aspect of resolution. To get a sharp enough image that will also look great when enlarged, you need to be sure you have some decent megapixels to begin with, but also good image sharpness. For example, if you have an older camera with fewer megapixels, but you take a perfectly focused photo, it will make a better enlargement than a newer camera with more megapixels and an out-of-focus photo. In this case, the image from the older camera will have more real resolution than the image from the newer camera, regardless of greater or fewer megapixels.
When you enlarge an image many times to get to a wall-sized photo, that enlargement highlight any imperfections in the image. While you may not have noticed that a photo is a tiny bit out of focus when you see it on the small screen on the back of the camera, when you view it on a computer monitor or in a large print, you will see that the focus has dramatically impacted the quality of the image.
Now that you have the basics, here is how to get the most sharpness and resolution you can from any camera for a limitless walls project. The two most important factors are the focus and stability of the camera. As I mentioned before, if the focus is off a little, it will be very obvious when translated onto a large print.
The stability of the camera is incredibly important as shaking the camera when taking the photo can result in an image that is blurred slightly due to that camera movement at the time of the shot. Blur from camera shake is different from poor focus, but both will cause a photo that looks less sharp.
So, how do you get a perfectly focused image and have absolutely no camera shake in order to have a really high-resolution image for a big enlargement?
1. Stability of the Camera
The easiest solution here is a tripod. This is exactly why professional landscape photographers use tripods—they want to achieve the highest sharpness and resolution they can in order to make impressive enlargements. If you have a tripod, connect your camera to the tripod, make sure everything is secured, and then take the photo. A tripod will automatically keep your camera stable, and thus produce sharper images.
Here is an example of camera blur from a non-steady camera, followed by a more stabilized photograph. Imagine you have your camera on a tripod, and when you take the photo, the act of pressing the button shakes the camera. This happens often.
So, to further reduce the camera shake, even with a tripod, you want to use a remote control to take the photo. This way, you press a button on a cable or wireless remote to take the photo, and you don't shake the camera. If you don't have a remote shutter release cable or wireless remote control, there is an easy way to do this without expensive accessories: use the self-timer on your camera. Simply turn on the self-timer to the longest time it will allow (usually about 10 or 12 seconds). Press the button, and during those 10 seconds, the camera shake dissipates, and at the moment the photo is taken, you have a perfectly still camera.
So what if you don't have a tripod? I would recommend that you consider buying a tripod or borrow one from a friend. Nevertheless, if you still can't get a tripod, I have another trick to suggest. All you have to do is get the camera completely stable and use the self-timer, so all you have to do is get creative about setting up the camera. Find something stable to set the camera on.
For example, if you want a photo of a beach sunset, look for a beach chair, the stairs to a lifeguard hut, or even a small piece of wood set on top of a garbage can in the sand. You can set your camera on any of these things, aim the camera, set the self-timer, and catch an impeccably stable photo.
2. Getting Perfect Focus
Ok, so you have the camera, you have the stability part handled, and now you need to ensure that the focus is correct. You have all seen those photos where a person's eye is in super sharp focus, and the rest of the photo is a little out of focus. It looks really cool. The image just pops and is very impressive. Now imagine if the photographer screwed it up a little, and the sharp focus is on the person's ear instead of the eye. The photo will have lost all of that pop.
Therefore, as you can see, the point of focus is important.
Virtually every digital camera has an autofocus system, and most of them have many different points in the image where the camera can focus on. Many cameras even have facial recognition and will focus on the faces in the viewing area. How to focus depends on the kind of photo you are taking. If you have a beautiful orchid in a pot in your house, and you want to take a great photo of the orchid for a limitless walls project, just like everything else, the focus is important. Set your camera on the tripod, chair, countertop, stack of books, or anything you can find to keep it perfectly stable. Look at the orchid in the viewfinder.
Press the shutter release button half-way down, and you will see the camera focus. It will show you exactly where it focused on a little box in the viewfinder or on the rear screen. At that point, pause for a moment and ask yourself if that is the best place to focus on? In the case of the person's face, did the camera focus on the eye or the ear? In the case of the orchid, did the camera focus on the biggest and most beautiful blossom? Or did it focus on the ceramic pot that the orchid was planted in?
If it focused on the pot, this would result in a photo that is not as sharp as you want, and it will lack that 'pop' that makes a well-focused image so impressive.
What do you do to focus on the correct subject in an image?
Well, just as all cameras seem to have autofocus these days, they also have a couple of autofocus modes. One of them tells the camera to automatically choose where to focus in the scene, while another mode will allow you to choose a fixed point in the camera's viewfinder to focus on. If the camera is not focusing on the correct subject on its own, it may need a little guidance from you. Set the autofocus point selection to manual and choose the middle of the frame for the focus point. Then, position your orchid so that the main focus is right in the crosshairs of that focus point, and by doing so, you will get a very well-focused photo.
If you want to move the focus to another area of the camera, go back to the camera's autofocus settings, and when you choose the focus point, move it over a little to the right, or wherever you want it to be, and then set up the photo again. This time the orchid can be placed a little to the right of center in your scene, and the focus point location will match with your preference and will still focus sharply on that orchid blossom.
Here is an example of the autofocus point on the girl's eye, off to the right side of the camera viewfinder.
Here is a sample of the menu of the camera that allows you to choose which focus point you want.
3. Set the ISO to the Optimal Level
In this scenario, you have the camera on the upside-down bucket with three heavy books on top of the bucket for your "tripod." You are using the self-timer to eliminate any camera shake, and finally, you have tweaked the autofocus settings to get the focus precisely where it needs to be. But there are a couple more things we have to consider.
One of these is called ISO. This is the part of the camera that sets the sensitivity to light. You may have noticed that your photos look cleaner and sharper on a super sunny day outside than they do in the evening with low light. This is because the camera uses a higher ISO setting to make the camera more sensitive, and thus, able to record a photo in low light. The downside to higher ISO settings is that they make the photo' noisy,' which takes away some of the beautiful sharp resolution we are looking for.
You can see that lower setting is better with ISO settings when you are looking for the best quality, particularly important in large, Limitless Walls prints.
On your camera, there is either a button or menu item called ISO. Once you have located the ISO, set it to the lowest setting, usually 100 or 200. Do not choose "auto" or the camera will try to set it higher than you want it. High ISO settings are there so that you can take a photo in low light.
However, since we are not going to be holding the camera, we can get away with lower ISO settings and still achieve the quality we are looking for. If you are taking a photo in a scene without super bright sunny light, the camera will have to compensate by using a slow shutter speed to collect more light. This can result in blur from the camera if it is not totally still. Since we have that part covered with our tripod or tripod alternative, we are not going to worry about it.
4. Set the Lens to the Optimal Aperture
Next, it is important to understand lens performance and aperture. Even very expensive lenses that cost thousands of dollars have their weaknesses, and this is even truer with point and shoot camera lenses. Certain settings of the lens aperture, which is the diaphragm that allows light to pass through the glass, will result in a better quality photo than other settings. Now, this aperture setting has several purposes, which you can learn about in an article such as this: http://www.exposureguide.com/focusing-basics.htm. For our purposes, I will just touch on one main point. For the best image sharpness and overall quality and resolution, you don't want the aperture too open or too closed. Take a look at the image showing the aperture settings and the related numbers. Aperture is expressed in a number with a lower case f/ with it. These 'f-stops' as they are called, change the way a lens behaves.
The aperture settings can affect a photo in many ways, but for the sharpest image, choose f/8.
Different lens apertures and what they look like inside the lens. If the lens is set "wide open" to f/1.4 or even f/2.8, it is possible for the image to look less sharp than at f/8. Without getting into the physics of lens design, in general, lenses perform at their optimum at the f/8 setting.
This is especially important with lower-cost lenses. Affordable lenses already operate at a disadvantage to the advanced professional lenses. Because of that, you want to be sure your lens is doing all that it can to contribute to the super-sharp image we are looking for.
Next, you will ask, how do I set the aperture?
Look at the mode dial on the camera. Here is a photo of several different camera mode dials on the top of the camera. One of these is a very affordable point and shoot, and one of these is a professional camera costing many thousands of dollars. One thing that they all have in common is a setting for Manual (M), Aperture Priority (A), Shutter priority (S or T), and finally, program or automatic settings. The setting we want is called aperture priority. It allows us to set the aperture to the exact value we want. The camera will then set the appropriate shutter speed to take a good photo with the light available at that moment.
So, set the camera mode dial to "A" for Aperture Priority. Then, look for the f-stop numbers and set that to f/8. Now, the camera is ready to shoot a photo at f/8. If you are not comfortable using the manual modes on the camera and generally use the automatic mode, you may be uncomfortable with this process. Don't worry. Aperture priority mode is actually a semi-automatic mode. You are simply telling the camera to take a good photo with appropriate settings, but make sure the aperture is set to your preferred settings, which, in this case, is f/8.
5. Lighting Condition
There is one last thing. The quality of the light is extremely important to photography. It makes a difference if the light is direct or diffuse, coming from in front of the subject or from behind it. Imagine you have a back yard with lots of green grass and a good amount of open sky visible. You also have a cement patio just out of your back door, something like the photo below.
Now, in this house, imagine the sun comes up in the morning and shines directly on the back door and patio, and as the day goes on, the sun goes over the house, and eventually, the back patio is in shadow.
Let’s now define some very basic lighting condition options we have to photograph our orchid in. In each option, we are setting the orchid pot in the middle of the patio, and we will put the camera on the tripod (or tripod alternative) near the back door. This way, the background of the photo is the nice green yard, rather than the house itself.
Early morning, the sun is shining directly on the orchid, but also directly at the camera’s lens. This is a tricky situation, but it can yield a very cool look. See how the sun is in the shot in the background, and the photo has that special glow to it? It is a little hazy but has a nice sunrise quality to it.
A few hours later, the sun is higher in the sky, the orchid is lit from above, and no sun is streaming directly into the camera. This is a typical situation and will yield a fairly normal image. The light is still direct on the orchid, but no longer aiming at the camera. The color and contrast are good, and the photo is well-defined.
The sun goes over the top of the house, and the orchid is now in shadow. This will mean that since there is no direct light on the orchid, it will make a photo with less contrast.
Early to mid-morning again, but this time, it is an overcast day. While it is still fairly bright outside, the light is diffused by the clouds, so it becomes softer light, but still bright.This is a very nice option. The soft light can make the orchid look quite nice and with lovely color.
6. Camera Quality Mode
Your camera can make photographs with different quality levels. Most cameras can shoot JPEG files as well as other types of files called RAW files. If you do not have experience with these different formats, simply select the highest quality JPEG possible that the camera can shoot. If you have some familiarity with these formatting options or are relatively computer savvy, you can choose to use the RAW file mode instead of the JPEG mode.
As long as you choose the highest quality JPEG, you will be ok. A lower quality JPEG can cut the image size and quality in half, which becomes a big problem when making a huge enlargement. If you choose RAW, you will be able to create a file called a TIFF on your computer after the shooting is finished, and that will give you a higher quality photo file. RAW files also offer other benefits, like easily adjusting the color without sacrificing quality.
After you have done all of this research and have taken the best photo you can, you should be very pleased with yourself! With a bit of planning, your image can be great, and the file you want enlarged by Limitless Walls will result in a lovely wall covering!
Q. What is the difference between cameras when making mural sized enlargements?
A mural-sized enlargement is a challenge for any digital photo. Because enlargement is beyond what the camera is normally used for, the more pixels the camera has, the better. Even a high-end 50-megapixel camera used by professionals has an intended print output size of about 21 x 28 inches.
Now, of course, we can enlarge beyond that, several times, but the more megapixels means a better image. The following graphic shows how many times we have to enlarge an image from a particular camera type in order to get to the huge size of the wall mural. The figures and numbers are to explain the concept, and may not match what we do on our end exactly. In fact, we have several methods to enlarge images well beyond their intended size.
The main idea is that the less we have to enlarge the image, the better the final image will potentially look.
Q. What is the difference between a basic and a high-end camera lens?
A low-quality lens will often look less sharp and less detailed than a higher quality lens. Below is an enlarged crop of a small part of a photograph taken with a high-quality lens and again with a low-quality lens. You will see a large difference in sharpness. You will also see an odd color effect in the lower grade lens called chromatic aberration. Most lenses have this issue to some degree, but lower quality lenses will really show a lot of it. In this example, it is clear which lens will make the better mural-sized enlargement!
Q. What kind of camera and lens should I use for my Limitless Walls Mural?
While any kind of camera can be used, the better the equipment and technique, the better the mural will look. We have covered the technique in this article, but the equipment can be more challenging as high-quality gear can be expensive.
If you own or are in the market for a good quality camera and lens, then look for one that will meet your needs. If you own a more basic camera but want a higher quality image for your mural, you have two choices, borrow one from a friend or rent one! There is an excellent rental shop online called Lens Rentals that will rent almost any type of camera and lens for a reasonable price, and ship it to your home.
Q. How do I know if my equipment is of good quality?
There is an excellent review site called Digital Photography Review. They provide detailed information on the performance of most cameras and lenses.
Mark is a professional photographer based in Miami, Florida. Much of his work requires taking photographs that will be enlarged for print, making him a perfect partner to talk about the subject for Limitless Walls.
Mark shoots commercial work, fine art photography, and documentary family photography with a project called “A Day In The Life Of A Family.” He also teaches private photography classes in person and also across the country via Skype.