Do I need a full-frame camera to get work as a freelance photographer?
The short answer to your question, “Do I need a full-frame camera to get work as a freelance photographer,” is no. “Freelance” is actually someone that works for more than one client at any given time in their profession and it’s the client that determines their photographic needs; the photographer delivers those needs. A client hires you for results based on consistent, plus previous results, not the make, model, or brand of camera you use.
Traditionally in the world of professional photography, a freelance photographer works for print publication and in the publication industry, image resolution and size is what matters, and herein is where the confusion lies when it comes to cameras and camera sensors. There’s too much misinformation, thanks to the Internet and even marketing hype by the photo industry itself on image resolution, especially the misuse of the term “DPI” and the numbers 72, and 300.
Before you worry about the sensor type of your camera, if you want to be great at being a freelance photographer, you should know the differences between DPI, LPI, and PPI, along with line screens, halftones, ink gain, CMYK, and the rule of “72.” Once this is understood, you’ll realize why full-frame cameras are not the major factor in the qualifications of a freelance photographer. Pixels in size, width, and resolution of the image is what matters and it doesn’t take much.
It takes only about a minimum of five, yes five, mega-pixels when it comes to traditional print publications like the National Geographic or even the New York Times. Obviously, the more pixels, the more of an ability to repurpose an image for other uses like large displays at an exhibit hall, but there are workarounds, and hence why professional freelance photographers know the golden rule when it comes to image resolution requirements for traditional publishing — two times the line screen — that’s all you need.
The Halftone Line Screen and Ink Gain
The rule for any major publication is simple, “two times the line screen.” The average newspaper runs an “85” line screen, and a cheaper printed newspaper, a “65” line screen. Most magazines run a “133” line screen and some will run with 133 for the interior and a line screen of “150” and in rare cases, higher for the covers.
Thus, when the golden rule is applied, two times the line screen, for newspapers freelance photographers only need 170 pixels per inch, not DPI, for their file output in relation to a specific size, normally measured in column inches, and for most magazine publications, 266 PPI.
Newspaper: 85 LPI requires images at 170 PPI capture (85 LPI x 2 = 170 PPI)
Magazine: 133 LPI requires images at 266 PPI capture (133 LPI x 2 = 266 PPI)
Magazine Cover: 150 LPI requires images at 300 PPI capture (150 LPI x 2 = 300 PPI)
Basically, a line screen is “a measurement of how many halftone lines are printed on a linear inch.” The variance between newspapers and magazines is because of the absorbency and type of the paper stock plus whether the paper is coated or uncoated. This is why newsprint is only 85 LPI because newsprint stock absorbs more ink and magazine print stock requires more ink, thus 133 LPI or higher line screens.
Ink absorption is measured in “dot gain” when it comes to printing and hence why there are SWOP standards, or Specification for Web Offset Publications, which you will find in Adobe Photoshop when you look under Edit >> Color Settings. Here you will find dot gain and the traditional SWOP setting plus your RGB color space — photographers who do not practice color management will have their RGB profile set to sRGB IEC61966-2.1; which sadly is the worst color space to shoot and work in, but that’s a whole two-week course.
RGB vs. CMYK
We capture photos and work on them on our image manipulating software in RGB, i.e., red, green, blue, but in the printing world, prints for publication print in CMYK, i.e., cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Camera sensor size will not impact the conversion from RGB to CMYK, normally done in prepress operations.
DPI, PPI, LPI
DPI is dots per inch and is the term used for how many dots of ink per inch will be laid on top of print paper stock. PPI, or pixels per inch, is how your camera captures an image, with pixels, not dots, and it’s also what you see on your monitor. Your monitor displays pixels, not dots per inch. LPI, or lines per inch, besides the line screens discussed earlier, is normally what a scanner does, it scans lines per inch, not dots. There are some higher-end, medium and larger format cameras that actually scan lines per inch but that is nothing a freelance photographer would normally worry about when it comes to publication.
The Rule of 72 and 300 DPI
My favorite topic when it comes to misinformation on the Internet and in the industry as a whole is the confusion of 72 and 300 when it comes to pixels, whether it’s dots, lines, or pixels per inch. Thanks to all the confusion and the beginning of computer monitors and technology, and marketing hype, people and even some printers think the best printing DPI is 300, not necessarily true. “300” came from the launch of 300 DPI laser printers, before digital cameras arrived on the public market.
For the sake of not confusing the public, the photo industry along with the “printer” industry labeled everything with “DPI.” Early scanners bragged in their marketing hype that they scanned at 1200 DPI, some even 2400 DPI. Not! Scanners scan LPI, lines per inch. Cameras do not capture in DPI, they capture in PPI, pixels per inch.
Now the next wave of confusion when it comes to 72 was the advent of web browsers. Many photographers, including professionals, and even the imaging industry fought battles on what is the right resolution for the web. Some argued 96. Some argued 300. Honestly, when it comes to the web, 72, 96, or even 300 doesn’t matter — what matters is the total pixels per inch across in width and height. So where did the confusion come from?
When computers were first used for publication before public mass entry, Apple Macintosh computers used 72, and all other computers used 96. Apple took the 72 route, just like Adobe Photoshop, which you can see in Photoshop when you go to Photoshop >> Preferences >> Units and Rulers, because of “picas and points” which has everything to do with fonts. There are 72 points to an inch in postscript fonts. A designer could literally, back then, take a ruler and measure true inches on their monitors whereas those with other operating software had to multiply by 133% thanks to their use of 96 pixels per inch on the early computer screens.
In a nutshell, 72 has to do with picas, fonts are measured in points, so one pica equals 12 points and one inch equals six picas or 72 points. Picas typically represent a fixed horizontal measurement with column widths when designing newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and ads. Unless the publication you’re shooting for is running a 150 line screen, the only numbers that matter to a freelance photographer are 170, for newsprint, and 266 for magazines when it comes to printed publication resolution.
Basically, when it comes to claiming you’re a freelance photographer, especially for publication, sensor size or type is not of major importance, provided it gives you the proper total quantity of pixels horizontally and vertically with the right line screen required resolution, and you can get those factors out of any iPhone today. I myself currently shoot the Olympus micro-four thirds system and prior to that I shot with a full-frame sensor Canon 5D Mark II and previous cameras including medium format, Nikon, and Leica cameras. I worry about the end result that my freelance client is after, not my sensor size.