Going from web resolution images to print resolution images

I like to make zines. I’ve made an awful lot of them. And, for the most part, I do the layout on a computer. In the old days, zinesters (god i hate that term. I think cause it sounds like “hipsters.”) would keep stacks of clipart books and old books and whatever else around to cull images from from. I used to travel with a ziploc bag full of photos and illustrations that I’d cut out of books that I’d rescued from the trash, and I photocopied those images.

But I don’t travel with a scanner. And while I’ve used my digital camera as a serviceable scanner (see, for example, the typewritten text on the album cover for Nomadic War Machine), I mostly get my images off the internet.

But here’s the thing: images you find on the internet are, by default, 72 dots-per-inch (dpi). Printed matter, on the other hand, tends to be 300dpi. So images that look nice and big on a computer screen will come out very small when printed, or very ugly.

The above image, for example, is 600 pixels wide, which makes it plenty big on a screen. But those same 600 pixels wide, when printed, end up around this big:

which isn’t so very big. So if you just printed it at 72dpi, or blew it up anyway, the detail of it would like basically like this:

And this is considered a pretty bad thing. It definitely makes your work look amateurish, and is generally considered ugly. Personally, I think it’ll be something we’ll just accept in about 5 years, and it will be a cool effect that we’ll have photoshop plugins to simulate in 30. But for now, let’s avoid this problem.

How? There are 5 ways that I use:
1 – get a better image. This is your best option.
2 – get fancy filters for photoshop that do it
3 – live trace it in illustrator
4 – add some grain, or noise
5 – turn it into a half-toned image.

Get a better image

This is what you should probably do. If you’re doing a google image search, there are options to search only for images over certain sizes:

If you’re looking for a replication of a popular old illustration or painting, you’ll be able to use this to find the largest version available on the internet. Or if you’re open to other ideas of what images to use, this is a good function.

You can also try to scan the original image, if you can find it somewhere in print.

get fancy filters

I don’t have any of these installed at the moment. The one I used was Alien Skin Blow Up 2. It worked okay, but not great. This is probably your best option if you need to make a photo or a full-color illustration larger and you can’t change the aesthetic of it at all.

Live trace it

Live trace is a feature in Illustrator that takes an image and turns it into a vector image. A regular image on a computer is composed of pixels, each pixel being assigned a certain color. But a vector image is, instead, a set of instructions. It’s like a connect-the-dots for a computer. A vector image can be resized to any dimension without any loss of quality. Therefore, vector images are made of win. However, you’re unlikely to find vector images of something online, and vector images tend to only be of illustrations, not of photographs.

Live trace is a feature that automatically traces an image–including photos, if you’d like–and turns them into vector images. This is incredibly useful for, say, poster-prints of illustrations. Like this poster series from Strangers In A Tangled Wilderness. Note, however that for live trace to work best, particularly on etchings, it helps to start with as high quality of a file as possible.

Live traced photos have their own distinct aesthetic. It’s a popular one in contemporary anarchism, particularly among american insurrectionists, but for a good reason. It’s pretty, and helps make very bold illustrations:

(image is the cover of the zine I Will Not Crawl, which isn’t my project but I thought it was a good example of the aesthetic done well.)

To live trace:

you can just go to “make”, but usually you want to play with the options, so go to “object/live trace/tracing options”>, which brings up this dialogue:

you can set black and white vs. grayscale vs. color. “threshold” is basically where the line is that separates what should be included and what should be skipped. Number of colors sets, well, the number of colors. And blur is actually really useful, it helps prevent some of the telltale live trace artifacts. It also supposedly speeds up the process.
Here is the output of a live traced color painting:

The larger an image is before you load it in to live trace, the more detailed the live trace will be. This is true even of low-resolution images: sometimes I’ll blow up an image to something ridiculous like 40,000 pixels in photoshop before I open it in Illustrator and run live trace.

Anyhow, once you’ve run live trace, you save your file and end up with an .ai file. this can be placed directly into InDesign, or you can bring it back into photoshop (converting it to be whatever size you want) and saved as a non-vector image.

Add some grain

Personally, I tend to live trace illustrations and then do other things with photos. Well, mostly I use my own photos, so they’re high enough resolution. But that can’t always be the case. Anyhow, if you have an image that is only slightly too small, like, say, 2/3 the size you need it to be, my suggestion is to just add grain or noise with photoshop filters (after you blow it up in photoshop). The idea with this is… yes, the image will look a bit blurry, but at least it looks like it’s blurry in a non-computer way.
here’s an example. Before:


Half-tone it

Halftoning is where you take an image and turn it into a pattern of dots. Newspapers do this: if you take a magnifying glass to a newspaper, you see that the photos are made out of series of dots in four colors of ink. And this is a really good way to make images bigger without making them look web-crappy.

For this method to work, you have to start with a grayscale image. There are ways to to do in color, but I haven’t messed around with them much because I’m usually working with black and white, or I’m working with more professional images to begin with and don’t need to mess around with this stuff.

you can blow up the resolution from here, going from 72 to 300.

You can set the frequency to determine how big the dots will be. You have to find the right balance: too many, and it basically still looks like a web image. Too few, and the effect becomes very obvious (which can be done on purpose, of course). You can also set whether it will be dots, diamonds, or other shapes. Here’s a detail of what these settings produce:

and here’s a basic idea of how it will look printed (which actually still looks bad, i probably need fewer dots):

You’ll probably want to put it back into grayscale mode once you’ve done this: it allows you to see the image more realistically on your screen. The biggest downside of halftoned images is that computers aren’t really set up to display them properly, so they’ll look drastically different at different sizes on your screen as you zoom in and out. And you really have to print them to see how they’ll turn out, which can be annoying.

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