Whether you’re placing an image in your own document, or giving someone else an image to use, resolution is key – at least if you want it to look halfway decent. Resolution refers to the number of pixels per unit of measurement. Most commonly you’ll see it referred to in number of pixels per inch (ppi).
To avoid too much graphic design jargon, just know that “high” is good, “low” is bad. You may have heard people say “high res” (sounds like “rez”) or “low res” when working with photographs. They’re referring to the resolution. The more the pixels per inch (high), the smoother an image will look onscreen or printed.
This is a fairly decent picture, saved at a moderate ppi:
This is the same image, but at a lower resolution and quality:
Of course, this an extreme example, but you can see what we’re dealing with here. When there are fewer pixels per inch, there is less information, which leaves an image wanting. Fewer pixels = less digital information = less clarity.
When preparing to use an image for any project, whether onscreen or printing, the first thing to do is a quality check. If you’re using the image for onscreen (maybe it’s a PDF flyer or use on a website or Facebook), what you see on your screen is pretty close to what others are going to see as far as quality goes (although be careful – if you’re uploading it to a site like Facebook, often times the images are compressed, which means information is removed, which means – you got it – less clarity). If you’re using an image for printing, always shoot for the highest quality possible. Start at 300 ppi. It may look good on your screen, but too often it doesn’t translate well into print. You need to consider the actual size of the printed item (versus what you’re looking at on your computer), and also consider that when printed, every little flaw can and will show up.
NOTE: When you enlarge an image on your screen (such as in Microsoft Word), it is NOT adding pixels. That means if the picture is 72 ppi and is only one inch wide, and you enlarge it to be two inches wide, there are still only 72 pixels per inch, and you’ll end up with an image that looks like that second one up there. However, if the picture you’re using is too large and you shrink it, it will retain its quality.
It can be a rather overwhelming concept to grasp, but just remember the basics. We can’t always get the sharpest images we want, and sometimes what we’ve got is ALL we’ve got. You may not have the software to resize or manipulate pictures correctly either (like Photoshop). But for now, when you’re faced with options of varying quality, choose the sharper one – the one with higher resolution. And as a bonus, when someone talks “high res” or “low res” you’ll know what they’re talking about... and you can even ask for “high res” images when you need them, too.