This Enchanted Sun, a photo book by Jessica Byam Friedman

10 Tips for Making Gorgeous Photo Books

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A few years ago, I got my first photo book printed with Blurb Books, and I was instantly in love. I was seriously impressed with the quality of the printing, the binding, and the price. It cost me less than half of what I would pay to print individual photos and put them in a photo album, so it was well worth the investment.

The first photo book I made with Blurb Books.
The first photo book I made with Blurb.

Since then, I’ve tried to do a book a year, and although I’m woefully behind on that goal, I have added a few more to my bookshelf and I’ve got several in the works. I get lots of compliments on my books, so today, I thought I’d share some tips and tricks for making your own photo books.

Please note: There are a lot of quick and easy photo book options out there, and they are perfect for many applications. However, if you want something truly unique to you, it might take a little more time and effort. All of the tips I’m going to share today are going to improve your photo book game, so feel free to pick and choose the ones that work best for you, your skills, and your timeline.

1. Use Blurb

I have tried a couple of different photo book creators, and the one that I love best is definitely Blurb. While the others do a decent job as far as print quality goes, Blurb gives you more options for customization and creativity. You can choose from a variety of paper styles, covers, and sizes, and Blurb has the highest max page allowance that I’ve seen (up to 440, depending on paper and cover style). If you take a lot of photos like I do, you might need every last one of those pages to get all your photos to fit. And once you order a book from Blurb, it stays in your account for life, so you have an automatic backup should anything happen to your physical copy.

And if all of that isn’t enough to convince you, how about this: Blurb has the best price per page that I’ve seen, especially when you consider the fact that they’re almost always running a great sale. They also have some of the best customer service I’ve ever experienced anywhere. They’re tied with KEH Cameras for the companies I brag about the most whenever customer service stories come up in conversation.

I also really love Blurb’s native design software. I started in the days when their only option was BookSmart, an intuitive, user-friendly program that makes designing your books a breeze. They’ve since added BookWright, and I love it even more. It has a bit of a steeper learning curve, but I love the additional control it gives me over layouts and design. Both programs are free, so if you’re not sure which one is right for you, you can try them both without any commitment. (And don’t worry: if you’re not interested in having full control over layouts and photo order and such, both programs have an auto fill option. Just import all your photos, press the button, and voila!)

If you're ready to make the leap into the wonderful world of making photo books, right now, Blurb is offering new customers 40% off with the code MAKEITMINE4T!

* The current sale is valid 12/05/18 - 12/11/18. If you miss that window, never fear! I try to keep this post updated with the current sales, so be sure to check back later.

2. Less is More

One thing I don’t love about many of the other photo book options is that the pages are too cluttered for my taste. I tend to be a bit of a minimalist when it comes to photo books, so I don’t often use backgrounds, borders or frames. If that’s your style, go ahead and use them, but be judicious about it. Use them sparingly to create a nice contrast.

The “less is more” mantra is also important for photos. If you cram too many photos onto a single page, it can be hard to focus on any of them. I do occasionally use spreads that have lots of photos, but I keep those for photos that document smaller details of a single theme. Again, it’s okay to use these every once in a while, but don’t make it the norm for your photo book lest it become overwhelming.

Photo book layout

3. Keep Your Layouts Balanced

Balance is key to making your photo books look gorgeous and professional. Not only should individual pages be well balanced, but each side of the spread should complement the other. Don’t be afraid of a little white space–it can help you avoid cluttered pages and give certain images and layouts more or less “weight.”

And maybe it’s just me, but I can’t stand when photos touch each other. I like to give them a little room around the edges so pictures don’t blend together. If you’re using BookSmart or BookWright, you can ensure that your buffer areas are even and uniform by using grids and guides.

4. Keep Typography Consistent

I get it: fonts are fun. I have thousands of them, so you don’t have to tell me that they’re the bee’s knees. But when it comes to design, too many fonts are the quickest way to look unpolished. Best practice is to pick three, max: one for titles, one for subtitles, and one for body text. Make sure they pair well (check out Pinterest for lots of pairing examples), and avoid overly cutesy fonts if you want it to look classy.

5. Cover Love

Designing the covers is my favorite part of making photo books. I have a secret dream of being a professional book cover designer someday, so I love creating designs for my photo books. You don’t have to give your books fancy titles like I do, but I enjoy feeling like I’ve created something a little more fancy than a yearbook. Regardless of whether you decide to give your book a title other than “Our Family Photo Book,” it’s important to remember that the cover is a first impression. If you’re going to keep these books visible—on your coffee table, perhaps, or displayed nicely on your bookshelf—you’ll want it to look nice. Spending the time to design a nice cover will go a long way toward creating a gorgeous photo book.

Three photo book covers
You can see how my cover designs improved over the years. I also learned that it’s important to not just respect bleedlines, but to also give them a little more space…

6. Don’t Forget the Spines

All of the photo books I currently have printed were designed in BookSmart, which doesn’t have the option of extending cover designs over the spine. But the newer BookWright does have that option, so all of the books I’m working on now will have spine designs. I CAN’T WAIT to see them all lined up on my book shelves with their fancy spines.

For some fun spine design inspiration, check out my Photo Books board on Pinterest.

7. Use High Resolution Photos

This is especially important if you want to use some of Blurb’s gorgeous 2-page spreads. If you try to blow up a low-resolution phone picture across two pages of a large photo book, you’re going to end up with blurry, pixelated spreads. The nice thing is that Blurb lets you know if a photo is too small to print well in a given image box.

Photo book with a two-page spread of a sunset

8. Leave Room for Add-Ins

Since these photo books are just for me, I like to leave room on some pages to add in additional flat (!!) elements after I get the book printed. This makes it feel really unique, and provides a little contrast to all those flat, glossy photos. I just use photo corners to stick paper ephemera to these pages. Some of the things I have added to my books include:

  • Ticket stubs
  • Tri-fold brochures for places I’ve visited
  • A paper target from the shooting range at Philmont
  • Drawings
  • Notes from friends

I also like to make a soundtrack full of songs that had some significance for me over the course of that year. I burn these songs to a disk and attach the paper disc sleeve inside the cover using more photo corners.

9. Incorporate Your Design Skills

One thing I love to do with my photo books is to create a theme that’s reflected throughout the book. For example, one of the books I’m working on right now is called Postcards Stamps are Cheaper. I got a lot of postcards that year, so I designed a cover that incorporates many of them, and each chapter starts with a page decorated with a postcard I designed for that section. (Time consuming? You betcha. I take this photo book thing very seriously…)

But even if you’re not as crazy as I am, photo books can be a great opportunity to showcase–or develop–your design skills. You can use Photoshop to turn your images into different shapes than the standard square or rectangle, create fun layouts with InDesign, make some maps (I love this map making tutorial from Suzanne O’Brien Studio), use clipping masks to overlay images onto text—the possibilities are endless.

And fun fact: If you use Lightroom, the built-in book module is a Blurb builder, and InDesign users can get a plugin to create Blurb photo books from within the program.

10. Create an Index

Creating a table of contents and an index might seem like overkill, but if you’re making a massive book like one of these, those details will be surprisingly helpful. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve wanted to find a picture of a particular person or event. Using the TOC or the index made it so much easier than having to flip through all of those pages.

To make an index, I wait until all of the pictures are in place and page numbers are added to each page. Then I create an Excel spreadsheet in which I list all the people, places, animals, etc. (whatever I want indexed) in one column, and the pages they appear on in another. After I have that all done, I copy the two columns into Notepad to remove the formatting artifacts (which can affect how they appear in Blurb), and past them into text boxes at the end of my book. After adjusting the spacing and formatting as needed, I have a lovely index that makes finding specific pictures much easier.

There you go! Incorporating any of these tips into your photo book design process will take your books to the next level. Check out Blurb for some great photo book inspiration, and don’t forget to use the code MAKEITMINE4T to get 40% off your first order with Blurb.

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