Output Options; Get Great Image Quality On The Web

This month I'm going to focus on optimizing your digital images for display on the web. The biggest challenge most photographers face is creating a good print, but web display can be just as challenging and has its own unique set of needs. Images shown on the web or in e-mail need to find a balance between the size and the quality of the file. Too much compression to reduce the file size results in a poor image that loads really fast. Not enough compression, or too large of an image, and all but those with the fastest connections will leave your website in frustration after waiting for an image to display.

Where It All Begins
Before doing anything, create and use a copy of the original image. I never work on the original version since different step s are involved depending on how the image will be used.

If you're using something other than Photoshop, such as Photoshop Elements (shown here), your color space choices are more limited. I've selected the option to optimize for web graphics in the Color Settings (Edit>Color Settings) dialog, which sets the color space to sRGB.

Last month I covered color management, and why that was an important step in the digital workflow. By having your monitor calibrated, you have a good starting point and an accurate representation of what your image looks like. Sadly, if you've calibrated your monitor, you'll be in the very small minority of web viewers, most of whom have never heard of color management, and could care less--they just want to see the images look right. This is where the sRGB color space comes into play.

The default color mode for most digital cameras (in fact, for many compact cameras, the only option) is sRGB. This was created to have a basic common ground for Windows computers to display graphics and matches the typical computer display. While sRGB doesn't display as many colors as other spaces, like Adobe RGB or ColorMatch RGB, for on-screen use it's the best choice and the one that will present your images in their best light, regardless of the viewer's setup.

It might seem then that sRGB is the perfect answer. While a good all-around solution, sRGB is optimized for screen and not for print. If your camera and your imaging software support it, I recommend using Adobe RGB for all your editing and then saving a web version of the image with sRGB. If you shoot JPEG with your camera, by all means leave everything set for sRGB and fire away.

The Mystery Of Resolution
One of the more confusing terms in digital imaging is resolution. Different devices, such as monitors and printers, have their own definition of resolution, and I'll be covering print resolution in a future article. Display resolution is normally 96dpi (dots per inch) on Windows, while the Macintosh standard was 72dpi for years. Newer LCD displays are raising the dpi constantly, so 96 and 72 aren't the only choices. The other common reference to resolution is screen resolution, or pixel dimensions, which refer to how many pixels are displayed on the screen. Common setups are 800x600 and 1024x768. The only number we need to worry about for web use is the second pixel dimensions. Changing the dpi of the image has no effect on the dimensions or size of the image on screen, or the file size, as shown in the two images above.

(Abovet, below): Same image, different dpi. As you can see, there is no difference in the pixel dimensions or file size when we change from 72dpi to 300dpi. The document size though is reduced--not an issue for web display, but great to help prevent unwanted downloading and printing of our images.

To size images for e-mail or the web, I suggest keeping the image size to 800x600 or smaller. The main reasons for this are speed of display, and file size. A secondary concern, especially with images posted on a website is protection--bigger images are more attractive to someone wanting to use it for other purposes. Most image-editing applications have a re-size feature. In Photoshop Elements, it's Image>Resize>Image Size. Leave the Constrain Proportions box checked and enter the critical dimension--either Width or Height. Be sure the Resample Image check box is not checked--all you want to set are the dimensions.