How to Make a Book of Photography
So after my recent(-ish)((6 months is recent, right?)) “publication of Fly, A Collection”, I wanted to talk about the process of making a book of photography.
Fly is my third work, following Linear A and Distinctly Coromandel. All three went through different publication routes, but contain a lot of similarities that are worth discussing.
So, how does one publish books of photography? Well, as much as others might say otherwise, it’s pretty straightforward.
My experience is entirely around self-publishing and developing my own publishing workflows, both by myself and with others.
Step 1: Yes, You’re Good Enough
The major blocker to publishing a work is the belief that you’re not allowed to, that you’re not good enough to do so, or that your work just isn’t worth showing off.
Your brain is lying to you.
Publishing a work is, in a lot of ways, a big deal. It’s not just judging your own work, but putting it out there in such a way that others will also judge it and hold it to their own critical eye. You’ll get feedback, and it won’t always be positive.
More than that, you’re overcoming your own sense of taste. Ira Glass said this brilliantly when discussing the creative process. The work you put together is something you will not be happy with. This is a huge barrier to get over, a hump that will give your brain ample opportunity to tell you that because your work doesn’t live up to your expectations, it won’t live up to other peoples’ either.
Again, your brain is lying to you. Yes, your work is going to disappoint you in some ways, but others will not see that disappointment. Instead, they will see the result of your hard work: the finished piece, complete to the best of your skills at the time, and something that maybe they’re not yet brave enough to make.
They’ll see achievement, not disappointment.
Step 2: Making a Collection
The current internet age has had some interesting side effects with regards to photography. On the one hand, photography is democratised to a point where we have amazing cameras in our pockets all the time. This is amazing, powerful, and a magical world where we can document so much, share so much, and build a collective view of our world in real time. I love it.
On the other hand, because we take so many photos and so many photos get uploaded so frequently our streams are often sequences of beautiful images that lack cohesion or continuity, and it becomes harder to think in terms of a collection of your work, your vision, and your taste.
“Here’s some pretty images I took” isn’t a theme. Like your stream, the lack of a contiguous theme will make the final product feel messy, and it will be a lot more difficult to find a point of completion.
Find a theme.
Your theme will something you want to present through your work. Linear A grew out of my interest in minimalist images, capturing the way lines work within photographic frames. Fly recaptured the magic of flight, to reclaim it from the misery of airports and long haul and rejoice in the majesty of our world seen from above. Distinctly captured the beauty of the Coromandel, and the ways that humans have irrevocably changed the land.
Themes aren’t always immediately obvious in your master collection. They may only be visible after you’ve dug through the images for a while, categorising and sorting and deciding what belongs where.
Once you’ve found your theme, you’ll probably discover that you don’t have enough pictures. Fortunately, this is a great excuse to go take more pictures, and may be the impetus you need to get out the door and start shooting stuff again.
This step is really, really hard.
For Fly, this step took 5 months, going from almost 2000 images to the 28 that made it into the book. This won’t be an overnight process, and you will need to often to refer to Step 1, believing that you both are good enough and that your taste is good enough to do this.
Step 3: Finding a Printer
So you have a collection you’re not too unhappy with! Congratulations, you are further ahead than most get. You’ll feel like you need to keep refining it, trying to make it better, improve what you have.
Stop. It’s done.
Yes, you can keep polishing and keep improving, but there must be a point where you let it go and bask in the achievement of creation. Not releasing means you can’t take what you’ve learned and try again, as the current work remains “unfinished”.
Not only that, the “getting it ready to print” stage will take a lot more effort than you realise.
There’s two major ways of approaching this:
- Easy, Online Print on Demand
- Dealing with a local printer yourself
Easy, Online Print on Demand
This will be a service like Blurb or Snapfish or a number of others. They offer tools and super easy integrations to make it really easy to make printed photos happen.
Lightroom integrates with Blurb, and they also have their own “make an book thing!” app, if you don’t use Lightroom, or want more control. This is great, because you can just drag and drop images into the layouts, push a button, and you’ll get a copy through the post a couple of days later.
It’s pretty magical.
The other ones are equally easy to work with, though lack the close Lightroom integration that Blurb offers.
A Local Printer
Working with a local printer is considerably harder.
You’ll need to do a lot of the pre-press work yourself, handling layout with something like Indesign, and produce a file for the printer to work from. It’s not particularly more onerous, but it’s much less drag-and-drop easy than working with major publisher software toolchains.
Local printers usually also prefer to work at a larger scale than Blurb or others, requiring you to purchase more than a single book. Blurb is happy selling you individual books, and dealing with any fulfilment themselves.
The advantage is you get a lot more control over the print process, from paper selection to ensuring that your prints happen on a particular printer with particular inks.
For Linear A, I used Blurb to handle the printing, and I’m really happy with the quality of the books. For Distinctly, my co-author arranged the print with a print shop local to him. For Fly, I worked with a print shop directly to manage the print process, and we discussed paper weight, size, and other items.
Step 4: Colour Theory and Tears
Either way, now you have A Book! Your thing! You made it! You actually really made it! YOU MADE A THING. Twitter and Facebook that thing. It’s yours.
And then you’ll notice that all the colours are wrong. What. The printer screwed up your amazing work!
What you’ve just discovered is that your eyes are great big liars, computer screens are liars, and paper is what is this I don’t even.
Welcome to the miserable land of colour theory.
You’re probably already aware of white balance, if only passively. Some light bulbs look “warm”, right? And some look “cool” or “cold”. This is white balance in action, where the colour “white” isn’t actually ever white, it’s just perceptually white because your vision system is out to mess with you.
On top of this, what your computer screen is showing you is red isn’t actually red. Or green, or blue. Because our vision system is adaptive, we don’t notice that it’s not real red, it’s just red until we have a comparison, at which point we can see how red it isn’t.
On top of that, what colours a printer can represent are different from what colours a screen can represent. You’ll start to hear terms like “gamut” and “colour space”, describing what you can get onto the paper at all. Different printers and inks will have different capabilities, too!
Intense shades tend to get lost, being clipped back to dimmer, less saturated versions, and saturation as a whole tends to suffer. It’s harder to get deep contrasts.
On top of on top of that, your computer screen and the printer disagree on what colour that red even is.
Finally, remember how I mentioned that sometimes lights look cold and sometimes they look warm? Well, this means that depending on where you edited your photo, what time of day you edited your photo, and where you look at the print all matter when it comes to how it’s going to look when you hold it in your hand.
It’s possible to correct for all of this, to get what you see on the screen to match what you see on the paper. But, this is the section of 😡🖥😡. This is the point where you have to decide how much this bothers you and how close is close enough.
This is also the point where you’re totally allowed to go “Screw this, black and white it is.”
Correcting for Colour, Part 1
If you’ve decided to go down this road, you’re going to need some things:
- A colourimeter
- A reference light
- A better screen, maybe
The first one is the critical component of managing colour. This is a piece of physical hardware that you stick to your display, and it measures what your screen thinks “red” looks like, compared to what it thinks red should be. It uses this information to build a profile, which you apply to your screen while editing. This profile ensures that the image you’re looking at is represented as closely to the agreed-upon colour point as possible. This will usually happen at a white point of 6500K (Bluish, but not too bluish).
You may also need a better screen. Most computer LCDs use TN pixels, which generally only have 6 bits of colour information and use dithering effects to make it look closer to 8 bits. The side effect of this is that they’re harder to get accurate, and you’ll see banding as you edit that won’t be present in the final print. An ideal editing display will use IPS as the underlying pixel technology, and (at the upper end) may even offer wide gamut or 10-bit colour support.
For looking at the print, a reference light is necessary. This will be a bulb calibrated at the same white temperature as the screen, generally 6500K. I use a 6500K LED bulb in a standard desk lamp, which seems to work well enough.
Correcting for Colour, Part 2
So now you have a calibrated display. You can look at images and get a really good idea of how they’ll look when other people see them on their screens, and edit accordingly. It won’t be perfect, but it’s better than it was.
The next part you need is a profile for the printer you’ll be using. Blurb has their colour profiles listed on their site, as do most of the online publishers. If you’re working with a local print shop, you’ll need to ask them for the printer make and model and look up the ICC files, or ask if they have a more recent ICC file they’d like you to use for soft proofing.
These will come as ICC files, which you’ll use in Lightroom and Photoshop soft proofing systems. This will give you a good, albeit not perfect, idea of what the print is going to look like.
Lightroom and Photoshop have great tools for showing you what’s going to be out of range for the printer, and let you see how the contrast and tones are going to shift as a result of the printing process.
If the print shop you’re talking to doesn’t have ICC files, or doesn’t know what they’re for, find another print shop. If they haven’t recalibrated recently, find another print shop. If they offer to have you come in and look at the photos on their Photoshop machine, find another print shop.
Correcting for Colour, Part 3
Once you’ve re-edited your work, it’s time to find out how it actually looks on paper, so you need to order some prints. For Blurb and friends, this may be ordering a complete book. For a local printer, you’ll be able to ask them to run a couple of images off the same printer (… maybe …) for you to look at.
Bring them home. Look at the prints under the reference light. Compare them to your screen in a room lit only by the reference light.
Decide if this is, in fact, close enough. If it’s not, re-edit based on what you see, order more proofs, and try again.
Correcting for Colour, Optional Part 4
The final thing you could do, depending on how much it bothers you, is to get a print colourimeter as well as a display colourimeter. This device is used to measure the colour on a piece of paper, from a reference light (usually inside the device itself).
For the ultimate in colour control, this device is necessary. I don’t have one, and I made the call that I don’t actually care that much about fully accurate colour, and I’m satisfied with “close enough”.
Screw this, Black and White it is
I went with black and white for Fly, mostly because I thought it was a better choice for the images, but also because managing the full colour process can be pretty obnoxious.
Black and white doesn’t change the contrast and loss of tonal range, though. You’ll still need to order proofs and edit against what you see.
For instance, I noticed that a lot of my images needed to be brightened considerably in order to not lose detail in the shadows, during print, images that had gone through soft proofing and I thought I’d corrected enough, but were still too dark.
And even then, your proofs might be done on a different printer.
Step 4: Order Some Books
You’ve proofed, or not, and now it’s time to get some books!
If you’re using Blurb or other online services that give you a free web store, you don’t need to order more than one for yourself, and maybe some to gift to friends and family.
If you decided to work with the printer yourself, now you’ll have possibly a box of books! It’s a really amazing feeling to open a box and see a pile of things that you made.
They’ll be slightly different, within the tolerance of how much you might care, from what you thought you’d get. Printing is hard! But you did it!
Step 5: Maybe Some Sales!
This is the part where the dream is easily crushed, and where you learn whether or not you want to do this because you love doing this.
Linear A has sold 17 copies since I released it, and Fly was a limited run of 30 copies, of which 19 sold, one was mine, and one went to the National Library.1
As Distinctly, was run as a PledgeMe campaign, it pre-sold 50 copies for backers to give us the means to make it at all. We have yet to sell any from after the campaign.
Making a book probably isn’t going to make money. It’s probably not going to launch a career as a photographer, especially in the modern world. With Blurb, your up-front outlay is nothing, so you won’t lose money, but will make very little. Depending on your choices, a Blurb book can cost north of USD$50 per book, before you see anything.
With private printing, you’ll be putting a decent amount of money up to do the print run at all. Distinctly needed NZD$1800 just to do the printing for 100 books, handle shipping fulfilment, and other rewards, with none of our time or effort being covered.
We did it for the love.
Fly cost a considerable amount up-front as well, and required multiple back-and-forth’s with the printer, multiple proof runs, and many tweaks to get a final book. In the end, I haven’t made money.
I did it for the love.
Linear A has so far made enough money to buy me a couple of pairs of socks. I’m not kidding, that’s all it’s made.
Again, I did it for the love.
Step 6: And, breathe.
At the end, you’ve done it. You’ve made a work, you’ve discovered more of what your taste looks like and means, what images you find meaningful and worth sharing. You have made something, a real physical artefact in the world that only you could make.
It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t simple. It wasn’t flawless, but nothing ever is.
But it is yours, and no one can ever take that from you.
It doesn’t matter that only a few people ever see it, it doesn’t matter that only your friends bought it. What matters is that you did it.
Congratulations. You’re awesome. Welcome to the club.
Now, let’s go do it again. 😄
Turns out that, in New Zealand, any book needs to be submitted to the National Library. So now I have work in the National Library. How cool is that?↩