Image resolution is a photography topic that can be hard to grasp because it’s not something we can touch or feel. It can be especially difficult for my students who don’t consider themselves digitally savvy.

But it occurred to me, as I was cross-stitching one night, that image resolution should be easy to understand for needleworkers. It works exactly the same way as fabric count.

I usually write these tutorials with an eye towards topics that people search for on the internet. It’s safe to assume that no one is going to google the “connection between image resolution and needlework.” I’m writing it just because it makes me happy when my hobbies overlap. Thank you for indulging me!

Image Resolution = Fabric Count

If you are a stitcher, think about the following terms:

  • 14-count Aida
  • 18-count Aida
  • 28-count Aida
  • 30-count linen
  • 13-mesh count needlepoint canvas
  • 32-mesh count needlepoint canvas
  • 400-count sheets

Each of these terms refers to the number of stitches made in one inch of fabric. For cross-stitchers, 14-count Aida has 14 stitches per inch, while 30-count linen could have 30 stitches per inch.

When needlepointing, a 13- or 14- mesh count is standard. That means you have 13 or 14 stitches per inch. But if you stitch on a 32-mesh count canvas, you are creating petit point. Petit points have more than twice the number of stitches per inch and allow you to create much finer details. Some stitchers will work in petit point over detailed areas like faces and then cut their stitch count in half over less detailed areas of a canvas.

If you buy 400-count sheets, each inch that you sleep on will be 400 threads wide. Each thread will be so small, so fine, that your body wouldn’t be able to feel the transition from one thread to the next – all you would feel is softness.

But think about what those sheets would feel like if they were 5-count. You would be able to see and feel each individual thread. They wouldn’t feel smooth, and you might spend your night thinking about thread count rather than sleeping in blissful softness.

Ok, quilters, now it’s your turn. A quilt with one single-color patch would be one color with no detail. I know. It wouldn’t be a quilt either. Don’t split hairs. Or threads. A quilt with 16 single-color patches would feel geometric and colorful. But a quilt with 100s of patches has designs and patterns and might even tell a story.

The more stitches you can cram into an inch, the more patches you can cram into a quilt, the more detailed your creation is going to be.

The more pixels you can cram into an inch of your photo, the more detailed it will look. The less patchy it will look. The transitions between shades of colors will be smoother and less noticeable.

Image Resolution – How It Works

We all know that digital photos are made of pixels, right? Each photo you see online contains thousands or millions of pixels. A photo’s resolution is considered high quality if you can’t see the individual pixels.

But when the photo starts to look pixelated, or when the colors don’t transition smoothly from one to the next, that’s when the image resolution is degraded.

I removed lots of pixels from this photo to show you an extreme example of a pixelated image. This is the equivalent of those 5-count sheets! (Also, we’re not really talking about inches here, since these images are digital rather than prints. But the theory is the same.)

Image Resolution at full size and 10 pixels per inch

I removed lots of pixels from the photo above to show you an extreme example of a pixelated image. The bottom version is the equivalent of those 5-count sheets! (Also, we’re not really talking about inches here, since these images are digital rather than prints. But the theory is the same.) See how blurry the bottom one is? Even the photo in the middle is less clear than the top one.

How many pixels are in the photos you take? Well, that depends on the megapixels your camera shoots with. Megapixels are usually one of the first things you’ll hear about when looking at the marketing information for any camera. Phones too, for that matter. A megapixel is 1,000,000 pixels.

My Canon 6D is a 20-megapixel camera. When I shoot full-size photos, they are 5472 pixels wide by 3648 pixels tall. 5472 x 3648 = 19,961,856. Round that up to 20,000,000 pixels. And 20,000,000 pixels equals 20 megapixels.

But if I were to shoot at something less than full-size, the camera wouldn’t use as many pixels. The photos might be 3000 pixels wide, for instance, or 720. If you stretch 720 pixels to cover the same space as a full-size image can cover, you are going to actually see those pixels.

Image Resolution – Use It to Improve Your Photos

Ok, so now you understand that the more stitches you fit into an inch of needlework or the more pixels you fit into an inch of photo, the more detailed and smooth your work is going to look. How do you apply this concept to improve your photography?

First off, you should always shoot with the maximum number of pixels possible on your camera. Why spend the money on a 20-megapixel camera if you aren’t going to use each and every megapixel you can on every photo you take? Go ahead and check your camera now – this is one of those settings that people sometimes change when they get a new camera before they know the implications of making these choices.

On my camera, I control the number of pixels in my images using the Image Quality menu item. I shoot Raw, but if you are a JPG shooter, you would want to select the “–” in the Raw section and the first L in the JPG section. This means it will be a large file with minimum compression. (Compression is the squishing together or removing of pixels.)

Image Resolution camera settings

If you shoot Nikon, look for the “Image Size” menu to make these adjustments. On Olympus cameras, look for “Record Mode.”

Why would people choose to shoot at a lower quality? You can fit more photos onto a memory card if they “weigh” less, or take up less space. But here’s the deal:

  • Memory cards are cheap. And I can still fit hundreds of full-resolution photos onto my memory cards.
  • What happens if you take lots of low-resolution photos on one memory card and that card gets corrupted? You lose lots of photos, that’s what. I’d rather have my photos spread out across multiple memory cards to avoid losing all of them if one card goes bad.
  • Print size. Printing is where image resolution is especially important. If you take your photos with low resolution, you will only be able to print small prints. You don’t want to take an amazing photo that would look great hanging above your fireplace only to find that it won’t print larger than 4×6!

Image Resolution

(I totally get it if you choose to shoot at lower-quality images on your phone to save memory space. Just know that you won’t be able to print those phone photos very large.)

Other things you can do to maximize image resolution:

  • Don’t downsize photos unless you are only ever going to use them digitally. You won’t notice a difference if you moderately downsize a photo to post on Facebook. But if you try to print that file, it won’t look great.
  • If you must downsize a photo, save it with a different name so that it doesn’t overwrite your original.
  • When you print your images, upload or send to the printer your full-size version. There is no need to change the resolution. As long as you are sending all the pixels possible, the printer will know what to do with it.

Thank you to Jimmy Wilson Photography for the photos of the cross-stitch portrait. And thank you to StitchPeople for the fabulous patterns! And finally, thank you to Fuzzy Fox Designs for the adorable woodland cottage pattern!

So I’m curious. Did this crazy connection between needlework and image resolution help any of you understand photo quality better? I hope it did. And if you’d like more information, read the following tutorials:


Image Resolution: A Needleworker\'s Guide to a Photography Concept