Photo book services buying guide
Design, print and order your own unique coffee-table quality photo album without leaving home.
Finding the right photo book service
Photo book services can turn your holiday happy snaps into a professional-looking, coffee-table-quality printed book, conveniently mailed to your home. The idea is a modern take on the traditional photo album, but presented and printed as professional quality hardcover (or soft cover) book.
When we tried out popular services in our photo book service reviews, we found a lot of variation in the features they offer, and in how they describe their offering – which makes it tricky to compare.
Here's our guide to choosing a photo book service.
Range of features
Design features can vary quite a bit between services. For example, each service will have a range of size s and various ways to cover and bind your finished book, including such things as a photo-cover, see-through cutout cover, fabric finish cover, dust cover, spiral binding and high-definition printing. Depending on the service, you can make photo books from under 20 pages to ones that run to a few hundred pages.
Trying to compare book offerings between services can be confusing. There's no standard for selecting book sizes, book types, paper types or covers. Book sizes can be described in inches, in centimetres, in page size (A5, A4, A3), or in words such as mini, small, medium and large, or portrait, landscape, square, and rectangle.
For covers, you may come across terms such as imagewrap, coverphoto, debossed and linen, and it's sometimes left to the accompanying pictures to help you figure out what the terms mean.
The key lesson here is to make sure you double-check every option along the way when selecting a book type, book size, cover options, and paper quality. When using drop-down menus, make sure the options you've already selected don't change when something else is changed.
Web-based layout or downloadable program?
Most photo book services offer a downloadable program to design your book, before uploading the final version to the service for printing and delivery back to you.
Many also provide a web-based layout program, so it doesn't matter what computer you're using.
- Usually offers better flexibility in terms of layouts and other features.
Can be a quick and sometimes easier solution if:
- you only want to build a basic book quickly and not have a lot of creative control
- you're looking to source your pictures via social media e.g. some services let you input a webpage address (URL) and it'll scan that webpage for pictures that you can use.
Hardcover or softcover?
- Stronger, sturdier and can survive wear and tear better than softcover.
- However, they're heavier, larger and usually cost more.
- A good hardcover should be able to open flat for two-page viewing without tearing or damaging the binding.
- Generally cheaper than hardcovers.
- They use a relatively lightweight cover material that may even be the same type of paper used for the inside pages (this is called a self-cover).
- Often 'saddle-stitched' (stapled and folded), but may also use other types of binding including glue along the spine.
- Usually not as strong as a hardcover book and can be more vulnerable to general wear and tear. The cover can also curl up noticeably after handling.
It's important to consider the versatility and flexibility of each program.
- Your digital picture files can come from your PC, external storage drive or cloud services such as Dropbox. Some programs also let you select images from image hosting sites such as Flickr or social networks such as Facebook or Instagram.
- You might change your mind several times while designing, so look for a program that lets you easily rearrange images, move them to different pages, add or reduce the total number of pages or even completely overhaul your template.
- Autoflow or auto-fill (the term changes depending on the programs) can automatically lay out pages, add text and arrange your photos.
- You can usually change the number of pages without having to delete pictures, but some programs can only insert and delete pages one at a time, while others limit this function to double pages.
- Prepare for a bit of work if you decide to overhaul your design, change the book's size or switch its orientation (portrait or landscape) halfway through. Pictures will need to reformat to fit the new layout. A few programs can do this automatically. Those that can't will usually limit alteration options, or provide manual editing tools.
Re-ordering and duplicating
You may want to order more copies later of your completed project. This can be handy if you want duplicates for gifts, for example.
But some services let you go back to your completed photo book project and edit it to make an updated version.
The cost of your final book will vary, depending on a number of factors such as the size and style of your book, number of pages and any special options you've added. Not all services give you a softcover option.
Be wary of delivery costs, as they can add substantially to the overall cost of the project, especially if you use express delivery options. The cost can also vary on reorders if you modify the number of pages or the paper/cover options.
Tips for making a photo book
Here are our top tips for turning your treasured memories into a top-quality photo book:
- Set a budget. Extra features like gift boxes and dust jackets can add a lot to the final cost and may not be necessary.
- Set a photo limit. Most people have a stockpile of images on their hard drive, and it can be tempting to print them all. A limit saves money and helps you pick the best shots from your collection.
- Don't rush into it. Gather the photos you plan to print into a folder and then leave them for two to three days. Then come back and review your decision. You may find that you've changed your mind.
- Plan first. Create a rough plan of your book before importing pictures. This will save time in juggling pictures and page layouts.
- Choose the service carefully. Have a look at different services in detail, as each will offer a few unique features which may be the little extra touch you're looking for.
- Use templates. Supplied page/spread templates are helpful when starting out. Use the layout and typefaces supplied. They've been designed to look good, so keep alterations to a minimum until you've had some experience.
- Expect a learning curve. Spend some time learning to use the software. You may find hidden design features which will make for a better final product.
- Review your design in detail. You don't want any mistakes slipping through. As with the photos, let your layout sit for a couple of days just in case you want to make any changes before sending it to the printers.
- Be wary of autoflow. In some cases autoflow or auto-fill can be more hindrance than help. Poor autoflow means portrait images might be put in landscape containers or vice versa, or that unwanted extra pages are added to a project automatically.
- Preview your book frequently. Scrutinise the preview of your book to make sure all photos align properly and that you don't have spelling mistakes. If possible, preview as you go to make sure your photos line up as you want them – look for gaps, alignment, and overlay problems.
- Watch for picture 'bleed'. If placing photos manually near the edge of a page, make sure you drag the photo over the edge of the bleed line so that it prints right to the edge of the page.
- Don't over-enlarge pictures. Be aware that low-quality photos, or photos that have been heavily cropped or zoomed, may not look sharp when printed. Blowing up pictures can reduce their quality.
- Edit pictures separately. For best results, use a separate photo editor to optimise pictures before importing them, rather than rely on editing features in the photo book software, if any. Remember that your pictures will look duller and flatter on paper than on your screen.
- Be patient. It can take quite a while to upload your photos (for online editing) or your final project (if using downloaded software).
- Track your book. Choose a shipping method with tracking, if available, to help troubleshoot delivery issues.
Photobook services generally don't just limit themselves to photo books. Most offer a range of other products including personalised calendars, stationary, cards and photo prints on many materials such as canvas, metal and even glass.
Here is how we test photo book services.