Making Photo Books with Blurb

Stylish shouldn't mean complicated or expensive

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By nature, I’m something of an archivist. When I was little, I would spend hours in our garage, going through old family pictures. I wanted to know what life was like, back when my grandmother was a little girl. When I got older, I made albums. My high school albums are a sight to see (and boy am I glad I went all out with them). They have the sticky pages, and are adorned with little notes written in marker, cut out of printer paper. After college my album making trailed off, and didn’t pick up again till we could afford a nice camera and started doing some serious travel after we got married. The decade I stopped making albums was, not unrelatedly, the decade that everything went digital. Those years were recorded in the new novelty album of social networks. My photos were posted to Friendster or MySpace or Flickr, and were then left there, as the Internet world migrated on.

In the last trimester of my pregnancy, I developed a very particular form of nesting. Convinced I’d never have time to do a project ever again (false, by the way), I realized that now was the time to print and organize the pictures of David’s and my first eight years of couple-hood, along with other random photos of my early twenties. Surely, someday my unborn child would want to know what his parents looked like in their twenties! So I set out to track down those digital pictures, and print them. It was good I was already on medically related maternity leave and had time to kill, because collecting those photos was a full time job, and nearly drove me around the bend. It turned out that a lot of those files I’d saved to digital albums were only saved as low-resolution files, and without the originals, the best I could get was a small pixelated snapshot. Other files were corrupt, or had been lost on tiny flash drives in one cardboard box or another. And still other photos had been taken on the first cell phone cameras, and I had no way to pull the (teeny tiny) photos off those dead phones. I finally pulled together an album, but my memories from the first age of digital will forever be pixelated and incomplete.

I vowed to do better.

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When Blurb offered us a chance to play with their services and create some photo albums, I jumped at it. I made four photo books, in an array of sizes and styles. One was of our wedding photos, one was my maternity and newborn sessions with (the amazing) Christina Richards, one was a family session we’d done with (the awesome) Jamie Street Photography (also of Rad + In Love), and one was simply my cell phone pictures. Here is what I learned.

1. Blurb’s software is… just better. Because I now have a goal of documenting, I’ve made photo books on a few different platforms in the past year. I normally get sucked into any place that promotes beautiful and minimal designs (which is a little silly, since obviously you can use just about any book-designing software to create something minimal; it’s maximal that’s hard). I’d come to terms with the fact that book building software was all terrible and clunky, and I had to just deal with it. Not so. (Whoopsy, hours of my life that are now gone.) Turns out you can use Blurb’s software to do just about anything you want (including beautiful and minimal, if that’s your jam), and the platform is the real deal.

Blurb offers a few different book-designing programs. The two geared towards non-pros are Bookify (their online platform) and Booksmart (a program that you download and use offline). I used Bookify for all of my books because I was aiming for the simplest possible way to do things. I wasn’t looking for fancy layouts (or even text), and I wanted to move fast so I could design a lot of books. Even though Bookify is, in theory, the most stripped down of their programs, it was everything I needed. In other programs I’ve used, you can’t re-arrange pages, add pages, or even change the style of the book you’re working on. That means if you realize you’ve made an error on page 30 of a 150-page book, you’re going to be fixing it for 120 pages (cough, Meg, cough). With Blurb, you can rearrange every page, you can change colors and styles, you can make copies of your book and create multiple edits. Blurb offers platforms that work for super amateurs (me), to professionals, and all of their tools are serious business.

2. Blurb’s Print And Paper Quality were shockingly good. Let’s rewind to the fact that I’ve made books with a lot of Blurb’s competitors in recent years. In doing this, I’d decided that affordably printed books were just always going to have sub-optimal photo quality. The two problems I’d encountered were really cheap paper (like, you touched it and it bent a little. So much for fifty years from now), and color that was just off. (When my baby was born he was pink, not slightly grey, but thank you for playing.) Because Blurb gave me the chance to make more than one book, I made sure to try out lots of kinds of paper, and lots of book and cover styles. I have a few things to report:

  • If you want to keep your book a long time, splurging on good paper is worth it. (Note: when I made a wedding album for my parents, I didn’t splurge on paper, because it wasn’t meant to last fifty years.) I loved both the matte and glossy high quality paper options. When I used the matte paper in a large book, with full bleed photos, it created an art book effect that I loved. When I used the glossy photo paper, I got a more photographic feel.
  • The different book sizes work well for different things. I used the larger sized books for things that felt momentous—wedding photos, newborn photos. I used smaller sized books for family photo sessions, and the smallest books for Instagram photos. The variation in size gave a nice variation in sense of importance, which I liked.
  • The huge books with tons of photos are shockingly affordable, and stunning. The wedding album I made cost $192. I was shocked by how good the quality was… and how big the book was. Years ago we made an expensive wedding album in a coffee table book style. The one problem is we’ll never put it on the coffee table, because replacing it would cost more than a grand. This book, on the other hand looks like a massive and beautiful coffee table tome, and is going to go exactly there (as soon as the toddler stops hurling everything he sees to the floor). At $192, I can risk a wine stain or two, in the service of perpetual enjoyment.

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3. We take photos all day, and do nothing with them. I recently saw an article about a comparison of surveillance video that a restaurant did to try to figure out why the turnover time in their restaurant had jumped from an hour and five minutes to an hour and fifty-five minutes between 2004 and 2014. The not too surprising answer was cell phones. Everyone was checking their phones, and taking pictures of their food and taking more pictures of their food, and asking for their now cold food to be warmed up. Instead of, you know, eating. We’re all taking pictures of every last damn thing, and posting them to Instagram (so we can get our dopamine hit of likes) or maybe texting them to someone. And then… nothing. Since I’m pretty sure we’re not going to peruse our Instagram feeds in our old age (nor will any possible descendants) maybe we need to stop and take a moment to think about what we’re taking photos for. We should think about what we’re trying to remember. (Our… last meal?) And then, you know, maybe we should print the photos that matter.

4. Blurb has Instagram books. And Facebook books too. It turns out, Blurb offers Instagram books, and even Facebook timeline books that you can create with a click of a button. PROBLEM SOLVED. Well, problem solved if you put all your best pictures on Instagram or Facebook, which I certainly don’t. Still, a one click Instagram book seemed like a great way to organize my cell phone chock full of baby pictures, so I wasn’t going to pass it up.

Here is what I did. First, I backed up my cell phone. Then I sorted through it to try to delete unneeded pictures. I was flabbergasted at the amount of visual garbage there was cluttering up my phone and my life. Four shots of a cup of tea I had four months ago? Great. So I deleted about a thousand photos. Then, I opened a private Instagram account, where I could upload whatever I wanted, not worry about privacy concerns, and not flood anybody’s feed. Then, in the click of a button, I uploaded those photos into a Blurb book, and had them auto populate the pages. It’s almost embarrassing how much better it feels knowing that all those little moments will be in print. I feel like my shoulders can relax a little bit, and I don’t have to have that niggling worry in the back of my head. I didn’t want my baby’s childhood to be eaten by our obsession with digital, and now it won’t be. (And I’m going to keep using that private account to make more books.)

5. It’s never too late to make a wedding album. As I mentioned, a few years ago, I made an expensive archival wedding album. I’m really glad I did, but I remember the process as being painstaking, not even a little bit fun. If I was paying a four-figure amount for this album, you better believe it was going to be perfect. I spent months picking the very best pictures of the wedding, and then laying them out thoughtfully. It’s a really nice album, but I never want to have to spend the time making an album like that again (and hopefully I won’t have to).

Because our five-year anniversary was this weekend, I decided that I wanted to make a Blurb album of all of our wedding outtakes. My goal with this album was the opposite of my goal with the first album. Instead of creating an official record, where every family member was represented equally, and only the very best photos were used, this time I just wanted to have fun. I wanted to look at all of the photos I’d forgotten were taken. I wanted to put as many photos into the album as I wanted. Last time I kept reminding myself, “No one wants to see hundreds and hundreds of pictures of your wedding day.” This time, my motto was IDGAF. I was making this book for David and myself, and I didn’t care how many photos were in it, or if the family portraits made it in at all. I wasn’t planning to show this off to every family member, or the world. This was just a cool way to remember our wedding, five years later.

Guess what? The album is the most fun ever. Of course, right? It turns out those photos that weren’t artistically flawless or significant seeming, captured moments and emotions I’d forgotten. Being freed from the expense of creating something important and archival let me remember what it felt like to get married, and why we did it. Highly recommended.

Plus, only five years later, some of those wedding photos stored on my computer have been corrupted. While I’m sure they’re not too far-gone to save, let this be a reminder to you that digital files are not forever.

6. Everyday matters. The world tells us that our wedding is The Big Day, and everything that comes after is just an after thought. The world is obviously bonkers. But even knowing that, we painstakingly document our wedding… and then forget to even print photos of our everyday. Putting together these albums, I was reminded that our wedding pictures (even the outtakes… particularly the outtakes) captured how I felt in a fleeting moment. And in the same way, pictures of our everyday capture moments I want to hold on to forever. I want to remember what it was like to be heavily pregnant, or to have a tiny newborn, or to have a chubby nine month old, or to wear cool shoes at a huge work conference. And I want people in the future (my kids, my grandkids, honorary god children, who even knows…) to be able to get a sense of what my life was like. Not through Instagram, but through paper. I’m glad I have Blurb books to stack on my shelf, to contain my everyday moments.

This post was sponsored by Blurb. APWers get 20% off your Blurb order when you use the code PRACTICAL at checkout!* Thanks BLURB for helping make the APW mission possible!

*Offer valid through September 15, 2014 (11:59 p.m. local time). Valid for first time customers purchasing printed books only. No minimum purchase required. 20% discount is applied toward your product total with a maximum discount of $75 off. This offer is good for one-time use, and cannot be combined with volume discounts, other promotional codes, gift cards, or used for adjustments on previous orders.

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