Creating a Fine Art or Professional Photo Book: Design Options Overview

I’ve covered the photo book design options in previous posts in detail—maybe too much detail! In this post I’m going to sum up my conclusions from testing and analyzing the following options: using professional layout tools like Adobe InDesign or Quark Xpress, using Adobe Lightroom, using Apple Aperture, or hiring a professional designer. I’ve linked to my more detailed posts in case you want to explore an option in more depth.

What Printer Are You Going to Use?

First of all, you need to decide what kind of book printer fits your project best, because the choice of design methods and tools partly depends on the printer.

POD printers are best for runs of less than 50 copies where limited or no customization is acceptable and where you are willing to give up the professional proof approval cycle that is standard to SRDP and offset printing and enables you to control the print quality of your images to the utmost degree.

SRDP printers, which use digital printing equipment, are best for print runs of 50-1,000 because your per-book cost will almost certainly be lower than POD or offset in this quantity range. SRDP printers like Bookmobile offer an almost unlimited degree of customization. They also produce printed proofs for your approval, which enables quality control to a much higher degree than is possible with POD.

Offset printers, which use traditional offset printing presses, have significantly lower per-book costs than either POD or SRDP printers starting at about 1,500 copies. Above 2,000 copies they are unbeatable. Like SRDP printers, they can offer almost unlimited customization, and provide printed proofs for your approval, maximizing your control over the final quality of your books.

For more information on printing services, see my piece on choosing a photo book printer.

With your choice of printer type in mind, let’s look at design options:

Photo Book Design for POD Printers

POD printers typically provide free design tools for download or in some cases for using in a web browser. These tools are more limited than a professional page layout program in terms features that help you build a book with precision and professional typographic control. Because the purpose of these free programs is to drive business to the POD printer that offers them, they are typically limited in terms of PDF output options so that you can’t use a different printing service once you’ve used the free tool. That means that it is impractical to use a layout tool from a POD printer in order to produce a book for printing at an SRDP or offset printer.

Both Apple and Adobe have photo book tools built into their respective photo management software packages, Aperture and Lightroom. Aperture’s layout tools are nice, but as with the POD free layout software, the PDF output options prevent you from using a printer other than those you can order from within Aperture, at least without a lot of risky workarounds in terms of page margins, etc. If you want to use one of the offered POD services, are already using Aperture, and can live with their limited capabilities, the Aperture layout tools may be a good choice. Caveats: in my testing, Aperture POD paperbacks had some serious deficiencies in terms of binding. Also, Aperture is being discontinued. See my full review of Aperture photo book tools for a more in-depth discussion.

Lightroom’s photo book tools are not as well thought out as Aperture’s, and are even more deficient in tools to control layouts and typography precisely. Like Aperture, Lightroom funnels you into using particular POD printers, in this case Blurb, by crippling PDF output options. If you already use Lightroom—or are switching from Aperture—and can work within the limitations of both the software and Blurb’s POD service, Lightroom’s layout tools may be a reasonable choice. My full review of the Lightroom photo book tools is here.

POD printers will also take PDFs that you create in a program like Adobe InDesign or Quark Xpress, as long as you work within their page size and other restrictions.

Photo Book Design for SRDP and Offset Book Printers

Because the POD-oriented layout tools in Aperture and Lightroom and those provided by POD printers limit your ability to print with printers who have no business connection to the providers of the tools, if you are planning on printing at an SRDP or offset printer you need to use professional page layout software like Adobe InDesign or Quark Xpress—or hire a pro who does.

If you have the inclination, the time, and the skill set to DIY, use Adobe InDesign in conjunction with Photoshop. I cover my reasoning in detail in this post.

There are many good reasons to use a professional book designer, especially if you intend to sell your photo books: even an average consumer can spot when a book’s design is amateurish. Don’t assume that because your photos are great, the typography and layout doesn’t matter. This post covers the ins and outs of hiring a pro.

Conclusion

It may seem that the easiest route is to use POD-oriented page layout tools like those provided by the POD printers or provided in Lightroom and Aperture, and then just use the related POD printer for producing your books. Because of the higher per-book costs with POD services in longer runs, at those longer run lengths you will likely find that the cost of buying InDesign plus the cost of SRDP or offset printing is less than doing it all through a POD printer using their layout tools. This may be true even if you hire a professional designer. In either case you’ll get a more customized, higher-quality book with an SRDP or offset printer.

Need a printing quote or more information?

I’d be happy to answer questions—you can contact me via email.
 You can request a printing quote here.

Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook and distribution services for book publishers since 1982. He set up his first darkroom in a basement bathroom in fifth grade and has worked as a professional photographer. He continues to satisfy his love of photography through appreciation of great images, an interest in photographic technology, and trying to improve his own photography.