Best Photo Book
Is there any better way to share photos and hold on to the memories they represent than a photo book? For consumers and amateur photographers, a book is a great way to store photographs from Baby's first birthday party, your vacation cruise to Alaska or a collection of your best pictures of flowers. For serious and professional photographers, photo books are also important marketing tools, as well as products (to sell to the bride and groom). But among the many online photo book services, which one is the best?
We tested seven of the most popular photo book vendors: Blurb, Lulu, Mixbook, Mpix, Picaboo, Shutterfly and Snapfish. Our Editors' Choice Award goes to Mixbook, for its intelligent, versatile and creativity-enabling software and the excellent quality of its printed book. Shutterfly came in a very close second.
How We Tested and Rated
Our testing and analyses focused on two areas: the vendor's software for creating the photo book and the printed photo books themselves. In tallying our results, we gave double weight to our rating of the printed books, since no matter how good the software is, the end result is what is most important.
In testing and rating each service's photo-creation software, we paid particular attention to ease of use, as well as the quality and versatility of the software's themes, page layouts, clip art and more.
We also focused on flexibility and how well the software enables your creativity. In particular, how easy it is to customize and personalize the page layouts, such as adjusting photo or text size, orientation, and placement on the page.
To rate the printed photo books, we created a blind test for our small jury of experts in photography, printing, art and book production. In other words, none of us knew which book came from which service.
Clockwise, from bottom left: Picaboo, Mpix, Mixbook, Shutterfly, Lulu, Snapfish and Blurb.We ranked each book according to multiple attributes: Our judges evaluated the quality of the binding and paper, as well as the quality and attractiveness of the cover. We also paid close attention to photo reproduction (color, exposure, sharpness, dynamic range, etc.) and the overall look and feel of the book.
We ordered a single photo book from each vendor, making the following choices:
- A 20-page hardbound book, with an image-wrapped cover, choosing the size closest to 8 x 8 inches.
- We used an interface from each service that allowed us to custom-design our book, while testing their backgrounds, page layouts and so forth.
- We did not pay for extra-quality paper, lay-flat pages or other such options.
Editors' Note: Whatever photo book service you use, be sure to look for coupon offers. You can find these on the homepage of the service's website or in an email you receive after registering on the website. We received considerable discounts on the Shutterfly and Snapfish books. (The prices quoted in the reviews are without the discounts.)
Best Photo Book Service: Mixbook Photo Book
Mixbook is our Editors' Choice among all photo book services. It offers the best online photo-creation software, and it produces the highest-quality printed book ($30.49 for 8.5 x 8.5-inch hardbound book). Consumers will find it easy to produce highly personal, creative memory books, while professional and serious photographers will end up with excellent showcase portfolio books.
Creating Your Photo Book
Mixbook's intelligent, intuitive interface offers easy-to-master creative flexibility, while keeping all options and tools within easy reach.
To the left of the workspace is a tabbed panel, providing quick access to your Photos (imported from your computer, Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, PhotoBucket, Picasa or Smugmug), Layouts (not only for pages of one to 21 photos, but also for text blocks), Backgrounds, and Stickers (some of the most appealing clipart among the vendors we tested). Elements used in the project (or ones you're considering using) are immediately available through these panels. Click on Browse, and you can bring any others within the system into the panel.
The provided page Layouts are inventive and varied, as well as fully editable. This includes full control over placement, size and rotation of images. You can spread a photo over two pages or a portion of two pages (which is more appealing if you choose the lay-flat book option).
Picture effects include click-to-apply drop shadows, picture shapes (heart, oval, triangle and such), image transparency, border, reflection, sepia and b&w. However, Mixbook doesn't have the same level of user controls as does Picaboo. Mixbook also offers a nice variety of fonts, including bold, italics and underline styles.
Working in Mixbook's interface, we found we needed fewer mouse clicks to achieve similar actions compared to other vendors. For instance, you don't need a placeholder or template to simply drop a picture onto a page and then place it in the location and orientation you want it.
The Printed Book
Our Mixbook photo book was beautiful. Both the cover and the interior pages had a sensual, quality feel. The color reproduction was excellent, with great contrast and exposure, and good detail throughout the dynamic range (shadows, midtones and highlights). Our photos looked crisp and vibrant with good deep-blacks and lively highlights.
Other Products Offered
Other than photo books, the only photo products that Mixbook offers are cards and calendars. But these are fully customizable. The nice range of card templates (such as save-the-date, invitations and announcements, holiday and birthday cards, etc.) have the following layout options: number of photos (zero to nine), size (3.5 x 5-inch, 5 x 7-inch or 4 x 8-inch), format (folded or flat), orientation (landscape or portrait rectangle or square) and 12 background color choices. Or you can start with a blank card and create your own design. The calendar templates have scores of layout options for one or many pictures, background colors and textures, stickers, and such.
Mixbook outshone all the other photo book services we tested, both in terms of our creative experience and the quality of the book. We would recommend Mixbook for anyone wanting to create a photo book, including both consumer and professional photographers.
Runner-Up: Shutterfly Photo Book
Shutterfly produced a photo book that many people would be proud to show off, making it one of our favorite services. However, while the software was almost as versatile as Mixbook's, it wasn't as easy or fun to use.
Shutterfly's online software has a nice, large library, including some of our favorite backgrounds in the roundup, plus a good variety of fully customizable layouts and themes, and a nice collection of clipart and fonts with bold and italics. Its Arrange view (to drag and drop the order of pages) and Storyboard view (for assigning specific photos to pages unrelated to layout) are great additions to the usual double-page workspace.
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Note that Shutterfuly doesn't offer Mixbook's or Picaboo's versatile image effects. More importantly, Shutterly separates the Edit workspace from the window where you can customize your page Layout; this makes the creation process cumbersome.
The Shutterfly book we printed — $29.99 for an 8 x 8-inch hardbound book — was a pleasure to hold, with very nice paper (including the nicest textured paper of any service we reviewed). The photos display great color, saturation and an appealing level of sharpness.
However, Shutterfly boosted our exposure with an auto-fill light, eliminating our carefully created artistic shadows. Therefore, while we can heartily recommend Shutterfly photo books for consumers, expert photographers might not like having their pictures altered in such a manner.
Other Products Offered
Shutterfly also offers photo printing on just about anything you can think of, such as cards and stationery, calendars, mugs, pillows and blankets, montage quilts, candles, phone and tablet cases, lunch bags, coasters, T-shirts, glass plates, tote bags, jigsaw puzzles, kids' growth charts, playing cards, magnets, luggage tags, and wall sconces. In addition to Shutterfly's well-known, inexpensive 4 x 6-inch prints, the company has a full selection of all size prints from wallet up to 20 x 30-inch posters, with glossy or matte finish. You can also get large, gallery-wrapped canvas prints, metal and wood plaques, glass prints, and collage posters.
Some of the photo products have a good selection of options, such as size and style, number of photos, and choice of design templates and background colors, while others have more limited options (such as the photo quilts, which have only two background color options: beige and tan).
Picaboo Photo Book
Making a Picaboo photo book ($34.99 for an 8 x 8-inch hardbound book) was great fun, with the highest degree of easy-to-apply personal touches and customization among all the services we tested. However, the printed image quality wasn't top-notch, and the price is on the high side.
Picaboo's online software is inviting, attractive, easy to navigate and well thought out. It provides full user control, not only on image placement, size and rotation, but also over shadows, shape cutouts, borders and other effects. The large library of appealing backgrounds, clipart and layouts is searchable by keyword. A nice selection of fonts includes bold, underline and italics for many fonts.
The only things missing, which prevent this from being a nearly perfect photo book interface, are a holding area for those elements you've already used in the book and/or a favorites folder, so you don't have to go searching for the same thing over again.
While Picaboo's photo book looked attractive, with pleasant color reproduction, the images weren't vibrant or dynamic, and some had a soft focus. Overall, Picaboo will appeal to scrapbookers and others who enjoy making books fully their own, and who don't have a critical eye when it comes to photo quality.
Other Products Offered
Picaboo also offers flat and folded greeting cards, spiral-bound calendars, and phone and tablet cases. The template categories are somewhat limited compared to those of competitors. For instance, card templates are available for Valentine's Day, save the date, graduation, baby, thank you, birthday invites, New Year's, Christmas, season's greetings and Hanukkah.
However, you can edit the templates to some extent and can create your own design from scratch using similar tools to the book interface. Picaboo also offers paper prints from 4 x 6 inches to 11 x 14 inches, and gallery-wrapped canvas prints from 15 x 10 inches to 36 x 24 inches.
Snapfish Photo Book
Snapfish has very good creation software but uneven photo book production. It might be a good choice for those who care only about the pictures and not the look and feel of the book ($28.99 for an 8 x 8-inch hardbound book).
Snapfish's online software has an intuitive, easy-to-master interface with an extensive and varied library of clip art, backgrounds, layouts and themes. Snapfish makes those elements you want to use in your book quickly accessible. You can move, resize or rotate placed photos. The handful of photo effects includes brightness, sepia tone and red-eye removal. The number of fonts is limited, and only a few may be placed in bold or italics.
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Unfortunately, the photo book that we had printed felt cheap, with crinkled end papers and a missing front piece. Plus the back and front covers were not squared to each other. On the other hand, the photos inside the book exhibited excellent color, nice sharpness and a good dynamic range with some suppressed highlights.
One of Snapfish's major advantages is that discount coupons are readily available. With a quick Internet search, we found one that reduced the cost for our test book by half.
Other Products Offered
Snapfish offers a comprehensive collection of photo products. These include cards (folded and flat); calendars; mugs; pillows and blankets; cases for phones, tablets and laptops; key chains; aprons; tote bags; playing cards; jigsaw puzzles; charms; and luggage tags.
Generally speaking, Snapfish offers considerable user customization on its photo products. For instance, after you select a greeting card template, you can change the template, alter the layout, select background colors or textures, and add text and embellishments (clip art and decorative type). Prints include the usual range of sizes on paper (4 x 6-inch to 20 x 30-inch), plus photos on canvas, wood and aluminum. Print options also include square format and frames.
MPix Photo Book
At $50 for an 8 x 8-inch hardbound, image-wrapped book, MPix was the most expensive service we tested. But it was only average in quality. However, the online photo-creation software is quite good.
The software offers an intelligent interface with fully customizable flexibility; most options are accessible within one click. MPix also offers a nice collection of themes, backgrounds, clip art, fonts and layouts.
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Too bad the photo book did a poor job with image reproduction. The pictures exhibited dull colors and suppressed saturation. The processing automatically added fill-light with little image intelligence, so that shadows were lost and contrast was flattened.
While we could have gotten the same book for only $30 if we had wanted a cloth-wrapped rather than a photo-wrapped cover, we would have still been disappointed in the end result.
Other Products Offered
Mpix has a nice range of other products available, including greeting cards, business cards, buttons, key chains, holiday ornaments, keepsake boxes, kids' growth charts, magnets, magazine covers, playing cards and 2D cutout statuettes. Some are unusual, such as the wall clings, which are cutouts of pictures that adhere to your wall. Several products' templates focus on kids' sports, such as the Memory Mates cards. Calendar options include not only the typical spiral-bound month per page, but also wall-mount dry-erase calendars. Cards can be folded or flat, accordion minis, foil-pressed, or trading cards.
Photo prints range from small wallet sizes (2.5 x 3.5-inch) up to 16 x 20-inch sizes, with a choice of standard paper, matte finish, glossy paper or lustre coating. Other print options include gallery-wrapped canvas, metal prints and foam-mounted standout wall boxes.
Blurb Photo Book
Blurb ($27.99 for a 7 x 7-inch hardbound 20-page book) focuses on photo books for professional and serious artists and photographers, with convenient options for reselling books to the public. We wouldn't recommend it for the general consumer, however.
The service offers several software options: the online Bookify app, a downloadable Bookwright app, plug-ins for Adobe Lightroom and Adobe InDesign, or the ability to upload an already-created book in PDF or MS Word formats. We created our test photo book using Bookwright, a relatively easy-to-master app with a very nice library of highly customizable layouts, but no consumer-oriented clipart or themes (such as birthday, vacation, etc.).
Unfortunately, we were very disappointed in our book's image quality and photo reproduction. Images were soft, with no rich blacks or bright highlights. It's possible that the more advanced software and more expensive book options might have given us the higher quality that Blurb appears to be known to produce. In either case, it's clear that Blurb is not the right service for the typical consumer or amateur photographer.
Other Products Offered
Blurb offers no other photo products; the service caters entirely to book self-publishers. However, one of the company's book types is a very attractive perfect-bound weekly planner, which can include week-, month- or year-at-a-glance pages; full-page photos; and lined pages for notes.
Lulu Photo Book
Lulu ($19.99 for an 8.5 x 8.5-inch hardbound 20-page book) is primarily a print-on-demand service for self-published authors of text-based books, such as novels, memoirs and biographies. These authors find the website's distribution and marketing options useful. Lulu's photo book services are a secondary consideration and are not well developed.
The online photo-book creation software is very easy to use, specifically because it has very little creative customization. The small library of themes offers attractive backgrounds and static layouts.
The physical book felt cheap, and the pages were pasted rather than stitched. Most significantly, the photos looked blurry, flat (low contrast) and grayish, with poor color reproduction and no vitality. At least the type was crisp and sharp, as you would expect from a service that specializes in text-based books.
We recommend staying clear of Lulu for your photo book.
Other Products Offered
Lulu focuses on books, in both print and e-book formats, so the company doesn't offer many other photo products. However, it does have six- to 48-month calendars, based on a selection of templates and layouts, to which you can add one to three pictures per page.