I take entirely too many photos on trips. I wish that were an overstatement, but the truth is that I take about 1500 photos for every week that I’m away. And if I manage a two week trip, that means I’m coming home with an unmanageable number of photos. And the worst part is that I took all these photos as a way to remember a wonderful trip, and instead of getting to appreciate them, they are instead sitting on my laptop or external hard drive, languishing unseen.
Earlier in the year when I was listening to Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home she mentioned a similar problem. Maybe not in the same vacation way, but she had all these photos, and they weren’t being looked at or appreciated. So she set aside a specific amount of time each day during one of her months and made progress on getting organized on photos. So I decided to do the same. The Boy and I have taken quite a few trips together, and I’ve been pretty good at taking pictures to memorialize those trips along the way. But without physical pictures there’s no good way to share those memories with each other or with his daughters. So I buckled down and got started on making photo books.
I’d used Shutterfly before, but not for making photo books. But I’d seen my sister use them, and knew that they run pretty much constant 30-50% off sales, so decided to take a chance. They also had a new photo book making service where someone would take the photos that you give them, and then turn them into the book (called “Make My Book”), and since I knew how long it would take to make an album for some of my longer trips, I thought I would try it out – it’s free to do, and if you order the book they make, it costs an additional $10. Here’s the bottom line up front: I made and purchased 2 photo books from Shutterfly and am happy with how they turned out, but I had some problems with their software, and was really disappointed in the Make My Book feature. So let’s go bit by bit, and I’ll discuss.
The Ugly: Make My Book was not great for how I wanted to use it, which was vacation photos. In order to use the feature, you must line up all your photos in the correct order, and with the “limited” total that is allowed (I think it was 800?), and then you answer a couple questions about how many photos you want used total, how many pages, how many pictures per page, any notes for the person making the book – that kind of thing. I had my photos from our Iceland trip all in order, and wrote something like “I know there are lots of duplicates, but you can choose the best ones, and try to tell a story”. Well, it turns out that trying to have someone else tell your story results in bizarre photo choices that don’t reflect on your experience at all. I ended up trashing the book and starting over and doing it myself. I could see this maybe working if you just had a set of photos from a photo shoot or something where order doesn’t matter, but if your photos need to be grouped in specific ways, “Make My Book” is not the feature for you, as enticing as it sounds.
The Bad: Whatever photo organization software Shutterfly employs on their back end is painful. If you’re trying to arrange photos within an album, it’s painful to do – every time a movement is made, it refreshes the page and takes you back to the very first page of an album. Not a huge problem if you’re only dealing with 100 or so photos, but when you’ve got thousands from a long trip, it’s excruciating. Why couldn’t they just refresh to the top of the page you were previously on? No idea. Also – if you’re trying the “Make My Book” feature, the order you arrange your photos in the album has very little relation to how they’ll be ordered before you send them off to be made into a book. They’ll be put chronologically, regardless of how much fiddling you did in the album. You’ll have the chance to rearrange before submitting, but that’s another chunk of time you have to spend clicking and dragging, and boy does that get boring fast.
The (Very) Good: So after all that, you’re expecting for the books to be sub-par right? A company that makes it this frustrating to get your photos together and to have someone else do the heavy lifting must make terrible books and have a shoddy book-creation interface, right? Wrong. If you manage to get your photos into the system to make the book yourself, it’s actually pretty great. You have your choice of cover designs, and there are lots and lots (and LOTS) of layouts for the insides – you’re given the choice of text only pages, pages with 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5+ photos, and even your choice of spreads across pages. And if you don’t like the look of the default layouts, there’s a button at the bottom of that section that lets you choose from even MORE layouts. And if you don’t like those choices, you can hit the “Customize page” link at the top that lets you get in there and be exacting with the layouts. I haven’t needed to customize any pages yet, because the provided layouts are wide-ranging to meet my needs.
And once you finish the book, it comes in a bright orange envelope and you open it up hoping for the best – and it’s pretty terrific. I always worry during the time that I’m making my book online that the photos will be too small, and that you won’t be able to appreciate detail. But the photos are bright and crisp, and the pages are sturdy. I didn’t even pay more for the premium fancy pages and cover, and it already looks so good! But you can do things like a fabric or leather cover to your book, have the pages lay flat, or get premium matte pages. So many add ons if you’re not feeling fancy enough – but I’m super happy with my “basic all the way” option. And if you’re wondering, I’ve chosen 8 x 11 books in Modern White.
Having our memories organized makes me happy. Having them organized and matching so that they look like they all belong together as part of a collection is even better, and creates a cohesive identity. Sure, I’ve used other photo book services in the past and will continue to use them for my personal past trips that don’t need to match these. But having the physical book is such a thrill. I will admit to feeling slightly queasy paying what feels like a lot of money for a photo book – but when you think about how we used to print out photos and have to purchase the album, and maybe there weren’t enough spaces, or were lots of spaces left, and the books didn’t match, and would degrade over time…etc. I don’t worry as much. And as I said before, Shutterfly is constantly running promotions that make buying a photo book cheaper than you’d think (the ones where you get a percentage off the extra pages too are the best ones). I’ve also found that with every book I order, they send me another coupon code, so it’s becoming a slow and steady process for me of making photo books, and then ordering, and then making the next…etc.
So yes – Shutterfly is a service I would highly recommend. Their customer service is great (I emailed a couple times early in my process about my issue with photo order and the “Make My Book” service), and the finished product is wonderful. I’m already looking forward to making books for my next trip, and even have one waiting in my cart to take advantage of my latest coupon code when I have a couple to do at once. So if you’re interested in doing a photo book yourself, consider using my referral code below to make a free 8 x 8 book (20 pages, any beyond that you’ll be paying for).
Questions? Thoughts? What other photo book services have you used? Do you like when they drop all your photos in order in the book, or do you like to tweak and arrange the way that I do? Are you the kind of person that likes a web-based photo book service, or do you like the control that comes with downloading a program? And do you actually have a bunch of photo books? What’s worthy of being a photo book for you? Vacations? Special occasions? Everyday life?