So you've got this dream: a photo book of your own. You're not alone. At one time or another, every photographer, from enthusiast to pro, has had it.
These days, though, it doesn't have to remain a dream. Not only is it relatively easy to create, design and publish that book, you've also got a world of options when it comes to how it'll look. And you can publish it for a small (or not so small) circle of friends, or you can reach out to the wider world.
Not only that, but the benefits of taking on a book project are a lot greater than just the immediate satisfaction of holding it in your hands, a done deal. Simply, that book can make you a better photographer.
There are two basic ways to go: publish an attractive, basic book using the resources of your local photo dealer or an online service, or aim for a more professional-looking, bookstore-quality volume via a different kind of online service company.
To find the former, just stroll into a local photo retailer and ask about photo books. Chances are the choices will be along the lines of 12- or 24-page 8x10- or 12x12-inch volumes you can create at the dealer's kiosk. You load the photos, choose the order in which they'll appear, select a layout and walk out with the printed book. Or you can upload the photos to an online site like Shutterfly or Snapfish, or the website of a photo retailer, and control things from your computer. To get an idea of the options available, Google "photo books" and settle in for a bit of internet exploring.
Then there's the "bookstore-quality" book...but we'll get to that in a moment.
Telling a Story
We decided to talk about photo books approximately two minutes into a conversation with Layne Kennedy. Layne is not only an accomplished pro shooter whose work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian and National Geographic Traveler, he's also a leader of Nikon Mentor Series photo treks. He's had several books published, and he teaches a workshop at the Minnesota Center of Photography on creating photo books. It was when he mentioned his recent self-publishing effort—a book titled 47 Degrees North: Grand Marais and Beyond—that we turned on the tape recorder.
"It's about Grand Marais, a small northern Minnesota town," Layne said, "and the book was a test to see how the whole self-publishing thing would all turn out." Layne produced the book using Blurb, a print-on-demand service that had been recommended to him by another professional photographer. "Everything worked out well—color reproduction, control of the layout and text, binding—and I order my inventory as I need copies to fill sales. I've already got plans for more books."
Producing the book meant following the advice he gives to participants in his course at the Minnesota Center, and although Layne's book is the bookstore-quality variety, his guidelines apply to the more modest volume you can create online or at your dealer's kiosk.
Those guidelines start with a theme. "The benefit of going out and shooting to a theme is that we're not distracted by all the other visuals that aren't part of that theme," Layne says. He's found that the most difficult thing for photo enthusiasts to do is to limit distractions. "Most people random shoot—'Oh, that's pretty,' and snap, they take the photo. But when you're working on a book theme, you're building a story line, and building a story line makes you a better photographer because you're forced to see things that you normally wouldn't look at. All of a sudden you start to really see, and that's when you start to tell the story."
And there's the essence of it: your photo book is a story, not a collection of pretty pictures.
"There's a quote I use in my workshops," Layne says. "It's from Robert Gilka, who was the director of photography at National Geographic way back when. When someone asked him about the quality of the photographs in Geographic, he said, 'Quite frankly, my photographers have something to say.' Often people see a beautiful scene, they take the picture, but they never get to the next step: what was it that attracted them to the scene? If they can define that, and photograph it—that's what they're saying in their photo. And when you work within a theme for your book, that's what you ask yourself: ‘what is it I want to say here?' That's the value of doing a thematic book project: it helps you define what you want to say, and when you do that, you'll take better photographs."
So what's your theme? Obviously, it can be anything at all: something you're very familiar with, or, conversely, something you're exploring for the first time. A season of the year, antique cars, railroad yards, carefully tended gardens, the history of your home town, a vacation trip, a snowfall, a graduation. "I like the idea of getting out of your box," Layne says, "and shooting a subject you might be interested in but have never photographed."
Above all, he says, avoid the biggest trap: repetition. "You go to the state fair and shoot rides at night, and there's one where the lights are awesome and there's something different in every frame—but you can use only one photo." That's the hard part—and that's one of the key values of the book project: you learn how to edit, how to decide, how to have solid, critical judgment of your own work. You learn you need a beginning, middle and an end. How does this photo fit into the theme? How does it carry the story forward? Which photos stay, which go? A book by definition is something that's edited.
The book's success will depend on the quality of the images, of course, but also on its pacing—the flow from one photo to the next. "When I do a book, I do it for myself," Layne says, "but I'm always aware of, and interested in, how others are going to look at it. You can't have a landscape, a landscape, a landscape and then move on to something else and have three photos of that. You have to create a visual weave, so people go in and out, so they feel texture and contrast and remain interested."
The weave, he says, is generally created from three types of images: overviews, medium close-ups and close-ups. Establish the scene, move in to reveal more of what's there, then go after the details. "I shoot an overview for a sense of place, a medium shot that gives a more revealing look and then a detail that shows something that might be missed as someone walks by. All three of those make for a compelling story."
There's more, to be sure. How do the colors in your photos work as a viewer moves from page to page? Three blue-tone images in a row may, or may not, work; it depends on the story you're telling.
And size: is there an image that, as Layne says, sings by itself and deserves a two-page spread? Keep your book in mind as you shoot, and you'll know that this picture has a lot of detail and will need to be big, while that one, with its one strong colorful subject, can be smaller and still have impact.
And look at other books to see what choices are available to you to serve your story. Layne suggests checking out the books shown at Blurb's website. "You can see an entire book online and go page by page to see how someone else did it. You can see how a book flows, picture to picture. You learn by looking."
And, if you choose, by sharing. "I definitely recommend that people share their books with others before they publish it. Have someone whose opinion you value and trust look at it. Maybe there'll be some questions: Why'd you put that photo first? Why did you put those two photos on the same page? And there's nothing wrong with someone prompting you to express your reasoning, to put into words your feelings about why you did what you did."
Finally, publication of your book doesn't mean the learning is over. "The great thing is, once you've published your book, it continues to teach," Layne says. "You'll keep picking it up and you'll see what you did that works and what you'd like to improve. You come back and reevaluate your work; it's your personal teaching tool."
Layne says he's willing to bet that just by putting a book together, working it all out from theme to layout to printed volume, no matter if it's a 12-pager or something more ambitious, you're going to be a better photographer than you were when you started.
Sounds like a safe bet.