It is easy to become stuck on one or two sizes of print. Break out of the rut and try something different. Photographs and art work can look very different depending on the size.
There is no right size to print every image at. We tend to fall into habits with regard to everything, including our printing. Sure, we can work out what size print a given camera can produce at 300dpi. But this is really on the starting point. A print resolution of 300dpi (or 360dpi for Epsons) works well when you are up close and personal to the print. But with larger prints we don’t hold them in our hands up close, we look at them hanging on the wall, typically, and also from some distance so we can take in the whole image in one go. So you can lower the resolution you print at and thus print the image larger. Think of this as the packing density, how close the camera pixels are packed together on the page.
The other thing that affects what resolution you need to print at is the type of paper. High gloss, photo papers demand the highest resolution to produce a print that will look great up close. Matt papers can sometimes take a lower resolution and still look great. Non-digital art papers, especially the heavily textured watercolor papers can look great at even lower resolutions. For example, I have printed an image at as low as 25dpi (image resolution, not printer dot resolution) on a non-digital watercolor paper and the result has looked great. I have even used very low actual printer resolutions, such as 300dpi. This has partly been a result of the texture of the paper making the lower resolution image look more detailed and also because when you print on non-digital papers, the ink bleeds into the paper, spreading the dots out till they blend together, creating the illusion of a higher resolution than actually used. Particularly suitable to this approach are the non-digital watercolor textured papers and the Japanese, Korean and Nepalese handmade papers, often called Washi, and especially those with inclusions, such as bark or flowers.
Some images work well when small and intimate. Many don’t. My observation is that probably a majority of people print their images smaller than is ideal for the image. This is perfectly natural because of issues of having suitable equipment and the cost of the gear and the consumables as you go up in size, but is still something to be worked on. You could argue that images have a natural size at which they work best that is determined by a combination of factors. The amount of detail in the piece and how important it is plays a part. As does the style of the work: is it intimate or bold and brassy? The desired impact on the viewer and what it is you are trying to say play a major part. When discussions of what size should I print my work comes up I am always reminded of a time soon after I had returned from a trip to Poland where I had done a lot of shooting at Auschwitz. I had been printing my images fairly large, approximately 24″ x 36″. There was an exhibition at a local photography gallery by a photographer who had also shot Auschwitz. His work was printed very small, in fact no larger than 8″ x 10″ and mostly noticeably smaller. With such small work the automatic response was to move in close. You were then confronted with the subject matter that had not been obvious from a distance. This drawing you in worked well with these very detailed, medium and large format images. My approach had been to play with the graphic elements, the shapes and textures, and I found this worked better for me large. Who was right? Frankly I don’t know and I suspect we both were because although our subject was the same, our photography was very different. I preferred my approach though I could see what the other photographer had done.
So how to you change your printing size or even judge what size works best? There are several approaches. The easiest is to make sure you can move well back from your computer screen so you can vary the viewing distance. Fill the screen with the image and then vary your viewing distance from close to far away and see how the image responds. Zoom right into the image and judge how dependent it is for success on the detail it contains. For those who can, a data project is a wonderful tool. It lets you explore the really large sizes before you have to print. Just remember the projected image will be much lower resolution than your print will be. Think about the psychology of your image and how you want to use it. Should the viewer have an intimate and thus close engagement with the image or will a huge, in your face sort of impact work better? You will generally find the same size will work well for most, if not all, images within a body of work. This certainly makes for a more cohesive look in an exhibition, though some variety can also work in your favor. It depends on what suits the work.
Overcoming equipment and cost issues can be a creative exercise in itself. What about tiling your prints together to make a larger one, taping them together even or mounting them as separate pieces that hung together form a whole? Do a trade with a friend with a larger printer so you do something for them that they need in exchange for some larger prints. If you want to, there are ways around most limitations.