The best photo books make for a great Mother's Day gift, but you want to make sure you pick a service that's going to give you a photo book worthy of your mom. We tested the top photo book services to see which gives you the most creative control, which is the easiest to use, and which delivers a truly spectacular photo book.
To review the best photo book services, we go through the steps to create photo books and print them out, and then use a panel of judges to determine which are the best quality.
What are the best photo books?
After testing the most popular services, we found that the best photo book printing service is Mixbook. Our favorite photo-printing service for several years running, Mixbook not only produced a gorgeous photo book but also has great software and reasonable prices. Mixbook has a huge library of backgrounds, templates, and clip art that's easy to search. Mixbook's templates are fully editable, and there are a lot of tools for editing not just photos, but clip art, too.
Coming in a close second is Printique (formerly known as AdoramaPix), which offers the same high quality and versatility. Printique also has a large library of fully editable templates, and an intelligently designed interface that was a cinch to use. However, Printique can be a bit more expensive.
Not sure which service to use? Check out our in-depth Mixbook vs. Printique comparison.
For those on a budget, we recommend Costco Photo Center. While it doesn't offer the same level of flexibility and options as Mixbook and Printique, you still get a decent selection of editing tools. Similarly, the quality of the printed book wasn't as good as Mixbook's. And, there's no competing with Costco's low prices, even for non-members. However, CostCo is eliminating one of its best features; as of February 14, CostCo is going to close all of its in-store photo centers, so anything you order will have to be delivered to your home.
Read on to see in greater detail what we liked about the best photo book services.
The best photo book services today
Mixbook is once again our top choice for standard photo books. The software is flexible, versatile, creative and easy to use, with a great depth of functionality. What’s more, Mixbook makes creating a book according to your personal vision lots of fun. Our tests delivered a lovely quality book with photos that are warm, bright and lively.
However, if you want a layflat book, go with Printique, which ties with Mixbook for our favorite photo book software. While Printique delivers great print quality, it doesn’t have standard hardcover books. All its hardcovers are layflat books. (Mixbook has both kinds.) And for layflats, Printique is less expensive than Mixbook.
If you order a photo book from Mixbook, be sure to check out Mixbook's shipping deadlines.
Read our full Mixbook review
Unlike all the other companies whose photo books I reviewed for this roundup, Printique’s least expensive hardcover book is a layflat – a style that’s an extra cost option from the other companies. So, to some extent, comparing Printique’s book to the others might be considered unfair. However, the fact is that Printique delivers excellence across the board. The software is fun, creative, flexible and versatile. The photo quality is hands-down the best. And the book is simply excellent.
Sure, the Printique book is more expensive than the rest – unless you compare like with like. For instance, Mixbook, which shares the top prize for photo books with Printique, offers layflat books (as do many of the other services). So, while the Mixbook’s standard hardcover book is considerably less than Printique’s book, Mixbook’s least expensive layflat is considerably more. If price is a concern, go with a standard hardback from Mixbook; otherwise, take a closer look at Printique.
When ordering a photo book, be sure to check out Printique's shipping information and deadlines, so you know how long to expect before it arrives.
Read our full Printique review.
Most people will probably be quite pleased with any photo book they order from Shutterfly. With millions of users, Shutterfly has learned to provide most customers with the quality services and products they want to buy. You might, in fact, have a large library of photos already stored on Shutterfly, because it’s so convenient. However, Shutterfly rated third in our photo book tests. That’s because, while powerful and flexible, Shutterfly’s software has some key limitations. And while attractive, Shutterfly’s book doesn’t have the photo quality of Mixbook or Printique.
Even if your photo library already lives on Shutterfly, it’s worth the time to upload some to Mixbook or Printique, whose software will do a better job of enabling your creativity, and whose photo books will show off your pictures in a better light. Before ordering, be sure to check out Shutterfly's shipping guidelines to know how long it will take for them to deliver your photo book.
Read our full Shutterfly review.
While Costco’s book software is far better than its calendar and cards interface, the software doesn’t cover all the basics. For example, the straight photo borders and photo editing tools are limited, and you can’t span a photo across two pages.
The printed photos in our test photo book were generally okay, though colors were washed out and contrast is diminished. It’s clear that Costco isn’t spending much money on book production; the paper is not great quality, and the binding stitching was already showing after just a few openings and closings. Still, the Costco book is bargain priced, which may offset the limitations of the software and physical book.
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. As of February 14, CostCo is going to close all of its in-store photo centers, so anything you order will have to be delivered to your home.
Read our full Costco Photo Center review.
Snapfish's photo book software can be fun to use because it allows for full customization of templates. That means you can add, delete, move about all elements: photos, text, clip art, and so forth. However, you may be frustrated by the poor organization of backgrounds, the restrictive color tools and other software limits The printed book’s photos are lively, generally lively, but don’t have a good depth of color or full dynamic range. The book production is the weak link in all this, with binding glue that’s already separating.
The bottom line is that Snapfish’s book is an all-around average, which might be good enough for some until you compare prices. Snapfish’s merely average book costs the same as Mixbook’s beautiful book, and the Mixbook software is more flexible, versatile and fun. If you do order from them, be sure to check out the Snapfish shipping information and guidelines, so you know when to expect your book in the mail.
Read our full Snapfish review.
Mpix’s photo book print service is a mixed bag. The photo book software offers flexible templates and nice clip art. So, you can customize the layout of your book to reflect your personal vision. However, the library of backgrounds are mostly cartoonish illustrations. The photo borders are fixed width and only specific colors, neither of which can be adjusted. And it was impossible to match the color of our text to our borders or other design elements.
The printed book has some good photos but others are unappealing. And while the book looks okay on the surface, with nicely textured end papers, and pages that are a good weight, the book has problems. The paper has a coarse feel, and the binding stitches show between pages. In other words, making a photo book with Mpix can be fun and creative, if you aren’t frustrated by the software’s limitations.
Here are Mpix' shipping guidelines for more information on how long it will take to print and ship your photo book.
Read our full Mpix review.
We can’t recommend CVS for photo books. The software (licensed from Snapfish) may look good on the surface. In fact, the templates are fully editable, providing an opportunity for personal creativity. However, key features, such as the text tool and color selection, are shallow and frustrating. Even more importantly, the cheaply produced book has below average photo quality.
What is surprising is the CVS’s books are priced similarly to the best companies for photo books: Mixbook and Printique. And those two companies have far richer, more creative software which are great fun to use, their photo quality is great, and their printed books are lovely. If you do use CVS, be sure not to order from the Same-Day-Pickup options, which were even lower in quality.
Read our full CVS Photo review.
Bypass Walmart for your photo book. Its book creation software is severely limited with no opportunity for creative customization. Templates are restrictive, not allowing you to edit or remove clip art or decorative text. The layouts are boring and few in number. What’s more, you can’t adjust the layout’s photo placeholders, nor can you place additional photos.
Walmart’s software is missing functions and features that are standard for photo book creation. For instance, it has no borders, drop shadows, shapes, cutouts, or a library of optional clip art. And though the prices are comparatively low, the printed photo book looks and feels cheap, with unsatisfactory binding, thin paper, and photos that have an orange-red hue shift.
Read our full Walmart Photos review
Photo book shipping guidelines - Mother's Day
This year, Mother's Day is Sunday, May 9.
If you're planning to order a photo book for a special event such as a birthday or wedding, know that it will take some time to get it printed and shipped.
Below are the shipping deadlines for the best photo book services; where available, we've listed the last possible day to order a photo book and have it delivered in time for Mother's Day. In many cases, you need to order a photo book by the end of April.
- Mixbook shipping information and deadlines: Budget shipping: April 22; Express: April 30
- Printique shipping information and deadlines
- Costco Photo Center shipping guidelines Budget shipping: Up to 7 business days; Express: Up to 4 business days
- Mpix shipping guidelines Standard shipping: 2-5 business days; Expedited: 1 business day
- Shutterfly shipping guidelines Economy shipping: April 27; Super rush: May 5
- Snapfish shipping information and guidelines: Standard: Up to 8 business days; Express: Up to 4 business days
- Walmart shipping information
How to choose the best photo book service
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.
How we test photo book services
We looked at eight of the most popular printing services — Printique (AdoramaPix), Costco, CVS Photo, Mpix, Mixbook, Shutterfly, Snapfish and Walmart — to see which ones delivered both a great user experience and a photo book you'd be proud to give.
For this year's test, we used stock photos of two families (one Caucasian and the other African American). We edited one picture to be a bit underexposed. This tested the photo services' ability to balance various exposures as well as different skin tones.
We designed a 20-page photo album with these photos. To test the flexibility and creativity each software allowed, our design included rotated and resized pictures and clip art along with angled text. We took advantage of the best each service had to offer regarding templates, layouts, clip art, text and backgrounds. However, we sometimes found it difficult to locate just the right content on those sites whose libraries weren't well organized or searchable.
In rating the software, we used the following criteria:
- Ease of use
- User interface and workflow
- Creative flexibility
- Quality and versatility of templates, clip art, layouts and backgrounds
After our printed photo books arrived, we assembled a jury of print and photography experts, as well as everyday consumers to rate the books, using the following criteria:
- Overall appeal and quality of the physical book
- Photo quality
- Color and skin tones
- Dynamic range and exposure
- Focus and clarity
- Balancing of the diverse pictures
- Type quality
- Paper quality
- Quality of the binding
During the judging, all books were identified by numbers rather than brand names. Though the name of some of the vendors is printed on the books, the jury was discouraged from looking at those brand identifiers until after the judging.
If a photo book exhibited obvious flaws — such as misnumbered pages, poor photo reproduction or something else wrong as a result of the printing process — we ordered a reprint to see if the errors were a one-time event.
We rated the software separately from the printed book, then averaged the two for an overall book rating. We also took cost into consideration in our overall rating. In our print ratings, we gave the greatest weight to the quality of the services' photo reproduction, because that's the entire purpose of a photo book.