What is a photo-book?

Link to Blurb
Displaying one’s images is probably the least “considered” thing about photography. Potentially hundreds of pounds on equipment, more money on software, time spent taking and processing the images and what’s the end result? Maybe a Flickr site, or perhaps Friendface where the resolution is too small to be of use to copyright thieves. Maybe you decided to print something out and frame it yourself, or perhaps they just sit on your hard drive gathering virtual dust.

A photo-book is a great way to actually enjoy the final images you took and perhaps do a bit of showing off to the friends. Photobooks also make lovely gifts for grandparents, children or any other member of the family. Finally, you could enter the world of trying to sell your books to make money through a self-publishing means.

A book is a bit different to a photo album. Albums are great – but they are weighty and cumbersome, take up a lot of room on a bookshelf (and often don’t fit) and there’s not a lot of room to annotate your photos. The images are often behind a plastic sheet and often in 6×4 format. Generally they will contain every image from a film – simply because of the pain of getting negs printed into pictures. A book is generally much slimmer and easier to handle than an album. You can add text if you wish, and you can have a large degree of control over presentation.


Why Blurb?

So why just review Blurb? There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I have been making photo books for personal use since 2009. My Cewe books (from Jessops) and another book from another (nameless!) publisher were pretty shocking in terms of build quality and picture quality. Everyone has their “standards” for the quality they expect and mine are pretty high. Although they are not as high as some photographers out there. Blurb was simply the best in terms of build quality and image quality. Price wise, Blurb are more expensive than your typical high street chains, but I believe the cost is worth the quality.

Second, the User Interface (UI) for BookSmart (Blurb’s proprietary book making software) just works. You can do pretty much anything you want layout-wise with a powerful custom page builder. “Other” book making solutions don’t come anywhere close. Either the software doesn’t download properly, or it doesn’t work, or it won’t do what you want it to do. However Blurb’s BookSmart can be quite daunting to a new user so I wanted to give some tips on how to use the interface as well as an overview of the UI.

How to Make a Photo Book

The process for making a photo book is quite simple. You have several options for making your book (for which you’ll need an account with Blurb).  You can use the BookSmart software (which is what this review is about), or use their online editor, or download their plug-ins for Lightroom and/or In-Design. You make your book, then you upload it to Blurb’s website. Once it’s on their site, you can then order it. Orders can be for physical books themselves as well as pdf versions and e-book versions. Once you’ve made one order, your book will stay online forever.

The reasons I use BookSmart:

  • It’s less “laggy” than the online editor and I can work offline (at speed) and just upload the final product.
  • I tend to add a lot of text and custom pages which BookSmart is best suited for rather than using the Lightroom plug-In
  • I don’t have the software tools (In-Design or any other sort of pdf maker) or the inclination to put together the book “By hand” then upload to Blurb for printing.


BookSmart is Blurb’s offline book making software. It’s really versatile for making custom books – especially if you want to add text to (for example) a cookery book, or an A-Level Portfolio. Once you’ve downloaded and installed the software, you’re presented with an options screen.

blurb book choices

There are several book choices here, and size is important! If you’re making a photobook, then there are three basic choices.

Landscape (best for your photos if they are mostly landscape), Portrait (best for portrait photos) and Square (best if you have a mix of portrait & landscape). The large square 12×12 book is a big book about the size of an old “LP” and is unlikely to fit on a book shelf.

The important thing about choosing the right size and format is that you can’t really change it later. Images are sized appropriately, and your text is all formatted for the page size, so if you go from a book that’s 10×8 to a book that’s 12×10 you’ll end up with lots of gaps. Likewise if you go smaller, text will likely wrap onto new pages. It’s possible to make these sorts of changes, but it’s a lot of work to correct, so getting the book size right is a key decision. In terms of dust cover or not, I have come to a decision that no dust cover works best for me. The quality of image wrap printing on the hard-back part of the book is incredible, and the papery feel of the dust cover doesn’t “do it” for me and has a tendency to get ripped or damaged.

Price is also a factor. Bigger books cost more (not just initially but price-per-extra-page too). The “Pricing” button takes you to the website where you can see not only the cost of the different sizes, but some example books too.

Once you’ve made a book selection, you can continue on with the wizard. I tend to like starting with a blank slate, but there are auto-fill options which can take a chunk of images and just drop them into the book. If you’re in a hurry, this can be a timesaver, but I enjoy taking the time to design and populate my book by hand.


 The BookSmart Interface


The above image shows the main window with one of my example A level books. The main workspace window is split into 5 areas.

  1. The main workspace window is here. The page shown is the page you have selected in the mini-preview pane (5). Within the workspace, you are generally shown a single page. Each page of your book has space for a header, a footer, and a mix of image containers or text containers. text is added with a word processor style interface and can use any custom fonts you have installed on your PC. Images can be manipulated within the container and shrunk or enlarged as you require. Clicking on an image within a container allows you to then use the delete key to remove it if you so desire.
  2. The main toolbar. This toolbar across the top is handy for making changes to your book. Adding/removing pages, setting default backgrounds, or generic themes and customising pages are all done from here.
  3. This is the page layout area. Blurb comes with a metric ton of default custom pages. By clicking a page type in this window, the page you see in the main workspace area will change to that setting. Be careful doing this if you have text in the area as it can easily disappear if you’re not careful!
  4. This is where your images are. You can load them in here from the GetPhotos button (main toolbar window – 2). To save a lot of time, I use Lightroom to export all my “book photos” to a specific folder, then all I need to do here is select that single folder. I did write about this here. I tend to also select the “Show only unused photos” to avoid duplication as this removes the images from the list if they have already been placed in the book. Adding an image is as simple as dragging it from your image pane into the main window (1) over an empty image container.
  5. This is a mini-preview pane and is handy for navigating through your book. It’s also a great management tool as you can shift click to select multiple pages and CTRL+C/CTRL+V to copy/paste selections. The Delete key also works to just delete pages that you don’t want. You can also drag pages around.
An image of a double spread picture in Blurb

Blurb’s BookSmart now has the capability to have one picture across a double page, really giving powerful presentation ability to Panoramic pictures.

All the areas are resizeable, and all have their uses so it’s not really worth “disabling” anything.

Book Making Workflow

My book making process follows a simple pattern that seems to work well.

  1. Get the book title sorted out. Decide on an Image Wrap cover or Dust Cover
  2. Decide on a standard Theme & Background. I prefer plain white paper with black text although I have done a black paper book with white text. It’s not so easy on the eye though. I like using custom fonts and prefer to have this than patterned backgrounds. It feels more understated.
  3. Decide on standard Header/Footer combinations and populate those through the book. I generally just have a page number in the centre of the footer and if it’s a chaptered book, I’ll have the chapter title as a header.
  4. Import all my images from Lightroom. Set the “Photos” panel to “Show Only Unused Photos” to make sure I don’t have any duplicates.
  5. Design the cover, inside page, cover flaps (if using a dustcover) and set up a dummy contents page (will be filled out as I populate the book)
  6. Populate the main content.
  7. Spell-check & grammar check after each chapter.
  8. Final preview read through. Get someone else in the family to read it for spelling errors, grammar errors and just plain stupid words.
  9. Upload to Blurb.
  10. Order your finished book!

One key point here is to make use of the specific pages that Blurb has. Things like “Book Title”, “Author”, “Chapter Layouts” and “Table of Contents” can auto populate if you fill them out right. Using (for example) “Chapter” in the header of a page, makes no sense if you’re not breaking your book up into chapters using Chapter Layouts.

A Word On Backups…

I have lost 2 books due to backup problems and corrupted files. It’s not a happy place to be. Blurb saves “as you go” which is really great if your PC gets switched off for some reason without you having saved anything. Your book though is basically saved to a folder which has all the images in it as well as the BookSmart file. If that file gets corrupt, you’re dead in the water. I would recommend making at least one complete backup of your BookSmart folder at a suitable point during your book making process and a final backup once you’ve finished it.

Each book is usually stored in “My Documents/BookSmartData!. Simply copy the entire contents of your book folder to another location. If you have a disaster (like a corrupt file), you can just delete the existing corrupt folder and copy over your backup. Open Blurb and it will see your backup just fine. It might take a while to back this up/copy it to anther location because all the images are stored in this folder too, and if you have a modern DSLR, these images are quite large in filesize terms. my A-level ARTF3 book (1/4 of an A-level) rolled in at a shade under a Gb in size!

BookSmart Custom Pages

custompage resultThis is a powerful feature of the application and not to be underestimated. My example image here shows how I wanted some contact sheet style images across the top, two “blown up” images in the pane to the right and a chunk of text. Contact sheets were a typical requirement for my studies and building a “contact sheet” custom page meant all I had to do was do it once then just select it from “My Page Layouts” in the page layout dropdown.

To access the custom page builder, select any page (I try to find one close to what I want) then click on “Edit Layout” in the main toolbar window.

This will populate your screen with a new window allowing you to customise your page as shown below.

This screen shows the main “Edit Page” preview window. You have basically two options here. Either Add/Remove a text box, or add/remove an image box (1). You can also duplicate a box and/or delete one too. I tend to use the Delete key and CTRL+C/CTRL+V for deleting/duplicating as it’s quicker, but the buttons are there for you if you need them.

custompageAll the boxes in this window can be altered and moved. One thing I have discovered though is that you can’t select a box (outlined above) if it’s hidden completely under an existing box, so watch out for “hidden” boxes in this way. The shaded areas around the edges of the page show where your image/text might get cut off in the book production so stay clear of these with any content you absolutely want to keep.

As you can see from the image, I’ve dropped a new text box onto the page. I’ve now got warnings about overlapping text boxes (2) which is really handy for making suer everything aligns properly. if you hover over a box, it also shows a pop up (3) which gives details about the container size in real-world terms. This allows you to visualise how large an image will appear.

Once you’ve finished customising the page, you can either Cancel, Apply, or Apply & Save. If you Save it, you will be able to access the same custom layout for future pages within the book (4). This ability to make custom layouts with a drag & drop interface is really what sets this software apart from others.

Sometimes it’s also worth flipping between the Edit Layout page and the main workspace view. You can then add an image to your new text box, then if you flip back to the Edit Layout page, you can see how well the image sits within the image container. You can also resize the container to better fit the image. I tend to use the “Apply” button for this rather than Apply & Save simply because if I need this particular format of page again, I can copy & paste from the mini-preview pane (5, above) and just delete the images.


Viewing the Result

When you think you’ve finished, it’s always worth previewing the finished product. The “Preview Book” button from the main workspace window clears out all the clutter on your screen and allows you to look at the finished product without any box outlines and/or grey image container


“leftovers”. It’s well worth reading through any text at this point, paying particular attention to grammatical errors. The BookSmart software does have a spellchecker which is wonderful, but it won’t correct badly formatted grammar! I can’t count the amount of mistakes I’ve found whilst proof-reading my final work in Preview Mode. Getting someone else to read through it too can really help. Sometimes you can get a bit “word-blind” reading through your own written content over and over again.

The preview button also allows you to see how things like the dustcover will look, and how well balanced the words are with your images. Once you’re completely happy with the final result, you should make a duplicate copy of your book folder (backup!), then upload it to Blurb.

Uploading can take a long time as it’s likely you will have a lot of large file-size images to upload as well as the book content itself. Best to go make a cuppa and have a rest. Once uploaded, the files remain on Blurb for a certain period of time. Once you have made at least one order though, this book is “safe” from deletion.


Ordering Your Book

There are many different options for ordering your finished product. Depending on the book type you ordered you may end up with Hardcover (Image Wrap – The front cover image is printed physically on to the cover), Hardcover – Dust Jacket (a paper dust cover with flaps), or Softcover (like a paperback book). You may also have the option to download a PDF copy or various other e-Options for other devices.

You also get a paper quality option. Now I have read that the standard paper isn’t great, so I have never ordered it. Current prices (Feb 2013) show that it’s no more than a fiver for Premium paper (lustre or matt, your choice!) and that’s always my choice. I’ve never ordered the high end papers either (ProLine Pearl, ProLine Uncoated) so I can’t vouch for them. if you do have experience with these papers, I’d appreciate a comment!

End Sheet is the last choice. I tend to leave it mid-grey (and free!) rather than pay £2 for a different colour, but that’s just me. It isn’t that important to me.

In terms of delivery times, I used Blurb back in the “olden days” when 4-6 weeks was the norm. I’m never in a massive rush to get it delivered, but I have to say that Blurb delivery times have improved dramatically over recent months with a 7-10 day quote on their site currently. If you want a quicker delivery time, you can pay a premium for that service, but I find the basic service to be exceptionally good.

Selling your Work!

The last option when using Blurb is to consider selling your book to a public audience. My personal view on this is that whilst vanity publishing is wonderful, using Blurb is not something I’d do on a professional basis. Blurb prices are quite high, and the only way to make money is to add your “cut” onto Blurb’s fees. This can make a book quite expensive to some people. However Blurb do offer the option for pdf and e-versions of your book which are much more affordable. These can be marked up to allow you to make a little profit without burning the wallets of your customers. This tactic though is really beyond the scope of this article!

Wrapping Things Up…

That just about wraps things up for getting started with Blurb books. I’m about to start thinking about some other creative ideas for using my photos and will be sure to post some ideas up here from time to time. For now though, I’ll shut up. I haven’t peppered this post with links to Blurb, but I have added a couple of banners. If you decide to click on these and go to Blurb to find out more (and eventually make a book!) then I will receive a small commission which will help keep Shuttercount up and running.

Take care, and thanks for reading!


Link to Blurb