My customer asked me…

“What’s the deal with photo books?”

Digital printing provides an alternative to offset lithography for those looking to produce a limited number of books. Furthermore, digital printing also allows for variable printing, whereby a unique image is printed with every pass. This print on demand (POD) technology has introduced a tidal wave of potential for self-publishers looking to print high-quality colour work and scrapbook enthusiasts alike. Welcome to a world of opportunity: the photo book.

The photo book is a unique concept. Recent innovations in digital printing and easy-to-use downloadable software have put the power of book publishing into the hands of the masses. Consumers can now create quality personalized books for a relatively low cost.

My curiosities led me to google “photo books” to see who provides this service as well as to better understand this phenomenon. My search came back with 4,970,000 hits. Whoa. Considering “strawberry jam” and “telephone poles” each returned less than 800,000 hits, there is some big talk about photo books on the web.

Photo Book Providers

Please understand that this is by no means an exhaustive list of photo book providers and what they offer. I am going to concentrate on the three main avenues to create photo books, examining a few providers within each. First, in-store photo book options, like you would find in a Walmart or Black’s Photography store, offer users a tangible workspace and on-site support when creating their photo books. They upload their photos and then import them into photo book templates provided at an in-store kiosk. Customers then view a digital proof, and the store takes care of the rest.

My search came back with 4,970,000 hits. Whoa. Considering “strawberry jam” and “telephone poles” each returned less than 800,000 hits, there is some big talk about photo books on the web. This isn’t much different from the second option: online creation and ordering. The difference is that there is no on-site support to help with any snags you may encounter; however, there are customer service representatives you can contact by phone or e-mail.

The customer first downloads proprietary software from the company’s website. Once a book is created, the customer can view a digital proof to ensure that everything looks okay, click submit, enter in payment information and then wait for his/her book to arrive in the mail. There are numerous service providers that operate this way including Viovio, Photobook Canada and Shutterfly.

Viovio offers a wide range of sizing and binding choices, including hardcover and softcover options that are sure to satisfy users. A truly unique aspect of Viovio’s photo book creation is their partnership with, a popular photo-sharing site, so users can import their photos directly from their Flickr account into a photo book.

Photobook Canada, a Toronto-based service, also offers an array of digitally printed photo books in all sizes, finishes and binding styles. Additionally, they have excellent customer service options including a “Live Support” online help window using MSN Messenger as well as an online Customer Support and Feedback form.

These days, photo books are even making appearances in hit TV drama series! A Shutterfly photo book captured a lead role on an episode of NBC’s ER when Dr. Luca Kovac traveled to Croatia and recorded his journey in the form of an 8”x 8” photo book for his son Joe. When Joe is rushed to the ER, the photo book makes its big appearance.

The third photo book creation option also includes ordering and paying for the product online, but doing so as part of established software, such as iPhoto. This familiarity makes it easier for non-savvy users to add their photos to a database and create a book for their photos all within one window. When the customer has finished importing photos, he/she submits the photo book by clicking an order button and completing the transaction all in the same screen. I find it very interesting that digital photo software, like iPhoto, has actually gone against conventional thought by opening up new markets for printing, versus eradicating ink on paper.

As Manfred Breede points out in his book, The Brave New World of Publishing: The symbiotic relationship between printing and book publishing, “for much the same reasons that the physical book remains a preferred medium, digital photography has not diminished the desire to own and collect hard copies of favourite pictures.” He goes on to explain, “it is thus clear that tapping into the market of converting digital pictures into a variety of value-added products, of which photo books are but one example, has good business potential.”

Behind the Scenes

Digital printing has enabled businesses to manufacture personalized photo books in a way that was never possible with offset. Breede makes clear that “the paradox of digital manufacturing, including digital printing, is that both extreme customization and economies of scale are possible.”

While there can be inherent quality issues with digital printing, including banding issues in gradients and solid images that are prone to cracking when scored, digital printing allows for fantastic personalized potential. Digital printing achieves halftone reproduction that closely matches offset, produces more consistent density than offset and allows for printing on a wide variety of substrates. Although speed still proves to be a problem (a conventional offset press has a page output that is ten times faster than the fastest digital press today) this hasn’t slowed down the photo book market.

To better understand digital printing systems used to produce photo books, I spoke to Kodak’s Krista Fennessy. She explains that users can create photo books through Kodak’s Gallery ( and order their books in much the same way that they can with other service providers. When Kodak receives an order for a photo book, they consider the location it is shipping to and then give the work to a printer in that area who has a Kodak NexPress. NexPress digital presses all over the country are used to create the photo books, which are then shipped directly to their customers. In a few words, Kodak becomes their customer’s customer. Fennessy explains this as driving print business back to where it belongs, the local printer, and thereby supporting local print shops all across the nation.

The Kodak NexPress S3000 Digital Production Color Press is a 5-colour device that allows for double-sided printing and produces output quality of 600dpi through an electrophotography process. It can handle a range of substrates including uncoated, matte coated, glossy coated, cast coated and textured, wood free, recycled paper as well as a wide selection of standard offset papers. It can also handle labels, paper-backed transparencies, select opaque foils, synthetics and, most importantly for this topic, photo book paper. This technology is also very environmentally-friendly with output that is highly recyclable and de-inkable because of the dry toner technology. Dry toners do not incorporate additional chemicals or petroleum products and have better light-fastness and abrasion resistance than some liquid toners.

Photo Books: A User’s Perspective

I had the opportunity to sit down with an individual who has become very familiar with photo books. Ruth Tupe, a second year student at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University, had the opportunity to design and coordinate a commemorative photo book for Ted Rogers in appreciation of his contribution to Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Business Management. She collected information and quotations from past and present students as well as photographs of school successes and scholarship winners. The hardcover project looked great, and I am happy to say that Mr. Rogers received this gift before he passed away in early December 2008.

Ruth used (based on the recommendation from a professor) where customers must use a proprietary software called BookSmart. She really liked Blurb’s easy-to-navigate website, but didn’t enjoy having to use their software.
“I am a designer and it was really frustrating having to conform to their layouts. I had to fiddle and adjust to achieve the look I wanted.”

In BookSmart, users must choose from a series of layouts and cannot easily modify them to make them their own.
“I had to move from Photoshop to InDesign and then to BookSmart to achieve the look I wanted. This was very time consuming.”

Ruth admits that this program would probably be sufficient for the everyday user, however designers like herself might find it frustrating. When asked if Blurb should accept PDFs as well as BookSmart files to ease this frustration, she replies, “No. I feel for them. I could see many problems if anyone could submit a PDF.”

Within BookSmart, customers can click to preview their file when they are finished (which acts as the only proof they will see) and then they can click the “Order Book” button to submit their work. However, before a book can be ordered, customers must read a pop-up window that acts as a mini pre-flighting function reminding users to check their spelling, content placement, copyright permission and fonts before submitting. There’s no turning back once you submit the photo book, thus the onus is transferred to the user to ensure their work is correct.

When asked if she would do this again, Ruth replies, “Yes. I have already had friends asking me to create personal albums for them.” Ruth says that if she did it again she would take the time to comparison shop and see what other services are offered. She was pleased with Blurb, however, and experienced very good customer service that answered all of her questions. Ruth also states that the software would be easier to use the second time around. “It all depends on the complexity of the project. The Ryerson School of Business project was fairly complex with lots of images and text, which made it difficult to create with BookSmart. If I was creating a book containing only photos, BookSmart would work well.”

As Apple perfectly describes, “photo books are an amazing way to remember an event and the perfect gift as well.” I believe that photo books are a fantastic way to produce a one-off, high-quality book for a reasonable price. Whether created to commemorate a special event, such as a wedding or one’s travels, or created as a coffee table portfolio book for photographers, there are limitless creative possibilities. In terms of what to look for in a photo book provider, suggests that design features and sizing options, product quality, ease of use and help/support are the four main must-haves. I couldn’t agree more. Happy photo-booking!


Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.