Photo book on Egypt

Our photo book on Egypt is nearing completion: as I will need a total of 10 copies (at about $100 each, hard cover, 30×30 cm = 12″×12″) for members of our group, a prototype copy has been completed, has been reviewed, and we are approaching the point of no return (for a $1000 order).

Upper Egypt

In March 2010, our family went on a one week Nile cruise. The cruise covered the main sights in Upper Egypt from Luxor down to Abu Simbel (on the border with Sudan). The trip covered the highlights of Egyptian antiquity – with the notable exception of pyramids and Great Sphinx which are both in the Cairo area. These highlights will certainly be familiar to all who have visited Upper Egypt and sound familiar to all who haven’t:

  • Luxor (aka ancient Thebe) – this is perhaps the 2000 BC equivalent to visiting Washington DC
    • Temple of Queen Hatshepsut
    • Valley of the Kings
    • Colossi of Memnon
    • Temple of Luxor
    • Temples of Karnak
  • the Temple of Edfu
  • the Temple of Kom Ombo
  • Aswan
    • the Unfinished Obelisk
    • the Temples from Philae
    • the two dams
  • the Temples of Abu Simbel

There was also the option to take a hot air balloon (yup), drive quads in the desert (yup), sit on a camel (nope), visit lesser known temples (yup), visit a mosque (nope), cross the Nile in a small traditional sailing boat (yup), and tip almost every Egyptian you ran into (no thanks).

I originally had a bit of apprehension about cruises: those were for old folks and you don’t get the freedom that you have when you are on your own. This sounds especially scary if you are into photography. But this cruise (and the weather) was great: you get the benefits of somebody taking care of the logistics and food, you get a guide explaining the historical basics (an Egyptian who spoke a bit of Dutch), but we actually did get enough time to roam around and take pictures and occasionally even head out on our own.

The book

First page of the chapter on the Temple of Kom Ombo (click to view larger)

This is the first page of one of the chapters. After a bit of introductory text, the rest of a chapter is only photo’s. Captions with photographic and historical information are in an annex.

It was quite a bit of work to research the texts in order to get them accurate, interesting, and concise. The colored words are respectively the names of gods and pharaohs. Essentially every temple was commissioned by a pharaoh in the honor of one or more gods as well as the pharaoh himself/herself. Typically a pharaoh claimed to be direct descendant of the gods in order to justify their role in society.

Front cover of Egypt photo book
Cover for Egypt photo book (click to enlarge)

Egyptian History for Beginners

The last page of the book contains a time line that I designed to visually summarize Egyptian history. An engineer’s way to see history, if you will:

Time line of Egyptian history (click to see larger version)

The horizontal axis simply marks off the fifty (!) centuries of recorded Egyptian history. The vertical axis shows degrees of latitude and are aligned with the map of Egypt on the right. Egypt spans between 21′ North and 31′ North. Given that the Nile is roughly vertical on the map, and that major historical sites were never far from the Nile (the rest is desert), you can more or less locate any event in Egyptian history with just two coordinates: time, and location on the Nile. Thus the graph (actually an Excel scatter plot) allows you to see how far apart any two events are in time and roughly in space.

The final page also contains a companion table listing the historical 32 events included in the time line. The list is somewhat biased towards antiquity and the places we visited, but it does include British rule in Egypt, Egyptian independence, the building of the dams at Aswan.

Thus the diagram shows that the role of Thebe, as the capital of Egypt, spanned from 2000 BC to roughly zero BC. It shows that major monuments in Thebe were however primarily built between 1500 and 1100 BC (in the “New Kingdom”). In a bizarre episode in Egyptian history, the pharaoh Akhenaten essentially rejected established religion and government and created a new capital in Amarna, quite some distance North of Thebe. Unfortunately his “reforms” were undone and Thebe became the capital again shortly after his death. The dotted purple line links the Amarna episode to the rediscovery of Amarna by the German scientist/explorer/map maker Lepsius in 1843. Amarna is, incidentally archaeologically interesting because it was only inhabited for a few decades. The dotted cyan line links the golden age of Thebe to the discovery of tomb KV62 of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter in 1922 and the discovery of the next tomb, KV63, in the Valley of the Kings in 2005. Actually KV63 itself isn’t really that important (unless you are an egyptologist in search of funding), but it shows that new discoveries are still occurring.

The diagram also shows that Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae (Aswan, 285 BC) are not only relatively close to each other, but were built in the same (Greek pharaoh) period.

The diagram also shows that original activity in the Cairo area started slightly further South (Memphis, 3000 BC; Pyramid for Djoser, 2630 BC) before getting really close to where Cairo lies (pyramid for Khafre, Giza, 2560 BC). The dot at 969 AD is the actual founding of Cairo by the Islamic Fatimid people.

Want more information?

The current plan is that anyone can

  1. view the entire content of the book online (, click on Full Screen, and click to turn pages)
  2. or even order a hard copy of the book from (same link, costs cover only what Blurb charges)

A warning in case you order a book: the 160-page photo book contains roughly three thousand words of text in Dutch. That is not a lot (this text is a bit over one thousand words), but there are no plans to translate it into English or Urdu. But here is a copy of the text in case somebody wants to decode what it says.

If you want to use material to create a “derived” work of some sort, please contact me first: note that the text and photos are copyrighted! I am likely to react supportively. If you want to order the book, feel free to do so as long as the group permits this (but please consider contacting me first, comments below are fine).

Footnote on copyrights: The map used with the timeline graphic is by Wikipedia contributor Lanternix who generously made it available to all without any restrictions. (pronounced Issue) is a site that aims to allow individuals and companies to publish documents on the web. Users can upload PDF, Microsoft Office files (PPT, Doc) or various open document formats. Issuu allows readers to view read-only versions of such documents using only a web browser with Flash. Issuu is typically used for brochures and other commercial publications, but is also suited for newsletters, magazines and creative stuff.

Usage and ease of use

A user can flip through the pages in a web browser while seeing one or two pages at a time in a “paper-like” format. When you click to get the next page, the page is fetched from Issuu’s server. Although later pages are prefetched when possible, this can take a few seconds because the page is typically fetched as a bitmap rather than as text. A progress bar indicates how long this will take. On a slow connection, the speed can be a bit irritating if you want to browse quickly. Although, on the one hand, browsing is clearly slower than on a local PDF file, the time to load a page is roughly comparable to the time it would take to load a comparable HTML page containing multiple images.

Pages are displayed in an elegant format with superimposed shadows to suggest curvature. What you see resembles a stack of double-sided pages stapled together at the spine (magazine format). The look and feel of the web site has a bit of Nintendo Wii design to it: clean, easy to use and a bit innovative styling.  The document doesn’t give you visual clues about how long it is: a 3-page memo, and 30-page magazine and a 300-page book start out looking pretty much the same.

Example documents

For some reason, typical Issuu documents themselves tend to look professional (e.g. advertisements, photo books, art books) rather than just being simple text or designed by beginners. Recent (selected?) publications in early September 2009 show a wide range of documents:

  • Two issues of Design Magazine – a free 200+ page magazine on “every possible design discipline”. The publisher is based in South Africa. The magazine contains advertisements.
  • A free magazine about Ghost Tours in the US East Coast. Its publisher is Travel Virginia! magazine which embeds Issuu’s document viewer on their website. The documents look like those distributed for free by travel agencies.
  • The Good American Post, a free local newsletter for the Colorado area: “Your Local Source for Good News”.
  • A set of scanned fake voting ballots documenting election fraud in the Philippines.
  • A Bulgarian “Business and Lifestyle” magazine containing lots of advertisements.
  • The 2010 US-version of the IKEA Catalogue, uploaded by a Dianna Dilworth, who describes herself as a digital reporter. IKEA itself puts the catalogue online itself using software from ecSoftware (the ecBook software looks similar to Issuu and has some extra features like the ability to add links to pages).
  • A real estate Buyer’s Guide for the Main/New Hampshire area. Actually there were two slightly different copies (due to an update?).
  • Three management and training books (one in Vietnamese, one from Elsevier, one published by the Canadian government). The uploader’s relationship to these (explicitly copyrighted) works was not specified.
  • The first 21 pages of a 128-page “graphic novel” (comic book) related to Count Dracula that is about to be published commercially.
  • A booklet with photos of an Australian charity project in Nairobi, Kenya.


With free version of Issuu, documents can be up to 500 pages long and up to 100 MBytes in size. The 500 page limit is fine, because documents that long are impractical anyway. The 100 MByte limit caused me to have to split a 200 page book (to be printed via into multiple chapters. This is because the BookSmart software I was using renders pages to PDF by converting photos and text to bitmaps (this requires a CutePDF printer driver). At 300 dot/inch, this can easily several MBytes per page. At lower resolutions (e.g. 150 dot/inch) the output files are smaller, but font readability starts to suffer.

Business model

Although both the document owner and the document reader can use Issuu’s service’s for free, Issuu hopes to make money providing “Pro” accounts which allow bigger documents and via some form of context-aware advertisement: like Google, Issuu knows what the user has looked at and what searches the user did. Presumably Issuu is still in he venture capital phase: they seem to concentrate on getting a big readership and leave the advertising income for later.

My own documents

I am currently using Issuu to distribute a draft of our Andalusia book (to be printed at so that it can be reviewed by the coauthors. See, for example, the introduction chapter. The other chapters (e.g. on the Roman excavations in Italica) have less text and more photos.

Fotogroep Waalre 1-Jul-09

Photos shown at my local photography club on July 1st 2009.
These photos are © 2009 Peter van den Hamer.

All three pictures are taken in Andalusia, Spain. All are images of interior architecture lit by daylight. All are technically a bit challenging due to extreme contrast. All were taken at 24 mm, f/4 and roughly 300 ISO and 1/25 second.

Alcázar Fountain (Sevilla)
Alcázar Fountain (Sevilla)

ISO 200, 24 mm, f/4, 1/30 s

I had expected this Moorish fountain in the palace garden to be a well photographed spot – but it turns out that it isn’t. One reason might be that there is simply too much to see at the Alcázar and this is a less spectacular sight. Much of the other sites are easier to photograph. Or people are simply tired by the time they reach this part of the garden (at least many of our party were). 

The above picture is used on the cover of my Andalusia book at (not available for ordering yet). On Burb’s glossy dust jacket, the shadow details are actually better than on my home HP B9180 printer. But on the semi-glossy interior pages, the shadow details are a bit lacking. The image was accidentally taken as a full-resolution JPG rather RAW.

Palacio de Lebrija (Sevilla)
Palacio de Lebrija (Sevilla)

ISO 400, 24 mm, f/4, 1/20 s

In this 16th century building was redecorated about 100 years ago by the Countess of Lebrija (Doña Regla Manjón Mergelina). She collected Roman frescos and pottery from nearby Santiponce as well as neo-Mudéjar and Renaissance artwork. It helped that her daddy directed the excavations at Santiponce. The palace (now a museum) is somewhat over-decorated.
Palacio de Carlos I (Alhambra, Granada)
Palacio de Carlos I (Alhambra, Granada)

ISO 200, 24 mm, f/4, 1/30 s

The Palace of Charles V (aka Carlos I from a more Spanish perspective) is the largest building within the Alhambra compound. The Renaissance building is square on the outside, but has a large round patio. See areal photo. This particular staircase is squeezed between the round patio (right) and some flat walls that form a square (left).

The picture seems to remind many viewers of staircase pictures by Escher.

The stairs are a good test for screen and printer color management. In the original RAW image, you can see the steps all the way to the top. This is probaly no longer possible in a JPG due to the 8-bit resolution. And printers have trouble with these shadows for other reasons.

Blurb’s BookSmart Software

Here are some notes on the BookSmart software (version 2.0.2 in Aug 2009) used by Blurb, a do-it-yourself book publishing company. This posting can be seen as a lightweight review and contains a few tips and pointers. Note: on October 1st 2009, BookSmart 2.5 was released.


The software is reasonably stable, but it is aptly called a “beta” version.

Unlike Google betas, you may and probably will experience an occasional crash – especially if your book contains significant amounts of text. This not too problematic as you will not normally lose any work: the software automatically saves all modifications frequently. After the crash, you are asked to provide an optional E-mail address and one-liner about what you were doing. I have not gotten any reaction from Blurb whenever I did fill this in.

Most stability problems appear to be related to editing large amounts of text. For example when you have a text that spans multiple pages, any change needs to propagate to other pages as well. For larger chunks of text, it is safer and faster to do the text editing outside of BookSmart and then copy and past it in.

Don’t enter right-to-left languages

In Aug 2009, I had one very serious problem: I tried to copy in a few words of Arabic (for a book on southern Spain – once part of the Arab world). It turns out that BookSmart doesn’t like Arab (or Hebrew for that matter) because that is written right-to-left. Unfortunately, the crash-and-restart solution didn’t work this time. BookSmart had written the Arabic words to the .book file and even to the .backup file, and thus crashed immediately on any restart attempt. As usual, I had a backup, but it meant loosing a full day or two of work.

Incidentally, the right-to-left language issue suggests that BookSmart had made an attempt to support such languages (interesting market) and had left buggy prototype code for this in the normal distribution: I obviously hadn’t told BookSmart in any way that this was right-to-left text and would have been perfectly happy if these UniCode characters had been handled as left-to-right text.

Blurb customer support

I followed two parallel paths to get the above problem solved: fixing the problem myself (by modifying the XML-based .book file) and via Blurb customer support. The do-it-yourself solution was a bit faster in my case (mainly involved discovering which lines to delete in an ASCII editor). The customer support route initially didn’t read my mails well. They scan (maybe automated??) incoming mails and trigger to words like Arabic and send clippings from their FAQ and customer support material. But somebody or something had concluded from “file no longer opens” or so that I lost the location of my .book files – and sent appropriate instructions. On the second or third mail I started sounding technical enough that I got put through to a more technical person. I am pretty sure that Blurb would have gotten my problem fixed in one or more exchanges (they were requesting me to send the .book=.xml file). But I didn’t do the experiment because I had solved the problem myself in the meantime. It earned me a complement (“good sleuthing”) from the technical  person.


The software in written in Java and saves the text and formatting of your book as an XML (structured ASCII) data file with extension “.book”. The use of Java makes editing of text within BookSmart slow. Selecting text with a mouse is particularly painful.

Images are stored as individual files in a “library”, but with machine-generated file names (hashing). I am not quite sure why image file name hashing was use. It could be there for privacy reasons: file names could accidentally reveal information. File name hashing does allow you to use multiple files with the same file name without using subdirectories. Unfortunately, it is also easy to accidentally have two copies of the same file.

A minor problem with Bookexport

The book can be exported and imported using a format called “.bookexport”. This turns out to be a zip file containing the .book file and the image files. Distributing a draft book via a web site upload/download turned out to be tricky as somehow Windows may treat the file as a .zip file and unzip it (MIME type?). A workaround is to upload a zipped version of the .bookexport file. This doesn’t further reduce the file’s size, but prevents users from accidentally unzipping the .bookexport file.

So the steps I used to put my draft book online for friends are:

  1. export to a .bookexport file
  2. zip the .bookexport file to create a .zip file
  3. upload the .zip file

For the receiving party, the steps are:

  1. download the .zip file using an http:// or ftp:// link
  2. unzip the .zip file
  3. import the resulting .bookexport file

The fact that the .bookexport file can be unzipped using winzip or by Windows if you rename the extension is then an irrelevant technical footnote because it no longer happens automatically.

Image resolution

The software warns if image resolution drops below 150 dots/inch. The maximum recommended image resolution is 300 dot/inch. 300 dot/inch doesn’t sound like much, but implies 7,2 Megapixels if you fill an entire page of an 8×10 inch book. and 13 Megapixels for an 11×13 inch book.  This is surprisingly high – given that you can create excellent A4 or A3 prints with high quality 4-6 Megapixel images.

Freely position text and photos

Before BookSmart 2.0.0 you had to choose one of the templates provided by Blurb. You couldn’t freely add images or text anywhere you liked or re-size the images or text containers defined by Blurb.

Since BookSmart 2.0.0 you can edit the template used by a page, and optionally save it as a user-defined template (but that’s not necessary to modify a page). The heavily template-oriented heritage still shows as you normally design a page by selecting one of the available templates. This isn’t bad because it makes the process simpler and allows you to rapidly preview a page containing say 2 pictures using alternative templates. It also saves time as few people have the skills and discipline to deal with all the flexibility which you get with a blank page: for me it helps to first start off with a page that follows a template, and then to fix anything I really don’t like about it.

PDF to bypass BookSmart

For ultimate flexibility, some more professional users actually created their book using specialized professional software such as Adobe CS4 InDesign. The route was then to create the entire book that way, and to export all pages as image (e.g. .JPG) files and use these to create the pages in BookSmart.

Since June 2008, BookSmart provides support for InDesign and potentially other software by allowing the user to submit their book as PDF. Obviously some constraints apply: Blurb cannot adapt the size and shape of the book to whatever you happen to have in mind. This seems to be solved by a combination of templates (for InDesign) and expecting advanced users to know what they are doing.

I have no experience with the use of InDesign, but know that some demanding users took this route even before Blurb made it easier to use.

Printing your own photo books

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


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 ( – 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
    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 ( – 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: 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 ( – 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 uses Albelli or someone else.

An overview with user ratings of suppliers in The Netherlands (many operate internationally) can be found at 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.


The graph illustrates the pricing for hardcover books printed in the Netherlands. The pricing includes 5.90 Euro shipping costs (less if you buy multiple copies). The site 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., 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 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.


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.