Printing your own photo books

Although I am in the process of creating a photo book (on a trip to Spain) using Blurb.com, I haven’t seen the results yet.

Market

The market is rather diverse: at the bottom end, Print-on-Demand can be seen as a replacement of photo albums: the album is printed instead of printing photos and pasting them into a blank album. At the high-end, the end result may be viewed more as a book self-publishing  route and the output can be an artistic end product in its own right. The high-end can range from wedding photos taken by a professional photographer  to an artsy book with pictures of someone’s recent trip or creative project.

I tried to classify the quality requirements for print-on-demand photography books as follows (highest to lowest):

  1. Traditional professional photo books.
    If you earn a living partly by selling good-looking “coffee table books” with photos from Antarctica or of antique locomotives, you will need large series. The on-demand printing techniques are financially less attractive for larger series: these call for a normal printing equipment. An example of a photographer who does this is Karel Tomei – who does areal photography in Holland or elsewhere. Karel said he sometimes even takes the trouble of traveling to the printer’s site (in his case the Czech Republic) and personally checking image quality whenever they start printing a next sheet (in his case every 4 hours).
  2. Professional wedding albums. If you spend 1000+ dollars/euros on a wedding photographer, you will want print quality that approaches “National Geographic print quality”. Or quality that is close to that of traditional photographic prints. Such albums sometimes have high quality bindings, and avoid showing any logo of the printing company. Series size aspirations: 1 to 10?
  3. Aspiring photographers who want to display their portfolio. They may have high ambitions, but likely limited budgets. Series size aspirations: dozens? Some wedding albums also fall under this category, and can even be for sale for friends or even to the general public.
  4. Books that happen to have images as well. Here is an example of a children’s book. Image quality can be important (because these are clearly creativity-driven products), but the maker is less image-oriented than a photographer or graphical artist. Series size aspirations: dozens, hundreds?
  5. Family photo albums. The idea is to have  you vacation photos printed so that they end up in a physical form. And, above all, to have fun designing it. The fun factor, and ease of use are more important than image quality (after all, this is the market where some pictures may not al be great in the first place). Series size aspirations: 1 to 3.

A few suppliers

  • Blurb (http://www.blurb.com/) – categories 3 and 4?
    Blurb has an international network of about 80 “presses” (print shops with HP DigitalIndigo ws5000 printers) in “over 60 countries”. Interestingly, Blurb allows you to regard your end-result as regular books: friends and (if you want even strangers) can order a copy via burb.com.
    Color management: Blurb assumes images are in the sRGB color space, but can (for those who care) provide an ICC profile for their printing equipment.
  • Albert Heijn (http://www.ah.nl/fotoservice/fotocadeaus_album.jsp) – category 5?
    This is handled by the largest supermarket chain in The Netherlands. You submit your photos and layout online, but pickup the book at the local store. AH obviously doesn’t have its own print shops; many print distribution channels options are likely to end up at the same specialized printing companies.
    This service is seen as a variation of traditional photo printing services: www.ah.nl probably does not save a copy of what you ordered for any significant period of time. Blurb, in contrast, keeps the digital source file for years.
  • Albelli (http://www.albelli.nl/) – category 5?
    Albelli operates in Europe and the US. They use HP Digital Indigo printers. They used to be known under the name AlbumPrinters. A large local photo store links to their site.
    Despite winning a competitive review in a test by a Dutch consumer review organization, reviews by users range from very happy to very unhappy. The trouble is that one doesn’t know, for example, whether ah.nl uses Albelli or someone else.

An overview with user ratings of suppliers in The Netherlands (many operate internationally) can be found at http://www.onlinefotoservices.nl/faexp_ia.php. Note that different printing sites probably give different results. And that maybe some operators had trouble (e.g. new equipment, new staff) which has since been resolved.

Pricing

The graph illustrates the pricing for hardcover books printed in the Netherlands. The www.blurb.com pricing includes 5.90 Euro shipping costs (less if you buy multiple copies). The site www.ah.nl charges 99 cents (which I didn’t add) for “handling”. Note that the dimensions, cover type and paper type are not standardized.

Hardcover pricing depending on the page count

Hardcover pricing depending on the page count

The biggest differences between both pricing models is the price markup as you add more pages. AH charges 5 Euro extra for each additional 8 pages (on average, 0.63 Euro per extra page). For the largest size, this becomes 0.90 Euro per extra page.

Albelli has similar prices to AH, but charges per page rather than per eight pages. The initial price at Albelli is  bit higher, but this is largely due to the included shipping costs (about 4 Euro depending on the size). The shipping cost goes down if you order 2 or more books at the same time.

Blurb.com, in contrast, asks only 4 Euro extra for 40 additional pages (on average, 0.10 Euro/page extra). For the largest size, that becomes 0.20 Euro per extra page. This makes Blurb.com much more attractive once you exceed the first 40 pages. And this implies that with Blurb you may feel free to add a lot more “artsy” empty space without having to worry about costs. With Blurb, you can upgrade to a thicker “premium” paper and suppress the small Blurb logo at the front of the book by paying extra.

Software

The print-on-demand industry is very reliant on special software: you download a free, dedicated software package from the service provider. That allows you to select a book format, add pages, add text and photos to pages, and above all customize the layout. It allows you to design the book, preview it, print a draft to a home printer and generate a file for uploading to the service provider.

It is likely that there are only a few types of available software for the dozens or hundreds of POD services operating per country. But for now you just need to go with the software supplied by your service provider (there are no clear standards, or dominant software packages).

One notable exception to this rule seems to be Apple’s Aperture (and Apple’s iPhoto). Aperture is Apple’s counterpart to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom: it allows you to manage, modify and print your photos. It contains built-in support for creating a photo book via a service provided by Apple. It is possible (but not easy or intended) to export book designs from Aperture to the software provided by another POD supplier (e.g. via PDF or JPEG page images). Interestingly Adobe’s Lightroom 2 doesn’t have an option to create a book yet – despite Adobe’s strong commitment for PDF. Maybe this will get sorted out once there is a dominant input standard for getting photo books printed.

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