Getting Started with Photo Books


In 1843, Anna Atkins made history when she bound her cyanotype impressions of algae into the first photographically illustrated book, Photographs of British Algae. A few months later, inventor of the salted paper print and acquaintance of Atkins, Henry Fox Talbot, published The Pencil of Nature, the first commercially distributed photo book. Ever since these two pioneers, photo books have adopted countless forms varying from cheap, mass-produced ’zines to indulgent, limited edition tomes. A well-made photo book can be an art object unto itself, elevating the experience of the images it houses as much as any gallery or museum.

Anna Atkin’s Photographs of British Algae,1843 (left) and Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, 1844-6 (right).

Making photo books is a labor of love. The presentation of an artist’s work goes a long way in determining how it will be received and appreciated. Assembling your photographs into a book allows you to frame their reception. Shoddy production can drag even the most remarkable photographs down, while a well-made book invites repeated engagement with the images it contains. Publishing houses employ teams of professionals responsible for the many aspects of book design and production. However, some of the best and most sought-after examples of photo books have been made by photographers themselves.

Getting started making books can be a bit overwhelming at first. What follows are questions to think about as you begin your journey into this rewarding process.

Book design is an art. Slipcases serve the dual purpose of looking handsome and protecting their contents.

Which Photographs Will Your Book Include?

Before you start designing and fabricating, you need to determine the raison d'être of your book. Why are you making this particular photo book? To tell a story about migrant workers like Xyza Cruz Bacani’s We Are Like Air? To show off the most dapper gentlemen around the world, like Rose Callahan’s We Are Dandy? To provide a retrospective of your life’s work like Kwame Brathwaite’s Black Is Beautiful? Whatever your premise, use it to guide your editing process. Show discipline. Avoid redundancy. Drop weak images. Ask for second opinions. Make difficult decisions.

A popular editing technique for narrowing selections and helping sequence images is to make small prints of your images and lay them out on a table, tape them to a wall, or pin them to a corkboard. This will allow you to see everything at once, notice visual relationships, and make changes. Sure, you can create similar mockups on a computer, but the effect is rarely as powerful. If you are making a photo book, you already understand the value of physically interacting with photographs. Bjorn Petersen has written an excellent introduction to editing and sequencing images that provides more tips.

One of the best ways to narrow image selections and determine sequences is by printing out small test images.

How Will You Lay out Your Images?

Once you have settled on your images, it is time to think about how you want them to be presented. Will there be text in your book? If so, will your photographs be separated from or integrated with it? Today, most designers use Adobe InDesign (part of the Adobe Creative Suite) for laying out books. Created specifically for web and print publications, InDesign is ideal for making photobooks. However, there are many other programs that you can use at the printing stage. Check out Jill Waterman’s article on using Lightroom to create a photo book. You can also lay out individual pages or spreads using Photoshop or a similar image editing program—it just requires a bit more planning and attention to detail.

Which Paper Is Right for Your Project?

Photo books blend visual and tactile experience. The paper and printing process you select for your book will determine its look, feel, and longevity, making it one of the most consequential decisions in the design process. This article centers on inkjet printing but there are many alternative processes that can be incorporated into photo books, including risographs, photogravures, cyanotypes, screen prints, or virtually any other means of image reproduction.

If the paper you choose does not have a double-sided option, you can always mount or tip-in images for a unique effect. Detail from David Seidner’s Portraits.

How Do You Want Your Images to Appear on The Page?

Most projects will require a double-sided paper so that you can print on both sides of the page. When testing different papers, print a light image on one side of a page and a darker image on the other side to see how they interact with each other. You don’t want to invest in a paper stock and then realize after printing that all of your photographs look like double exposures.

While far less common, tipped-in images can be printed and mounted into a book. This is a time-consuming process when done manually and is really only feasible for short runs. Tipping images in does open up the possibility of using nearly any type of paper, making it possible to incorporate stock that is not available in a double-sided variety.

How Thick Do You Want Your Pages to Be?

The thickness of the paper you use will be among the first attributes someone notices when paging through your book. It will also determine how easy or difficult the binding process will be at the fabrication stage. For example, papers created for “fine art” purposes are often more difficult to fold cleanly, potentially limiting your binding options. The specification that you want to look at when comparing paper thicknesses is weight (or density, to be specific), standardized to grams per square meter (gsm). For the sake of comparison, newspapers generally come in around 35-55 gsm, magazine pages 90 gsm, coffee table books 105-200 gsm, and business cards 200-340 gsm. Note that when browsing B&H’s website, you can filter by paper weight to simplify your search.

Even “white” paper comes in a variety of colors, thicknesses, and transparencies.

What Finish Do You Want on Your Pages?

This decision is probably the most subjective discussed so far. Between the extreme shine of a glossy paper and the calculated subtlety of uncoated paper, a wide range of possibilities exists. Most photo books settle for something in the middle. If you are new to photo printing, sample paper packs are a great way to see the difference between finishes. Printing your favorite photo on multiple types of paper is one of the fastest ways to see the difference between different finishes. Inspecting your own photograph instead of a manufacturer’s sample print will make the strengths and limitations of different types of paper immediately evident. For more information specific to photo paper, check out Shawn Steiner’s article on finding the perfect photo paper.

Many of photographer Edmund Clark’s books use different types of paper to shape reader experience of his work. Detail of Guantanamo If the Light Goes Out.

What Is the Lifespan of Your Book?

The publishing process is full of cost-benefit decisions. Everyone wants their work to last forever, but using archival materials can become expensive. Acid-free (aka alkaline) paper is the medium of choice for durability. By removing bleaching agents and other additives from its production process, acid-free paper will deteriorate at a much slower rate than acidic papers. For maximum durability, complement your acid-free paper with acid-free adhesive.

What Printer Are You Using?

Part and parcel with paper is printing. Choosing a photo printer is a topic worthy of an article of its own. However, there are a few qualities to pay particular attention to if you are using a printer for making books. Most importantly, make sure that your printer can accommodate the size paper that you will need. If your book design involves folding paper, make sure that the printer you are using is capable of printing sheets that are wide enough to achieve the dimensions that you want. Also, to attain best results, calibrate your monitor regularly and install the correct ICC profiles for the paper that you are using before printing.

Saddle-stitch binding is commonly used for small art books like Lucas Blalock’s Towards a Warm Math.

How Will You Bind Your Book?

There are many ways to bind a book, ranging from relatively straightforward to rather complex. The simplest binding to do yourself is saddle-stitch. In brief, this consists of folding sheets of paper (folios in bookbinding terms) in half and stapling, or sometimes sewing, them along the spine. The group of secured pages is known as a signature, which is why this type of book is sometimes referred to as a single-signature book. This is a cost-efficient format popular for ’zines and short art projects. However, with simplicity come limitations. Saddle-stitch binding is not as durable as other bindings and limits you to projects of about 60 pages. Also, because it consists of folded pages, your total page count must be a multiple of four.

Diagram of a flat-back book.

Case binding has the longest shelf life. It is also a much more labor-intensive process. Case binding processes involve assembling and sewing together multiple signatures into what is referred to as a book block. The book block is then glued to endpapers, secured with super (spine reinforcement), and attached to a case. There are flat-back and round-back variations of case binding. Round-back bindings feature a stronger spine and can accommodate the largest number of pages. For added protection, not to mention aesthetic impact, you can pair your book with a slipcase or clamshell box. B&H sells a variety of bookbinding supplies for getting started. Be sure to check back on Explora for future tutorials to learn how to bind your photo book.

Are you a collector or maker of photo books? Share your thoughts and experiences below.