DPI: Why You (Probably) Don’t Care

I see this question, or some variation on it, over and over again:

“I just got a new camera, and it shoots at 72DPI by default.  How do I change it?  Won’t 300DPI give me higher-quality images?”

It’s a common question, and a very common misunderstanding about DPI.

First, let’s start with the camera.  Your camera’s sensor has some native size, some fixed number of recording points (remember the sensor gnomes?) on its sensor.  Each recording point records one pixel of the image.  Every image that’s shot with the camera has that size no matter what.  Using the Canon Digital Rebel XTi as an example, the sensor is 3888 pixels wide and 2592 pixels tall.  If you multiply those numbers together you get 10,077,696, which is why it’s called a ten megapixel (ten million pixel) camera.

Remember that.  As long as you shoot at the XTi’s maximum resolution (and by that I don’t mean DPI, I mean L or L+RAW) you’ll get an image that is 3888 pixels wide and 2592 pixels tall.  Some cameras let you shoot smaller images, by changing the size from L to M or S.  If you do that, you’re shooting at whatever size that particular setting gives you, but it’s still independent of DPI.

72DPIFlower So what’s DPI?  It stands for Dots Per Inch. For our purposese, a dot is the same as a pixel, so it would be pixels per inch. (There is a technical difference between dots per inch and pixels per inch, but for purposes of this discussion we’ll treat one pixel as being the same as one dot– it’s one unique spot of data in our digital image)  DPI is not really a part of the image itself, and doesn’t change anything within the image.  Rather, it’s a number that’s stuck onto the side that tells a printer how big it should print out the image– imagine someone handing the file off to be printed, and sticking a post-it note on the file so that the printer will know how big to make the image.  If the image is 72DPI, the printer will print out 72 dots in every linear inch.  At 300DPI, the printer will print 300 dots in every linear  inch.

If you’re working with an image on the computer, and never printing the image, DPI is completely irrelevant.  A 3888×2592 image at 72DPI is exactly the same image as a 3888×2592 image at 300DPI or 1DPI, or a million DPI.  Really.

The thing about DPI is that you can change it arbitrarily, and it won’t affect the image.  As long as it stays 3888 pixels wide and 2592 pixels tall, you can rip off the 72DPI sticky note and change it to any other number, and you still have exactly the same data in your image.  That means that you don’t really care what DPI the camera sticks onto the side when you first take the picture– changing it in-camera won’t change the information that you capture, and it’s easy to change it later if you want to print the image out.  Plus, if you’re printing the image you probably will want to resize it, crop it, or make other adjustments.

And that, in a nutshell, is why you probably don’t care about DPI.  Unless you’re printing the image out, DPI is a completely irrelevant concept, and one you basically just shouldn’t worry about at all.

Next up, I’ll explain how DPI works when you’re printing.

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2 Comments

Filed under Discussion, Equipment

2 responses to “DPI: Why You (Probably) Don’t Care

  1. Andy Peacock

    Hi Patti, i’ve been reading your lessons as I got my dSLR in November 08 (Samsung GX10). I’m finding the world of photography very exciting indeed. Although I’m from the UK your lessons are the easiest to understand I have come accross. I haven’t yet come accross ‘white balance’ in your lessons. Unless I’m blind, I can’t find it on SSA at all. Are you able to touch on what white balance is and how to use it to our advantage?

    Thanks again,

    Andy

    Chester, England

  2. stopshootingauto

    White balance is definitely on my list of to-be-covered topics.

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