Friday, January 16, 2009

Photo Books That Wow

When film was what people used in cameras, I was a slide guy. My wife was a print gal. I think she was right.

Taking pictures is one thing. Making them available to people to see is quite something different. The bottom line is that prints are easier to view. No technology required. Just open a book and look at the photos.

With the advent of digital photography and the ability to make extraordinary color prints at home – plus the absence of “film” that eliminates the slides versus prints dilemma – I’ve become a strong advocate of prints.

But another dilemma remains: How to present one’s favorite photos to people who want to see them?

For years, we’ve used the photo books that have typically a hundred or so plastic sleeves into which 4x6” photos slide. People can then flip through them and see our favorite photos.

I recently had an opportunity to try out two of the online photo book sites: MyPublisher.com and Blurb.com.

Before I get into each company, what they do that’s similar is offer you free downloadable software (making photo books is not yet something that’s ready for a full Web-based implementation), import and layout your books and then upload the completed file. About a week later, a beautifully printed and bound, full-color book arrives in the mail.

These books are remarkable for a number of reasons:

First, they’re beautiful. The printing quality is very high. Color reproduction is very good, especially in the skin tones.

Second, they’re professionally bound, so they look just as nice as any photo book you’d purchase at Barnes & Noble or other bookstore.

Third, they’re affordable. While the prices vary based on the number of printed pages, the size of the book, and the type of binding you request, the books I created were between $50 and $70 each. Certainly not cheap, but considering that I wanted a press run of one, this is hard to beat.

I spoke with Eileen Gittins the president of blurb.com. She described how blurb.com has positioned itself as not only a book publisher, but a method for authors and artists to create and sell their books online. Indeed, blurb.com has an entire eCommerce section to allow customers to create books and sell them online, while blurb.com fills the orders.

In speaking with Katherine Lewis, the president of MyPublisher.com, she indicated that she’s positioned her company as a service to the “family memorykeeper.” MyPublisher.com is marketed to the home audience.

Both companies offer downloadable software to layout your books. Software is available for both Windows and Macintosh. Each offers a variety of page templates and formats. Typical styles are weddings, vacations, and special events, such as graduations. Each application lets you add text to most pages for captioning the photos. While some books are intended more as books with supporting photos rather than photo books with text, there are layouts that emphasize text over photos.

Having tried both company’s software application, I can’t say I favor one over another. Both worked as advertised and were simple enough to use.

What surprised me was how much time it took to create each book. This was not a function of the software as much as it was a function of me selecting the best images, organizing them appropriately, determining which layout to put on a page, adding the needed text, and then reviewing the completed book. The results were worth it.

What I did find was that neither software application let me do basic image editing such as lighten/darken, increase/decrease contrast, red-eye removal, or rotate an image. This is typically better performed in a photo editing application such as Photoshop, but having these features in the layout application would be beneficial.

The result of my testing was that I ended up making multiple copies of one of the books and sending it to some of my family members. The books were very well received. I am considering sending out copies of the other book, too.

Perhaps the best part is that my wife, who loves pictures of our family, was thrilled with the books and we now have them proudly in our living room for guests to see.

So, what started out as an idea for a column has turned into a wonderful new way for my family to keep and share our photos with our friends. I won’t be making photo books of all of our events, but I can guarantee I’ll be doing more of these books in the future.

Originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 14 January 2009.

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