How to make a photobook


My headline is slight disingenuous: There actually is no simple recipe for photobook making. If you asked ten people about how to make a photobook, you’d probably end up with ten different answers. That said, from what I can tell, most photobook makers seem to agree on quite a few things. So I thought I’d throw my own thoughts into the mix. I hope that some people might find them useful. (more)

I am perfectly aware that there are many, many details I’m can’t cover in the following. What is more, you might not agree on some of the details. Let me say this again: The following is not intended to be the recipe to making a photobook. What I do think, though, is that it contains many crucial aspects of photobook making.

First of all, a general thought: Most photographers spend literally thousands of dollars on their work - expensive cameras and materials. Add to that the countless hours that go into producing the images (taking them, processing them, etc.). When making a book is there any reason for doing it cheaply and quickly? What would be the point of that? If the photographs are the result of a long, arduous process, the end result should reflect that. You (literally) owe it to yourself (and not just the people who, you hope, will buy your book). Imagine taking a cheaply and quickly made book out of your bookshelf years later: Is that really how you would want to remember all the hard work?

The preceding immediately translates into the following: When making a photobooks, do not consider taking any shortcuts. Making a photobooks means facing many decisions that have to be made. Carefully consider each and every decision, carefully consider each and every aspect of the book. It’s absolutely crucial. When you look at a great photobook, chances are that you will discover lots of little details that are just right. It’s very likely that every detail is the result of someone thinking carefully about that detail and then making a decision.

Of course, when you make decisions you usually make some mistakes. When you make your own photobook, you will make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable. The way to deal with mistakes is to fix them. This means that making a photobook typically is a long process that involves more than one iteration. More about that later.

Before I talk about decisions, I should really talk about what the issues might be. How do you even start out making a book? Imagine you have a set of photographs (from a project, or a collection of images, or whatever else you might have) - how do you go about making a photobook from that?

My personal approach is the following: When you look at your photographs - what experience do you want people to have when being exposed to them? This aspect is where it usually gets a little iffy talking about details, since there is such a large variety of photography. But ask yourself, if your book already existed - regardless of what it might look like - what is it that you’d want people to take away from it? What is the experience?

The reason why I always start out with the experience of the book is because it’s so essential: Every decision you have to make about the book involves that experience. Is there a story (documentary or fictional)? Or is the book a large riddle that is supposed to make people think? Is the book more like a gallery that is intended to showcase individual photographs? Etc.

The key here is that you will have to think about this carefully, and this usually means you will have to understand your photographs (project, etc.) properly before making a book. In all likelihood this means that if you have a lousy statement about your photographs, you will have a hard time making a book: A lousy statement is the result of you not having thought about the photographs enough.

Depending on what the desired experience might be, the decision-making progress can vary considerably from photobook to photobook. For example, if you want to tell a story the thinking that will go into your sequence of images will be very different from a case where you “simply” want to showcase a set of images. In the story case, the order of the photographs plays an important role, because you probably need to see some images first before you can see others. If, in contrast, you want to showcase a set of photographs, you will produce a sequence based on very different criteria.

Another aspect: If you want to produce a book that deals with a very intimate subject, you probably don’t want to use a very large book. A very large book won’t feel very intimate. Something small will. Or maybe you want to visually overwhelm the viewer, so you opt for a large size to give your photographs maximum impact.

Thus, every decision you make about your book has to make sense in terms of the overall experience of the book. This means that approaching your book like a marketing consultant is not a good idea. Don’t think of your book like a product (even though it eventually will be just that) first. Approach your book the same way you approached your photography, making careful decisions about its content first.

Once you know about the book’s experience you can approach thinking about some parameters. Start thinking about size, start thinking about production details. But first and foremost, start thinking about your photographs and how to translate the images into the book. There are quite a few very tough topics that you will face here, namely the edit, the sequence, and the design.

This leads me to another very, very important aspect of photobook making: You’re almost always better off involving other people. Maybe you’re a genius, maybe you can do it all on your own. Chances are you are not. Actually, it’s very likely you’re not. And even if you are a genius, then you’re genius enough to know that you need to involve other people.

Find someone who can work with you on the edit of your photographs and on the sequence. A bad or lousy edit and/or sequence will ruin your book. You don’t want to risk that. Find someone you trust, someone you can work with, someone who will be honest with you even if that means there’ll be the occasional shouting match.

The problem with photographers is that they love their photographs too much. When you make a photobook you need to be ruthless. You might love a certain photo the most, but if it doesn’t fit into the book, then it doesn’t fit into the book. Period. Other people are usually much better at seeing such problems - so find someone who can do that with you.

I could write pages and pages about editing. Harvey Benge just published some thoughts on editing and sequencing - a great start. They key here is always to be ruthless.

Another key is to work on the edit. What I typically suggest is to pin up all the photos on a wall and to live with them for a while. You’ll probably start taking some down, and on other days you might put an image back up on the wall. This is a good approach to getting to your own edit. You still want to talk about the edit with your editor, though.

As for a sequence, a very simple and very good way to get one is to simply buy a blank notebook, some double-sided tape, get your images printed cheaply as 4x6” prints (or so) and to put them into that notebook. This approach does not necessarily work for all kinds of photobooks, but it works for many (if you already know you need a complex design, with carefully selected sizes etc. it won’t work so well). The beauty of this approach is that you literally get a real book - it will feel like a real book. The fact that you will be able to turn pages is crucial, but you can also change your edit/sequences easily. Since you are using double-sided tape just remove an image or change something around. It’s very simple.

This brings me to computers. A lot of people design their books on a computer. I think that works up to a certain point, but eventually you will have to print things out and make a book to see whether it really works. As a general rule, I tend to suggest people instead start with actual photos. As it turns out translating an existing edit and sequence into a design is simpler than creating a design and trying to throw in an edit and sequence at the same time. Of course, working with a computer is simpler. But as I said above: Don’t take shortcuts. This is also the reason why working with Blurb - or other print-on-demand vendors - is usually so bad: It’s so tempting to quickly put the images into some template, playing around with the edit briefly, and then getting it printed. Big mistake. If you want to use print-on-demand, do it once you’re done with all the actual work.

OK, so let’s say you have an edit and a sequence. What about the design? The next problem that is very, very common is that many photographers think they are good designers. They’re not. As a matter of fact, pretty much everybody except for the people who do design for a living are lousy designers. Find a graphic designer who will work with you. When it comes to arranging images photographers are usually alright when it comes to the design, but having a professional arrange the typesetting will make all the difference. If you don’t believe it hand off your design to a professional and then watch her/him throw her/his arms up in horror about your shoddy design (you might want to have a stiff drink or two before you do that).

The key to working on the design is not just to make sure you get professional input, but also to know what kind of design you want. And this, again, brings us back to the book’s experience. The moment you know you need to be able to see, let’s say, two images at the same time, instead of one, you’re already talking about design. Do you need some images to be smaller than others? Do you want images to move around the pages? These are all design questions, but the way this will work in your book is that the design will help deliver the intended experience. This is why I always suggest to think about the experience first and then to talk to a designer (or work on the design). Doing it the other way around might give you a book that just doesn’t feel right - and you’ll have to figure out what it is.

A good approach to finding a design is to look at other photobooks. Are there photobooks whose format (design) might work for your book? Maybe there are. Or maybe there are books that incorporate many ideas you’d want to use. You can invent your own wheel, but you might not have to. What is more, to learn about photobook making you need to look at photobooks. Start looking at how they are actually constructed: How does the design work? Why were certain decisions made? You’ll probably also find that you think some things don’t work. Not every photobook is perfect. The key here is to get to a point where you can see the decisions that went into a book - regardless of whether you agree with them. If you think there’s a bad decision that’s great as long as you know why. The moment you know why you’ve learned something that you can then apply to your own bookmaking.

So let’s say you have an edit, a sequence and a design, and let’s also say you have made the decisions about the book’s size, the paper to be used, the type of book (hardcover versus softcover, perfect bound versus saddle stitched versus …, etc. etc. etc.). At that stage, you produce one copy of the book yourself. You literally print out the pages - ideally on cheap paper - and put everything together using tape and/or glue (or maybe even a bit of saddle stitching). In other words, you make a dummy (or maquette - I’ll call it a dummy). The very first dummy needn’t be very carefully made - as long as it doesn’t fall apart straight away. I personally strongly suggest to already work with the desired size right away.

Once you have your dummy you’ll be amazed about a) how simple it was to make one, b) how cool it is to have a dummy, and c) how many mistakes you made. You see your dummy, and you’ll see all the various problems with the edit, the sequence, and, of course, the design. For example, having 90 fold-out pages suddenly feels like a real chore - even though it sounded like such a good idea. Some of the pairings of images just don’t feel right. It’s too large or too small. There’ll be a large number of problems you’ll run into.

How do you deal with that? You’ll fix the problems - and make another dummy. It’s that simple.

At some stage, you’ll probably run out of things that aren’t working. At that stage, you should start showing your dummy to other people - people you can rely on to give you honest, critical feedback. Collect that feedback - and make another dummy. There’s a wonderful discussion of this process in issue 1 of Aperture’s The Photobook Review, with Jim Goldberg’s books as examples. If you haven’t read the article, I think it’s a must-read for anyone making photobooks.

The moment you’re done with your dummies, the moment when you got all the feedback you needed, when everybody is happy with your book - that’s when you should start thinking about where/how to get it printed. I’m sure this is going to sound like heresy to many people. But you can’t get a good book printed unless have one. Of course, in reality it’s slightly more complex - you need to make a book that can actually be printed. If your ideal book can’t get printed on-demand - why would you then compromise? Why not try to make that book in a different way, maybe as an artist’s book? Or working with a commercial printer?

If you decided you wanted your book printed on-demand, you could simply translate your dummy into a printable file (ideally probably using InDesign - if you’ve worked hand-in-hand with a designer, you’ll already have such a file), and then you ship off your file to whatever company you want to work with. Of course, some companies have very limited options for paper, sizes, etc., and print quality varies quite a bit - so you’ll have to look around and find a good option.

Alternatively, you could get a fixed number of copies of your book printed by a company like Oddi (I’ve seen many books made by them, and they all looked very good). A good printer like Oddi will be able to do your ideal size (unless it’s crazy), and they will send you paper samples so you can make an educated decision which paper to pick.

Another alternative is to produce a very small number of copies by working with a book binder. You’ll have to talk to the binder first about the book you want to make, and the binder will give you instructions on how to print your pages (there are many details such as paper grain, additional space around your desired pages etc.). You’ll then print the pages, and hand everything off to be bound. This option will be pricier, but you will get an amazing book. And yet another alternative is to do the binding yourself. Some people know how to do it.

What I’m trying to get at here is that making a photobook really is a complex two-tiered process: One part involves the production of the physical object, and another part involves the construction of the object out of the source images. These processes are not completely independent. But very often, I see people focus too much on the production (with all those debates about on-demand printing) and too little on what it takes to create a book.

Photobooks are physical objects, and they need to be made that way. Convenience is great, but it must not result in using shortcuts that will reduce the book’s quality. Shortcuts and sloppiness are the photobook’s worst enemies. Photobooks are also almost always the result of a collaboration - involving an editor and a designer. Again, not using an editor or a designer is a shortcut. It’s likely your book will suffer.

As I said at the very beginning, if you have spent so much time and money on your photographs, why ruin the ending with a bunch of lazy shortcuts? Why not instead give your photographs the form they - and by extension you - deserve?

Update (21 March 2012): I just learned that Oddi stopped offering small-edition digital print runs. They will still produce full offset, but to make that work photographers need to run editions of 400 to 500 or so to be cost effective.