How big do you want them?

This chart is for one “average” photo and represents a comparison for that picture as a guide. Closed image file sizes vary widely due to their content. The photo in question is an environmental portrait taken with a Canon EOS5D MkIV.

Sometimes I post blogs which describe how I do things and others are intended to be conversation starters and thought promoters. This one falls directly into both camps but it was originally written to start discussions.

How we deliver images to our clients is a subject that photographers can debate until the cows come home or until the technology changes and the debate has to start all over again. For the kind of work that I do most of the time (editorial, PR and corporate) there are a huge number of compromises to be made – most of which are dictated by a small number of factors:

  1. Does the client have a digital asset management system?
  2. Will the client want to do anything to the pictures before sending them out?
  3. Who are the end users and what will they want?

Once you start to gather the answers to these questions you can start to discount a lot of options that, as photographers, we would like to see. Ninety-nine percent of the pictures that I deliver are in JPEG format. It isn’t the best format for quality but it is almost universally recognised and it offers the ability to compress the files. It makes sense to us to save our images at the highest quality available and to deliver the pictures in a way that allows for that quality to be maintained but a surprising number of clients simply don’t want or can’t handle that. A modern DSLR with a 24 megapixel chip produces very large files – even as JPEGs; Too large to safely email. Too large for them to be stored easily unless the client has a decent server or at least a method of storing (and retrieving) a lot of data.

Let’s take a largely fictionalised case study. Not based on any one client but it does represent what happens on a daily basis. So let’s say that it is a public relations company whose manufacturing client has a new Chief Executive and they want me to shoot and supply a set of portraits ranging from a plain background headshot to their first tour of the factory floor meeting various staff. 

After two hours shooting I have 650 RAW files from two cameras to quickly edit with the PR person. We get 650 down to 32 pretty quickly and they get captioned, toned and exported as JPEGs at the highest quality possible. Those are saved to a folder and each of the pictures ranges from 9 Mb to 15 Mb as compressed files – an average file size of 12 Mb each so that’s 384 Mb of data that some clients would be more than happy to receive via WeTransfer, a Dropbox link or a gallery on my website. This client wants the pictures to be ready to be emailed to a wide range of newspapers, websites and business magazine titles and they intend to send selections out straight away.

Email is a poor way to send pictures but it is a method that is very widely used and in this era of getting the pictures under the noses of those who will make the decisions a couple of huge (quality) compromises have to be made. The PR isn’t sure how big each recipient’s inbox limit is and so they put an absolute ceiling of 5Mb on any one transmission. In this case they have settled on sending three pictures to each of the first twenty recipients in a single email with the promise of more options should they be needed. 

The PR doesn’t have the technical capability or the time to resize the pictures and therefore asks for the selection to be supplied at a compressed file size of no more than 1Mb. That is a tiny file by today’s standards and so we have to throw away some pixels and add compression at a higher level than we would want to. It is very easy to do using the ‘save’ option in Photo Mechanic and by specifying the ‘fit in box’ size and the maximum compressed file size the application will do all 32 files in a minute or so. Lightroom’s export options also make this a doddle and most image editing software will give you a way to do this as a batch and without too much trouble.

To put this into perspective a regular environmental portrait supplied at 6000 pixels along the longest side would be around 10Mb saved as a JPEG at the highest quality. To get that file under the 1Mb limit then you would need to between levels 1-3 (low) quality setting in Photoshop. Even saving at level 4 could give you a 1.5 Mb file and that level of compression isn’t going to do your pictures any favours.

By reducing the image to 4200 pixels along the longest side you cut the photo down to a 33/34 Mb file when opened and give yourself the choice of only having to compress to somewhere between levels 5 and 7 which are in the medium quality area.

We all know that for a photo in a paper, a relatively big one on a website and even a decent size in a business magazine 4200 pixels along the longest side is enough. It’s a compromise but a reasonable one and, if the end user needs a bigger file, we can always supply one from the RAW at a later time. You might even agree with the PR that an even smaller pixel size and even less compression will be OK.

So back to our fictional case study. We have supplied 32 pictures at 4200 pixels along the longest side compressed to make sure that they are no more than 1 Mb when closed. The PR company has sent three of them out to a large number of end users. You then have a conversation with them about supplying/storing the larger versions of the images. Thanks to Pixelrights, I can easily create web galleries with high quality download options. The PR can send out the links and anyone wanting more choice or bigger files can go and get them without bothering the PR (or me). If that doesn’t suit I always save the high resolution selection to my Dropbox Pro account and give the client that link as well. WeTransfer isn’t my favourite way to send images but that’s entirely possible too.

In my fictional case study, the PR wants the high resolution and low resolution sets on a USB thumb drive and so I provide one and bill for it because I keep half a dozen relatively cheap ones in my laptop bag ‘just in case’.

Leaving this ‘case study’ aside, lots of PR companies like 3Mb compressed files so that they can send one photo attached to each of several emails. Better quality but more work for them and more potentially unwanted emails dropping into end users inboxes. For me, as long as they don’t want multiple (more than two) versions of each file I will do exactly as I’ve been asked.

There are so many variables that can be thrown into this mix. Sometimes I don’t do the edit until later or even the next day and so I need to know exactly what is needed before I sit down at my computer. Sometimes the clients want to see a wide edit and then come back and ask for a tighter edit with specific file sizes. Sometimes they ask for things that you cannot do. All of this needs to be factored into your pricing for the work and extra requests that come in after the fee was agreed need to be costed and billed for if they represent significant extra work or expense.

As an example of ‘extra expense’ I had a PR job a couple of years ago where the client asked for the images to be re-saved as TIFF files and supplied on an external hard drive. That was maybe an hour’s work, a £50 drive as well as £5 postage. Those kind of extras cannot be just swallowed unless you are charging very high fees in the first place. Had they asked for those images to be uploaded to Dropbox they’d have saved at least £55 and I pointed that out at the time. They went ahead, agreed the extra fees and expenses and all was well.

It is vital that, as photographers, we understand compression ratios, file sizes, delivery methods and the art of compromise. My work continues to become more and more diverse as clients needs for pictures changes.  Back in the day, making 50 prints, slapping them into an envelope and handing them to a courier was time consuming but profitable. Now it’s all a lot slicker but it is also more complex. The question “how big do you want those?” has become a very important one and don’t be surprised when, as the supplier, you need to lead the conversation and have the facts at your finger tips.

For this photograph shot on a Canon EOS 5D MkIV I have saved at a range of sizes and compression ratios. No two pictures react the same when it comes to compression and this image will, despite the amount of detail in the face, tie and suit, compress very well given the simplicity and relative lack of detail in the background. When heavily compressed the background will become quite pixelated when examined closely. You will notice that, as a full-sized file, the difference between maximum quality (12) and the next level of compression (8) is very noticeable but as the degree of compression increases the reductions in file sizes are significant but less dramatic.

11 comments

  1. As an aside Neil, just for info really, I see that Pixelrights has a 2016 date on its main website and 2017 on its blog and the pricing page shows an error. Not sure if you still have any involvement with its creators. I seem to remember a post from you about then some time ago – or am I dreaming?

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    1. I have no connection other than to count one of the founders as an old friend. I have certainly posted about them before. Contact them, they speak “photographer”!

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      1. Thanks. I thought it might be that. So if a client has a ‘look’ that they want, how would they communicate it to you in a way that you find useful? Or if you wanted to emulate a look, how would you go about emulating it?

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      2. Not sure if I do “looks”. Most of my work is news, features and editorial where looking real is the goal. I guess that if I were trying to achieve something moody I’d either do it in Camera or chat to the client at length first.

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  2. Great post, You’ve got me thinking. I’m going to do a similar test with a sample images to see what file sizes I can get with my XT2s. I’m typically supplying images at 6000 pixels longest side but also, 3600, 2048 and 1024 pixels, depending on the clients needs, but to be honest I haven’t compared what the different levels of compression make to the file sizes. I normally set the compression level to 85% and leave it at that.
    Out of interest Neil, have you ever tried Jpeg Mini? I used it all the time when I was using Lightroom, but not since moving over to Capture One.

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      1. I used Jpeg Mini to enable me to send smaller files to clients without compromising quality. It is incredibly efficient and makes transmitting big files a doddle. I used the Pro Plugin with Lightroom but I believe there is a stand alone version as well.

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  3. I agree with Paul I’ve just installed JPEG mini plugin in Lightroom and I’m really impressed with the quality etc really useful for fast web photos and client delivery. It’s on a special price at the moment?

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