Photo book printing

Note: This article has been, sporadically, updated since it was written. Most of it is still relevant.

I recently photographed a couple of weddings and decided to make photo books, to the happy couples. They where a huge success. Initially I just chose the service that allowed me to pick up the books locally and seemed fair price wise. But then I decided to make a small test to see if I had chosen wisely.

A couple of notes:

  • The is a comparison of consumer services. I’m aware that there are professional services, that will give you a lot more then the consumer service, but also that at a totally different (higher) price.
  • I’m in Denmark, but as far as I can see what I’m writing here will be relevant for most people in Europa, as the service and machines used are probably all the same. It’s probably possible to find what exact machine is being used, but setting may vary, so I’m not sure how useful this information will be.
  • I’m only looking at book printing here.
  • Pricing is current as of December 12th 2008.
  • Both foto.com and digitalshoppen.dk (fujicolor.de) now offeres “photopaper” quality books. I’ve only tested the Digitalshop “Brilliant” print, but haven’t added it yet. The short of it: Better then the good PhotoCare.

Most of the (European) photo printing sites you find on the net are just branded versions of either Cewe, or FujiColor – they all offer pretty much the same service, but prices can vary quite a lot.

I tested:

  • TDC Foto.dk which is a branded version of Cewe
  • Coop DigitalShoppen.com which is a danish store front for FujiColor.de (Germany). I talked to the danish Fuji service and they are different and use different software. I may test them later.
  • Blurb, which seems to be using their own software (Win or Mac) and printing. Based in the US, but my book was shipped from within Europa, so p&p is not that bad. Also accepts pdf’s.
  • PhotoCare.dk, which is a Danish “open” chain of photo stores. I’ve tested both the external (cheaper) and their internal (more expensive) service.
  • Pixum.dk – has service in most western European countries.
  • Lulu.com – International service.
  • Foto.com – International service. Tested their “normal” books – they also have “print on kodak-paper books”

The services are usually very short on actual information. Nothing about the printing technology used (other than “digital printing!”, like that was a good thing in it self). Nothing on what kind of paper used or the resoultion of the printing system. So you have to try. All of them start with a you downloading and installing the software you use for designing the book (except for foto.com which has a java client for some book types).

The software

The software a work pretty much the same. When you make a new book, it starts of by helping you select a template and some pictures, which is then used to generate a book. After that the layout is open, and you can change the book pretty much any way you like.

FujiColor.de (through digitalshoppen.dk):

  • I found it easy to use and available background and templates where nice.
  • More importantly it was easy and intuitive to change the initial layout.
  • I missed the ability to set the background, on all pages, to one of my pictures.
  • Favorites features was the smart alignment functionality, that made it easy to make a bunch of photo align along the same lines on a page.
  • There’s a very small barcode on the back page, but no fujiFilm branding.
  • Very good print quality, only trumped by the PhotoCare/Kodak book (which costs twice as much).
  • Price of a A4 (30×20) hardcover is about 200dkk (29€, or 36us$)

Cewe:

  • Compared to the Fuji software, this seems kind of slow.
  • The templates are more or less the same
  • I found the background to loud
  • Still no “use my own picture as background on all pages” functionality.
  • Alignment is only possible to the grid i the background (not other pictures edge), which is kind of limiting.
  • Moving pictures is by grabbing their edge and moving them around, which I found kind of counter-intuitive.
  • If you click in the middle of the pictures and drag, you change the crop, which can be really annoying.
  • Each photo has a frame – you can move the photo within this frame (part of the cropping functionality). Unfortunetly you can easily move the pictures so much that it doesn’t fill the frame – which can give really bad results, if you have set the frame to fill the page. Especially because there’s no easy way to undo it if you by accident drag the photo within the frame. I ended up with white borders on some of my page edges.
  • It’s impossible to remove the rather large “TDC – Cewe” banner from the back of the book. Ugly.
  • Print quality is rather bad – a bit better then your average new paper print, but not much.
  • A4 20x28cm hardcover is 250dkk (45us$, 33€)

Blurb:

  • Uses “Layouts” instead of templates. Depending on what layout you select, you get a selection of fitting Themes (if you select the Wedding layout, you can choose between “Baroque”, “Deco” and “Flirty”. Could be helpful.
  • I didn’t get to far with this software as I couldn’t get it to allow me to do my own layout. I could choose between a series of predefines layouts, but that was it.
  • Later: It’s possible to change the layout for each page, on a separate page. Not as easy as it could be.
  • Backgrounds are really nice and you can tweak the colors of all the pattern designs.
  • You have to pay extra to have the Blurb logo removed from the Copyright and final page. Between 3 and 16us$ depending on book format. Better than Cewe where you can’t remove it at all…
  • Some of the page of my book, was stuck together and I didn’t manage to separate them without ripping the paper. Not sure if that’s a normal thing, but as far as I can read from their return policy, it will not be a problem to get the book replaced.
  • Print quality is the same as Cewe. Bad.
  • 20x25cm hardcover start at 23€, 30us$ (160dkk)
  • 2009-09-16: Just got a hardcover on premium paper from them, and the print quality is just the same. Bad.
  • 2009-09-16: It took them 11 days to print the second book I ordered from them, even if their faq says that it takes 5-6 days.

PhotoCare.dk (cheap):

  • Good templates
  • Lots of backgrounds and easy to add your own
  • Not as intuitive as the Fuji, but once you learn it:
  • There doesn’t seem to be any limits to what you can do to the layout
  • Good alignment features
  • Same bad print quality as Cewe and Blurb
  • A4+ 24x33cm start at 230dkk

Photocare.dk (better/expensive)

  • Beautiful thick paper. Much thicker than any of the other books.
  • Looks like normal photo print. No raster. Very, very beautiful. There does seems to be some banding in the scan – but remember this is 1200dpi (the areas scanned is a third of an inch –  8.5mm!). I can’t see this banding no matter how I turner the paper. I did try to a rescan after turning the paper 90 degrees and the banding also turned 90 degrees, so it’s not my scanner going wonky. But again – I can’t see this when I look at the print – and I have good eyes!
  • The paper is thick. Okay, I already said that, but not only that – it’s just one sheet bend at the middle, so you can print across pages without missing anything to the fold. Nice.
  • The software is made by “Imaxel Software” and is called Creative Book. You can find a guide to it here (by a New Zealand printing company – not related to Photocare).
  • From an editing point, this software will do anything you want. There is a learning curve to the editor, but the automatic layout function will do most of it for your.
  • The software does have a few negatives though – not really related to the options given by the editor, but more related to the surrounding tools:
  • The picture adding process is a slow – and it rescans all you pictures every time you start it. Yuk … but it will get there eventually. Hint (this took me a while): To select more than one picture, you drag a frame over the pictures you want to select.
  • The automatic layout function is a bit stupid – you should be careful with it: Sometimes it will take a portrait format picture and put it in a landscaped box, giving you excessive cropping.
  • There’s no information besides the size, when you select between the possible book formats (which is rather limited: 20×14, 20×20, 30×20 softcover, and 20×20, 30×20 hardcover). Price and a min/max number of pages/photos would have been nice. Actually there’s no way of getting the price of a book (couldn’t even find it on PhotoCares homepage), besides actually making one in the software.
  • Which brings be to the next point: Ordering is rather trouble some. When you are done designing your book, you click continue. The you get a preview of the book, including price and an option to select more copies. And a [Confirm] button. When you click this you get a progress bar and a “Order in progress, please wait… ” message. That created a panic moment in my brain. Had I placed an order? Where? What? With whom? Anyway a moment later I get a “Save?” dialog. After that you get a windows with yet another option to change the quantity and see you total price – and a big “Finalize Order” button. But no option to Cancel! NOOOO I want out. Or at least just a chance to get back to the book editing. I chance the quantity to zero (yes, I’m clever) and get a a chance to enter customer data (only name, phone and email is mandatory). And a Cancel button! Thanks. “Are you sure you want to cancel? You work will be lost!” – What? Will I lose my layout? I take my chances and select Yes. “Luckily” that took be back to the start of the program and an option to load the “order” again (why do they call it order? It’s not an order to me – it’s a book layout). Pew!
  • Okay, that was a bit long, but there are some really rough spots in this software, that you should be aware of before you start to use it. It’s not as evil as it makes it self out to be. For example when you close it (while editing a book), it says – “Do you wish to keep a copy of your work? (you will then be able to modify it later)”, it actually means “Do you want to save your changes?”. Not, “If you press No, I’ll delete this project/book (and possibly your pictures) from your hard drive for ever and ever” as it can easily be read. I smell a translation snafu…
  • Most of the books has a size limit of 4 to 9 sheets (8 to 19 pages plus front and back). Both the soft and hardcover 20x20s is 4 to 14 sheets. This actually make sense, with the paper being as thick as it is, but it could be a limit.
  • The 30×20 big book is 350danish kroner (66us$, 47€) , which is probably the most expensive book you’ll get. But it’s also totally worth it. Every single monetary unit! The smallest, the 14×20 is 150dkk. My only wish was that they had a 40×40 book. I would pay 500dkk for that…

Pixum.dk

  • Strangely the about box says that this is made by Cewe, but it’s version 4.4.3 – where the version used by TDC is 3.2.3.
  • Not sure if the print is Cewe, but the books is exactly the same as the TDC one (and they use Cewe). The print quality also seems to be the same, except that the color profile at Pixum is a bit warmer, and the Black and White I included had less color cast at Pixum.
  • Some of my issues has been fixed in this software – it’s easier to make backgrounds and it’s now possible to select several images making alignment a lot easier.
  • There’s a huge “Pixum EasyBook” logo and barcode on the back of the book that can’t be removed. Deal breaker if you ask me.
  • Same print quality as any other Cewe outlet. Bad.
  • A4 hardcover start at 259dkk (47us$, 34€)

Lulu.com

  • Book oriented site that will also sell your book, both as print and electronic version giving you a cut (you decide the selling price).
  • International service (mine was shipped from Spain)
  • Book editing is web-based, so you don’t have to download and install a program, and it will probably work on mac and linux.
  • Only two sizes, 8.5″ x 11″ and 9″ x 7″ (portrait and landscape). Hardcover or paperback. Hardcover is 20-120 pages and paperback is 20-250 pages.
  • You can add photo from flickr or Photobucket.
  • Editing is rather limited – you have a few themes to select from and about 20 layouts (freely selectable for each page).
  • Paper seems a bit thin.
  • Print quality manages to a bit worse than both Cewe and Blurb. The pattern in the dithering is quite bad, and there was a slight red cast to most of the skin tones, making people look like … crap.
  • The 8.5″x11 is 21€  (155dkk, 27us$)

Foto.com

  • Lots of different book sizes and bindings
  • Only a few of them can be made with the off-line program
  • The rest are made in a java client (runs through your browser).
  • Java client good: nothing needs to be installed
  • Java client bad: Very limited in functionality. Slow. Crashed on me a couple of times, forcing me to start all over. Don’t load to big or to may photos into it. Save often.
  • Print quality is as bad as all the others. Price pretty much the same.
  • Maybe a bit more tendency to blow out the light areas, than the other services
  • Also has a “print on kodak photo-paper” service, with a limited selection of book types. I’ll try this later.

Paper quality

Except for the expensive and thick PhotoCare books, paper quality seems to be pretty much the same. Semi-blank, with a non-glossy surface.

Print quality

I guess that I could learn to live with pretty much any piece of software. The most important thing is the print quality.

Looking the prints at arms length, they all look pretty much okay. The colors are good, not overly saturated or flat. More interesting is the resolution and dithering used. As soon as you pull the books close, you’ll be able to see the limit of the printing process.

To document the quality, I’ve scanned a picture from each book at 1200dpi (turning of anti-noise and anti-dithering functions). I’ve choose different pictures (because the book sizes are different and a direct comparison isn’t possible any way).

But besides pixel peeping – I found both the blurb, PhotoCare (cheap) and Cewe books to be unpleasing to look at. The dithering was much, much worse than the PhooCare (internal) and the Fuji. There is no dithering in the PhotoCare (internal) and you have to look really closely (and have good eyes) to see it in the Fuji Book.

To not see the dithering in the Cewe/Blurb/PhotoCare books you have to more or less place the book a couple of meters away.

They crappy ones, does look better then the average newspaper print, but not by much.

Cewe (TDC)

Fuji.de

Blurb.com

PhotoCare.dk (cheap)

PhotoCare.dk (Not cheap/internal service)

Pixum.dk (probably Cewe)

scan-lulu

Lulu.com

foto.com

foto.com

And for comparison a bit of newspaper color photo print (Week-end Avisen)

Note: The Fuji book was a A4 hardcover, the blurb a 18cm hardcover, the PhotoCare  (external/cheap) was a 12*16cm “Pocket Album”, the PhotoCare (Internal/expensive) was a 20×14 and the two Cewe/TDC/Pixum books was a 14x14cm softcover. The print quality may differ between the different book sizes and cover types, but really should not. I’ve read through the FAQ’s and couldn’t find any indication that the “Big” or “exclusive” or “Deluxe” books should differ in anything but binding and size. I’ve found some indications that the square blurb books has had worse quality then the rest of their books, but haven’t investigated it.

Winner by knock out: PhotoCare (internal/expensive). If money is no object, this is where you go. Looks absolutely fabulous.

Best bang for the money: Fuji Color (Germany) Their 30×20 is nearly half the price of the good PhotoCare one, and you get more pages. Print quality is not as amazing as PhotoCare (internal) but still good enough for most purposes.

The losers: The rest of them, with Lulu being the worst. I would simply be embarrassed to present a book of the Lulu, Cewe, PhotoCare (cheap) or Blurb quality to anybody. When you look at the high resolution scans it’s quite obvious why, the PhotoCare (internal) and to a lesser degree Fuji books looks so much better.

Suggestions for other services to try are most welcome…

Edit history:

2009-09-16: Added information about a premium paper book from blurb (just as bad as the “cheap” stuff).

2009-04-02: Added info about foto.com

2008-12-12: Added pricing information for the closest to a A4 Hardcover book offered by each.

2008-12-11: Added information about Lulu. Moved a few images to my flickr set:  http://flickr.com/photos/tcdk/sets/72157608764410782/

2008-11-19: Added information about the internal/expensive PhotoCare service.

2008-11-14: Added information about Pixum

2008-11-13: Got a message from PhotoCare, explaining that the service I had used was their cheap “subsupplier” version and that their internal version is better.

2008-10-31: Added info on photoCare.dk. Wrote a bit about Fuji being the German version and changed the text a bit, here and there.

9 thoughts on “Photo book printing

  1. Chris

    Hi,

    Do you know if the Fuji service is available in the United Kingdon? I had a search, but could not find a Fuji service. I have just did a small book in Blurb, and while it looks quite nice, the quality is not fantastic.

    Many thanks.

    Chris

    Reply
  2. Mike Mulligan

    My only concern is that the PhotoCare(internal) looks remarkably dark, and there is ever-so-slightly noticeable banding.

    The banding isn’t an issue, particularly when it is that or news-print. However, dark is not good… What are your impressions? Is the sample picture just a bad example? Can the prints in the PhotoCare(internal) book POP?

    Reply
  3. Thomas E

    Great info!

    I’m on a mac and I can’t figure out how to make the fujithing work. Coop only offers the program for pc, however fujicolor.de offers their software for mac also.

    – have you tried the iPhoto service provided by apple?

    T

    Reply
  4. TC Post author

    I’ve no idea if the fuji.de service is available in the UK. Sorry. Maybe write them? They will probably understand english…

    Haven’t tried Iphoto – don’t have a mac (I would get one if they offered a 15" laptop with a decent screen resolution, as not insane price).

    Reply

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