Monday, January 5, 2015

Memory Preservation Options - Digital Photo Books

You've heard of them: Digital Photo Books.  They certainly aren't new and they clearly are very popular but you have NO IDEA where to begin.  Maybe I can help.

First - consider quality.  Not all photo books are created equal.  Believe me, if a price seems too good or too low to be true, it probably is.  If you are printing a photo book that will be a permanent family legacy - one that you wish to enjoy and look at for many years, choose a high-quality digital photo book.

Second - consider how to make your book.  Are you a control freak?  Do you have an exact idea how you want every page to look, do you NOT want any limitations placed on your page design OR would you rather just drag and drop some photos into a pre-designed album page and send it off to the printer?  It's important to know what you are looking for in digital album design.

Third - consider how much of this process you'd like to perform yourself.  Are you savvy with photo editing, digital photo organizing, selecting and storing digital files, learning software, navigating photo websites?  If so, you have a lot of options.  If digital files and photo websites make your head spin, you may want some options that are super easy or allow you some assistance.

So - no worries, no matter how you answered any of these questions, there are solutions for you.

Lets begin with quality.  Photo album quality is very important.  Both the look and the construction of the digital album should be considered.  If you compare prices of photo books, you should be comparing only a company's PREMIUM photo albums to one another.  Many companies like Shutterfly, Ritz, Snapfish, Walmart etc.... offer very affordable photobooks.  However, these photo books often have inferior covers, papers, printing and binding construction.  These same companies will usually offer a premium quality book with in some cases: stitched bindings (as opposed to glued), lay-flat pages, leather covers, padded covers, high-quality paper and exemplary photo printing.  Usually, these premium books are not the ones you see the low prices for!  So - that said, buyer beware.  If you are just purchasing a photo book as a temporary gift and you don't care how long it lasts, just choose something cheap and fast - you can't go wrong.

Though there are an ENDLESS amount of in-store and on-line companies offering premium photo books, they certainly vary.  AND... often times, the only way to determine if you like what a company is offering is to create and purchase a book to give it a try.  If you wanted to review a bunch of different company's premium books, it could be EXTREMLY pricey.  So, go with what you know.  Ask around to your friends.  See who has used company's for their digital albums that they are happy with.  Go and look at their albums, in person!  And make sure you are only looking at albums that are of PREMIUM QUALITY!  Consider a company's satisfaction guarantee - if you hate the album can you get your money back?

Next - let's talk about designing your album.  Usually the first step in the process (sometimes the hardest step) is to select the photos you will use.  Do you know how to do this?  Do you have a process for selecting photos, a place you store your photos, organize your photos, edit your photos?  If not, you may wish to contact a photo organizer.  A photo organizer can help you (remotely or nearby) to organize, select and edit your photos.  You can work WITH an organizer for this process or you can simply let them complete this task for you.

Some digital album design sites will let you edit your photos once you are in the design process and other systems expect that your photos are all edited before you get to the design step.  It's important to know what your design system will do.

If you are a drag and drop person - someone who just wants to get the photos into digital frames on a page and you want to type a few captions or headlines without making too many choices, that option is always available to you.  If you are more of a design freak and have a very specific idea about how a page should look, you want to use a design process that offers you more options.

One way you can get a more advanced design is to use an online design package that give you a lot of design choices.  Usually there is a learning curve with any system's design process, so don't get frustrated - give yourself time to become familiar with their system.  Watch online tutorials or signup to get someone to give you a few lessons, or again, contact an organizer to see how they can help you with this step.

Another way to get a more advanced design is to use a design software package.  With a software package, you purchase and own a piece of software that allows you to fully design an album and/or an album page(s) and then you save your page design as one single jpg file and upload it to your chosen album printer service. 

Most album printer services will have a full-bleed, full-page or blank style of album which allows you to add your pre-designed page to their album and simply use their service to get a printed copy.  There is a HUGE range of digital design software packages - numerous posts could cover this topic alone.  Again, ask around, ask friends who use a certain system and ask them to show you their system.  Keep in mind, some design software comes with digital artwork (like page backgrounds, fonts, stickers, borders etc) and others expect that you will purchase digital artwork to add to your software to give you more choices.  Some online software packages offer loads of artwork included with your design price and others offer only pre-designed templates that don't allow you to customize.  Again, loads of options.

Once you have selected your photos, uploaded them to your software or an online site, perform the simple or advanced page design, review how your album will look, then simply send it off to print!

Here are some things to consider, some information about software, online services, digital printing, etc... NOTE:  The specifics I include in the rest of this post are not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination- in fact, I will only highlight a few specific options just so you can get an idea of what to look for.

The two main places I print digital photo albums are the Panstoria Print Shop and the Heritage Makers Print Shop.  Both of these print shops use the same digital printing processor.  They both offer high-quality albums.  They both offer premium lay-flat pages (which I prefer).  They both produce vibrant color quality.  They both have good customer service.  They both have stitched (not glued) album bindings.

In order to print at the Panstoria Print Shop you MUST create your digital projects using Panstoria's Artisan software.  Artisan is a software package that you purchase and install on your computer.  Artisan includes some digital artwork and you can create loads of additional artwork using their starter art packages, but you will also want to purchase additional artwork to use.  Panstoria has a huge amount of digital art packages you can purchase.  Using an installed software and purchasing digital artwork can be daunting for some people.  For me, I'm the control freak type of person and I love the Artisan software and I have a ton of digital artwork and I feel that I can create just about anything with it.  That said, even a beginner can love Artisan.  It has a beginner mode, pre-designed page templates and will even auto populate your album for you without forcing you to design anything at all... so most software will have an easy option and a more advanced option.

NOTE: If you own Artisan digital design software, you do NOT have to use the Panstoria Print Shop - you can save all of your Artisan projects as jpg or pdf files and upload them to any digital printer or you can print things out on your own computer as well.  Although I use Panstoria for most of my digital album printing, I love the freedom that is offered by being able to print at home or anywhere else I choose.

The Heritage Makers Print Shop is another place I print albums.  Even if I create my album and page design using the Artisan software, I can save my pages as jpg files and upload them to Heritage Makers blank templates for printing.  In order to get the best prices with Heritage Makers, I'd suggest joining one of their HM Clubs  - like Gold HM which offers you the lowest prices on your products - it's kind of a wholesale buying club.  They have this club instead of offering a bunch of coupon codes and stuff.  However, there are sales offered even on the club prices.

Heritage Makers also offers its own online design software.  In fact, when you join one of it's wholesale clubs, you get it's on-line design software as well as TONS of digital artwork - I mean TONS and pre-designed page templates to use for free!  The thing is, anything you create using HM's online software (called My Studio) MUST be printed at their digital shop.  You cannot create anything in My Studio online software and print it anywhere else.

Things I don't like about the HM software is that you MUST have a web connection to work on your projects (Artisan is resident on your computer so no internet connection needed for album design).  Another thing I don't like about the HM software is that when you see a final preview of your project, it's blurry.  HM doesn't pay enough bandwidth for a premium and clear preview of your final project and I don't like viewing it blurry and trusting that it will turn out ok - tho. it always has and if it doesn't, they'll print it again for you.  A final thing I don't like about the HM software is that you MUST edit your photos BEFORE you upload them to the HM site.  Their software doesn't offer photo editing as part of their design software.

With Panstoria's Artisan software, you have incredible photo editing tools built right into the design packages so whether you edit photos ahead or not at all, your final product will have photos that look just the way you want them to.

One thing I DO LIKE about HM's My Studio software is that you have a lot of design choices.  You can basically use their software tools to make the album page look exactly as you wish.  They also have tons of free online tutorials to help you get familiar with their My Studio software.  I do know how to use the My Studio software and I do offer workshops and one-on-one training and assistance to my photo organizing clients who make their own digital albums but who need a bit of help using the software.

Other popular photo software you may have heard of is:

My Memories, Photoshop, and Photoshop Elements.  Photoshop is for the advanced user, Elements can be learned pretty well by intermediate users and My Memories can be learned by all levels of user.  With all of these software packages, once you learn them, you can simply save your projects as jpg files and upload them to print at any site that allows you to do so.  Again, ask around, read reviews, compare features and prices and consider your level of computer expertise.

You should note that because I use and train people to use Artisan Software and Heritage Makers My Studio software, I am an affiliate with both of those companies.  As an affiliate I am able to earn a small percentage from the purchases of my clients who use those services and designate me as their affiliate.  If you'd plan to use Panstoria's Artisan software or their print shop or plan to use Heritage Makers services, please let me know and I'll tell you how to link to me as your affiliate.  I do help all of my affiliate clients with any questions or problems they have with these companies or these album projects.

Probably the two companies I get asked about most often are Shutterfly and Snapfish.  Just know - according to business reports, both of these companies have been in the news recently for being at risk for going out of business. Please DO NOT EVER! store your digital photo files on a photo website and assume they are safe, or private, or that they will be there forever.  A photo website that lets you store digital files on their site is only a temporary convenience.  You should definitely have other backup and archiving processes in place for your photo digital files!!!  I cannot stress this enough.

Shutterfly and Snapfish BOTH offer a level of premium quality albums with double thick, lay-flat pages (again, these are not the ones the advertise the low prices for).  With Shutterfly the albums can be up to 111 pages and with Snapfish 100 pages.  Both HM and Panstoria offer hardbound, lay-flat options with a max of 99 pages.

All four companies offer the books at a standard 20-page price and then you pay individually for additional pages you opt to add up to the allowable maximum.

Panstoria and HM offer discounts sometimes.  Shutterfly and Snapfish offer tons of discounts and coupons.  Panstoria and HM have expensive shipping fees and long process and ship times, Shutterfly and Snapfish often offer free and speedy shipping at lower costs.  Shutterfly discount coupons can usually be used for premium photo albums (read the fine print) but Snapfish discounts cannot.  Also - neither Shutterfly or Snapfish offer the discounts on additional pages, the discount is offered only for the first 20 pages of the album, the rest are all full price.  Sometimes Shutterfly will allow a shipping coupon and a discount coupon to be used together, sometimes they cannot - only one offer can be used at a time.  Make sure you read the fine details of all coupons and what they cover and what they don't - and if you have questions - ASK....

Shutterfly and Snapfish do not stitch their bindings! They glue them.  You might want to do some research on album construction to learn more about stitched or glued bindings. I only opt for stitched. Again, that's important to me but it might not matter to you.

Shutterfly offers a blank album which allows you to create your digital page in another design software, save it as a jpg file and print it at their site.  I assume Snapfish does as well but I struggled to find it on their site.

There are a TON of other online photo companies: Blurb, Adoramapix, Picaboo, My Publisher, etc...  Typically, when I have read reviews of these other sites, people are reviewing the design process that is offered online by these companies and rarely do they report the important quality and construction information that is more important to me.  Every time I hear that someone prints at one of these other places, I ask them about their experience and I try to get a look at their album in person.  I have also tried to find out about the construction and quality of these albums from these other websites and most of the information is VERY hard to come by.

Of course, there is also price to consider.

As of today, here is a price comparison of some hardbound, lay-flat albums offered at some of the printing companies I've mentioned:

Panstoria (premium layflat hardbound 11X8.5) $55 (first 21pgs) add'l pages $1.50ea
Panstoria (premium layflat hardbound 12X12) $85 (first 21pgs) add'l pages $1.50ea

expandable to 99 pages per album

Heritage Makers (premium laflat hardbound 11X8.5) regular $105 (first 21pgs) club $78 (first 21pgs)
Heritage Makers (premium layflat hardbound 12X12) regular $122 (first 21pgs) club $92 (first 21pg)

HM layflat albums are expandable to only 60 pages.  Additional page prices not quoted on site.
HM prices include it's software and artwork.  Lowest HM prices are only available with an HM club membership

Shutterfly (premium laflat hardbound 11X8)  $85 (first 20 pgs)  add'l pages $1.00ea
Shutterfly (premium layflat hardbound 12X12) $125 (first 20 pgs) add'l pages $1.50ea

expandable to 111pages per album

Snapfish (premium laflat hardbound 11X8) $65 (first 20) add'l pages - no info on site
Snapfish (premium layflat hardbound 12X12) $80 (first 20) add'l pages - no info on site

expandable to 100 pages per album

NOTE: Panstoria and HM albums are 11X8.5 where Shutterfly and Snapfish are 11X8

Here are some reviews from other bloggers found around the web because as many photo book companies as there are -that's how many reviews and opinions you will find!

 NOTE:  I would only use a digital album company that allows me to fully design my own pages using artisan.  I have no interest in using a photo book company's online design software - with the exception of My Studio, I find the included software on the photo website to be very limited.  I don't like having any limitations placed on my design process.  However, that may not matter to you.  Again, you need to decide what you are personally looking for and then go out and find it.

If you need additional photo organization or album creation assistance, consider hiring a personal photo organizer.  I am happy to offer you help and advice or if you need to locate someone closer to your home location, visit the Association of Personal Photo organizers and look for an APPO-certified organizer near you.

Sometimes, when I'm in a big hurry and I need to print something locally: not usually albums, but other digital stuff, I have used local shops like Ritz Camera, Walmart, Costco, CVS or Walgreens.  These local services vary greatly in quality but often times I use them because I need something right away - like in one hour!  AND... there is not a shipping fee.

There are options upon options upon options for printing digital storybooks.  But, bottom line, do it! Put your photos into albums and print the albums so that you and your family can re-live and enjoy your precious memories for years to come.


  1. Great article, very thorough & well written. Do you mind if I share it with my customers, please? (Giving you credit as author, of course!) Thank you!

  2. deltalady6 - by all means... share with whomever the information might be helpful! And if you have any questions about specifics, I'm happy to answer. You can contact me directly at cmsher (at) gmail (dot) com.

    1. Thanks, Sher. I'm a former CMC & an affiliate with Panstoria, but I'm in Canada so can't join the new CM yet.


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