Large Format Printing – Everything You Need to Know

The Ultimate Guide to Large Format Printing

So, you need to produce some advertising displays for your company? If you are thinking about producing trade show booths, large banners, retail flags or roll up banners then you will need to produce some suitable artwork for these. When you get into these types of projects, the design process gets more complex than producing a simple flyer. In fact, anything that you make that is more than the size of standard printer page could be considered “large format printing”. There are many different aspects that must be considered when preparing your graphics so that your marketing display products come out amazing.

We put together this article to try to include all the aspects that must be considered from a technical and design standpoint. At Display Pros we love to geek out on design, but some of this material can be a little dry so feel free to skim around to find just the info that you need. We tried to keep it light – if you read to the end we even included a fun video about large format imaging at Machu Picchu! You can use the table of contents above to find what you need quickly.

Consider Your Audience

It is important to consider your audience. The first item to consider when planning your artwork is how the finished display will be viewed. The overall DPI or “dots per inch” (scroll down for a more complete explanation) of the image will affect its crispness and fidelity on the print. What you need to ask yourself is, “What is the optimal viewing distance for this marketing display?”. For example, if you are producing a roll up banner, this item is probably going to be viewed up close. In this case it would be best to try to increase the DPI as much as possible.

However, if your application is going to be a billboard or large format banner, then this may be intended to be viewed from 50 feet away in traffic. This would be an opportunity to use a lower DPI. Best practice is to use a higher DPI number regardless of application, but as you read on you will see that there are technical hurdles to this.

Optimal print DPI is inversely proportional to viewing distance

File Types Matter

There are two different kinds of main image file types – these are vector and raster or bitmap. They each have their own individual characteristics that are ideal for various types of imaging. Graphical art such as logos or illustrations and text lend themselves to the vector file format while raster files are best suited for photography.

Vector

Vector art is a computer graphic file that is stored as mathematical curves. This makes it an ideal format for large format printing. The overall resolution can be increased basically infinitely, and the computer program will render the art from the stored mathematical representation of the image. For example, if you have a logo file in a vector format this will print crisply on a business card, but the same file can be resized to print on a billboard with the same amount of fidelity.

One example of vector images that most everyone should be familiar with is fonts. If you use a word processor, you will notice that letters will print crisply regardless of how large the font size is set to. This is because TrueType fonts and similar formats are rendered from vector files.

When planning your artwork for a large format display piece, it is important to consider adding vector elements because you can be guaranteed that these will render and print crisply regardless of how large your finished item is.

Raster

A raster image is a computer file that represents an image at a fixed resolution (generally a photographic image. Raster images are also called bitmaps. That is because they are stored as a rectangular map of pixels (points of color) with each color represented by a number of bits.

Since a raster image is a fixed resolution, it will become blurry if it is enlarged too much. When planning your display artwork, you need to consider the required resolution of your raster files. Luckily, we have included a calculator in this post that can be used to determine exactly what resolution raster images you need to produce beautiful prints.

As with vectors, raster images are represented by numerous different file types. Certain file types are more suited to large format printing. We have included descriptions of different file types below including considerations that need to be taken when setting up these file types.

vector vs raster file when enlarged

File Size Matters

Regardless of the file types that are used, when you are designing digital artwork for a large format print, your file sizes are going to get very large fast. There are a couple of techniques that you can use to make the design process more productive. One is to design at a lower resolution and then to resize to the finished size (see our calculator below to find out what resolution you need to produce the optimal printed image). If you are going to use this method, it is important to use vector images wherever possible so that on resize the ideal resolution can be maintained.

At Display Pros, when we are working on 10 foot+ designs, file sizes can get into the 1 Gig range, which can be very slow to edit. Using creative techniques to maximize the ease of editing is critical when creating complex larger prints.

What Type of Software Should I Use?

Free Software for Image Editing

Here is a selection of free and open source software that is suitable for creating images for wide format printing. They may not have all the features of a paid version, but you can definitely accomplish a lot of basic image editing tasks with these.

GIMP

From Gimp.org: “GIMP is a cross-platform image editor available for GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows and more operating systems. It is free software, you can change its source code and distribute your changes. Whether you are a graphic designer, photographer, illustrator, or scientist, GIMP provides you with sophisticated tools to get your job done. You can further enhance your productivity with GIMP thanks to many customization options and 3rd party plugins.”

GIMP Website

Paint.NET

From getpaint.net: “Paint.NET is image and photo editing software for PCs that run Windows. It features an intuitive and innovative user interface with support for layers, unlimited undo, special effects, and a wide variety of useful and powerful tools. An active and growing online community provides friendly help, tutorials, and plugins.
It started development as an undergraduate college senior design project mentored by Microsoft, and is now maintained and developed by Rick Brewster. Originally intended as a free replacement for the Microsoft Paint software that comes with Windows, it has grown into a powerful yet simple image and photo editor tool.”

Paint.NET Website

Photo Pos Pro

From photopos.com: “Photo Pos Lite is a free lite version of the award-wining photo editor Photo Pos Pro. Photo Pos Lite contains many of Photo Pos Pro’s tools and features. Despite Photo Pos Lite contains only a part of Photo Pos Pro features it is still a powerful Image and Computer Graphics editor. Using the Lite version you can edit, enhance and manipulate your pictures easily. You can edit and optimize your pictures, print it, resize it, convert it to another format and much more. The editor also includes some great drawing and painting tools for creating computer graphics. The Lite version offers many tools and functions which include among other things Support of many picture file types (include gifs with transparent background, password protected file and more), Support of scanners and digital cameras, Various of Image Enhancing and editing tools and functions, Paint Brush Tool, Shapes Tool, Clone Brush Tool, Rich Text Tools, Special Effects, Selection Tools, Simple Gradients and more.”

Photo Pos Website

Adobe Photoshop

If you are at all familiar with graphic design then it is safe to say that you have heard about Adobe Photoshop, the ubiquitous image editing program. It is used throughout all industries to create digital and print graphics. It allows the user to take advantage of layers and powerful editing tools that are capable of producing just about anything when it comes to imaging.

Photoshop was created by brothers Thomas and John Knoll in 1988. It was sold to Adobe and since then has become by far the industry standard for digital graphic imaging. Photoshop is available on Windows and Mac, but not Linux.

Photoshop Website

Adobe Illustrator

Similar to Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator is the de facto industry standard for vector image design and manipulation. It has advanced tools that allow designers to create just about anything they can conceive of for mobile, web, digital and print.

Illustrator Website

Example Document Set Up

The image below is of the “New Document” dialog box from Adobe Photoshop. This can also be applied to any image editing program. When you are preparing your file for print, there are three main elements to consider. These are size, resolution and color mode. For the size, simply set this to the finished size of your printed product. Resolution is dependent on a few factors, but the main one is “considering your viewing distance” as discussed above. Finally, the color mode should be set to RGB initially when designing an image on your computer. There are several reasons to work in RGB, which we talk about below. Ultimately it will give you more flexibility. Some old school print shops require CMYK mode, but at Display Pros, our state-of-the-art dye sublimation print process will work just fine with RGB mode artwork.

“New Document” dialog box in Photoshop

File Type Guide for Large Format Printing

Raster File Types

JPEG Files (.jpg)

[RECOMMENDED FOR LARGE FORMAT PRINTING] JPEG is a regularly utilized technique for lossy compression for digital images, especially for photography. The level of compression can be balanced, permitting a tradeoff between file size and picture quality. JPEG can use 10:1 compression with minimal loss in fidelity.

Set Up Recommendations: When you are saving your artwork for print using a JPEG format it is important to save this with no compression, so you can maximize the final quality of the print.

Bitmap Files (.bmp)

[RECOMMENDED FOR LARGE FORMAT PRINTING] A bitmap is an image format that organizes colored pixels on a rectangular grid. Bitmap files are uncompressed

Set Up Recommendations: Simply pay attention to the required resolution when saving for print.

GIF Files (.gif)

[NOT RECOMMENDED FOR LARGE FORMAT PRINTING] GIF files stand for “graphic interchange format”. They are not recommended for print because they do not support the right amount of color depth. GIFs are more suited for web images especially because they support fun animations like this:

via GIPHY

Adobe Photoshop Files (.psd)

[RECOMMENDED FOR LARGE FORMAT PRINTING] Photoshop uses its own PSD file to represent raster and vector images that are arranged in layers. It supports advanced features like masking and smart filters that can be saved and adjusted later. When you are working with ultra high res images inside of Photoshop, it can also support these inside of their large document format, which is called PSB.

Set Up Recommendations: When saving Photoshop files for printing, it is smart to flatten or rasterize all of your layers at the optimal resolution. If you are submitting a layered file be sure that you convert your text to outlines so that your font choices can be preserved.

TIFF Files (.tiff)

[RECOMMENDED FOR LARGE FORMAT PRINTING] Tagged Image File Format, abbreviated TIFF or TIF, is a computer file format that is popular among graphic artists.

Set Up Recommendations: Simply pay attention to the required resolution when saving for print.

PNG Files (.png)

[NOT RECOMMENDED FOR LARGE FORMAT PRINTING] Portable Network Graphics is a raster-graphics file-format that supports lossless data compression. PNG was developed to improve upon the GIF graphic format. It supports transparency which makes it great for use on the web. It was designed for use on digital screens and is not recommended for use in print.

RAW Files (.raw)

[NOT RECOMMENDED FOR LARGE FORMAT PRINTING] RAW file is the most common file format for uncompressed images captured by digital cameras and Scanners. They need further processing before converting to a raster image format that can be used for printing.

Vector File Types

Adobe Illustrator Files (.ai)

[RECOMMENDED FOR LARGE FORMAT PRINTING] Adobe Illustrator Artwork (AI) is a proprietary file format developed by Adobe Systems for representing single-page vector-based drawings. It is essentially an EPS file. It can also be saved as a PDF file for printing.

Set Up Recommendations: It is important to consider the aspect ratio and color space required for your final print piece.

SVG Files (.svg)

[RECOMMENDED FOR LARGE FORMAT PRINTING] Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) is an XML-based vector image format for two-dimensional graphics with support for interactivity and animation. SVG was developed for use on the web but can also be printed in large format.

Set Up Recommendations: It is important to consider the aspect ratio and color space required for your final print piece.

EPS Files (.eps)

[RECOMMENDED FOR LARGE FORMAT PRINTING] Encapsulated PostScript (EPS) is a type of vector file that includes a small preview image that is “encapsulated” inside the file, so some programs can display a preview. It can be used in large format printing.

Set Up Recommendations: It is important to consider the aspect ratio and color space required for your final print piece.

RGB vs CMYK

RGB stands for “Red Green Blue”. CMYK stands for “Cyan (Blue) Magenta Yellow Key (Black)”. When you are working with digital artwork it is being represented on your screen in RGB mode.

RGB File Sizes are about 25% smaller than CMYK. When you are preparing for large format print, file size is a big factor that will affect your efficiency. Also, many programs have image filters that are only available in RGB color space. The number of colors that are available inside of a “color profile” is called gamut. RGB has a much larger color gamut than CMYK. Since most stock images are native RGB converting these to CMYK before editing can cause some loss of color fidelity and there is a potential that they could end up looking dull.

Some display product companies will ask that you prep your artwork in CMYK mode, but at Display Pros you can simply design in RGB so that what you see on your screen is what you will end up with on your final printed item. That way you can avoid costly or time-consuming screen calibration and guess work. Our state-of-the-art print process will ensure that what you see is what you get.

Where Can I Get Properly Sized Images?

There are several sources online to get quality stock images for use in your large format printing projects.

Free Sources for Stock Images

Pixabay

Pixabay is one of our favorites. We even use it natively in our online design tool for our custom roll up banners and retail flags.

Pixabay Website

Burst (by Shopify)

Burst Website

Unsplash

Unsplash Website

Flickr

Flickr is not a stock photo site per se, but it is home to many professional artists work. These are not necessarily available for commercial use. It is still worth checking out though – you may be able to make a connection to an artist that is willing to share or sell their work for use in your commercial printing project.

Flickr Website

Freerange Stock

Freerange Website

Getty Images

Getty Images Website

iStock (by Getty Images)

iStock Website

Adobe Stock

Adobe Stock Website

Fotolia

Fotolia Website

Shutterstock

Shutterstock Website

Megapixels – how big can it be printed?

Megapixels simply means “millions of pixels”. It is calculated by multiplying the overall resolution of an image in pixels and dividing by 1 million. For example, a 2400 x 1000 pixel image is 2.4 megapixels (2400 x 1000/ 1 million).

Determining how an image will look when printed means that you need to take your desired DPI into account. In this case your dots refer to the pixels that are available in the image and how closely packed they will be on the final print. When you are talking about these images as they exist in a digital environment, DPI could also be referred to as PPI (pixels per inch).

72 DPI vs 150 DPI vs 300 DPI
the larger the DPI or PPI the more densely packed the pixels will be on your final image

Image Size Calculator for Printing

What If I Need to Print Raster Images on a Larger Size (10 feet or more)?

Again, this comes down to assessing the viewing distance that will best serve your audience. If you are producing a large format banner that will be attached to the side of a building, then your viewing distance could be 50 feet away. In this case, resolution is not as critical as something that will be viewed from up close. But what if you are creating a display for a large application that will be viewed both up close and far away? Maybe this is a large photographic mural for a restaurant or an office building. Then you will need to use some more specialized technology.

Even the best professional medium format DSLR cameras like the Hasselblad H6D-400c ($50,000 price range) are only capable of imaging up to 100 Megapixels. If you refer to our calculator above you can see that in the best conditions, this image can be produced as a print at 300 DPI and just under a 3-foot square. So, what if you want to produce a ceiling height mural that is 50 feet long? Then you need to turn to one of the new innovative companies that are producing ultra-high-resolution photography. A couple of these companies are VAST and Gigapan.

Super High Resolution Photography

Both technologies are similar. They use a special motorized rig that is attached to a tripod and a high end DSLR. The rig moves the camera in a grid formation to capture a tiny fraction of the overall image. This allows one little piece of the image to take advantage of the full resolution of the camera that is being used. After that is done cycling through each little bit of the grid, those images are fed into proprietary software that stitches them together. You’re probably familiar with a similar technique if you’ve ever taken a panorama image with your cell phone’s camera. This photography results in staggeringly large images with incredible detail. Just look at the example below. That is zooming up to the small rectangle in the background of the image and look how much detail is available! That is because it has been rendered at 16 GIGA pixels – that is 16 billion pixels. You can see how this would be an advantage for large format printing.

large format image of machu picchu
Largest Image Ever Taken of Machu Picchu

You can explore this image at gigapixelperu.com. If you want to learn more about this type of imaging, you can check out the sites above. Also, the image of Machu Picchu was produced by the YouTube channel, Smarter Every Day. You can watch that video here.

Hiring Designers for Your Large Format Prints

If some of these items seem complicated, that’s okay. If you are looking for new retail or trade show displays it is important to hire designers that are experts with large format printing and all of the technical aspects involved. At Display Pros, all of our products come with free professional design service from our team of experts. Get in touch today for a free quote!