Photo books are becoming very popular anymore and I can certainly understand why. You can only hang so many prints on your walls. Photos thrown into a shoe box tend to seldom get seen. And photo albums tend to be thick, taking up lots of bookshelf space, cost as much empty as your typical low-priced book, and are a bit, well, BORING.
The photo book, on the other hand, is far from boring. We typically have a great deal of latitude in page layout and design that you don't get with an album, such as adding text and varying image sizes. They tend to be much thinner than an album of comparable page counts. And you can often get a photo book made for the price of an empty album without then needing to spend more on the prints to populate the album with. Nicer, customizable, thinner, cheaper. What's not to like?
There are lots of choices for photo books these days, with a large variety of cover styles, page sizes, landscape and portrait orientations and even square books, and a big variety in quality and prices. On the low end we have CostCo, Walgreen, your local camera store, Shutterfly, Blurb, iPhoto books and the like. Moving up the quality ladder we get into vendors not normally available to the general public. For these vendors you usually need to be a professional photographer and open an account with the vendor. The quality and the selection is usually much higher, and for many needs you want that extra quality. I would not want my wedding album done by CostCo or Blurb, for example, and I would be willing to pay extra for higher quality of images like that. But for family vacations and such the cheaper books is probably more than "good enough". Vendors in the upper ranks include Pounds Photo Labs, Asuka Book, Forbeyon and many others. They tend to have better build quality, more accurate color reproduction, and much more visual "pop" to the finished book.
The purpose of this blog was to compare a low-priced alternative to a mid-level alternative. For the low-priced alternative I chose Blurb. Readers of this blog might be familiar with Blurb, as they are rather popular, and you might have done a book yourself from them. For the mid-level alternative I chose Texas-based Pounds Photo Labs. They have been in the photography business for decades and have a reputation for quality that attracts some of the best wedding and portrait photographers in the country. It will not be a spoiler to tell you that the Pounds press book is a nicer product than the Blurb book. It is more expensive, their customers are demanding and picky, so it better be a better product. But, how much better is it, is it worth the cost differential? And more importantly, how nice is the new premium paper that Blurb has to offer?
Back in late 2007 I did an 8x10 hard cover book from Blurb and I was not really all that impressed. The build quality was fine, but I could only get a dust jacket (I prefer the cover to be an image wrap myself), and the pages didn't pop at me. The color reproduction was only adequate, and a bit washed out. It certainly didn't have the impact of an 8x10 print. However, the price was low, the design and ordering process easy, and I did like it better than an iPhoto book I had also done. My impression was that it was worth the price paid. It wasn't a high bar to reach, given the price was indeed low. But I wouldn't want to do anything special with Blurb. And I certainly would not want to give a client photos of his car in a Blurb book. For that, I'd want something better.
For that something better I turned to Asuka Book, doing several 10x10 hard cover books for family, for myself, and for two automotive clients. The clients both wanted something of a higher quality than they could get themselves. That only makes sense. After asking around I settled on Asuka Book at the advice of Andrew Wheeler of www.automotophoto.com. The results were very impressive. From the protective frosted plastic case, to the very nice image-wrap cover, to the great photo reproduction of the pages themselves, these books had a noticeable visual impact and obvious increase in quality over the lower end vendors. And at their price, it should be that way. And for the client that wants something of that quality its a great choice, especially when you consider that an extra $50-75 in the cost of the photo book is a small part of the total package price, after factoring in the cost to photograph the car in the first place, plus the cost for me to spend the time to come up with a great book design and page layouts.
But early in 2010 I started wondering two things. One, has Blurb gotten any better, especially with their new premium paper? They have long had a reputation of a decent book but not a stellar book, but also for inconsistency. While their customer support might be great and be willing to reprint a book to fix any problems, its not a hassle I would want to go through with a client. With Asuka, the price is higher, but its always right and its always impressive. Two, is there an alternative to Asuka that has the same quality but at a lower price?
To answer the first question I decided to try Blurb yet again, ordering an 8x10 landscape hardcover book with gallery wrap on premium paper. To answer the second question I turned to Pounds Photo Labs.
The Blurb book is indeed an improvement over a few years back. The premium paper has a nicer, heavier feel with a better reproduction of the image. The image-wrap cover is, to me, much nicer than a dust jacket that just seems to get torn and is always in the way when I'm trying to view the book. The placement of the text on the cover spline was reasonably accurate as well. This book, with the premium paper and the image wrap, represents the best that Blurb is able to do.
The Pounds Book, to my eye at least, is still a noticeable improvement over the Blurb book. This is not surprising to me, as the typical Pounds customer is a very picky client. They have to produce a better product to justify the higher cost and to please high end wedding and portrait photographers. And for that type of work the high quality book is an easy sell. But I do mostly automotive photography, and even though some people can really get emotionally attached to their cars, I have to admit the Blurb book is pretty darn good, and for pictures of cars its probably passes the "good enough" test.
I have personal experience long-term with the Asuka Book, and I can say that it is a well built book that will last the years. My long-term experience with Blurb and Pounds is lacking, unfortunately. But some looks at the binding shows the Asuka Book and the Pounds Photo Labs book to be similar in how the binding is done. The Blurb book is noticeably different in the binding. In particular, you can see the twine that holds the pages together, which you cannot on the other books. Whether that has any impact on durability I cannot say, but visually I find it distracting.
As mentioned earlier, one thing I wanted to find out is if there was a quality vendor at a lower price than Asuka, and I did find that in Pounds. To my eye the build quality, the photo reproduction and the visual punch of the Pounds book matches the Asuka book, and does so at a noticeably lower price. Still more than the Blurb book, but the price delta is not as high. There are still a few things I like about Asuka, notably the frosted plastic protective case. Its just plain cool, and its functional as well. I typically keep two books in my trunk all the time and those plastic cases keep the covers from getting scratched up - this is the car used most frequently for grocery store runs so the trunk gets used a lot. The Asuka book also has more choices in presentation boxes and can even be had in leather covers. But, Pounds has a larger variety of books sizes and orientations and has more flexible page counts. Asuka lets me make a 20 page book, or a 30 page book, but nothing inbetween, for example. Pounds and Blurb allow page counts from 20 up, in 2-page increments.
I won't go into specifics on pricing because Pounds pricing catalog is a confidential matter, but suffice to say that Blurb is usually cheaper than Pounds, but not always. When I did my price comparisons I always priced the Blurb book with the image wrap cover, the premium paper, and the studio logo option. This drove the price up, but for my uses this is how I would be ordering a photo book. If you do not care about premium paper, for example, you probably don't care how the book stacks up against Pounds Photo Labs or Asuka either.
The price story also depends on page count. The base Blurb book is priced from 20 to 40 pages, whereas the Pounds base book is priced at 20 pages, with each extra page being extra money. For example, a 20 page book from Blurb on premium paper with a studio logo in the 8x10 hard cover size with the image wrap is only slightly less expensive than a 20 page Pounds book. But if we move to a 40 page book the Blurb price is the same, but the Pounds book jumps to over 50% more money than the Blurb offering. So one part of the price puzzle has an answer. In the popular 8x10 book size Blurb has a small edge at 20 pages, but that edge gets larger fast as the page count increases.
The price story gets a little more interesting when we look at the larger books, and even here an apples to apples comparison is a bit hard. When looking at a 20 page book the 11x14 Pounds book is actually cheaper than the 11x13 Blurb book (factoring in preimum paper, image wrap and studio logo even!). Only when page counts get above 30 does the Blurb book become cheaper once again. A 10x10 Pounds book is cheaper at 20 pages once again than the Blurb 12x12 book, but is at price-parity even at 40 pages. Granted, the Pounds book is smaller, but in all honesty I think 10x10 is a great book size, whereas the Blurb 12x12 is just a bit too big. Too big, more expensive, not as high a quality. Another part of the price puzzle now has an answer in that the large format books in small page counts are actually cheaper, and better, at Pounds than at Blurb, and only at very high page counts does Blurb get a price advantage.
Another area where the price equation changes is with respect to the studio logo option. On the Pounds and Asuka book they never put their name anywhere on the book. This is not true of the Blurb book, who puts their logo on the very last page so that everyone knows who printed and published this book. And to remove this logo and replace it with the studio's logo is surprisingly expensive. Its an extra $8 on the 8x10 book, and a staggering $15 on the 12x12 book. All for the privilege of removing Blurb's name from the last page and replacing it with mine. They obviously must feel that having their logo on the back page of the book is worth quite a few dollars because they charge quite a few dollars to have it removed. And I do wonder how valuable it is to me, given that I can plaster my name anywhere else on the book I want for free. If one takes the custom studio logo out of the pricing equation the price delta on the 8x10 book widens. What was once near parity at the 20 page count now becomes more than a $10 difference, and that gap widens fast as page counts climb. On the larger book sizes, where Pounds was actually cheaper at the lower page counts, Blurb becomes nearly equal at the 11x13 size, but is still higher priced at the 12x12 size, for the 20 page book. But by the time the book climbs to 40 pages the price gap becomes pretty wide once again, with Blurb noticeably cheaper.
When looking at a quality stand point it is clear the Blurb book has improved, and for many people the book is more than good enough. It is still, however, not at the level of a Pounds Photo Labs or an Asuka book, and that is to be expected. Honda makes a fine car, but nobody would be surprised to hear that Lexus is nicer still. What I did find surprising was the cost analysis. Since most my books are 20 pages, and sometimes 30, the price analysis means that for my typical use Pounds is still the best choice for me. In the 8x10 size the price increase of Pounds is relatively minor if one orders the image wrap, premium paper and the studio logo. In the 10x10 and 11x14 size, when page counts are 30 or less, the Pounds book is actually cheaper. As a result, I'm likely to stick with Pounds for myself and my clients. This is especially true since any small increase in materials cost to the client is bound to be small compared to the cost of taking the photographs, processing and tweaking the images, and designing the pages.