How to get the best prints from your horse photos

horse photo prints

How to get the best prints from your digital camera РThere are no “neighs” about good pictures!

This article was featured in the October 2006 issue of the Southeast Equine magazine. Dawna Smith of Custom Photo Book granted me permission to post this article to provide you with helpful digital photography tips to ensure that your special equestrian moments are captured in their best possible light. Custom Photo Book can help you preserve these photos for your family and for future generations in a high quality Coffee Table type book. Sample of Custom Equine Book

Horses are the passion of many of our lives, and quite a few of us have spent years trying to capture in a photograph that special moment when our horse’s head is tossed or the lip is upturned in a comical pose. We don’t want to rely upon our sketchy memories. We’re notorious for wanting information instantaneously, and our photographic prints allow us to “visually” do just that. But only a good print will help trigger that special memory, and bring to mind the actual sound, sight and smells of the day the picture was taken.

Good photography along with excellent image resolution will enhance your chances of selling what is best about your horse, whether it be his conformation in the ring, his stamina on the course, or the foals he sires. Without pristine resolution, how will the people viewing your image “see” your horse’s movement, his musculature, the velvety softness of his muzzle, or the delicate flare of his nostrils? They won’t.

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Think of the word imagine, and then think of the word image. Imagine an image that evokes the actual feel of a horse’s breath on a frosty morning. For an image to be successful it must bring forth spontaneous emotion from its viewer. If your image has to pull feelings from the viewer as if pulling teeth, then don’t waste the money printing. If you’re selling your favorite mare and she’s great with kids, don’t take a picture of her with her muzzle buried in a bucket of grain, because buyers might think, “I wonder how much it will cost to feed her through the winter”. Take an image of your mare snuggled up against one of the kids, or have one with arms wrapped around her neck. These images speak directly to the buyer and shout…“Hey, one very kid friendly mare for sale!”.

No, this article is not about “How to Sell Your Horse”. It’s about the importance of high resolution images and ensuring good quality prints. In our business of graphic design and the printing and binding of custom coffee table photo books, our clients often ask if they can send us their low quality images to be used in the design process, and here is what we tell them….

Digital “point and shoot” and SLR (single lens reflex) cameras have evolved from the days of film to provide surprisingly compact computerized controls to help ensure quality photos. Images can be taken digitally and saved in low, medium, or high resolution image files. So, the problem is more about DPI (dots per inch).

Cameras are much like computers in that they have “storage devices” to hold the data captured. To maximize space, you might be tempted to reduce the image size. DON’T, because the fewer the dots per inch, the more white space there will be between the dots, and the print quality will be reduced proportionately. You can reduce a larger file and maintain integrity, but you can’t easily add dots to a smaller image and have it appear normal.

When trying to make an image larger than as captured, the computer must guess where to add pixels or colors to approximate your requested larger size. This is called interpolation and is the reason why some images appear blotchy, fuzzy, or incorrectly toned when printed.

When it comes to graphic file formats there are two types, one that saves an image without any loss (lossless) and the other where it intentionally gets rid of data information (lossy), but still keeps the appearance of the original picture. Visually on a monitor, these two types are difficult to differentiate, but when it comes to the printed page, WATCH OUT! When saving image files, what you see is NOT always what you get when you print.

Most digital cameras save in JPEG (.jpg), which is a “lossy” file format, because its compression algorithm enables you to store more images, resulting in poor quality prints when not used properly. Assuming your camera has a one gigabyte memory card, depending on the image settings, you could store 120, 240 or 360 images. Always opt for the least number of images, because that means each image is larger. Larger image files = BETTER prints = less pictures captured!

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Your camera may also allow you to save your image files as .TIFs (Tagged Image File). TIF is a “lossless” file format that creates large image file sizes, while maintaining your true image data. For those scanning old negatives or photographic prints, please use the .TIF format to save your scanned images and archive to CD or DVD for safekeeping.

Automatic presets provided by your camera, usually have .JPG format as the default. Set your camera to take the picture at the highest quality possible to ensure a larger .JPG, .TIF, or RAW file format for optimal printing later.

To prevent further data loss when saving a JPG file, do not use “Save As” to rename a file, choose “Save”, then rename the file using your file manager software. This keeps your editing program from compressing the file even more. JPG allows for image compression settings from one through twelve, with one providing the most compression, resulting in a greatly reduced size, and twelve the least compression, which helps retain the image’s data quality and best option for ensuring a decent print.

If your compression setting is below “12”, each time the file is saved your image has the potential to lose pixel data and worsen. To prevent this problem, after editing, save the edited image in TIF file format, which retains all the image data without loss. Use the JPG file compression only when “resaving” your images for display on the web or for sending to friends through email, when smaller sizes are more appropriate.

Your best possible prints will be when operating your camera under manual control and at optimal data capture. Some inexpensive cameras have the ability to generate “lossless” file format images and will use TIF for this purpose. Most SLR digital cameras offer their own “lossless” file formats called RAW images, but will often not do so unless your camera is set to a manual control option. Canon’s RAW file format suffix is denoted by CRW or CR2, while Nikon’s is known by NEF. RAW format can be likened to film strip negatives, basically unprocessed data that has been captured but not yet manipulated. Rather than using chemicals, the digital age now uses the computer as its darkroom and the camera’s graphic manipulation software as its film developing solution.

Camera settings in RAW are saved in a header rather than within the file itself, and it’s the header that is actually used to display your image when viewed in your camera’s software. Your camera’s RAW software settings can be manipulated numerous times to reflect your artistic desires, ensuring the best result for the final printed photograph. Keep in mind that the various edits can be saved in multiple files for future viewing and comparison, all the while your RAW data remains untouched and ready.

How is this possible? Remember, RAW file format is like a film negative, only better, which contains raw pixel information that is obtained directly from your camera’s sensor, and has not yet undergone film processing. You cannot “print” RAW files, as they must be first converted to a printable format such as JPG or TIF. Most errors you might make when taking the picture can be corrected with just a click of the mouse, such as changing the light settings, exposure values, white balance, and more. With one RAW image, you can create multiple “originals”, each so distinctive that it appears to be unique unto itself. I wonder, would Da Vinci have appreciated the ability to try different colors and lighting, at the click of a button, and then if not satisfied, delete his masterpiece without worry of wasting hundreds of hours of work?

Whether your images are JPG, TIF, or RAW file format, the important thing to remember is that your image must be of sufficient size and quality to ensure the best print possible. When creating an image for printing, make sure your image resolution is set to no less than 250 DPI (dots per inch). We often set our files at 300 DPI for optimal results.

If someone else is taking the photos digitally, ask them to supply you with the best possible image size in RAW or TIF file formats. If shooting with a film camera, ask the photo lab to supply not only the negatives and prints, but request the negatives be scanned in the highest resolution possible and archived on DVD for future printing. It may cost a little more, but is worth it in the long run.

Notes from Joni

  • Use a digital camera with a high Megapixel (MP) count. Most popular digital cameras are between 2MP and 5MP. A 3MP camera can make excellent 4″x6″ prints and very good 5″x7″ prints. If you intend to make 8″x10″ prints, then a 4MP or 5MP camera would be a better choice. Want poster size prints – then buy a super Megapixal camera!
  • Set your camera to highest resolution
  • If you have a zoom camera back up a bit and zoom in. You will get less huge headed horse photos with this tip.
  • Take a ton of photos so you can pick the best ones for printing
  • Consider hiring a professional equine photographer to get the best photos of your prized horses. It is not easy to take great horse photos. Top horses going for top prices demand great photos!
  • Don’t post the print quality (large images with huge download size) images on your website. Crop, resize, and resave them before displaying them on your site or blog or emailing them to friends and clients.

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For more info about digital cameras check out this article Digital Cameras – A beginner’s guide by Bob Atkins; created 2003.

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