We sampled 10 of the most popular companies, see which ones provided the best overall experience.
Prepare Your Images
A bit of prep is usually necessary before uploading. As always, don’t correct color and contrast without calibrating your monitor. Most important, save your images in the sRGB color space before uploading! Many services won’t convert them for you, and if you upload in Adobe RGB or other space, your pictures could print flat and dull. Blurb provides an ICC profile, but states that color is extremely difficult to control in this kind of printing situation. We found that to be true—we printed the same images, along with a GretagMacbeth Color Checker chart, in nearly every book, and received a range of results.
Some services, like Kodak’s, automatically perform some corrections, adding what looks like contrast, sharpness, and possibly some color correction—we were extremely pleased with its results.
In most cases, save high-quality JPEGs before upload. Aperture and MyPublisher also accept RAW and TIFF files; Adorama accepts TIFFs as well as JPEGs.
Working in the Software
To make a book, you must design the page layouts, a process made easier (to varying degrees) by the company’s software. All the services do it one of three ways: via online software, proprietary downloadable software, or within an image-editing program.
The easiest one to use, and the one that worked the fastest, was the one inside our Aperture software. We found no noticeable processing delay dragging images into the layouts, and easily switched between different image configurations. If we didn’t like the way an image looked, we were able to edit it inside the program. Because we could use the software’s built-in tools, such as mechanisms for collecting a group of images, it was the best creation experience of the bunch. (Other software programs have book-creation inside, and the new Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 will have an improved one, which we look forward to trying.)
Blurb, MyPublisher, and Picaboo provide software for free download. Blurb’s and MyPublisher’s are both faster than online options, and both make it easy to grab images from your hard drive and add them to a book.
MyPublisher’s was particularly fun to use—it zooms in to the area you’re working on, and allows you to use any font on your system.
Online creation software was, on the whole, clunkier. To use it, you first must upload your images, so it’s important to edit your pictures well—forget some, and you’ll have to go back to your hard drive and get them. Most online software allows you to save as you go, and this is important—if your browser crashes, you could lose everything you did.
Of the online software, Adorama’s was one of the most sophisticated, allowing you to readily resize picture boxes, add drop shadows and text boxes, and even undo your last command—a function that’s missing on many online programs. Software aimed at novices can be more frustrating. With Mpix, you couldn’t add or get rid of borders for the whole book at once; you had drag and drop the borders one by one onto your images. Snapfish made it hard to edit individual photos, requiring you to click through a succession of screens to do so. Many of the services will automatically populate your pages, with varying degrees of success. Both Picaboo and Shutterfly allow you to drag and drop to group pictures together, then automatically create layouts to suit your image combinations. Kodak’s SmartFit did a good job with autofill because it seemed to respect both the order of our images and their aspect ratios. Mpix’s autofill, however, seemed to respect neither.
If this all seems like too much work, consider SmileBooks. We used its design service both to edit and to compile our books—a designer at the company followed our instructions, choosing our best images and designing the book for us. You’re charged for the design only if you order the book, and SmileBooks will make revisions according to your requests. The full-service process is much pricier than designing the book yourself, but it’s a good option for those with more money than time.
We’d hoped to find a clear winner, but, while there were standouts, no one company excelled at everything from book creation to binding to print quality.
Aperture was one of the best, with a simple creation process and a great binding. Kodak’s print quality beat all the books with traditional paper. And Adorama is up there, with good software and beautifully printed images. MyPublisher did well all-around, too.
If you don’t mind the digital-print look, which shows screening dots on close inspection, Aperture, Blurb, and MyPublisher give you the best layouts and the best design experiences. If you like lay-flat pages, and don’t mind a lack of endpapers, Adorama will make a book that shows off your images.
But for a traditional book, it’s worth muddling through Kodak’s software and giving up spine text and a dust jacket in exchange for such beautifully printed images. We would love it if Kodak created a higher-end version for enthusiasts, complete with downloadable software and lots of cover options.
The good news, though, is that many of these services produce good books, and we’ve found that people almost universally love seeing their images printed and bound. Spend an hour or so making a book, and you’ll be able to enjoy your images for years.
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