The Fine Art Of Bookmaking

Photo books are ideal repositories for meaningful memories, and they can be great gifts if done right. Even the most polished website doesn’t create the same impact as an expertly bound photo book. There are an almost limitless number of subject matters that can comfortably fit between the covers. Books also are fantastic tools for photographers to improve their storytelling abilities through editing, sequencing of images and adding text.

The key to the growth of the self-publishing industry (also known as printing-on-demand) is the ability to produce a single book for a low unit cost rather than the large quantities that were once necessary to reach a reasonable price point.

There are many services for producing a beautiful book: A&I, Blurb, MyPublisher and Shutterfly, to name a few. Apple also offers photo books with the ability to design and order them from within Aperture and iPhoto software. These services make it easy to create; it’s up to you, the photographer, to provide book-worthy photographs and text with a concise theme.

I recently went through the process of creating a book with photographer/illustrator Marc Smith, using A&I Books’ free Book Creator design software. Here are some basic tips to help get you started, no matter what software or service you choose.


Create a project folder where you’ll place all your photographs for your book project. This bit of organization will make it easy for the software to link to the location of these files. Make sure not to move the files after they’ve been brought into the book software because it will break the link and the program will no longer be able to find the image.


It’s recommended to work with JPEG files that are saved in the sRGB color space at 300 dpi (dots per inch) at print size. The 300 dpi setting is the industry standard. If your book is 8.5×11 inches, and you’re going to fill the page with an image, the photograph itself should be approximately 8.5×11 at 300 dpi. You don’t have to size the images to the exact size of the templates into which you’ll be dragging and dropping the image. The software will typically help you with this. However, it’s important to understand that taking a small file and making the resolution higher (“res-ing it up”) won’t produce the same results as starting with an original image of a larger size. The result will be an image that looks “soft” or pixilated, or a combination of the two. The A&I software has a low-quality icon that will indicate if your image dpi is below 250 dpi, but won’t be able to detect if you’ve overly “res’d up” a shot. If the images you have are too small for a certain-size book, choose a smaller book size to optimize the photo resolution you have.

Several online services make it easy to create custom photo books, with a range of choices for size and finishing. Bay Photo’s hinged paper option (above, left) lets pages lay flat with the book open. PhotoBook Press offers a convenient “proof” book for events (above, right) and premium upgrade options like handsewn binding.

The images you see in A&I’s Book Creator are thumbnail-type files, so they’ll look soft or blurry because they aren’t being viewed full size. The Book Creator Preview is meant to be a guideline for the overall layout and design, not for checking image quality. Your software or service may handle previews differently, but just remember to check image quality when preparing your images in your photo application.


DO have a theme. Tell a story one book at a time. It could be a family vacation, a wedding or a season of high school sports. It could be an illustrated cookbook. Random images don’t tell a story and don’t have the cohesiveness to be an effective book. Use your imagination and create good sequencing—that is, have the flow of photos relate to each other either story-wise or with a strong aesthetic connection.

DON’T have some prints horizontal and others vertical, forcing viewers to rotate the book—it doesn’t work. It’s aesthetically more pleasing to have a horizontal image run across a double-page spread (using two pages) or floating on a single page. For my A&I book on North Korea, I found that I had so many more strong horizontals that I decided to print a 17×11-inch, “landscape”-oriented book. The alternatives are either a square book or a “portrait”-oriented book. Almost all magazines are “portrait”-oriented, with more height than width to a page.

DO a tight edit. There’s no need to have two similar images in a book. A single strong image will have more impact than two similar images. Don’t leave viewers racing to the back cover because they’re tired of wading through repetitive images. A friend of mine took some great photographs on her cruise to the Antarctic, but it wasn’t easy to sit through a PowerPoint presentation of 452 images. The adage “One bad apple spoils the barrel” comes to mind. With some disciplined editing, my friend has the potential to create a great book.


A succinct introduction is a vital component of a successful book regardless of the subject. It doesn’t have to be great prose, but something that introduces the content of the book and gives some sort of context and background. Captions also are a useful tool. You can’t be looking over your viewer’s shoulders, pointing out what the pictures are. Books can be enhanced with chapter dividers, perhaps using a different color to help delineate the sections. Long after the memories of the details have faded, these books will provide the information and stories behind them.


Go to your local bookstore’s photography section, and see what you like and don’t like about various designs. Bookstores and libraries are perfect places to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t in book design, and to discover what appeals to your aesthetic. When you see a book you like, try to analyze what about it attracts you. Check the websites of the various online book publishers, and note what you like and don’t like about the books they produce.


If you feel you have very strong design skills and want to make a statement with the design itself, creating a custom book is an option. Marc Smith explains why he decided to go the custom-book route: “When I began working on my book, I didn’t want to be limited by a template. Although there are plenty of good online ‘build-a-book’ sites, there’s nothing that’s going to allow you as much freedom as something you design yourself.”

Smith created a book of images from his series on Lucha Vavoom, a show in Los Angeles that combines Lucha Libre wrestling with burlesque dancing. Either discipline on its own would be an intriguing subject to explore, but together they created an alchemy, or a “chocolate in my peanut butter” sort of thing.

Says Smith, “The first thing I did was to find a book design that had templates for both single- and double-page layouts. Then I created a Photoshop file with the given dimensions for the two-page template and configured the book the way I wanted, keeping in mind the page fold in the center.

“Next, I created the title pages by layering photographs, type and drawings in Photoshop, and uploaded them into the book using the single-page template. Finally, I sav
ed the files into a JPEG format as was required by the book-building site, but I also had the layered PSD files so that I could make changes or update the layout for a revised edition. At that point, all of the hard work was done, and the actual uploading of images took no more than 15 minutes. The only thing left to do was wait for the book to come in the mail.”

For those designing their own custom books, the basic specifications to keep in mind as you’re laying out each page include leaving an eighth of an inch on all sides for a bleed margin (borderless). It’s recommended to keep all text a quarter of an inch from the edge of the page. The spine width and cover size will depend on the kind of paper chosen and the type of binding required. Double-check these specs with your service as they may vary, but remember that margins are critical!


“Preflight” checks are important. The exact process will vary depending on the service or software you choose—review your book carefully. When an order is placed for an A&I Book, the software will check and prompt you for errors such as low-res images, blank pages and empty text boxes. You also can click Preview in the Toolbar to view a larger on-screen version of your finished product before uploading.

The red lines around the pages are there to gauge cut marks. The book pages will be cut somewhere between those red lines and the edge of the page. It’s very important that text and essential content of your images stay well within the red lines, so they don’t end up too close to the edge of the page. It’s equally important that bleed images go all the way to the edge of the page (not just to the red lines), as any white area around the image may show on the final product.

For your first photo book, consider it a learning process, and order just one copy to check that you have the process down—you don’t want multiple copies if you made an error. Following these tips will help you avoid the pitfalls and discover the visual excitement of seeing your photos professionally printed and bound.


As photographers, we’re fortunate to live in a time where technology has evolved to the point that we can create high-quality books, one at a time.

Here are links to some of the many companies doing online book publishing. The next step is yours, so go ahead and take the click!

A&I Books
Apple Aperture and iPhoto
Bay Photo
PhotoBook Press

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