A good photo book can serve you well for years to come - but there are things you should consider while making them
Putting together a book of your photography can be a wonderful experience for a number of reasons.
It gives you a reason to carefully consider and reflect on your own work, creating a tangible object that will serve as a record of your projects or portfolio for years to come. They’re also great for showing to potential clients or collaborators, demonstrating exactly what you're capable of, while having a book project in the works is a great reason for newspapers, magazines and websites to “hook” a story based on your work.
Of course they might also serve as a great keepsake or memory collection for relatives and friends, especially in the future, or especially if they’re about something personal or particular to your own life.
But, knowing where to start with creating your own photo book can be daunting. These days it’s very easy to go down the self-publishing route and create “print-on-demand” books, where you have complete control over every aspect of the creation and publication of your book. What’s more, lots of photographers are turning to crowdfunding to find funds to produce bigger runs of books that can be sold to the public - there’s no reason why you can’t do that too.
In this piece, we’ll be giving you some tips on things to think about when creating your own photo book, hopefully giving you the inspiration to put something together yourself.
1 Consider your theme or project
Think about your reasons for creating a photo book. The strongest tend to be clear and precise in their themes or objectives. Therefore, it might not make too much sense for every kind of genre you shoot to appear in your book - except perhaps if you want to use it as a general “portfolio” type book.
Instead, consider whether you might want to create a book say of “portraits”, or “street” work. It’s will often be even stronger if it’s a specific theme or project within that too - say for example a particular location, or a personal project which you have completed.
If you want your book to be consumed by the wider public, consider how specific it is to you - particularly when it comes to adding text or titling your book. For example, a book on your 30th birthday trip to New York is unlikely to be appealing to a broad audience, but a street photography book of the DUMBO area of Manhattan is more likely to have an appeal. In essence, you want to avoid both being too broad or too niche - too broad and your work is likely to be considered unoriginal and/or will get lost in the chatter of other books, too niche or personal and very few will be interested in the subject matter.
2 Be a ruthless editor
We can often form a very close attachment to our photographs, but the key to a successful book is often in its editing. If you’re publishing the book yourself, then you have to act not only as photographer, but also as editor too - and that can be a hard task.
You will have a finite amount of space in your book, and while it can be tempting to “pad it out” with less than your best shots, a smaller, more considered book with only your best quality photographs will usually stand the greater test of time.
Carefully think about the role each photograph plays in your book. Is it a great photo by itself? Does it work well with others in the book? Are there any other similar photographs in the book which contribute enough to the story and mean you could lose this particular one?
A tip we like is to print the pictures (or order prints) you want to use at a relatively small size (say 6x4in) and play around with pairings, groupings and limiting numbers on a table. Getting away from the computer and physically seeing them can help to detach your emotions.
3 Think about physical dimensions and paper type
Once you’ve got a better idea of exactly which photographs you’d like to include in your final book, you’ll next need to think about the physical dimensions of the book, as well as paper size, type and quality.
There’s pretty much unending options depending on which self-publisher you decide to use, and there’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer here. Remember that, the larger or longer your book is will mean an increase in cost - and it might not necessarily be worth it (see point above).
Larger books can often be unwieldy and give an impression that you haven’t been strict enough in your editing. Smaller books can feel quite intimate and considered - but depending on the type of pictures that you shoot, can sometimes feel a bit cramped or leave your pictures too small to really see what’s going on.
Paper type is again a personal choice, but worth thinking about. Matte paper tends to be a more “serious” choice for photography, with gloss being a bit amateurish, or for personal photo albums. But, if you want to make the artistic choice to use gloss, then that is of course fine. Thicker and more expensive paper gives an impression of quality, but again it can sometimes be unwieldy and oftentimes add unnecessary cost. A good rule of thumb can often be to choose paper stock that is neither the cheapest, nor the most expensive.
Some self-publishers offer swatches of their paper types (usually for a small fee) so you can get a clearer idea of how your project will look.
4 Tell a story
Book editors will often use the word “flow” to describe the journey from the start to the end of the book. Splitting your work into definitive chapters or sections can also be wise, particularly if you're presenting a few different (yet connected) ideas.
It’s a good word to have in mind when planning out where photographs in your book will sit. This is where your physical prints as mentioned above will come in handy again. Before you spend time grappling with book editing programs, creating a physical layout on your kitchen table will give you an idea of how well images are flowing together.
You might want to consider how your images work together to tell a “story” - is there a narrative arc which connects everything? Conversely, maybe you think a random scattergun approach works better for the type of photograph you do. Experiment with both approaches until you find the one that works for you.
5 Pay attention to image quality practicalities
You can spend a huge amount of time working on your photo book, only for it to be let down by poor quality imagery.
As a general rule, you’ll want to make sure that your images are a minimum of 300dpi, and will require a minimum resolution depending on the size you want to print it. Be sure not to upload any low-res imagery you might have prepared for online usage, for example, to your book project.
Many self-publishers will include guidelines for best practice when it comes to resolution, image size and so on - pay attention those for best quality. Others will have warnings built into their software, to give you a good idea when something won’t print well or may look blurry, for example.
6 Carefully consider design
Again, when you go down the self-publishing route, another job you’ll be expected to carry out is that of designer. Nobody’s expecting you to have the same kind of skill level as a professional designer, so it usually pays to keep the design as simple as possible.
A good starting point can be templates that your book publisher already carries, especially if you can customise it to match your own preferences where applicable. Don’t be tempted to cram too many pictures and elements on every page - appreciate white space and give your images room to breathe.
Take a look at photo books you admire and see how they do things, the more you read, the better idea you will have.
Also think about images which could work well when laid across a two pages (known as a double page spread). If you’re going to lay images across the margins, consider whether elements of your image could get lost in the gutter, and think about “lay flat” types of books which avoid this problem altogether.
7 Do you need text?
Text with photography can sometimes be a controversial topic. Some say it's absolutely necessary for context and meaning, while others will argue vehemently that the pictures should do all the talking for you.
Once again, there is no right or wrong answer - it’s about what works best for your project. Thoughtful captions and text can help to place your work in context, particularly if it’s fundamental to the viewer’s understanding the location or history of the subject. It’s also worth remembering that if the book is for public (or future) consumption, you likely won’t be there with the work to explain anything.
But, don’t feel compelled to create titles and captions for every single photograph - that can often be overkill and leave your project seeming muddled.
8 Create an impactful cover
We’re all told not to judge a book by a cover, but frankly - we all do it anyway. It’s something you need to be mindful of when creating yours.
Do you select a photograph from the project which sums everything up? If so, which one meets the brief? Again, use your print outs to try out different approaches and see which one feels right.
Lots of photo books have relatively plan or photo-free covers. Maybe that works for your project too - it’s worth taking a look again at those books which you admire to see if it helps you to make your decision.
Bear in mind that your book’s cover will likely be reduced to a thumbnail if you intend it to be seen by a wider audience. How does your cover look when it’s that size? The stronger the impact the better.
9 Look for feedback
As we’ve said, it can be very easy to become emotionally attached to your photographs - the same is also true, if not more so, for any book project you might create.
Before you print or order the final book, ask a trusted friend or colleague to take a look and provide feedback. You could create a PDF of the book draft and ask them to comment on how well it flows, the page size, number of pictures, and so on. You could also print it out on your home printer too - particularly if the book isn’t too big or lengthy.
Ultimately your opinion is the most important one when it comes to your own book, but it’s important to remember not to take any negative criticism personally - use it to think about how you can change your book to make it better, and perhaps seek feedback from multiple people so you can establish whether it’s a universal complaint or just a personal preference.
10 Next steps: promotion and crowdfunding
Once you’ve got a book that you’re happy with, you might want to think about sharing it with a wider audience via social media channels and the like.
Print-on-demand services mean other people can buy your book - though costs tend to be quite high compared to “regular” books. Another approach is to try crowdfunding to generate funds for a larger print run which will bring your costs down.
The latter can be time-consuming and emotionally draining - but it has been a successful way for many photographers to raise funds outside of a standard publishing route. If it’s something you want to consider, it’s worth checking out other crowdfunded books - there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of examples on sites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Unbound, so you’ll have an idea of what does well (and what doesn’t).