Friday, January 18, 2008

The Final Word? (part 4)

This is the fourth installment of my photo book service review. I hope you have had as fun reading them as I have had reviewing them. As I mentioned at the series start, my goal was to do four reviews and then by judging the response, perhaps do four more. Well this is where you, the audience, come in. Let me know if these reviews were useful, informative and fun, and whether you have any stories to tell. Have you done other printing projects – Prints, calendars, mugs, etc? Let us know how they turned out.

Company: Kodak
Binding: Hard
Size: 9 x 10.25 (landscape) other sizes and bindings available
Cost: $29.99 (matte, linen), $34.99 (martha stewart), $39.99 (leather)
Added Pages: $1.99 (2 pages)
Shipping: $6.99 via USPS
Max Pages: 100 (double sided)
Layout Software: Website

I'm sure you won't be shocked to discover that this web application is very similar to the one offered by Snapfish. Also, that you need to signup for a free account and upload your pictures before starting your project. However, there are some differences worth noting. There is an iPhoto plugin that allows you to upload images straight from iPhoto. Also there is a desktop application called Ofoto that allows drag and drop from iPhoto or the hard drive. Lastly, there is Kodak's EasyShare software that allows you to both create projects (though not books) as well as upload photos. So many choices! This is a much easier process than Snapfish for Leopard users.

Once the images are uploaded, you can use the online wizard to guide you through the setup process, allowing you to choose the book, cover, single-sided or double-sided printing, background, and Autofill or manual image layout. Whoa! Definite do not do autofill here... While it does allow you to choose the number of images per page and keeps the page count pretty low (I got 24 pages), it doesn't seem to know the difference between horizontal and vertical images and will throw the pictures willy-nilly into frames that may not be orientated properly (and only in order of uploading). So far there seems to be no intelligent automation of this process that would suit me or you, I'm sure.

Backgrounds and borders can't be changed per page. Backgrounds and borders can't be seen in Edit view, only in Preview. You can rotate, zoom, move, and remove the image within the photo frame. Not all layouts are available in all page designs, why, I don't know. The results of which may mess up the position of your photos if you decide to switch between them so review your pages after you switch. I think there were 3 layouts not available between the page designs I swapped between. There is no marking/hiding of used photos. Like Snapfish, the web app runs smoothly, constantly shows you book style, color, number of pages and current cost. I do like that if you are working within a budget.

Alright now to the nitty gritty. The book arrived in a Kodak-branded cardboard box, in a similar cellophane envelope to iPhoto. The suede like material has a nice feel. There is no printing on the cover or spine, no slip cover. There is a diecut in the cover as well, but the preferrable thing to Snapfish's version is that it has a vellum sheet to protect the photo. There are white end papers and a Kodak logo on the back page. Color reproduction is good, paper has a nice feel and the contrast is also good. Again, wasted space due to non-existant captions. There are some mirrored layouts, but no caption-less pages, no page numbers, no header and footers. I would have like to have used some of the more stylish backgrounds, but they didn't have the same layouts that I wanted to use. Oh well.

So, who is the winner? Out of the four I reviewed, iPhoto is by far the best at layout, purchasing and has so many of the details that the others overlooked, it's hard not to make that #1. Out of the others, it's a mixed bag depending on what you are looking for. If simply the most bang for the buck, go with Blurb and its 40 page book. If you are looking for good software and good layouts, go with Snapfish. Kodak's product has promise, but the software is a major block to choosing it. There are four more services I reviewed that are included in the spreadsheet.

A Few Words More (part 3)

Okay, here we are at part 3 of our 4 part series on photo book services. This installment is going to deal with HP's Snapfish photo service. Originally self-owned, it was purchased by HP about a year ago. Seems to be the most inexpensive of all the services (not taking into account Blurb's 40 page max for the same price).

Company: Snapfish
Binding: Soft, Hard
Size: 8.5 x 11 (landscape) other sizes available
Cost: $19.99, $24.95 (leather), $27.99 (custom jacket)
Added Pages: $1.99 (2 pages)
Shipping: $6.99 via UPS Ground
Max Pages: 100 (double sided)
Layout Software: Website

This products stumbles out of the starting gate, but in the end finishes pretty well. There's a Safari plugin that allows you to upload your images, but it doesn't work in Leopard. Dang, and I just upgraded all my systems. I contacted them for assistance, and they said "Wait a couple of months and check back." Nice. Luckily, I am not without resources. I moved the photos over to my PC and uploaded them from there. The process was pretty quick and painless other than that. Once in a Snapfish album (yes, you need to sign up for a free account), you can then start a Project. This is the first of the services I discuss where you have to upload your pictures first. The upside is when you're done laying it out, you buy it and voilá, you're done. The down side is getting the photos uploaded sometimes can be a pain.

The website offers a wizard to walk you through the selection process from Project type to Cover style and also offers an EasyFill or Create from Scratch option (I think you know what I did here). I did go back and tried the EasyFill. It did have a nice option to either stick to the number of pages and have it select photos, or to add the number of pages it would take to use all the photos, or to allow you to choose the photos yourself. It wanted to use 48 pages for 90 photos or would only use a mere 34 photos for 20 pages. You can try redoing it a few times, it gives you different numbers each time. Again, you're better off laying it out yourself. Since you are maintaining your photos on Snapfish, you can use photos from multiple albums and you can also elect to use the captions in the existing albums rather than retyping them in the project.

There is a nice Tabbed navigation bar at the bottom with all of the options you need to build your project. A little out of order, in my opinion – Pages, Backgrounds, Layouts, Borders, Themes and Covers. They should read Covers, Themes, Pages, Layouts, Backgrounds and Borders, don't you think? Anyway, they each have a popup menu with categories. They have selection of 21 Covers, 11 Themes, 58 backgrounds (!) and 5 Photo borders. The backgrounds were especially nice. The page layouts were certainly more in keeping with iPhoto than with Blurb – the proportions were right and mostly were designed to maximize the full letter size. The Layout popup was grouped by photos-per-page which is fine, and there were quite a number to choose from, with even a few mirrored pages! Someone was thinking...

The project comes with 20 pages already in place and you can adjust the layouts on-the-fly by drag and drop. You add pictures by drag and drop, you change backgrounds by drag and drop, you change the borders by drag and drop. I think you get the picture... For the backgrounds and borders, you can apply them to all pages by clicking the check box before dragging. Sweet. I found that going back to my book, I can apply a new background, but was having trouble with the borders. That may bear some looking into. Like the other services, you can hide used images, and otherwise they have a checkmark. In-line editing includes rotation, sepia colors, zoom, brightness, enhanced color, and flip horizontal/vertical. When done, you can preview the book and then make a purchase. The preview shows the low-res images. Your book size, number of pages and cost are alway displayed (which I like). The software is fast for a web application.

Onto the printed piece. The response email was very detailed with links back to the order. The shipping email is also detailed but with no tracking info. Amazingly, it shipped 3 days after I placed the order and was first to arrive. Yet out of all of the ones I reviewed, it had the poorest packaging. It came uncovered in a cardboard box. They die-cut a hole in the cover to show the first image underneath. That certainly will be subject to dust and abuse. No printing on the cover or spine. The custom version has a printable slip cover, but for more money. White end pages (funny, they were black online). Color balance of the photos were good, especially the flesh tones. Snapfish logo on end page, no headers, footers or page numbers (that doesn't bother me – it's a photo book).

What would I like to see? More mirrored layouts. Layouts with non-caption options, like iPhoto. Working border selections (I tried it in FireFox and Safari). Overall, I see this placing above Blurb because of book size, layouts, backgrounds and image quality, but falls short in the cover and software of iPhoto. However, it's a great price and also a fast turnaround for those last minute gifts. Next week we are looking at the KodakGallery.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Thousand Words and More (part 2)

The saga continues with the search for the holy grail of photo book printing. Last week, we reviewed Apple's iPhoto and printing service. This week, we are looking at the online service called Blurb. As I was cruising Apple's forums regarding photo books, I came across several mentions of this service, so that determined where my next stop was. Blurb appears more to be a written book publishing community rather than specifically a photo printing service, but they certainly are in the running with the rest of the services I reviewed.

Company: Blurb
Binding: Soft, Hard
Size: 8 x 10 (landscape) comes in other sizes as well
Cost: $18.95, $29.95
Added Pages: based on page ranges
Shipping: $7.83 via UPS Ground
Max Pages: 440 (double sided)
Layout Software: BookSmart

BookSmart is a free application to all users, but you must register and set up a free account to use their printing service. It, like iPhoto, is a stand-alone application, I am guessing that is may have been done in Java, since there are Mac and PC versions and it's interface is not entirely adherent to the Apple Interface Guidelines (a.k.a. not quite Mac-like). What's great about BookSmart is that you can access photos from a variety of sources – iPhoto, Flickr, Picassa, SmugMug, as well as pictures on your hard drive not in iPhoto. Again, like iPhoto, you can begin the process of laying out your pages right away.

You can choose one of fifteen themes. Of course, like clip art, it's always hard to find one just right for your project, but I selected one that I thought would work with an album that was youth-orientated. Once on a page, you can live-preview the different background colors, patterns, page ornaments and photo borders, with many more options than iPhoto. Here's a cool feature, you can make almost an unlimited amount of variations, since you can change the foreground and background color of each item (where applicable) and apply those changes to each page individually or to the whole document. Nice.

In my opinion, however, I found the layouts to not be very conducive to the photo book layout style. They were too often not the right proportion for the photo, causing unnecessary cropping, or having to shrink them too see the whole image, or had too much area dedicated to text. In their attempt to be artsy, I think they lost sight of the goal – to display photos in a efficient yet pleasing manner, with room for a little tweaking. Again, it seems like more of a written book app.

Headers and footers work in a similar way, allowing you to change individual pages or the whole book, with control over font, size color, alignment, line spacing and indenting. You also have a pop-up index for layout categories and a thumbnail of each layout, split vertically on the left with thumbnails of your photos. You can elect to hide the used photos so that you don't have to scroll as much, a feature all the services but iPhoto seem to have, though iPhoto does mark the photos you've used (but so do the others).

Since this is a layout tool and not an image editing app, you need to adjust your photos in another app like iPhoto, Photoshop, Graphicconverter, etc. before importing. But while in the program, you can zoom, move, rotate and flip within the frame borders. You can view page in single, spread or thumbnail modes. BookSmart also warns you of low-resolution images. It too has auto flow, but I didn't even bother trying it. There is an auto-save feature, which is nice and the ability to zoom your pages, import additional photos and invite contributors to add to your book.

You lose two pages at the beginning to the title page and copyright page. And you can't hide the Blurb logo on the copyright and back pages without spending more money. Humph. I don't like having branding forced on me, but I wasn't going to pay more. Oddly, I couldn't find mention to what the premium charge actually was on the website, it just said I could drag and drop my own logo if I wanted. If they no longer charge for this, they certainly should update the application.

While I'm at it, another thing that can be both good and bad is that if you use an iPhoto album, it knows when you have modified photos in the album, and will ask you if you want to update the photo in the current album. A couple of times it seems to ask for a few then stop, so I wasn't sure if it updated all the changed ones or not. And it really doesn't understand multiple iPhoto databases, so be sure you are in the correct one before opening the app or it ask to change all your photos to the ones it finds in the current catalog.

Next, a click of the button and you are in Preview mode. After review, you can then place an order for a book. If there are issues, a warnings dialog will display, and then a checklist of things to review in order to get the most out of the service. Then you sign in or sign up and upload your masterpiece. Afterwards, you go to the website to order the book. Upon completion, you are sent a confirmation and later a shipping notification with tracking number (with link) and link back to your account.

I received the book the day after the iPhoto book after being ordered the same day. Again, not too bad. It came in a plain brown cardboard book box, and inside it was nestled in several layers of bubble wrap. There was a Blurb bookmark inside the front cover. The end pages were plain white. The cover was some kind of coated fiber or vinyl. Seems pretty durable. No printing on the cover. The glossy slip cover had a photo on the front with the title on it as well as on the spine, no printing on the back (my choice since it was text only), but with photos and text on the inside flaps. At 8 x 10, it's smaller than the other books and it's a noticeable difference. Photos on the whole appeared a little on the dark side, the paper quality felt nice, thick and smooth.

There a lot of positive things to say about Blurb publishing. The BookSmart software has way more features than iPhoto, can import from many popular sources, is available cross platform, and you can have up to 40 pages (twice more than any other service reviewed) for the same price. Wow. For volume, you can't beat that. However, the un-Mac like interface, slowness, odd uses of photo frames and layouts, having to use the applications and the web to place an order, as well as the smaller print size leaves me wanting more. Maybe future upgrades will address some of these issues.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

If a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words...

What is a book full of pictures worth? That's what I'm going to be looking at over the next few weeks as I delve into online photo books. After getting the suggestion from my wife that she wanted some of the 1,200 or so of our digital photos printed out, I started looking at several methods and sources. Of course, as an Apple user, the first place I turned to was Apple's iPhoto. But then as I was looking around at some of the other picture services, I found several others that also offer photo books (like Blurb, Kodak and SnapFish) and several more after that (like Photoworks, Viovio, Lulu and Shutterfly).

The only way I figured I could compare the products was to actually have the same photos printed by each company and then look at the actual results, so that's what I did. I used the first four to start me off. I may do the others as well, but it's an expensive proposition. If I get a lot of feedback, maybe I will. So I started with about 80-90 photos and wanted to lay them out in the default number of pages offered (20 pages seems the default), in a hard cover print option, as close to 8.5 x 11 as possible. The soft covers were typically $10 cheaper, but of course, more fragile.

I developed some ground rules for the study. I will discuss three primary areas 1.) layout software, 2.) purchasing and shipping and 3.) product quality. Lastly, I will offer any general comments I may have. Sound good to you? Ok, let's go! Oh, I forgot to mention that for the sake of length, I will be discussing one vendor per article, so hang in there.

Company: Apple
Binding: Soft, Hard, Spiral
Size: 8.5 x 11 (landscape) comes in smaller sizes as well
Cost: $19.99, $29.99, $19.99
Added Pages: $.69, $.99, $.69
Shipping: $7.99 via Fedex
Max Pages: 100 (50 sheets double sided)
Layout Software: iPhoto

Where else would I start? We have been taking digital pictures for the last 6+ years and have been keeping them in iPhoto. When it came time to decide to print them into photo books, it was natural to look at the options there first. I have to hand it to Apple, it was simply a breeze to do this. First, I organized the pictures by year using Smart Albums. Then I selected the album and clicked "Book." This made a new book project with those photos. Then I picked a design theme. It offered at that point to flow the photos into the book for me, so I tried that first. Never let a program do your designing. It used up more pages than necessary and couldn't interpret the content of the photos, so it had no means of grouping the photos by event. Besides, it's fun to layout the pages – especially in iPhoto.

You have the editing power of iPhoto at your fingertips at any time to crop, rotate, fix red-eye, add effects and adjust the color settings of each photo. Inside the book you can zoom the photos in frames, and move them around inside the frames. Pretty much all the page layouts have caption and non-caption versions and actually are arranged with the mind of a designer. What's amazingly cool is that the layout software seems to anticipate your requests. When you add a vertical picture, it adjusts the layout accordingly, when you pick several pictures, it attempts to determine the best layout for the selected items. It even appeared to anticipate the layout based on the next few photos in the album. I'm sure I saved a lot of time testing different options because of this. The style dictates the type, size and position and borders of the photos on the layouts, but you still have color options for the backgrounds. You can even use an image as a background and fade it back as desired.

And since it is a local application, it was fast. There was even a warning when your photo was not of high enough resolution to print well at the size on the layout – a must for this type of work. Another plus, there was no logging in or registering or uploading of photos before you started – you just began laying them out. There is the ability to swap between the pages and the source photos at the top (like the clips and the timeline in iMovie 6) and seeing your work in progress at the bottom, always visible (no having to go to Preview mode). Page numbers are automatic and optional as well as the Apple logo. They print on the cover as well as the slip cover (you can even add photos and text on the inside flaps). It allows for a title page with intro as well as the content on the inside flap, so you can write about the author... you!

Ordering the book was easy. While still within iPhoto you simply click the Buy Book button and let the software walk you through. If you have an Apple ID already (say for .Mac or iTunes) you log in, otherwise you create an account. It's only after you purchase the book that the photos are uploaded – the only service to do this other than Blurb. On a Broadband connection, it only took a few minutes to upload. You do have a Broadband connection by now, don't you? You then receive an email confirmation of the purchase and an email when it is shipped, along with a tracking number and a link to the tracking service. Details, details.

I ordered the first four books all on the same day, January 4, 2008. I received the Apple book on January 15. That's 7 business days from order to delivery. Not bad. It came first in a plain cardboard box to reveal an even nicer Apple messenger-style, white and silver box nice enough for gift giving. The book itself was inside wrapped in a resealable clear-plastic envelope. The book has silver end papers and is foil stamped with the title (no spine printing) on suede-like material with the printed slip cover (which does have spine printing). The attention to detail is what makes this book stand out. Is there anything I would add or fix? Sure. First off, mirrored layouts or a button that flips layouts horizontally. It would have been nice to balance the page spreads. Also, I have read and heard that the images should be lightened overall to improve print quality, which tends slightly to be dark. Why not have an auto brightness checkbox for the book? And in this particular book, the red seems to be a bit on the strong side. Other than that, I am perfectly happy with the results.

The old adage still applies, G-I-G-O (garbage in, garbage out). If you start with low res or blurry pictures, they won't magically get better when printed. But that being said, I could see all the subjects pretty well, even the out of focus ones. Make sure to use a 3MP or better camera if you plan on using one of these services. Overall, I really enjoyed using iPhoto, and believe me, I had plenty of practice since I made 7 photo books in all. It's not the cheapest service, but it's not outrageously expensive either. And the ease of use and quality make up for the difference in price. Sadly, there is no PC version of iPhoto or they could corner the market on this industry. Stay tuned for next week's review and please send me your experiences and comments. I will also have a downloadable spreadsheet of the results as well at the end.