Photo Book Basics for the Traveling Photographer

The finished product is not only a gorgeous album, but a work of art
The finished product is not only a gorgeous album, but a work of art

It used to be that sharing your vacation pictures was a pretty straightforward affair. You developed your 37 rolls of film, picked out a few dozen shots that weren’t horrible, then shoved your prints into little plastic casings – three to a page – in a three ring binder. Eventually though, either through use or the ravages of time, the pages would wear around the ring-holes, requiring the use of a high tech piece of stationery equipment called the reinforcement (a.k.a. a little white ring-shaped sticker), or even worse, the photos would stick to the now-petrified plastic sleeves, damaging the prints and making the presentation even less appealing.

Now, in a world of digital everything, where we can fight wars via remote control and stalk people through cyberspace, the abuses of technology can almost be justified in view of what is in my opinion one of mankind’s greatest leaps forward: the photo book. Yeah I know, global communications, civil rights and advances in the medical field are up there as well, but we’re talking about customized, print-on-demand technology that allows virtually anyone to make their own coffee table book. Mankind has finally reached its pinnacle.

Though around for quite some time, not everyone makes use of this affordable and far more convenient way to share their pictures. Sure, you can post everything to social media, but people have their limits as to how much they want to see, and you might find yourself rapidly ‘unfollowed’. Since travel photography is my greatest hobby after traveling and writing, it seems fitting that I now share with you the basics of creating a photo book that you’ll be proud to show off, and some tips that will leave your friends and family actually wanting to see it.

Pick Your Poison

There are numerous online companies that offer the option of having a photo book made from your pictures. Most have the tools built-in to their websites, making putting one together a rather simple undertaking. In fact, for the extremely lazy or uninspired, they often offer an autofill option, which will take your photos and randomly distribute them in no particular order or preference as regard to size or layout. To me, this is the equivalent of shuffling your prints and dumping them on the viewer’s lap. Maybe your mom would still go through them, but you’ll lose everyone else’s interest. If you’re going to make a photo book you might as well do it right, so after choosing a company to work with (my own particular favorite is Shutterfly – you’re ready to get started.

Size Does Matter

The first decision you’ll have to make is what size book you would like to have. Naturally, smaller is cheaper, and soft cover less expensive than hard cover. But really, after all the effort you spent traveling the world to come back with those amazing images, is this the time you want to be cheap? Do everyone a favor and make it at least 8.5 x 11 if not larger. With the option of full-page bleeds (where the picture covers the entire page) enlarging your best shots ratchets up the wow factor and makes for a much more striking presentation.

The Few. The Proud. The Upload-able

The next step in creating your photo book is to decide which photos to include in it. While many sites will grant you free online storage – which is a great backup by the way – this does not mean you should try to cram every shot into your book. Whether on your bedroom floor or on the printed page, clutter is clutter and nobody likes looking at it. And let’s be honest, not every shot is pure gold or serves to tell the story of your trip, so take your catalogue of 2000 plus images and whittle it down to 300. And for the love of God, leave out the snapshot of the tuna on rye you had for lunch. Nobody cares. Really.

Lay It Out Like You Mean It

Remember my sweeping condemnation of the autofill option not even three paragraphs ago? Without giving sufficient thought to the layout of your book, you can achieve the same lousy results in a lot more time. So to avoid that travesty, give thought on how you wish to tell your story. Chronologically? By location? Portraits vs. landscapes? Once decided, stick to your plan and choose from the available templates wisely. Just as you would give more emphasis and attention to relating certain parts of a story verbally, choose lower number templates (three or less) to highlight your more meaningful shots. Again, a well-placed full page photo can really enhance your album and is the visual equivalent of shouting “Hey! This was really important!”

Keep Your Background In The Picture

In addition to various (at times, customizable) templates, photo book editors will also allow you to select from a catalogue of background styles. If you don’t add any, that would be like walking up to a sundae bar offering hot fudge, caramel, sprinkles and candy toppings, then leaving with a plain vanilla cone. There’s just no point to it! So add in those backgrounds. Often there will be ones with travel-themes such as maps and landscapes, or seasonal or geometric designs that will complement the photo(s) on the page. Let your creativity flow and have fun with the borders and ‘frames’ features as well. Just don’t walk away with plain vanilla. Your audience will resent you for it.

Make It Personal

Most templates will allow for a caption or even large blocks of text. By filling these in, not only do you enhance the narrative – preferably with interesting facts and location updates – but it also allows people to enjoy your album without you needing hover over their shoulder just to explain what’s going on in the picture. Some sites, like Shutterfly, also offer customizing packages for a nominal fee, which I can best describe as digital scrap-booking. By adding this feature you get access to clip art, special templates and backgrounds, and various graphic images and text boxes that can take your book from being ‘pretty cool’ to ‘this is amazing!’ Which one sounds better to you? Thought so.

Be Cheap Without Being Cheap

Photo books are a great value in and of themselves, but here are some money-saving ideas. Since your base rate is usually for a 20 page book, with additional per page fees, you might be able to consolidate some photos in collages or larger number templates to cut down on the number of total pages. When done properly, it can be a real visual treat and allow you to showcase more photos – just remember what I said about clutter. It is also worth mentioning that these sites periodically have specials such as discounts or free shipping. If you can be patient you can snag yourself some great deals and wind up with a professional-quality photo book with all the trimmings for well under $100 depending on the size and number of pages.

Building a photo book is both easy and a great creative outlet.
Building a photo book is both easy and a great creative outlet. Just don’t clutter!

Hopefully, armed with this cursory information, you too will venture into one of the marvels of the modern age and transform that box of prints – or even worse – 75GB of images on a hard drive that have never seen the light of day, into a tangible, physical, pleasing-to-read photo book. But if you insist on doing it old school, be my guest. I’m sure I’ve got some reinforcements somewhere in my desk drawer, and you can have them.


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