Would you like to have a photo printed on a T-shirt ? Maybe a group photo of your family that you want to give as a gift, or a new company logo that is colorful or photorealistic. Maybe it's a large picture of your own face (to each their own). In all of these cases, your image should be optimized to achieve the best results for printing. This blog post will show you exactly how to do that.
Of course, our graphics department can also do this for you – if you ask. But if you're like me and prefer to do it yourself, you'll need Adobe Photoshop or another graphics program. Otherwise, I recommend a free program like Photopea, which has all the features of Photoshop and can be used through your browser.
It makes sense to familiarize yourself with the basic functions and layout of the various tools before you get started. And if any of these graphics programs are too much to learn, try Pixlr X, a simple online photo editor that offers most of the features I'm about to show you. And now to optimize!
Why should you optimize your image?
There's an acronym you may know: WYSIWYG, pronounced "whizzy-wig," and it stands for What You See is What You Get. When it comes to printing photos and other graphic designs on T-shirts, it's more like WYSINWYG: What you see is not what you get. Even with the best possible artwork.
A print will always have a less graphical appearance, less detail and less color vibrancy than what is seen on your screen.
When you look at the colors of a computer image, you see an ideal version. Due to color modes, the image can never be accurately translated to a printed image. Any reputable printing company should tell you this. This way you don't get your hopes up too high. Dissatisfaction arises from unfulfilled expectations – and we want you to be satisfied.
When we screen print with plastisol, we can print with the brightest colors available . The thing is, screen printing isn't usually recommended for photographic images. And even if you do, it comes with a number of challenges and disadvantages - it's only worth it for large jobs.
This article is mainly about printing photos using digital printing, direct-to-garment printing (DTG) . Check out my Screen Printing vs. DTG post for more information on the two decoration methods and how they compare to each other.
The example GIF below shows the disappointing difference in color modes when you convert. Colors in RGB (Computer) mode are much more vibrant and saturated because computer screens are backlit . In CMYK (printed) mode, the light source comes from the front, so you can't get those bright colors - at least not with regular CMYK printing.
The good news is that there are things we can do to give you the best possible chance that the printed image will match what you see on the computer. For one thing , our digital printers are better than what you see above because they use two additional colors: bright red and green . So our machines work effectively with CMYK+RG: six colors instead of four.
We can also optimize your image for digital printing. I will explain some of these measures in more detail in this article. We'll be happy to do this for you in the graphics department, but you have to ask about it when ordering.
But if you're someone who likes to take care of things yourself so you can be in charge of the look, or if you just love learning new skills, then this post is for you!
How to optimize your image for t-shirt printing
Below are my top ten steps to improve your photo and prepare it for successful printing. These steps can be applied to any photo and if you follow my instructions you are guaranteed to get a much better result than when you started. Here's the example photo I'll be using to go through these tips, from the free stock photo site Pexels:
1. Start with the highest resolution
The first tip is the most important tip of all, and it is by far the biggest problem we deal with on a daily basis in our art department: images submitted at a low resolution . The following image is an example of an undersized image that is sent to us daily. Even though it looks good on the screen, there is one big problem: the resolution is very low.
What is image resolution?
Resolution essentially indicates how many pixels an image has. The typical web resolution is 72 PPI (pixels per inch). The ideal resolution for printing is 200 PPI or more – at full size . This last point is crucial. Even if you have an image at 300 PPI, the resolution is too low if it is only 2 inches wide and is intended to be printed at 12″ wide. Zoom in and take a look.
Compare the image quality in this close-up between low and high resolution and you'll see why it's so important:
A print will never be as clear and detailed as the original image, no matter how much you tweak it or how well you print it. That's only natural. So start with the highest resolution possible because it can only get worse.
Go to the “Image > Image Size” pull-down menu to see what you’re working with. Below is what it should look like if you have a nice large, high resolution file. As you can see, the number of pixels remains the same at 72 PPI and 78″ width or 300 PPI and 18″ width. (Uncheck Remap Image to keep the number of pixels the same when resizing).
Do you have a vector file and not a raster image? Or another image format? For more information about the different file types, see my detailed blog post about submitting the best file types for printing.
Can I take a small image and simply increase the document size or the number of pixels?
Yes and no. That means, yes, you can - but no, it won't help much. Photoshop attempts to compensate for the enlargement of a small image by slightly blurring the edges to mask the jagged pixels and artifacts. The enlarged image below shows you the difference. In the middle you can see the image being smoothed out a bit, but the quality is still terrible.
Of course, this is no substitute for a high-resolution photo. So call, email, do whatever you have to do to get it!
If you have multiple versions, compare them. If it's your photo, you should re-download the largest format from your camera (usually RAW). If it's not yours, ask the original artist or photographer. If it's a stock photo, go back and download the largest version. For images from the Internet, use Google Advanced Image Search to get the best file.
Once you get the highest resolution file, you can reduce it for printing. But first you have to carry out one more step: cropping.
2. Cropping the image
Cropping is essentially cutting off unneeded areas of the image . With thoughtful cropping, you can properly center your subject, increase the size of the subject in relation to the rest of the photo, and frame the subject in a way that makes the most sense. In Photoshop, just press the “C” button and your crop tool will appear along with the grid lines.
There is no correct answer in my example snippet above. For this image I choose the “A” section, which leaves some of the background elements visible: the sky, the mountains and the lake. Certain crops may be objectively better than others, but it is primarily a subjective decision based on your design, what you want to show and convey with your image.
Here is our image after cropping. We lose some background, but our subject is closer and takes up relatively more space.
- Leave room to breathe around the subject. A frame that is too narrow can create a slightly claustrophobic effect.
- Keep an eye on the details. In this case, it was important to me to leave the man's wedding ring in the picture.
- Pay attention to the edges. Omitting partial elements can lead to unwanted visual distractions. (Do you see her?)
- Placing the subject in the middle is not necessarily the best solution. Use the rule of thirds for more interesting compositions.
3. Resize the image
Now it's time to set the size for printing. In other words, how large or small you want the image to appear on the garment . This should only be done after cropping the image, because now we know where the exact boundaries are.
Read my blog post about sizing standard pressure points or view my standard pressure point infographic for a quick overview. For more detailed information, see my Layout Tips post covering locations, placement, and size.
For our example, I choose a size of 10″ wide. That’s less than the standard width of 12″ for the entire front and much less than the maximum width of 14″ (a size I think is way too big). At a modest 10″ wide, this print looks great on garments of different sizes and leaves room for any type of writing or other elements we want to add. Here he is pictured on men's and women's clothing:
Below you can see what this looks like under Image > Image Size. Regardless of whether you are enlarging or reducing the image, first set the resolution to 300, then set the image width to the desired size, and make sure the Resample Image option is set to Bicubic Auto. This ensures that Photoshop optimizes the quality while resizing.
Above you can see the difference in “ pixel dimensions”, which is essentially the file size . In this case, by reducing the size of the image we will save some space on our desktop and be able to share the file more easily. If you upscale your image, the file size will increase.
As I mentioned earlier, upscaling does not improve the quality of the image file . Photoshop smooths the edges as we increase the number of pixels, but even that is no substitute for a higher quality image file.
4. Touch up the image
Image touch-up, also known as photo retouching, typically refers to correcting parts of the image that contain unwanted visual information . These can be blemishes, cracks, stains or other unwanted elements. This can be something small, like removing a scratch, or something bigger, like what's done for magazine ads: smoothing out faces, hair, body parts, and everything else in the picture.
The most important thing is not to overdo it . The photo should look natural, without any obvious post-processing or “Photoshopping”. There are many, many ways to accomplish this given many tools at your disposal. In this post I'll show you just one of them, perhaps the most powerful of all when it comes to retouching: the clone stamp.
The Clone Stamp allows you to take a part of an image and place it over another part of the same image (or over another part of an open document). You can also paint part of a layer over another layer. This is particularly useful for duplicating objects or removing a defect in an image . And when you see it in action, it's like magic.
To do this, click on the Stamp icon in your Photoshop tools panel. Make sure the brush is set to the appropriate size and hardness for the area you are working on, and be prepared to change brush settings frequently as you work . You may need to do some trial and error to find the right brush settings.
Once you've made these settings, hold down the Option/Alt key. Your cursor will then turn into a crosshair, and clicking on it will set the starting pixel for the area of the image to clone. This will usually (but not always) be an area very close to the part being repaired, as the colors, layers and textures are most similar .
In our example photo, I will remove an unwanted element in the image. Do you see it? There's some kind of red stamp on the man's hand - a distraction that doesn't need to be there. We'll also remove any foliage left at the bottom of the photo - another visual distraction we'd be better off avoiding.
When using the clone stamp, it is recommended to zoom in closely on the area to be edited . If it looks good up close, it will look good when enlarged. Here is the picture after I fixed the problem areas:
For more information, check out this detailed tutorial with tips on using the Clone Stamp. If you're new to this tool, I recommend practicing on a separate image where you can experiment. Try removing different objects or even people from an image and see if you can do it seamlessly and without any noticeable difference. Practice makes perfect.
5. Adjusting the levels
Tonal correction describes the range of highlights, midtones and shadows in an image. This is a broad category and there are many ways to customize the layers. I'll just show you some of them. While modern cameras, especially those on smartphones, have built-in features for optimizing the levels of a captured image, most photos can use some basic level adjustments.
When it comes to setting up a photo for printing, you should overcorrect in some ways. For example, a print will usually be darker, so it is important to lighten the original image significantly. In our example photo, there are some particularly dark shadow areas that we should be concerned about, particularly on the faces. You can fix this as follows.
The most basic level setting is called (unsurprisingly) “Levels”. You can access it by pressing the CMD+L key combination or by going to the Image > Adjustments > Leveling menu. A map will then appear showing the current levels of the image as well as adjustment sliders. There is also a button labeled “Auto” for automatic adjustment, but this can produce different results.
For most photos, but especially this one that's too dark, you'll want to use the sliders to increase the overall brightness and bring out details in the shadows. Move the rightmost slider to the left and the middle slider to the right.
6. Customize colors
Now we come to the colors - adjustments that should be saved for the last few steps because doing them first can complicate things later. There are many ways to customize the colors. I could (and probably will) write an entire blog post on this topic alone. For now, I just want to highlight some of the key ways you can accomplish this step without spending a lot of time.
7. Sharpen the image
Sharpening is an extremely important step in optimizing your image for printing. It's about more than just getting things in focus. It helps define the edges of shapes, improves the visibility of details, and prevents some of the normal blurring that occurs with any printing process. Photoshop offers a number of tools for this purpose under the Filter > Sharpen menu item.
Now that we've gone over the main ways to prepare your image, the next three are optional ideas for making your image look good on a t-shirt or other piece of clothing, more in the design category than optimizing photo quality
8. Remove the background
This is one of the more tedious tweaks, but the results are worth it. Subjects that are masked or isolated from a background simply look better in print. Square or rectangular designs can look glued on (or ironed on, if you remember that). Removing the background takes some time and patience, so make yourself comfortable and have a coffee.
There are different ways to achieve this. One of them is to just use the eraser tool and get started. Use a softer edge brush as you get closer to the desired edges. Another option is to use the background eraser tool. It takes some getting used to and you have to play around with the settings a bit to get it right, but it works great in some areas, especially problem areas like hair.
Then there are the selection tools. You can draw along the edge in the classic way using the lasso tool. Or you can try the magnetic lasso, which sticks to recognized edges. If you have a flat background, you can simply use the magic wand to select it and delete it. You can also use the mask feature to “paint” the areas you want to remove.
9. Add some effects
Now we come to a really funny point. There are dozens of preset filters in Photoshop (and other graphics programs). There are probably hundreds that you can get as plugins. And when you start combining these things, the number of options goes into the hundreds of millions of possible filters and effects. Good luck deciding!
In Photoshop, there is an entire pull-down menu for filters like Noise, Blur, Distort, Liquify, Pixelate, Rasterize, Tile, Emboss, Posterize, Solarize, and much more. There's also a filter gallery with lots of options to play around with. It's like Instagram filters on steroids. If you like special effects, you'll be the proverbial kid in the candy store.
Above you can see a dozen filters that I used right out of the box, pretty randomly, just to give you some examples. Here are some free Photoshop plugins, and there are many more where these come from. Ok, maybe not from the same place, but from different places. The point is that there are a lot of them. If you can think of an effect you want, there's probably a filter that will do the job.
My advice is to keep it simple and use the built-in features. It's easy to get bogged down with filters and effects and end up making your photo look too weird and distorted. But hey, maybe that's what you want.
10. Add a frame
This is one of my favorite photo print recommendations because it's easy to make and looks great. There are simple designs where you want to put an image on a shirt without a border, but in most cases a border improves the look and quality of the print, even if it's just a thin line. And of course there are many options for margins, which I have already written about.