Enlarge Your Photos Without Sacrificing Quality

These days, digital cameras come packed with so many pixels that it's a challenge e-mailing photos at their full, original size. Instead, it's important to reduce the size of your pictures so they're easier to share. I've explained how to resize photos for e-mail and the Web in the past--it's pretty easy to do with any photo editing program or even just with Windows.

But what if a photo is not too big, but too small? Is it possible to make pictures bigger, so you can make a large print, for instance?

Yes, you can. (After all, why would I ask the question if the answer was just going to turn out to be "no"?)

Why Enlarge?

We've already established that modern digital cameras tend to have more pixels than you could possibly need. So why would you ever need to enlarge a digital photo?

You might have a photo from an older digital camera that captures only 2- or 3-megapixel images, for example. Or your photo might be the product of a camera phone that takes much smaller images. Or, no matter how big the original photo started out, it's possible that after cropping, there just aren't that many pixels left over for a sharp print.

Remember that you'll want about 300 pixels per inch when you print, so to make an 8 by 10 inch print, your photo should be about 2400 by 3000 pixels. If it's a lot smaller, the print will look noticeably blocky.

The Wrong Way to Enlarge

You might remember that there's a resizing tool in your photo editing program. In Photoshop Elements, for example, you can choose Image, Resize, Image Size and specify any size, bigger or smaller than the original photo.

Don't try that, though. Photo editing programs are fairly "dumb," and will just tend to duplicate pixels as needed to make the photo as big as you requested. The result is not pretty; your photo will turn into a blocky, pixelated mess.

In general, you should use your photo editor only to resize a photo smaller, never larger.

Try SmillaEnlarger

What you need to enlarge a photo is a program designed just for the task. There are a number of commercial programs (and plug-in filters for Photoshop) that will do this. In the past, I've told you about Genuine Fractals, for example, and PCWorld reviewed the most recent version. Genuine Fractals uses fractal interpolation--very advanced math--to infer hidden detail when enlarging an image. The result can be Jack Bauer-style image improvements that can dramatically improve the appearance of a print compared to what you'd get with the low-resolution original. The downside? Genuine Fractals is expensive, clocking in at $160.

Here's a free alternative: SmillaEnlarger is an open-source photo enlarger for Windows. It's easy to install, since there's no setup program--just drag the folder anywhere you like and then run the program. To use it, drag a photo into the program window and specify the new size you want.

You don't need to tweak any of the program settings to get great results. Just click the Preview button to see what the final image will look like. If you're happy, specify a name for the final image and then click Enlarge & Save. The results can be stunning.

Here is a zoomed-in detail from a recent Hot Pic winner, "Tomatoes," by Brian Kolstad. Notice that the text on the shirt is only barely legible.

And here is the same detail, tripled in size with SmillaEnlarger. Notice that the same region of the photo is now dramatically easier to read.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This Week's Hot Pic: "Mew Gulls," by Bill Pearl, Cornwall, Ontario

Bill writes: "I took this photo at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. With a flock of gulls just a few feet away, I could not miss getting one or two really good pictures. I used an HP PhotoSmart R707 and then, in this photo, cloned away the ocean from the bottom of the picture."

This Week's Runner-Up: "Pattern with Shallow Depth of Field" by Larry D. Miller, Guthrie, Oklahoma

Larry says that this photograph was an assignment for a beginning digital photo class: "Pattern with a shallow depth of field."

To see last month's winners, visit our November Hot Pics slide show. Visit our Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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