The best photo books show off your most-valued images, and are also wonderful gifts that say, "This is something I made just for you," in a way that emailing a link to an image can't do.
A photo book also provides an opportunity to deliberately arrange images to tell a story, and to embellish them with creative touches in arrangement, page backgrounds, text, clip art, and other effects. But which photo book service delivers not only the best quality images, but also provides the best tools so that you can put together the book you want without frustration? And, which allows you to make a photo book without putting too big a dent in your wallet?
To find the best photo book service, we created books using five different online provider. To account for the different aspects of a book's value, we convened a panel of judges to rate quality of the book itself. Then we rated the quality of the software and price competitiveness. (For more details, see "How we test photo book services," at the end of this article.)
The best photo book services today
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Despite its cost, Printique is our top choice for photo books. And its high price is mitigated by a key fact: Even Printique's entry-level book is a layflat design that is comfortable to view and allows you to see every bit of the page — especially important if you have images that span two pages. Layflat is an extra cost option with the other services.
This design naturally boosted Printique's quality scores. But Printique won all our image quality categories (except sharpness/detail, where it tied with Mimeo). Colors and skin tones are especially naturalistic and pleasing. Printique owes much of its image quality to a high-grade, semigloss finish called Lustre. However, that finish also kicked up the most glare of all the books we reviewed.
Printique's design software is the most powerful we evaluated. Not only do you have plenty of design elements like backgrounds and stickers/clipart, but you have tremendous customization options. These include full control of the size of text, borders, and drop shadows. With all that power comes complexity, however. Printique's software has the highest learning curve of all we reviewed.
When ordering a photo book, be sure to check out Printique's shipping information and deadlines (opens in new tab)
, so you know how long to expect before it arrives.
Read our full Printique review.
Mixbook's overall quality is below Printique's, but rougly matched with the other competitors. Its cover tied Printique's for quality and was far ahead of all the others. Its matte finish captured a variety of skin tones well.
But slightly thin inside pages have a dull finish that makes colors appear a little washed out, weakens contrast, and obscures details a bit. (Mixbook ranked last in the color, contrast, and sharpness/detail categories, and was about average in skin tone.) Mixbook's standard binding also swallows up some detail (like a child's face) in two-page spreads. Best to upgrade to the layflat binding if you plan to use spreads. (It would add $42.10 to the price.) This could be because either we or the Mixbook site accidentally selected the Signature Matte page finish (a slight upgrade), instead of the default Everyday Semi-Gloss. We've ordered a new version of the book with the other finish and will reevaluate when we receive it.
However, what elevates Mixbook above other photo books is that its software is user friendly and fun, offering plenty of customization options. For instance, it provides 644 book templates to get started. It also allows you to adjust borders, drop shadows, and image opacity. For photos, Mixbook provides both effects (filters) and basic image editing: brightness, saturation, and contrast (a rare capability). And Mixbook's live tech support could be a decisive factor for frustrated creators.
If you order a photo book from Mixbook, be sure to check out its shipping information and deadlines (opens in new tab).
Read our full Mixbook review.
Costco offers outstanding value among all the services we reviewed. Typically, we evaluate hardcover books of around 8 x 8 inches. But Costco's only hardcover offering is a much roomier 11.25 x 8.75-inch, 30-page version that, at $19.99 is still substantially cheaper than its smaller, 20-page competitors. (For the same price, you can also get a two-pack of 8 x 8-inch softcover books.) Costco also offers the cheapest shipping by far (compared to similar delivery timeframes with rivals).
We had a few gripes with the hardcover construction - mainly the fact that you can easily see the book stitching in the furrow between pages. But the book seems sturdy overall. And Costco offers just three book sizes (one softcover and two hardcover). That's far fewer than all other rivals. Image quality was mixed. Skin tones appeared very pleasing and natural, but detail was a bit weak, say in the wrinkles on a subject's forehead. Overall, though, Costco provides an attractive product.
Costco's design software is barebones. It offers by far the smallest selection of book design templates. And its selection of photo frames is limited, with no customization options. The software also has a retro look reminiscent of web interfaces from a decade or two ago. However, Costco does offer a rich selection of page backgrounds (both patterns and a wide array of solid colors). Its clip art stands out for high detail and dimensionality that beats the flat, cartoonish look of other services'.
Be sure to check out the Costco Photo Center shipping guidelines for more information on how long it will take to print and ship your photo album.
Read our full Costco Photo Center review.
Among the best photo books, Shutterfly was our second-best performer for quality (though significantly behind Printique). There was some variation across categories. It earned top judges' scores for paper quality and near the top for skin tones. Contrast and sharpness/detail were about average. But cover quality was at bottom of the pack, owing mainly to an unattractive black spine that creaks loudly when you open and close the book. We upgraded to the company's optional six-color printing option for $14.99. But our professional judges from Plum Print were skeptical that the method makes a difference over the three-color process that most printers use.
Shutterfly's design software offers a generous assortment of 265 photo book templates, as well as a vast assortment of page backgrounds if you create a design from scratch. The interface is intuitive and features a very handy guided tour, should you get stuck. If you don't want to bother at all with design, you can opt for Shutterfly's free Make My Book service — in which designers arrange your uploaded photos into a book in 24 hours. (You can tweak their design before ordering.)
Before ordering, be sure to check out Shutterfly's shipping guidelines (opens in new tab).
Read our full Shutterfly review.
Mimeo's overall quality was about mid-pack (with big swings between categories). Likewise, Mimeo's prices were about average, for a good overall value.
The book has a sturdy binding, with thick end papers and an attractive dust jacket (the only one in our roundup). Its high-quality pages have a smooth, matte finish to reduce glare. Images appear sharp, with good detail and strong (but not too strong) contrast. While colors are generally pleasing, skin tones can skew a bit pinkish in some instances and greenish in others. (We're not talking Marvel's Vision or the Hulk, but rather slightly off tones that are noticeable when compared to rival books.) The print process also produces a grainy or pointillist pattern that's not unique to Mimeo, but is more noticeable.
Mimeo's software is well organized and has fun features, including exceptionally customizable page backgrounds and text. Yet it lacks some standard components in other software, such as stickers/clip art. One standout feature is live chat support to help if you ever get stuck.
If you order a photo book from Mimeo, be sure to check out its shipping information and deadlines (opens in new tab).
Read our full Mimeo review.
How we test photo book services
For our evaluation, we custom-designed books so that they would be as similar as possible across all the services — including features such as image size and placement, page backgrounds, frames, text, and stickers/clipart. We used a combination of stock photography of families — shot under both studio and natural light — and my own portraits and landscapes (some used in previous Tom's Guide camera reviews) shot entirely by natural light. The subjects encompassed a variety of skin tones.
I convened a panel of four expert judges, all with professional experience in photography and printing, including employees from book-printing service Plum Print. (The company is not a direct competitor to the services we evaluated, as it utilizes professional designers, with no DIY option, and often features custom photography.) Judges compared photos across the selection of books, as well as against original digital images displayed on a MacBook Air retina display and a calibrated Samsung television. Judges provided 1-5 ratings across five criteria: cover quality, paper quality, color, skin tones, contrast, and sharpness/detail.
All branding was covered over, with the products identified only by numbers. I also joined the evaluations and participated in the same way, except it was impossible for me not to know which book came from which service.
Photo book quality scores
|Row 0 - Cell 0||Costco||Mimeo||Mixbook||Printique||Shutterfly|
I judged software in terms of its design options (backgrounds, borders, text, etc.), its capability for customization, and its ease of use. For pricing, we calculated the price per page (as some books offer more than others in their default option) and compared them to the median of all prices to derive a value score.
Final scores were a weighted average, with quality comprising 50 percent of the score, software 30 percent, and price 20 percent.
When is the best time to buy a photo book?
Often, we don't order a photo book until the last possible minute — which is natural — but that means you're going to be paying more for rush delivery services, which can increase the cost greatly. If you want to order a photo book as a gift, try and do it as early as possible. Not only does it save you time, but it gives you the chance to look over the book and order a reprint in case there are any errors.
Another reason to order as early as possible is that many of the best photo book services offer big discounts throughout the year — up to 50% off in some cases, or with other extras thrown in. So, if you can afford to wait, you can create a photo book on the service of your choice, and wait until there's a sale that you like.
How to choose the best photo book service for you
Above all else, the best photo book should look good. This means the quality of the photos should be great — skin tones should be accurate, lighting should be correct, and details should be crisp. In the best photo books, you should have good contrast, deep blacks, and an overall evenness in color gradation.
A photo album should also be constructed well. You shouldn't see pages coming free from the binding, the paper itself should have a substantial feel, and images and text should be aligned properly.
You should also choose a photo book service based on its software. Some, like Mixbook, allow for much more creative options than others, allowing you to fully edit the template, easily find background art and more, and make fine adjustments to your photos, too.
Price is also an important factor. With the exception of the most and least expensive options, you won't find too much variation between photo book printing services. However, some services offer options like better paper, different-size books, and things like lay-flat binding, which means you can open the book flat on a table, and not worry about breaking the spine.