Monday, February 1, 2016

Overview: Photobook Company Reviews (Sept 2015 - May 2016)

For quite some time now, I have been meaning to create “year in review” photobooks and photobooks for our big vacations, but only recently started to have some free time. I did a lot of online research, but ultimately decided that I needed to try a few companies for myself in order to decide which company to move forward with.

I only planned to sample 3 or 4 companies, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ones I tried, so expanded my search. To date, I have tried 10 companies, and there are still two on my “to-try” list.

In my online research, I did not find many comprehensive reviews that were recent (from the last year or two), so I decided to post my own reviews here in hopes that it may be helpful to someone else.

I've got a lovely bunch of ... photo books

Personal Criteria

I will readily admit to being a very picky person. The criteria that were important to me are listed below, but obviously these will be different for everyone. Keep these in mind as you read my reviews.

  • High quality construction and nice “look and feel”: the book construction should be high quality and paper should feel substantial.
  • Print quality: I expect very good print quality and colour reproduction (skintones should look accurate).
  • Page type and binding: I initially only researched seamless layflat pages, but later expanded my search to include flex-hinge lay flat pages, signature sewn pages, and perfect binding. I am not interested in flush-mount albums.
  • Company reputation: To me, there are three aspects to reputation to consider.
    • Stability: Since I want to proceed with the same company for many years to come, the company should be well-established (i.e., will stay in business).
    • Consistency: The photobook quality should be consistent. I do not want to rely on reprints in order to be satisfied.
    • Customer Service: I expect responsive customer service, period.
  • Available to consumers: There were multiple companies I researched that were only open to professional photographers. Obviously, the company must accept business from direct consumers for me to order!
  • Spine labeling and hardcover image wrap: Since I plan to make 1-2 of these photobooks per year, I need to be able to label the spines to keep them organized. I also prefer hardcovers with full image wrap. I do not like dust jackets.
  • Available in square and landscape formats: I have decided that I prefer square formats for “year in review” type photobooks, and landscape formats for travel photobooks. I would prefer to use the same company for both types of books, but that is not a necessity.
  • Free photobook editor: Since I am just a consumer, I do not have dedicated album creating software. The company must provide either an online or downloadable photobook editor. This requirement may change in the future.
  • Price: Since I only plan to make 1-2 books per year, this is not a high priority issue for me, though I would prefer to keep the price in the $50-100 range.

Photobooks I have tried

I will update this table with links to my reviews as I complete them, and I also intend to do a summary review post.

CompanyProduct Tried
AdoramaPixHard Cover Photo Book, 8X12, Luster
Hard Cover Photo Book, 8X8, Fuji HD Glossy
Hard Cover Photo Book, 8X10, Fuji Deep Matte
Artisan State (ZNO)6x8 Layflat Book Hard Cover
Bay Photo8x8 Photo Hardcover with Lay-Flat Hinged pages
BlurbStandard Landscape 10x8 Imagewrap with Premium Lustre paper
MILK Books9.25x7.4 Medium Landscape Photo Books (Paper)
Mixbook11x8.5 Classic Landscape Premium Lay Flat Hardcover
MyPublisher11.25x8.75 Classic Hardcover with Photo Finish, Premium Paper, Lay Flat pages, Super Gloss printing
Photobook America8x8 Small Square Lay Flat Imagewrap Hardcover
11 x 8.5 Medium Landscape Imagewrap Hardcover
ProDPI10 x 8" horizontal Press Printed Book with Layflat Pages
Shutterfly8x8 Hard photo cover layflat pages, matte finish cover
Snapfish8x8 Premium Layflat Hardcover


Comments on Page Types and Binding

Top to bottom: seamless lay flat (AdoramaPix HD Glossy), flex-hinge lay flat (Bay Photo), sewn signature (MILK Books), and library binding (Blurb)

The terms I use below are the ones I saw most commonly, though they do vary from company to company.

  • Not Lay Flat (Library Binding, Side Sewn Binding, Perfect Binding (or specifically, PUR Binding, etc.): these books have a curved gutter in the middle, so do not lend themselves to full spread designs
  • Smyth Sewn or Sewn Signature Binding: groups of pages are folded together and sewn together ("signature"), then glued to a spine. There is no gutter, but not all pages lie perfectly flat. There may be thread visible in the middle of some pages (not good for layouts that span two pages).
  • Flex-hinge Lay Flat: The papers have a thin, flexible material that allows the pages to lie flat. There is still a narrow gutter between the pages, but is not that noticeable.
  • Seamless Lay Flat: The papers are folded in half and glued back to back. There is no gutter at all, but the pages tend to be substantially thicker than the above types. “Leporello binding”.
  • Flush Mount: photos are adhered to a thicker material/substrate at its core, pages lay flat, and there is no gutter (although there may be a small gap). These albums are what you traditionally see in wedding albums from professional photographers, and typically come at a very high cost. I was not interested in this kind of album. 

I initially gravitated towards the seamless lay flat pages, because they look clean, are typically printed on photographic paper, and offer the most flexibility in designing across two pages (a spread). However, after making a few seamless lay flat books, I learned a few things about my preferences:

  1. I rarely design across the gutter. I usually use 1 page as a full bleed photo, and the other page as a grid of photos with white space around it. I like having the option, but it hasn’t been a deal killer.
  2. I became paranoid about photo pages sticking together: from this site and this AdoramaPix threadAdoramaPix’s tips for preserving photo books puts me off slightly, because I want to be able to put them on book shelves or on our coffee table, and actually enjoy them (and I don’t mean on “special viewing occasions”!) 
  3. The thickness of lay-flat pages are actually somewhat distracting. In fact, my husband actively dislikes them, and his opinion is similar to this blogger's comments. 

I have ordered two flex-hinge lay flat books, and I think it's a good compromise between regular paper and seamless lay flat. That said, I am still unsure about the two that I have tried.

I only have one signature sewn book, but I do like it a lot. The only downsides to this binding method is that the thread is visible in the middle of each signature, so it does not lend itself to printing across both pages. There appears to be only one other company offering sewn signature binding (photobookpress.com), but their online photo book editor is too limiting for me.

Perfect Binding and Library Binding have a gutter in the middle, which, I have found, I can probably live with, if everything else is really nice.

Further Reading: edwardsbrothersmalloy.com, bookprinting.com, hyphenpress.co.uk


Comments on Paper Weight

If paper weight information is provided by the company, it is usually provided in either US Basis or metric units. Of course, the US Basis is more confusing, because America there is both a number and a text qualifier.

For example, “80# text” or “110# cover”. The qualifier “text” implies paper – like the kind you would feed through your printer. “Cover” implies a card stock or business card stiffness. There are other types of qualifiers, but I haven’t seen them in photo books.

Metric measurements are in grams per square meter, and don’t require any text qualifier.

This site has an excellent conversion table between these two measurements.

If a photobook company offers a paper upgrade for a fee, you probably want to take it. Unless you want your pages to feel like your high school yearbooks.


Comments on Print Quality

For the types of books I have tried, some are press-printed products and others are printed on real photographic paper. Not all companies are up-front about what they use on their websites, though most seem responsive to email inquiries. As a complete amateur, I won’t claim to understand everything about these printing procedures (please chime in to correct me!), but my reviews will focus on how the pictures look to my eye.

For press-printed products, HP Indigo printers in 4 colour printing seems to be the most common, though a couple companies offered 6-colour printing with a small upcharge. This printing method is known as digital printing, and can be used for small orders (hence, available to the consumer for on-demand, one-off photobooks!). The disadvantage of this printing method, is that the dots of colour making up each image is visible to the naked eye, if you look up close. I’ve noticed that some press printed books are better than others, so there is some other factor at play that I can’t discern.

For books made with silver halide photo paper, the print quality looks way better (especially up close). The only downside, as far as I can tell, is that real photo paper is a bit delicate and may stick together over time (particularly, when exposed to high humidity conditions).

Further Reading: richardphotolab.com, psprint.com, qis-inc.com, prodpi.com


Comments on Colour Profiles, Monitor Calibration, and Colour Correction

I did try to understand ICC profiles and monitor calibration, but at the end of the day, I am just a consumer, and was overwhelmed with the amount of information available on these subjects. I decided to stick my head in the sand with regard to these issues (for now).

Some companies also offer colour correction (either included or for an additional fee). Some companies use automatic corrections (ick), while others are adjusted by real people (seems more reasonable). In either case, I declined colour correction because I wanted to get a sense of the baseline product.

In almost all cases, I have been satisfied with the colour reproduction in my photobooks. As I continue to make photo books, and hopefully converge on one company, I will revisit these things in order to optimize my books.

One other thing I wanted to note, is that most of the time, physical prints will look darker than what you see on your monitor. If you think about it, it makes sense. I now turn down the brightness of my monitors at home (Dell UltraSharp U2715H) to somewhere between 30-50%, and lighten and brighten underexposed looking pictures. It seems to have improved my photobooks, but I don’t have a defined workflow in place as of yet.

In general, I have noticed a wide range of results from the different companies with regard to whether they seem to print darker or less saturated colours than others.


Other Reviews

As with all my hobbies, I tend to go crazy trying to collect as much information as possible. Here are some of the comparison reviews and sites I used during my initial research. I will post additional links in my company specific reviews.

  • Photobook Girl - You’ll probably already have come across this site, as it’s easily the most frequently updated photo book review site around. There’s a lot of useful information there; however, only certain companies are featured, and there are not many comparisons made amongst the companies.
  • Digital Home Thoughts - Jason Dunn reviewed 12 photo book companies. The main post was published in April 2010, though some reviews have been updated as of July 2014. 
  • The Daily Digi - This post reviews 12 photo books, but was published in May 2010.
  • Genevieve Flynn Photography - This post was published in April 2015, and Genevieve reviews Artifact Uprising (softcover), Blurb, Mixbook, MyPublisher, MPix.
  • Christina Jack Photography - This photographer reviews MILK Books, Nushots, Artifact Uprising, and Blurb. Published June 2013.
  • WeRockYourWeb - This page reviews Lulu, Blurb, Artifact Uprising, Shutterfly, Picaboo, and Snapfish, but does not show any pictures of the photo books (text only). Originally posted September 2014, but updated in December 2015. The comments also have some reviews.
  • Tom's Guide - This Tom’s Guide page reviews Mixbook, Shutterfly, Picaboo, Snapfish, MPix, Blurb, Lulu and was published in August 2015 and has pictures of the physical products.
  • Digital Photos 101 - Quite a few photobook reviews, but few reviews feature pictures of the final product, and almost all are rated similarly.
  • Focused Photographers - Some interesting quotes from photographers on various photo book companies, but no in depth reviews.
  • Improve Photography - This page reviews online print labs for prints, not photo books, but is interesting nonetheless.
  • DPReview Forums - Use the search function (you may find my posts!)
  • Photography subreddit - Use the search function
  • WeddingWire Forums - Use the search function

Disclosure

I purchased all the photo books with my own money, and used only promotion codes available to the public. I have not and am not paid or compensated for any of my reviews, nor are there any affiliate links embedded in my posts. I may post referral links for certain products and services I recommend, but I will note these where used.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you Mike for this very informative writings. It will be a big help for me as i am planning to create my blog. More power to you



    IIP Foundation India | IIP Academy of Photography | Indian Institute of Photography

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  2. I am so thankful about stumbling across your site. I enjoy reading the writing style of your review and resonate with you when it comes to going crazy trying to collect as much information as possible about any new found hobby. What I admire and certainly do not have is your discipline to organize and record your findings and experiences. :)

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  3. Do you have plan to explore "artisan prints"? I purchased their stored value card on impulse in an event.

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  4. I am also thankful about stumbling across your site. It's so in depth and well written. Thank you for sharing your findings!

    ReplyDelete