Friday, April 25, 2014

Turn your photos into art
Blowing up SLR photos into something special
Originally published April 18, 2014 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

Since his printer’s width limit is 44 inches, Steve made his largest image—Jack Kerouac
 Alley in San Francisco—by printing on two panels which he had to match
 up perfectly when framing and hanging.
I’ve been the designated family photographer for years and love to add a good family or vacation photo to our hallway gallery. But

I’ve never really considered blowing a photo up large enough to display in my home like art. Would that even be possible with my 8-megapixel camera?

I go visit a friend—Steve Snyder—whose roomy home is like an art gallery, with his vibrant California landscapes and macro photography displayed on every available wall space. Steve likes to shoot classic California scenery in places like Capitola Village, Big Sur and Yosemite, and print as large as he possibly can. His large-format Canon printer allows him to produce canvases up to 44 inches wide, and many more inches long.

I ask Steve if someone like me, with an old digital SLR, could also produce poster-sized photos. “Absolutely,” he says. “It depends on the image.” To demonstrate, he points to one of his most popular images—huge orange carp swimming in a koi pond—which he says he shot with a 2 or 3 megapixel camera quite a few cameras ago, and hung above a doorway.

Why does this relatively small file blown up to 39”x50” still look good? Large photos make you stand back farther to take them in, and “when you’re standing back so far, you don’t need so many megapixels,” he says. But why does this photo in particular work? “Because it’s a big graphic image,” he says. “You’re not looking to see all the little pores in the fish’s head. You probably wouldn’t want to.”

One of Steve’s most popular images of a koi pond was shot several years ago with a 2 or 3 megapixel
 camera, but still looks great blown up to 39” x 55” in the entry way of his home.  Framing under glass
 would add unwanted reflections, so Steve used canvas in a floating frame, which adds a black space
 between the image and the frame.
 In contrast, he points to a huge, abstract image hung at eye-level nearby—an extreme close up of a polished rock, shot with a 36 megapixel Nikon. “I want to see all the detail,” says Steve.

With his macro photo of a polished rock, instead
 of wrapping the image around the edges of the frame,
Steve maximizes the printed size of the photo
 by adding black to the wrapped edge. In the black
 band he’s added his name, date, and title.
Generally speaking, a landscape will stand up to enlargement much better than a portrait, because the details of faces are so much more important to a viewer than being able to count the leaves on a tree. But the print medium also matters, says Mike de Boer, store manager of Bay Photo Lab in Soquel. “You can’t do metal if you want to go really big. It really exposes the qualities of the image. Canvas is much more forgiving,” he says.

Both Mike and Steve helped me understand some other basic principles for making high quality photographs.

  1. Set your camera for the largest file size possible. For my old Canon, I have a choice of “Large” for a 3.3 megabyte file, “raw” for an 8.3 megabyte file, or both simultaneously.

  1. If you shoot raw files (preferred by most art photographers), you will have to have software such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom in order to download the photos and save them as JPEGs. A raw file contains the data exactly as it is collected by the image sensor, and “gives you a much wider ability to fix images, especially in troublesome exposure areas,” says Mike. Or, as Steve puts it, if you shoot raw files and save them as JPEGs, “you won’t have more information, but you’ll have better information.” (One note: If you shoot raw, or raw + JPEG on vacation, make sure you take lots of memory cards with you for storage of those big files until you get home.)

  1. If you do any editing of your images, make sure you always save them at the highest quality setting—12 for a JPEG. Another option is to copy the JPEG or PSD files you want to enlarge to a memory stick and take it to Bay Photo, where a technician will sit with you and edit your photos in Photoshop with your input. (Basic editing, such as darkening the sky or improving colors, is free; “art work” editing, such as removing objects, is charged by the minute.)

  1. Adobe Photoshop is still the professional choice for photo editing software. But a less expensive and easier-to-use option is Adobe Lightroom. One way to get Photoshop at a more affordable price is to take a high school or college-level photography class (which might also improve your photo skills), so you’ll qualify for the much-reduced student price. Adobe also offers free downloadable beta (testing phase) versions of Photoshop and Lightroom.

  1. Steve noticed the inexpensive, chipped lens on the front of my camera lens to protect the lens. He says cheap filters will create reflections and color loss. Better to go without a filter and use a lens hood instead. Or, for landscapes, use a high-quality polarizing filter.

  1. Don’t use your $99 ink-jet printer (limited to 8-1/2 x 11 paper) or do inexpensive DIY framing for fine art photos. Printing on photo paper is still done, but there are so many more options that will enable you to frame your photos without glass and its distracting reflections. On you’ll get a taste of the huge variety of printing and mounting options out there, such as:

·         Canvas—implies the richness and quality of a painting, printed with archival inks on high-quality ink-jet printers. Canvas can also be wrapped around 1-1/2 inch deep stretchers, making the additional expense of glass, matting and framing unnecessary.
·         Metal—vibrating with luminescent colors, these durable prints are created by infusing dyes directly into specially coated aluminum sheets. Metal is growing in popularity, and is available in glassy, matte and other finishes.
·         Floating frames—available and very effective for canvas and metal prints, floating frames create a black space between the frame and the print so that the print appears to be floating.

Mike says the quality and size of a printed photo are also determined by customer expectations. “We talk to people and see what’s acceptable to them,” says Mike. “In the first few minutes, we can usually tell.” An employee since 1998, Mike’s seen Bay Photo’s roll change quite a bit in 16 years. “The interactions with customers used to be a lot shorter,” he says. “Now we’ve become a social place where people hang out and we talk about images.”

You can also upload your photos (if the file size isn’t too large) and order the exact treatment you want through,, or other online photo processing sites. To see Steve Snyder’s photo album, go to 

Tina Baine
For an archive of my columns go to

This is my photo  before I decided to take it to Bay Photo, of the green hills above San Martin at Harvey Bear Ranch Park. Mike de Boer improved the image by darkening the sky and heightening the color saturation.  He suggested I have it printed as an 11 x 17 metal print, which I did for about $50.  The finished print is really stunning.  I would have liked to go larger, but the loss of detail would have been noticeable.