We sampled 10 of the most popular companies, see which ones provided the best overall experience.
Custom-printed photo books really show off your pictures, and they’re easier than ever to design and make. We tried out 10 of the biggest photo book services to give you a taste of what they can do, and gathered our most useful tips and tricks, all to help you create the most impressive volume possible. Please note that we orderred our books in the summer of 2010—companies may have revised their products, creation software, and prices since then.
There’s plenty of competition for your book business, whether the services are attached to online photo labs, such as Kodak Gallery, or offered by companies such as Blurb that are dedicated to books, or built into your photo software (e.g., Apple’s Aperture).
We sent our staff’s own pictures to 10 of the biggest photo book services, ordering a range of sizes, paper stock, and cover types. Some had easy software, some had great print quality, others had nice layouts. Because we believe that a clean design shows off photographs best, we attempted in all cases to make that kind of book—and were frustrated if we had trouble avoiding graphic-themed backgrounds and cutesy frames and corners.
Read on for tips for making the best book, or check out our table at the bottom to see how each of the 10 services compared.
What to Look For
Photo books seem simple to make, but you’ll face a surprising number of options in choosing a service and creating a book.
Take paper type. Most companies use just one kind of paper, but some—Blurb and Mpix, among them—give you choices. Adorama and Mpix each offer heavy photo paper (Adorama's is Fuji Crystal Archive), whereas the others use a range of stocks, all with some degree of glossiness. Kodak’s had a slight tooth. Our Mpix book, which we ordered printed on pearl paper, had both a tooth and a slightly metallic, iridescent sheen.
Covers, too, present options. Mpix offers a “suede” cover that turned out to be a smooth, matte paper rather than the leather (or even sueded cloth) we expected, but it did have elegant, classic foil stamping on the front.
If you want a dust jacket, your choices are more limited: Only four of the services allowed them. Most had more modern-looking image-printed covers; Aperture’s service was the only one to offer both simultaneously. For a premium, you can get leather covers (we didn’t). The least expensive type, in general, is the linen cover with a window cut out to reveal the first page.
Spine text may also be important to tell you what’s inside that book on your shelf, but not all services and formats afford that option. With linen covers, or with Mpix’s sueded paper, forget it. Dust jackets, on the other hand, usually include spine text. Among books with image-printed covers, only Kodak’s lacks spine text.
Few people give much thought to endpapers (the lining of the covers). But beautiful endpapers are the gateway to a beautiful book—cheap (or absent) endpapers seem chintzy. So we were disappointed that the Snapfish book lacked them altogether. The best? Aperture’s, which were heavy and heather gray. MyPublisher added attractive vellum sheets. The lay-flat photo-paper books by SmileBooks and Adorama also lacked endpapers, but this seems due to the way they're bound. SmileBooks left that first page blank, but our order number showed through. Adorama printed images inside the front and back covers.
Hardcover sizes vary, from Adorama’s small, 6x4-inch book to large 12-inch square from Adorama, Blurb, and SmileBooks.
Most services charge a set price for the first 20 or so pages, then add a dollar per page after that. Blurb goes by range, starting with up to 40 pages, and going up in increments of 40 more. In book publishing, two pages equals a single sheet of paper: a 20-page book will have 10 sheets of paper, plus the endpapers, and is therefore surprisingly thin.
Almost all of these services offer deals and promotions, and with some quick internet research we dug up promo codes to save up to an average of 20% off on many of the books we ordered.
To speed up the process, tightly edit your images before you begin. When you choose your pictures, think about the story and elect a variety of types—mix landscapes, portraits, and details. For a bigger book, group your pictures into themes. The longer your book, the more structure it will need.
We prefer simple layouts to emphasize the images, and most services had options like that, though they were not always easy to find. Aperture, MyPublisher, and Blurb had the most modern and elegant designs. Services associated with photo-sharing sites, such as Snapfish, Shutterfly, and Kodak Gallery, were more biased toward themes for occasions like a new baby, wedding, or holiday. Picaboo is oriented to digital scrapbookers, offers thousands of backgrounds, and an active community shares designs. With Picaboo and Mpix, it was difficult to get a simple look.
The most common book shape is a horizontal rectangle. If you shoot mostly horizontals, this is the best choice. Go for a more extreme rectangle if you plan to print images right out of your DSLR—you’ll be able to make full-page images without cropping much. Square books can be nice to hold, but you won’t be able to print a full-page picture without cropping—they’re slightly better suited for a 4:3 aspect ratio. If you have mostly verticals, your options are more limited—only Adorama and Mpix offer vertical books.
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