Choosing the Best Photo Book Service

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 your collection of best flower pictures. 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?

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideWe tested seven of the most popular photo book vendors: Apple Photos, Blurb, Mixbook, Montage, Picaboo, Shutterfly and Snapfish. We used photos taken by an amateur of her children, with the most minimal of editing to those photos.

  1. Mixbook (9 out of 10 stars)
  2. Shutterfly (9/10 stars)
  3. Picaboo (8/10 stars)
  4. Snapfish (7/10 stars)
  5. Apple Photos (5/10 stars)
  6. Blurb Bookify (5/10 stars)
  7. Montage (5/10 stars)

For the second year in a row, our Editors' Choice Award goes to Mixbook, for its intelligent, versatile and creativity-enabling software and the excellent quality of its printed books. Shutterfly came in a very close second. Both services produced great books. However, Mixbook gets the edge for its superior photo reproduction, and easier-to-use interface that offers greater flexibility.

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.

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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.

Best Photo Book Service: Mixbook

For the second year, Mixbook ($31.28 for a 8.5 x 8.5-inch, hardbound, 20-page book) is our top pick among photo-book services. It offers the best online photo-creation software, and it produces the highest-quality printed 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 flexibility, while keeping all options and tools within easy reach. The page layouts, while not as numerous as on Shutterfly or Snapfish, are inventive and varied, as well as fully editable. This includes control over placement, size and rotation of images. What's more, you don't need a placeholder or template to simply drop a picture onto a page.

Mixbook's forte is its depth of creative, easy-to-use options that add that extra pizzazz. For instance, it has controls for transparency, reflection or shape cutout, as well as drop shadows for pictures, text and other elements. Its borders are the most fully controllable, with a slider for size. In addition, you can use an eyedropper tool for selecting your border color from anything on a page (including photos), or simply click on a color in a full 24-bit palette.

You can set each of these effects to the currently selected picture, clip art or text, or to all pictures and text on a two-page spread. That's a great way to make sure all borders, shadows and such are identical on any page. Mixbook also offers a nice variety of fonts, including bold, italics and underline styles.

Printed Book

Our Mixbook had a nice-feeling glossy cover with clean, good photo wrap. The sensually slick pages are of a good, thick weight. The binding isn't perfect; the inside cover seam is buckling, but the endpapers (though not textured) have a good weight.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideMixbook applied very good, intelligent, subtle photo correction. The pictures were consistently beautiful and crisp; they were bright and lively with good vibrant color, warm skin tones, great contrast and exposure, and good detail throughout the dynamic range (shadows, midtones and highlights.)

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's Guide

Photo-Book Options and Other Products Offered

Mixbook's photo-book options include hardbound (with or without dust jacket), softcover, leather cover, and premium lay-flat hardcover.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideMixbook's only photo products other than the books are prints, cards and calendars. The scores of layouts for cards and calendars are fully customizable, with many of the same (or similar) options as those found in the photo-book interface. For instance, calendar templates include layouts for one or many pictures, background colors and textures, stickers, and so forth.

Photo prints on paper are limited to four sizes: 4 x 6 inches, 5 x 5 inches, 5 x 7 inches and 8 x 10 inches. Gallery-wrapped canvas prints range in size from 8 x 10 inches to 24 x 36 inches.

Bottom Line

Mixbook outshone all the other photo-book services we tested, in terms of both 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.

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Runner-Up: Shutterfly

Shutterfly ($29.99 for an 8 x 8-inch, 20-page, hardbound book) produced a photo book that many people would be proud to show off, making this our runner-up service. However, while the software was almost as versatile as that of Mixbook, our top choice, it wasn't as easy or fun to use. Nor is the photo reproduction on a level with what Mixbook offers.

Creating Your Photo Book

Shutterfly's online tabbed interface is well-organized but not immediately intuitive. That's because the Edit work space is separated from the window where you can customize your layouts. That not only slows down workflow and adds mouse clicks, but also can create some confusion about what view you need to be in at any given time.

Shutterfly features a nice variety of attractive templates, backgrounds and clip art. Layouts are fully editable, including the placement, sizing, and rotation of text and photos. However, you have to be very careful when making editorial choices in Shutterfly. Some book themes, clip art and backgrounds cost extra, and those charges can add up. For instance, when I initially selected a theme called Everyday Watercolor for my book, my cost was an additional $5.99. I quickly learned to avoid any content that has a small "s" in the corner, which is Shutterfly's indication for premium (extra cost) material.

Font size is limited to set increments, with no outlines, drop shadows or other text effects. What's more, text typing and editing is done in a separate window, so you see how it looks on your page only after you've applied it. Shutterfly has no easy tool, like Snapfish's slider, for sizing picture borders. Instead, you must choose from among a limited library of thin, medium or thick frames for each available color.

Printed Book

The glossy cover printed book has a good, solid binding with nicely textured endpapers and good weight. However, production of the printed book was sloppy. The edge of the cover's photo wrap on the inside isn't concealed completely by the glued-on endpaper. The spine's background color wraps around onto the front, keeping the cover image from being a full bleed. The photo on the back cover isn't centered, though we adhered to the software's guidelines for centering.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuidePhoto reproduction is consistent throughout the book, including the bright, attractive cover images. All pictures have good color, pleasant skin tones and nice interpretation of shadows. While these photos aren't quite as lively or vibrant as Mixbook's, Shutterfly comes in as a very close second for photo quality and appeal.

Photo-Book Options and Other Products Offered

Photo-book options include hardbound or softcover, at a variety of sizes, from 7 x 9 inches to 11 x 14 inches. You can upgrade your covers to hard matte photo cover (with or without a dust jacket), black cloth, camel cloth, chocolate leather, antique white linen, ivory crushed silk or leather. Pages may be standard, glossy or lay-flat. You can also order a clear memorabilia pocket that attaches to the front or back inside cover.

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For an additional $9.99, Shutterfly's designers will create your book for you. Just upload your photos, choose your book size and style, then leave everything up to the designers. You pay for the service only if you order the book. If you don't like the final product, you can delete it or ask for modifications from a different designer.

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, 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 inexpensive 4 x 6-inch prints, the company has a full selection of prints, from wallet size 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.

Bottom Line

Shutterfly is one of the most popular photo sites for a good reason. It offers lots of options, good-quality photo reproduction and an interface that enables your creativity rather than constraining it. What's more, Shutterfly often runs specials that can reduce the cost of your photo book by up to 50 percent. While our Mixbook's photos are more dynamic, Shutterfly's book comes in a very close second.

Picaboo

Picaboo ($34.99 for an 8 x 8-inch hardbound book) makes creating a photo book fun, with its great quality and selection of layouts and clip art. But it's one of the higher priced books among the services we reviewed, and the quality of the printed book was disappointing.

Creating Your Photo Book

Picaboo's online software is inviting, attractive, easy to navigate and well thought out. It provides full control over image placement, size and rotation, as well as image borders. In addition, you can use shapes (a heart, circle or star) as a cookie cutter for your photos. Drop shadow options, however, are limited to an on/off switch for photos or clip art (but not text), with no control over direction, opacity, spread or color. Picaboo's nice selection of fonts may be bold, italics and/or underlined.

There is a sizable library of appealing backgrounds (both illustrative and photorealistic), layouts and clip art, though not as varied or as numerous as Mixbook's. But Picaboo has no holding area for elements already used in the project, which means, for instance, if you want to use the same background on another page, you have to go searching for it all over again.

Printed Book

The glossy cover of the photobook I ordered was appealing. The binding was clean and tight with attractive, white textured endpapers. The interior pages feel substantial. However, the endpapers are glued unevenly to the inside of the cover, and the front endpaper has started separating from the cover and binding. In addition, the photo on the back cover isn't centered, even though I used the software's centering guidelines to assure that it would be.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuidePhoto quality was inconsistent. The photos on the cover and some on the inside pages are lively, with warm skin tones, but others are dull and grayish, and the shadows tend to be too dark.

Photo Book Options and Other Products Offered

You can create square (8 x 8-inch or 12 x 12-inch) and landscape (8 x 6-inch, 11 x 9-inch or 14 x 11-inch) books. In addition to the Classic (reasonably priced) book that we ordered, Picaboo has several premium options. Prestige Photo Books include seamless lay-flat books, Madison (laminated cover with leather wrap), Flush Mount (leather cover with lay-flat pages) and premium Mini Books. Other options include die cut windows in the front cover, revealing the first page photo. Die cut books can be linen hardcover, paper softcover, leather-covered or Croc-embossed leather.

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Picaboo also offers flat and folded greeting cards, spiral-bound calendars, collage posters, photo panels, school yearbooks, and phone and tablet cases. Paper prints range from 4 x 6 inches to 16 x 20 inches, and gallery-wrapped canvas prints from 15 x 10 inches to 36 x 24 inches.

Bottom Line

Because of Picaboo's comparative ease of use and nice variety of good quality templates, layouts and clip art, you'll have fun creating your family photo book. The price is a bit on the high side, but Picaboo often has coupons for free shipping or discounts. However, image quality is inconsistent, making Mixbook a better overall choice.

Snapfish

Snapfish ($28.99 for an 8 x 8-inch, hardbound, 20-page book) is easy to use, but it isn't as versatile as Mixbook or Shutterfly. The book it produces can be uneven in quality and photo reproduction. In addition to its own website, Snapfish powers both Walgreens Photo and Walmart Photo (which offer services that make photo books). 

Creating Your Photo Book

Snapfish's online software has an intuitive, easy-to-master interface. The collections of backgrounds and layouts are attractive, but the clip art tends to be cartoonish. You can rotate, resize and move both the photo and text placeholders, as well as zoom and crop photos within the placeholder frame.

Whereas the clip-art library has a convenient Recently Used category, the extensive background collections don't. Therefore, if you want to reuse a background, you have to search for it again.

Snapfish has no photo effects, and photo editing is limited to rotating (in 90-degree increments) and reordering your pictures within the library. Unfortunately, what little photo editing there is lives in a separate My Photos page that isn't immediately accessible from the book project page.

You can choose the border color from a large palette, which has an easy-to-use slider that controls the size of the border. However, once you've sized a border for one picture on a page, there's no easy way to duplicate that exact size for other images on the page. I also had problems rearranging pages, which sometimes resulted in the loss or misplacement of already-placed elements.

Text is typed and edited right on the page rather than in a separate window, allowing you to see the effect on your design immediately. There are no text effects, such as drop shadow or outline, and only some fonts have bold or italics options. The font sizes are in much smaller increments than they are in Shutterfly.

Printed Book

The Snapfish book I created has an attractive, glossy cover, as well as nicely textured, black endpapers. The pages have a good weight, but the binding is already starting to split. Although I chose a full-bleed cover photo, the front edge is white — not tan, the color I selected for the cover background. As a result, when you look at the book edgewise, its edges are two different colors: tan on the back, and white on the front.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideThe photo quality isn't consistent. While some colors are fine (though not as vibrant as those in Mixbook or Shutterfly), others have bluish skin tones and flat tonality, with poor interpretation of shadows.

Photo Book Options and Other Products Offered

Snapfish's book options include hardcover, lie-flat hardcover, premium lie-flat and softcover. In addition, you have the choice of matte or glossy covers, and for hardcover books, you can upgrade to linen or leather covers. The various books come in five sizes: 5 x 7 inches, 8 x 8 inches, 8 x 11 inches, 12 x 12 inches and 11 x 14 inches.

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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. Prints include a wide range of sizes on paper (4 x 6 inches to 20 x 30 inches), plus photos on canvas, wood and aluminum. Print options also include a square format and frames.

Bottom Line

On the surface, Snapfish looks very similar to Shutterfly in terms of the photo products offered, the easy-to-use interface and the abundance of discount codes. However, Snapfish's software has less flexibility and fewer editing options than Shutterfly and Mixbook. More important, however, is that the quality of both the photos and the book itself is lower than that of the competition. Snapfish is far from the worst photo book service, but there are better options.

Apple Photos

Mac OS X's Apple Photos ($24.99 for an 8 x 8-inch hardcover 20-page book) is a convenient utility for organizing, editing and sharing your photos. Unlike the other products we've reviewed, its photo-book creation function is an add-on rather than its central purpose. On the plus side, Photos offers an interface that many Apple users are already comfortable with using, and it's the least expensive way to get a book, based on those we reviewed. However, that's not enough of a reason to use Apple Photos for your family's memory book when other products offer greater functionality and higher quality photo reproduction.

Creating Your Photo Book

Given that the photo-book creation tool is only a portion of Apple Photos software, it isn't surprising that it doesn't compete well against dedicated photo book software, such as Mixbook or Shutterfly. Apple Photos offers few book templates, only solid color backgrounds, no clip art and very little customization.

Browsing through the pop-up box of limited page layouts is cumbersome, with the scroll bar often disappearing if you don't roll your cursor toward it just right. You can't resize, move or rotate picture placeholders, and photos can't expand across two pages. You can type text only into preset boxes using predefined sizes and locations within a handful of the fixed layouts, though some layouts support paragraph text.

On the other hand, Apple Photos has a nice selection of special effect filters (Mono, Tonal, Noir, Fade, Chrome, Process, Transfer, Instant and Sepia) that apply to pictures within the pages of the book rather than open in a separate window. Similarly, Apple conveniently integrates Photos' picture-editing tools (Enhance, Rotate, Crop, Filters, Adjust, Retouch and Redeye) into the photo book interface.

Printed Book

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideThe Apple book is well-produced, complete with a white slipcase and an attractive dust jacket. The cover has a matte surface that feels nice. The binding is solid and clean with high-quality charcoal gray endpapers. The thick interior pages offer a luxurious weight. Unfortunately, while the cover photo is well exposed, with warm skin tones, a significant portion of the interior photos have a flat dynamic range with little vibrancy.

Photo Book Options and Other Products Offered

Apple Photos offers three kinds of books, each of which is available in two sizes. The Square hardcover book (8 x 8-inch and 10 x 10-inch) includes a dust jacket and protective slipcase. The Classic (11 x 8.5-inch and 13 x 10-inch) is a horizontal hardcover with the same dust jacket and slipcase. The Softcover is available in an 8 x 6-inch and 8 x 8-inch. Other than the ability to add pages for additional fees, Apple Photos has no other photo book options.

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Apple Photos also offers calendars, cards, slideshows and prints.

Bottom Line

As a photo-book creation tool, Apple Photos is severely limited. And although the physical book is well-produced, the picture reproduction is very disappointing. Since it's the pictures that are the whole reason for making the book, we’re unable to recommend Apple Photos for your photo book.

Blurb Bookify

Blurb ($29.99 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. However, we wouldn’t recommend it for the general consumer, and we have concerns about recommending it for some professionals.

Creating Your Photo Book

Blurb offers several software options: the online Bookify, a downloadable BookWright app for Windows and Mac operating systems, plug-ins for Adobe Lightroom and Adobe InDesign, or the ability to upload an already-created book in PDF or MS Word formats.

I created a test photo book using Bookify, because it’s most similar to the book-creation tools offered by the other products I tested. It’s an extremely simple, easy-to-use interface with few options. If I had used the downloadable BookWright app, we would have had more options for customization, but not all. The BookWright app is intended for professional use, however.

Bookify has four book styles, no clip art, only solid color backgrounds and a handful of black photo borders. The small collection of preset layouts can’t be adjusted (though the Fit Photo option will vary placeholder size according to the original size of your photo).

You can’t move or rotate picture placeholders, or add text boxes to those layouts that don’t include text placeholders. However, some layouts are designed entirely for text; others have paragraph text combined with photos, which is convenient for those books intended to tell a story that's verbal as well as visual.

Printed Book

I ordered a basic hardcover photo book with standard paper, and was very disappointed in the quality. While the binding is solid, the endpapers are thin and felt like cheap gray construction paper. The interior pages are also thin and flimsy. The cover has a nice matte feel, but the photos tend to have flat contrast, with no vibrancy or warmth in the skin tones. Many even had a grayish tinge.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideIt's possible that the more advanced software and more expensive book options (ProLine Pearl Photo paper for $15, for instance) might have given us the higher quality that Blurb appears to be known to produce. In either case, it's clear that Blurb's Bookify option is not the right service for the typical consumer or amateur photographer — and maybe not even for the professional photographer who doesn’t need Blurb’s resale options.

Photo Book Options

Blurb offers no other photo products. The service, which caters exclusively to book self-publishers, includes the potential to sell your books through Blurb.com, Apple iBook Store and Amazon. As such, it has a wide range and variety of styles, sizes and paper, including Lustre or matte, ProLine uncoated and ProLine Pearl Photo. To help you choose your paper, you can order a paper swatch kit for $7.95, which includes a promo code to apply that cost toward your book purchase.

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Other photo book options include: softcover or hardcover (with or without dust jacket, and with or without image wrap); remove the Blurb logo (for an additional 25 percent — in our case that would have meant an extra $7.50); linen upgrade for the cover; and end sheet upgrade.

Blurb’s Trade Books are less expensive paperbacks and hardcovers than what we ordered. You can choose economy B&W printing, standard B&W printing, economy color printing or standard color printing. In addition, Blurb can create both print books and reflowable e-books from the same file. And since its acquisition of MagCloud, Blurb also offers magazine format. Discounts are available for volume purchases, starting at 10 percent for 10 to 50 books.

Bottom Line

Though Blurb’s easy-to-use Bookify interface is designed for consumers, we can’t recommend using it for family photo books. The software is too limiting, with no sense of fun, and the quality of the photo book we produced was very disappointing. The more versatile Mixbook service creates high-quality books for just a few dollars more.

Montage

Montage ($49 for an 8 x 8-inch, lay-flat hardcover 20-page book) is a premium photo book service from the creators of Mixbook. Montage’s online app is easy to use, as long as you don't want to customize your book to create your personal vision. The result is a stunning leather-bound book, but the photo reproduction is far from the quality that Mixbook offers. And you'll pay more for Montage than for any other service we tested.

Creating Your Photo Book

The Montage online app has few options, and is therefore very easy to use. It features fixed layouts with no interactive controls of photo or text placeholders. You can’t move, rotate or resize the picture placeholders, nor can you order which ones will be on top when they overlap. However, you can rotate photos within the placeholders by 90 degrees, as well as zoom and pan to fix specific portions of your pictures within the placeholders.

Text is very rigidly controlled, with no font, size, style, alignment or color options. What’s more, Montage places text in predefined boxes, according to the established page layout. Montage doesn't offer clip art, photo effects or photo editing. On the other hand, the handful of layouts tends to be quite attractive and well-handled when you select the autofill option for photos.

Printed Book

Holding one of Montage’s books is a pleasure. The leather cover is soft and padded, with the cover photo inserted within indented seams, separating it from the black cover. The lovely, substantial endpapers are gray-scale collages of the photos in the book. And the lay-flat pages use top-quality paper, with a rich, tactile and thick weight.

Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideCredit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideUnfortunately, the photos are flat, dull and dark with a bluish tinge. Skin tones tend toward cyan. Details are lost in the shadows. Even some of the better-exposed photos look dull. If we had chosen the more expensive silver halide printing option ($30 more), though, it is likely that the photo reproduction would have been better.

Photo Book Options and Other Products Offered

Montage specializes in leather-covered, lay-flat hardbound photos books, and offers nothing else. The only options available are to upgrade to silver halide printing and to order a gift box.

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Bottom Line

Montage is meant for users who want a stunning book that will look like every other Montage book created. With so few options, the software is quite easy to use. However, Montage is expensive, and its standard printing produces very disappointing image quality. The lower-end Mixbook, which also owns Montage, is a more versatile service that produces far better-quality photos.

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