Promo Photos: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
This page explains what we're looking for in promotional photos.
- Worth a thousand words... same photo, different results
- Starting at the beginning: what's a pixel?
- Dots in print: the amazing shrinking photo
- Picture quality: and why it goes away
- Portraits and pixels: what this presenter wishes for
Worth a thousand words...
Here are three different outcomes from the same image. These are all 185x609 pixels, saved at 72dpi.
- The first image is a portion of the original publicity photo (Kevin Burke's fiddle, the work of photographer Owen Carey), saved here at maximum image quality. The original photo is 4000 pixels across, and every single dot says something worthwhile. This strip is 74KB in size, which would take a minute and a half to download on a dialup line... awful for a webpage, but fine for presenters downloading promo photos. Many performers' websites offer various sizes/resolutions for the same photo.
- The second image was saved at minimum image quality, that is, the smallest file size possible. Notice the artifacts around the fiddle strings, and the boxes of different grey-shades in the background.
- The third image was downsized to make a smaller image, then expanded back to the original size. Although it's the same pixel-count as the other two images, the detail has been utterly lost. This effect is also seen when a 72-dpi photo from a website is printed at 72dpi.
High resolution DOESN'T mean a high dots-per-inch number.
High resolution DOESN'T mean a high pixel count.
High resolution means the photo still looks good, even when zoomed WAY in.
Starting at the beginning
A photo is made up of individual color dots (pixels). Resolution is measured in dots (pixels) per inch (dpi). This can be specified in the photo file.
On a computer screen, a dot is a dot; a pixel is a pixel. The image displays the same regardless of the dpi specified in the photo. Usually 72 or 96dpi will be specified, but it doesn't affect display.
In print, dpi REALLY matters. But, as we see in the fiddle images above, success in print really depends on the amount of detail saved in the image... not really on dots-per-inch as such.
Dots in print
A photo that is 300 pixels across, at 300dpi, printed at full size (100%) will be one inch across on paper. Resizing the photo in your application (Photoshop, Word, whatever) will change the output dpi. A laser printer, even at a "1200dpi" setting, can often do a decent print with a photo at 180dpi.
If you stretch the photo too far, you start to see blocks -- areas where image data has been averaged, or, in extreme cases, individual pixels. So instead of a jawline, for instance, you see a stairstep of colored squares. Instead of a clear clipart image, it's blurry or jaggy.
Saving the same photo at a higher dpi or with more pixels does not help. There's still the same amount of color/detail information, just spread out over more pixels. The third image above illustrates this point.
When a file is saved as a "JPEG" (.jpg), an algorithm averages color info across neighboring pixels to optimize file size. Each time a JPG file is opened and then saved, some of the color information gets "averaged away". More detail is lost and more artifacts appear in each save.
On web pages, smaller image files display faster. Often we compromise, opting for smaller files and accepting some loss of detail. That smaller file often ends up looking awful in print, even though it looks fine onscreen.
Portraits and pixels
Digital cameras these days give you LOTS AND LOTS of pixels in the output. We are thrilled when we can get a photo that's more-or-less direct from the camera. Especially when cropping is needed, more pixels give better results.
Tips for promo photos:
A good photo makes all of us look good — performers and presenters. Professional photography will get you there, but even amateur snapshots can work quite well. (But please don't save it as a smaller file before you send it!)
Photos that show musicians and dancers in action, or upper-body portraits, are ideal. We love having instruments in the shot. Color and black-and-white are both acceptable.
FOCUS!! We can fix redeye and weird color-casts but we can't fix fuzzy fotos.
Fill the frame with the subject — a live-concert photo of distant performers does not work for publicity. Group band members (very) close together.
Photos with minimal background (and foreground) clutter work best. Busy backgrounds are distracting, especially when objects appear to grow out of people's heads.
We're happy to credit your photographer; just include the name with the photo.