Photo Books

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This reserved article originally appeared in CHROMiX ColorNews Issue 40 on December 4, 2009.

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This Month's Feature Article:


Photo Books

by CHROMiX's Patrick Herold

A few years ago a revolution happened. Almost all of the people who used to shoot photographic film in their cameras all switched to digital cameras within a few years. Revolutions have a way of upsetting industries, and many of the large companies that specialized in film development have closed or found a way to change with the times. People in the industry saw it coming of course. In the beginning, digital cameras were expensive and had fairly small mega pixel counts. But it was easy to see where the trend was going. The idea among industry heads was that yes, it was pretty cool to see your images on a computer screen, but deep down inside everybody will want a piece of paper to hold. Everybody is going to want to print these digital images and all the people in the "film developing" business can just switch over to the "prints from memory card" business.

Then a funny thing happened. Nobody printed. We all got our point-and-shoots and happily clicked away, seldom feeling the need to print the images out - so long as we could feel assured that we had them somewhere. In fact, since we could take so many more pictures digitally than we ever did with film, we certainly didn't want to print all those pictures and just add to the pile of shoeboxes in our closet. In addition, Moore's law contributed to the equation. Just about the time our memory card was getting full, along would come a new generation of cards with 2 or 4 times the memory of the last card.

The industry tried to encourage the consumer to print more. There was a price war among online photofinishers. 10 years ago, you would have paid 50 cents to make a 4x6 reprint from film. Today you can get an online 4x6 for less than 10 cents. We even reminded people that printing your digital images is a form of backup which very few of these new digital shooters are doing. Unless you back up your images, the memory cards could become corrupted, and you'd loose it all. Even so, actual 4x6 printing of digital images is today a fraction of what people expected it to be.

Then about 5 years ago, the ability to use digital presses to print variable data had advanced to the point where they could be pulled into service to print consumer images. This has taken the form of stationery, personalized greeting cards, and in particular: photo books. These books are printed on some form of digital press, and can come in a variety of shapes and sizes - from 5x7 paperbacks for about $10 to very high quality hardbound books at $70 or more.

Uses for photo books

This is getting to be a popular item and there are a lot of uses for these books:

A great number of online companies offer these photo books.

Some of these companies started out as online digital print providers (Snapfish, Kodak Gallery, PhotoWorks) and have added photo books to their line of products. Some do this as their main product (My Publisher, Blurb). Some do all their own production in-house (Shutterfly), and some interface closely with an outside printer to handle the actual fulfillment of the books (Snapfish and Lulu are printed by outside printers.)

Don't be put off by a service that uses an outside printer. Many of these are "vertically integrated" with their printers. The customer service rep you talk to can tell you at what stage your book is in the process in the lab, and can even pull up a report on how accurate the press was that your book was printed on.

What to expect when ordering a book

The book building process takes different forms. MyPublisher and Blurb have client software to download onto your own computer which walks you through the process of organizing the files for the book. Then, when it is complete, the client program uploads your book to their website and they take over from there. Other companies that specialize in storing your online images have a web-based wizard that walks you through the process. In either case, the idea is the same: Figure out what pictures you want on which pages, what text you want to go with the pictures, what "theme" your book will take - the colors and graphic elements that accentuate your images. It pays to figure out what works best for you, since this process of populating the book tends to take the most time.

You will also have a lot of choices to make. With the book covers, you can choose from soft (paper) cover, soft (pillow-like) hard cover, hardcover with a customized die cut window in the front, or a paper "dust cover" for the really nice hardcover books. The better companies will score the dust cover slightly to make it easier to fold onto the book. This makes a bigger difference that you think!

Questions to ask

Here are a few practical issues to discuss when looking to make a photo book:

Do they have a variety of designs? Do you like the designs they offer? Some companies specialize in graphics that are tasteful and attractive for many occasions. These designs can greatly enhance the overall impression of the book for those who receive it. It's not just pasting pictures on a page. Do they allow for you to control your design? Submit your own graphics? What level of customization is available to you?

Color Management Questions

Do they accept embedded profiles? Most photo books are intended for the average point-and-shoot consumer, and so most of these companies expect all images to be in the sRGB working space. If an untagged image (an image without a working space profile embedded in it) is to be printed, it will be considered in the sRGB color space. Some book manufacturers honor embedded profiles. A few honor the AdobeRGB working space and handle it appropriately through the workflow. Since the vast majority of photo books are printed using short-run, variable-data HP Indigo presses, there can be a gamut limitation depending on what you're expecting. The sRGB working space is adequate to define most of the colors these printers can print. The only exception is with saturated greens and cyans. If you are printing a photo book with a lot of greens and cyans, and full saturation is important to you, look for a company that will honor AdobeRGB images. AdobeRGB fully encompasses all the colors these printers can print.

Can they supply you with a printer profile ahead of time so you can "soft-proof" what your images will look like? (Hint: Some companies will supply you with a "SWOP" profile which has a rather constricted gamut, for the express purpose of allowing you to be pleasantly surprised when you receive the actual book!)

Finally, when you get your book, check your binding. Are the book blocks sewn and glued, or glued only? Are the pastedown end leaves (attaching the pages of the book to cover) applied neatly and square to the corners? Did the handlers use gloves? There's nothing quite as disappointing as seeing your new book with fingerprint smudges on a shiny black dust cover surface.

If everybody likes your book, can you order more for the rest of the family? Will they look the same? Are there controls in place to ensure that the subsequent books look the same?

Digital Color Consortium

Some players in this business are putting together a Digital Color Consortium. Reischling Press in Seattle formed this consortium last June as an effort to standardize best practices and workflows between the folks who offer photo books on-line and the print service providers that print them. A website is reportedly in the works, but was not posted at the time of this article.

(Thank-You to Rick Bellamy and Henrik Christensen of RPI, Inc. for their contribution to the content of this article.)

Thanks for reading,

Patrick Herold

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