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.

How To Make Your Travel Photos So Interesting That People Won’t Paint Their Toenails

Keep "selfies" to a minimum
Keep “selfies” to a minimum

Invariably, when I’m about to leave for a trip, I get all sorts of advice from my friends and family. Be safe. Have fun. Call me when you get there (usually just my parents). And of course: Take lots of pictures.


While all are well-intentioned, that last one always seems to me to be a bit of a platitude. It implies that anyone who tells you that actually wants to see the aforementioned ‘lots of pictures’. And while I’ve found that there are a select few who would like to see ‘some, but not a lot’ of your pictures—regardless of their quality—the majority are content to skip the slideshow portion of your trip review in favor of doing something more interesting, such as painting their toenails for instance.


I can understand where they’re coming from. The last thing anyone wants to do is spend an hour looking at snapshots of other people having a great time, eating great food, or taking a selfie in front of something famous that you haven’t been to. Travel photos bring out the inner narcissist in all of us, and while we might find ourselves the most interesting thing in the world, others usually don’t feel the same. Therefore, the trick, I’ve found, is in how you present your travel photos, and I’ll briefly rundown the key elements to keeping people interested.


It’s Not All About You


Keep the subject interesting, such as here in Chinchero, Peru
Keep the subject interesting, such as here in Chinchero, Peru

Yes, as hard as it is to believe, what you saw, what you ate or what you stood in front of is of limited interest to others—even those who love you. So when taking “lots of pictures” be sure to include some of scenes that would be of interest to others: particularly striking landscapes; interesting locals; architectural nuances; funny signs and things of that sort. Ask yourself if what you’re taking a picture of is something you would want to see when others show you their photos, and you’ll have a general idea of what works and what doesn’t. So please don’t take this the wrong way, but that picture of the ham sandwich you had for lunch just ain’t going to cut it, so please spare us. (That goes for Instagram as well!)


Edit Yourself


In the age of digital photography, technology has freed us from the limitations of traditional film. No longer are we hesitant to snap off multiple shots for fear of using up our remaining rolls. Gone are the multitude of small black canisters with the gray tops—each holding a precious roll of film that may or may not contain the images we hope for. However, such technology is both a blessing and a curse, because with an endless amount of shots available, there’s the tendency to take–and here’s the problem–keep, more shots than are reasonably necessary. So if you take a shot and see that it is blurry, crooked, photo bombed by an oblivious pedestrian or anything else that means you or someone else would have no interest in looking at it, then please, trash it. I know your electronic storage device has more than enough space to preserve that shot of the armrest of your chair when you accidentally hit the button, but the age-old adage applies: Just because you could, doesn’t mean that you should.


It’s All In The Presentation


Showcase your best
Showcase your best

Now that you’ve made sure to keep your subject matter interesting and have culled your thousands of jpegs, it is time to go through your photos once again and move the best into a separate file. At this point, you can use any one of a number of online photo services to create your trip’s ultimate showpiece: the photo book. With leaps in print-on-demand technology, you can now create your own printed and bound hardcover book for about the price of having prints made and stuffing them in a three ring photo album. While there are some variations, most will allow you a number of options that allow you to customize your cover, mix and match templates, backgrounds and borders, as well as add captions and special effects. My own personal favorites are and Either way, handing your audience a beautifully bound book with your own artistic flair is a whole lot more interesting than pulling out your smart phone and swiping for twenty minutes.


I know that I’m in the rare minority of people that actually do want to see other people’s travel photos. But even then I have my limits. So keep it interesting, choose your best shots, and present them well. Otherwise I’m going to go paint my toenails.


Do you have any advice to keep your photo albums interesting?

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Miles

One of the most frequent questions I get asked when people peruse my travel photos is: “What made you go there?” followed by the inevitable: “How did you even hear about that place?” The response is the same for both: “I saw it in a picture.”

Yes, just as the beauty of Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships, so too a few travel photographs have sent me on a chase of many more than a thousand miles, just to witness the scenes depicted in person. My earliest recollection of this was an old book my parents had on a shelf in the crude entertainment center my dad built on his own when I was still a young boy. In it was the iconic scene of Machu Picchu, and I knew then and there I wanted to see it for myself. (I made the attempt to do so back in 2010 but was denied due to mudslides, so that goal is still pending).

Is it a sign of weakness that my mind (and wallet) are so open to suggestion? Perhaps. But there’s no doubt I have consistently had my expectations either matched or surpassed when I finally got to see the real thing. Below are just a few examples.


The Meteora, Greece

The Meteora, Kalambaka, Greece
The Meteora, Kalambaka, Greece

The first time I saw the image of ancient monasteries dwarfed by enormous pillars of stone, I thought I was looking at a scene from a video game (specifically something out of MYST). When I found myself in the general neighborhood of Greece I made visiting this otherworldly setting a priority and was thrilled when I was able to add hundreds of inspirational pictures to my own collection.

Cappadocia, Turkey

Goreme Open Air Museum, Goreme, Turkey
Goreme Open Air Museum, Goreme, Turkey

This surreal landscape captivated me at first glance. I mean, where else can you wander entire villages of sculpted rock right out of a Dr. Seuss book? Add to that the opportunity to stay in an authentic cave hotel (the coolest thing ever, btw) and I knew that despite being literally in the middle of nowhere (well, Turkey actually) it was worth the effort. My photo album is in complete agreement.

Jodhpur, India

Partial view of the Blue City


While India had always been a dream destination of mine, nothing stoked my wanderlust quite as much as a picture of Jodhpur, The Blue City as seen from the imposing Mehrangar Fort. Other than the intriguing color, the warren of flat houses, alleyways & staircases seemed a real-life M.C. Escher drawing. Considering its use as a setting in the Dark Knight Rises installment of the Batman series, apparently I’m not the only one to consider it as worth the trip.

Parati, Brazil

Sunset over the Historic Center, Parati, Brazil
Sunset over the Historic Center, Parati, Brazil

It was in a book of travel photography that I first caught sight of the cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses of Parati. Having always wanted to go to Brazil anyway, I not only included it in my itinerary but also decided to spend the bulk of my time there. Sure, I had read up on all its fine attractions, charming pousadas and artistic vibe, but it was those first pictures that made me say “I have to go there” and made me feel so very glad that I did. In fact, very shortly I will be posting about what a marvelous place it is.

These are just a few examples but by now I’m sure you get the point. So the tip is: If you’re lacking in inspiration or have always taken the road most traveled, do yourself a favor and go down to your local library, take out a book on a destination that intrigues you, and flip through the pictures (or alternately, view my photo gallery.) Inspiration is never far away so long as there are pictures, and so long as there are pictures, there will always be a reason to travel.