You know what I miss? Photo albums. I miss flipping through their pages to rediscover memories, and slotting in new pictures. For all the convenience of instant uploads and sharing, my interaction with cloud-stored pictures tends to dissolve right after the first time I upload and share. (A November 2014 survey by self-publishing site Shutterfly suggests the same.)
That's why, for me, a photo book or calendar or heck, even a mug customized with someone's mug on it, makes the perfect gift, a way to hold on to those memories just a little bit longer.
I make a fair number of these little gifts using online services. I thought I'd share my experiences with four publishing sites that I've successfully used for creating photo books: Shutterfly and Mixbook for straightforward photo items; Blurb for a text-heavy book; and Pint Size Productions for the cooing, diapered crowd. I usually stick with the desktop sites, though most also have streamlined mobile apps as well. (Mac users can also create books using iPhoto.)
Just a note that since I first published this piece, some prices have gone up. Keep an eye out for frequent deals. And as always, feel free to jump in with favorites and perspectives of your own.
Disclaimer: CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page.
1. Shutterfly: The classic
Shutterfly was the first digital service I ever used to store my pictures in the cloud. These days, I turn to it more for photo gifts. It has an extensive offering that ranges from books and calendars to stationary and candles: basically anything you can slap a picture on.
If you start on the Custom Path, you'll have over 200 themes to choose from and up to six different cover choices (including leather and crushed silk), while Simple Path has about 20 template styles options and keeps the covers simple.
Ease of use
This website is more visually confusing than other sites, and you have to choose from various options right off the bat. The easiest one auto-fills photos for you, which you can move around the pages at will. You can loop in photos from sites like Picasa and Facebook, as well as from your computer. Once the photos are in, it's easy to change the layout for the entire book. You can open a bird's-eye view to swap pictures, though dragging and dropping them around would be easier still.
Simple Path is more constraining. You won't be able to change photo sizes or layouts, though you can remove and rotate pictures. You can convert Simple Path to a custom book through drop-down controls, which saves you from reuploading your snaps.
The custom track is infinitely more flexible, with page embellishments and red-eye reduction, plus photo effects you can apply onscreen. There are also controls for spacing and layering objects, and you can open a separate view to change layout elements like image size and the number of photos per page.
It takes awhile to become familiar with the more complicated options on the customized route. It's best for those who have time and patience, or a strong desire to make their books just so.
Photo books range from about $13 (all sums before tax and shipping fees) to $70 for the default number of pages (20). Shutterfly's additional pages range from 65 cents per page for the two smallest book sizes, up to $2.29 per page for the largest. In most cases, you pay a lit more for custom covers.
Yea or nay?
The hardcover photo books I've ordered have lived up to their promise, including durable paper as a standard feature. Reorders are a snap, too, since Shutterly saves all your past projects back to 1999. Despite the highest cost to create longer books and old-school navigation, Shutterfly is great for all levels.
2. Mixbook: The new kid
Mixbook has a more modern website than Shutterfly's, but also has fewer options. In addition to books, you can make calendars and cards.
The roughly 200 themes to choose from are broken down into categories.
Ease of use
The site is cleaner to behold and easier to navigate than Shutterfly's in terms of narrowing down designs by category. Adding photos is as simple as dragging and dropping from your computer, though you can upload and auto-fill as well. From the desktop site, you can upload photos directly from your computer or through third-party services.
I do like how clearly marked tabs make changing layouts and backgrounds extremely simple, and backgrounds and stickers are modern and attractive.
One edge that Mixbook has is an ability for multiple collaborators to edit, which is useful if photos are spread out among family members or friends.
Ranging from $16 to $70, Mixbook's prices edge Shutterfly's, and ordering extra pages is more economical. (Deluxe covers will cost much more, of course.) Additional pages are cheaper than Shutterfly's, ranging from 50 cents per page to $1.50 per page for the largest.
Photo book prices compared
||Shutterfly||Mixbook||Blurb||Pint Size Productions|
|Photo book (smallest)||$13 (5x7, 20 pages, soft cover)||$16 (8x6, 20 pages, soft cover)||$13 (7x7, 20 pages, soft cover)||$6 (5.625x5.625, 16 pages, hard cover)|
|Photo book (largest)||$75 (11x14, 20 pages, hard cover)||$70 (11x14, 20 pages, hard cover)||$50 (13x11, 20 pages, hard cover)||$36 (5.625 x 5.625, 24 pages, custom interactive, hard cover)|
|Additional book pages||$0.65-$2.29 each, 111 max||$0.50-$1.50 each, 399 max||$0.20-$0.75, depending on paper||N/A; Page count varies by template|
Yea or nay?
The photo books look good, though you'll need to pay attention to full-bleed photos whose edges will be obscured in a gutter. The title on the front cover of my book came out darker than I expected, and was shifted more to the left than I thought. Reorders and edits are straightforward after you log back in to your account. Overall, Mixbook's smoother creation experience and competitive prices make it a winner.
3. Blurb: The overachiever
Blurb is a site for the more serious self-publisher. I turned to it when making a memory book that was almost more text than pictures. Blurb was the most flexible of the bunch in terms of large swaths of text. It also turned out to be the most frustrating to use.
When it comes to luxury paper choices, Blurb has the competition trounced. You can download graphical themes in free packs of 20, but by default you're literally working with a blank canvas. Plenty of templates help you get started on layouts, and there are tools for drawing and adding text much like a more traditional desktop publishing app.
Ease of use
The most powerful tool for those who want to control every detail, Blurb is also by far the hardest for casual book-makers to use. You start by downloading a separate app, BookWright, for Mac or the PC (or install the Blurb plug-in for desktop apps like InDesign). After that, placing words and art are up to you. You can insert photos from your computer, but there's no integration with third-party photo sources.
The biggest problem for my book of short stories and memories was in formatting the text to make it fit just so. Any update to the text also changed the ways the words laid out on the page. This made copy editing and proofreading frustratingly slow.
On the plus side, you can easily create a PDF or an e-book for the iPad.
If you're choosing fancy paper, prices can skyrocket, but for the more basic binding, you're looking at $13 for a 7x7 softcover book of 20 pages, up to $50 for a 13x11-inch book, this time with a hard cover.
Yea or nay?
This was the only service I found that gave me the flexibility to make the text-heavy mix of stories and captioned photos that I wanted.
However, my Blurb book arrived with unwelcome surprises. A small logo at the top and bottom of each page wound up in an unfortunate position in one full-page photo. Worst of all, an entire text section I wrote where the book jacket would go was absent in the final copy. If you want to replace the logo with your own, it'll cost you extra. Online reorders are accessible from your dashboard after logging in.
4. Pint Size Productions: The niche
This company's photo books are as niche as they are adorable. Baby-friendly board books for the dribblers in your life are small and grub-resistant.
Figuring out the differences between "custom" and "build-your-own" board books is the first step in getting what you want out of Pint SizeProductions' thick cardboard photo books for young'uns. Beyond that, you can customize a Sandra Boynton spread with your kiddo's name and face, or choose from various templates.
Ease of use
Simple in theory, using the rudimentary online upload tools to build this book seems low-tech and tedious, but you willingly struggle through because the result is so heart-warming. First, you have to choose your size and enter your ZIP code. Then, you wade through a lot of confusing directions that you'll later have to follow to a T or else lose all your work and have to start again.
Adding and resizing photos is relatively direct after that and, depending on which layout you choose, there are a few extra tools to arrange images.
With fewer pages, you'll likely spend less overall than you would on larger productions. However, you might wind up paying the same price in shipping as you would for a basic book. Prices run as low as $6 and as high as $35, depending on the blank book template you choose. Sussing out what's what can be confusing and frustrating, and you can also buy premade templates (for a lot more), which you semi-customize with adorable personal photos.
Yea or nay?
I'm a huge fan of these board books for the babies in my life. They're cute and sweet and can take a beating or drooling where more delicate pages might become soggy or rip. As I mentioned above, the creation process can be a headache, and if you make a mistake, you might lose all your uploads and captions.
You'll be able to reorder books once you log in, though I only saw my most recent order when I checked; an online record of last year's book is nowhere to be seen.
Helpful tips to know
You can make photo gifts the easy way or hard way. Check out my best practices and tips in this how-to.
Photo products are expensive, and can run you more than $50 for a 20-ish page spread. Bespoke publishing is pricey to begin with, but the real nut of the issue is that these companies know you'll dig deep into your pocket to get something as personal and intimate as the labor of love you've just made.
The good news? There are deals all the time, especially around national holidays. Even a 20-percent-off deal or a free-shipping code can make a difference in your final bill, so let those promo emails flow!
If you've got any tips or thoughts of your own on making photo books, chime in below.