What’s the Better Format for Photo and Art Books, Landscape or Portrait?

One of the basic choices you make when publishing a fine art photography book or art book is the page format: landscape or portrait? While this is mostly an aesthetic decision, there are significant cost and durability implications: landscape books can cost more to print, and are less durable than portrait format books.



Design Reasons to Choose Landscape Format . . . or Not

If you are using a Print-on-Demand (POD) service, you will have to use one of their standard page sizes, but if you are using a short-run digital printer (SRDP) or offset printer, you can make the page size just about anything you want (including an infinite number of landscape format sizes) within the production constraints of the printer and the constraints of your budget.

The most obvious reason to choose a landscape format for your book is if the images are strongly horizontal and you are printing one photo per page. It seems natural, for instance, that if your photos are full frame 35mm format, which is a ratio of 1.5:1, you would choose a similar aspect ratio for your book, say 12″ x 8″. (Note that printers always refer to page sizes as Width x Height; an 8″ x 12″ page means a tall skinny book, not a wide one.) If you are running the full-page photos with full bleeds—that is, the photo runs off the edges of the page—this makes some design sense. If you are allowing margins around the images, however, such a choice tends to make the borders around the photo look cramped. Often a somewhat deeper page provides a better balance of white margin. Personally, I have found that books with more moderate aspect ratios—a 1.25:1 10″ x 8″, for example—are more flexible a far as layout and typography than books with extreme ratios—the 1.5:1 or larger. Square formats are also extremely versatile, though I personally find them sometimes a little boring. There are artworks—panoramic photographs, perhaps painted murals—that can demand an extreme landscape format. As I will discuss a little later, however, the more extreme the landscape, the more printing is likely to cost, and the less durable the book will be.

A great way to consider different page sizes is to examine books in the art and photography sections of a bookstore. Bring a ruler: you may find exactly the page size you want. It’s also definitely worth making page dummies using prints of your photos scaled to size to play with margins so that they appear harmonious. Be sure and make both left- and right-hand facing pages, trim them down to the page edges and tape them together so you can see what a spread will look like full size. This may seem like a lot of work, but printing a beautiful art or photography book is a big commitment in time, money, and emotional energy: previsualizing with a dummy like this is well worth the time spent—plus it’s fun, because you begin to get a glimmer of what your final book will look like!

Manufacturing and Page Format

Book printing and binding equipment is designed for portrait format work. Even the paper is sold in sheet sizes that are optimized for printing portrait format pages. While every step in the printing and binding process produces some waste, landscape books produce more waste than portrait format books. Some examples:

  • Book pages should be printed with the grain parallel to the spine so that the book opens easily to the hand. For a portrait format book, the grain runs parallel to the long side of the page; for a landscape format, it runs parallel to the short side of the page. In terms of sourcing paper, this means that printing a landscape format book with the grain correct requires either 1) printing on the house stock, which is optimized for portrait format pages, and wasting a lot of paper because you can print fewer pages per sheet, or 2) ordering paper with the grain at 90 degrees to the standard sheet so that you can get more pages out per sheet. In either case there will be additional paper costs.
  • Book binding machines are designed for portrait format books, which are 99% of a typical book printing plant’s work. The clamps that hold the book blocks are not tall enough for a really wide landscape book and the pages flop over, often resulting in damage and waste. Also, a wider page requires a wider cover: landscape format covers can easily exceed the width of cover feeding trays on binders. In our shop, landscape books will not run at all on our faster binders and must be bound on our slower binders so that the operator can try to minimize damage to the big floppy pages.

More manufacturing waste means higher cost, both for the printer and for you.

Durability

The binding of the book is also called the spine, which is entirely appropriate: the binding is the backbone that provides the strength to the book to resist the wear and tear of handling in the warehouse, in shipping, and, finally, in the hands of the reader. By definition, the backbone of a landscape format book is shorter than on a portrait format book of the same page area. The page aspect ratio really comes into play here. Consider a 12″ x 9″ book vs. a 9″ x 12″ book: the long 12″ lever of the landscape cover and book block exerts much more force on the 9″ binding than a 9″-wide page exerts on a 12″ binding.

If you look at coffee table books on a sale table at a bookstore, you will see much more damage to the landscape format books than to the portrait format books: the bindings will likely be already loosened and the dust jackets will have more tears and creases. Such is the extra force applied when the book is handled by the wide book block and cover. Shrink-wrapping, by the way, can help tremendously, though when the reader removes the shrink-wrapping all bets are off.

Don’t be Discouraged, Just Be Aware

The admonitions above should not discourage you from choosing a landscape format if that is absolutely the right choice for your book. However, it is better to be aware of the issues than to be surprised later.

Need a printing quote or more information?

I’d be happy to answer questions—you can contact me via email.
 I welcome any feedback, including that pointing out my errors!

Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook and distribution services for book publishers since 1982.