How to correctly print low resolution screen graphics

Every single time one of my low resolution screen graphics is about to be printed in a book or catalogue i am asked to please send the "real version" of the graphics to the designers in charge. Because when printed, so i am told, all images should at least have a resolution of 300 dpi. This is wrong. Let me shortly explain how to do it right:

  1. The number of dpi (dots per inch) is completely irrelevant for screen graphics.
  2. Never use a lossy compression for saving screen graphics!! No JPG, use TIFF or PNG instead!
  3. Never enlarge or distort the graphics with an image processing software like Adobe Photoshop®! Don't touch the dpi values or interpolate anything!!
  4. The desired dimensions should be assigned to the image inside the layout software (e.g. Quark XPress® or Adobe Indesign®). Like this, the image data will not be altered.

How to handle data right

What are low resolution screen graphics after all?

They are images that were made to be looked at on a monitor screen. A monitor can in no way display as many pixels (the little squares digital images are made of) on the same amount of surface as a printer or an offset printing machine. The art in screen graphics is to use the few available pixels to the best extend, so usually each single pixel is deliberately and carefully placed. Typical applications of screen graphics are video games, web sites and graphical user interfaces.

Of course screen graphics do not have a resolution of 300 dpi, which would be useful for printing photos. The "resolution" value indicates how many pixels are covering one surface unit. With photographs, 300 dpi -- 300 "dots per inch" -- ensure a very detailed and faithful reproduction.

Screen graphics, however, do not have any resolution values. The wrong assumption that they have originates from the Apple DTP community. Once upon a time all Apple monitors were locked to a resolution that equaled 72 dpi. But today even Apple computers allow the user to set arbitrary monitor resolutions. -- In general the connected monitor and the selected resolution dictate how big a pixel really is. On a sub-notebook screen, a pixel might be a tenth of a millimeter, when it is projected with a video beamer the length of its edge might be several inches. Also with videogames, the pixel size depends on the size of the TV that is used. Because of all this it is impossible to tell the resolution of screen graphics. The only thing that counts is what pixel has what color.

It is very important for screen graphics, especially when reproduced in a foreign medium like an art catalogue, that the original data remains unchanged. Each pixel needs to be preserved so that different pixels are distinguishable -- just like on the monitor! So never change the "resolution" of a screen image. Image processing software like Adobe Photoshop® interpolates gradients between the original pixels when the resolution is "enlarged" and through this dramatically changes the impression of an image.

Most of the time it is the right way to use a layout software to bring the image to the desired dimensions. Each pixel square will be resized without generating gradients. This works because the layout software would not try to change the original image data. Instead, a larger amount of surface is used to display the same data.

This is an image from the comic series Zombie and Mummy, drawn on a Palm Pilot. The data is reproduced exactly: one pixel on the monitor equals one pixel in the image.

This is a scan of a laserprint of this image. The pixels of the image are resized so they appear as sqaures in the printing resolution of 600 dpi. This is a faithful reproduction.

Now an example of how not and never ever to do it:

The original image has been resized with the "bicubic" mode in Adobe Photoshop® to match the printing resolution. Between the clear black pixels of the original gradients appeared to flow into the white background pixels. This already looks uber shitty on the monitor ....

.... but it gets really terrible when it is printed: since the printer has to render the grey pixels with a halftone raster, these shotgun bullet holes appear around every pixel of the original image. Please also note the dreadful moirées where the beautiful fill pattern used to be. This has not a lot to do with the original image anymore!! BARF! So don't touch that image resize function!!

Measurements against automatic interpolation

It can happen that when printing the image is enlarged and interpolated, although the image data has not been modified in an image processing software. Actually this can theoretically happen anywhere in the long chain of programs that brings an image to paper, even in the printer driver itself. If this happens it is impossible to deactivate the interpolation function. Printer drivers from the companies Brother and HP have been reported to behave like this.

In this case it can be helpful to resize the image data manually, so the printer driver thinks that the image resolution is already big enough and leaves it alone. To do this, load the image into an image processing software and change the dimensions in pixel or percentage units to a whole number multiple of itself. Choose the enlarging method that only duplicates pixels and does not interpolate. Usual names for this method are "nearest neighbour", "pixel repeat", "jagged" or "resize" (in opposite to "resample").

This "automatic interpolation effect" only happened when an image was printed by itself. When an image is a part of a layout and printed from e.g. a PDF file or a layout software, it didn't happen (yet).

File Formats

Never save screen graphics in the JPG format!! Every single pixel is important in screen graphics. But JPG compression is lossy, meaning that the pixels don't necessarily have the original position and color. In a high resolution photo you will not be able to see this difference. For low resolution screen graphics it is simply fatal when the already not so many pixels are moved and recolored!! Instead, use e.g. the TIFF or PNG format.

But careful with the TIFF format: from some softwares it is possible to embed JPEG compression into the TIFF file format. Use only the LZW compression!

This beautiful butterfly is made from 8 colors, 123 pixels wide and 105 pixels high. Each pixel in the image matches to one pixel on the monitor.
The original image was converted into JPG format. Around the clear shapes of the pixels horrible artifacts become visible. BARF!
The resolution of the image was enlarged. The computer has to invent new data where there is none in the original and generates gradients between the original pixels. The clear shapes vanish in what we professionals call "bicubic mush". BARF! If this would be offset printed it would look even worse than the black and white example above.


Again it becomes clear how computer culture is badly affected by the idea of the computer being a "media center". Following this idea, a computer is mainly used to process photos and videos with photographic content. This is outrageous!

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