As many of you know, my Facebook Fanpage has just wrapped up a contest where the winner received a large, custom designed, lay-flat mounted bridal album. I was so excited to be able to give away one of these albums because I knew that the bride the groom would cherish it forever! Not many couples choose to buy albums from their photographer since there are thousands of “do-it-yourself” websites out there to luer you in with their promises of “professional quality” and “thousands of layouts”.
So what’s the truth about professional albums? Are they really better than the do-it-yourself type albums? Are they worth the price? And by the way, what is up with the price of those albums?!? Are photographers just secretly mean and want to squeeze new couples for every last possible penny? While any good magician never reveals how the tricks are done; a good photographer should be able to speak openly and candidly about their products and discuss it’s pros and cons.
Price – What are you really paying for?
The first thing people think of after hearing the term “Professional Photo Album ” is price since pro albums have a reputation for being notoriously expensive. I can’t count the times I’ve heard people say “So, why should I buy a pro album when I can make one myself from [insert website here] and save 75% of the cost?” and I cringe every time. Answering this question is not simple! In order to properly answer this question, you have to open a flood gate worth of information about albums, paper types, ink types, quality, layout, formatting, etc.
When you pay for a professional book, you are paying for 2 things in particular: the cost the photographer incurs to print the book (materials) and the cost of having the photographer design the book (design).
Materials – How much does paper really cost?
Big secret #1 … photographers do not print their own books. The technology required to not only print books but bind them goes far beyond the capabilities of any normal studio (especially the technology and craftsmanship required to create hinged-page, lay-flat style albums). There are a handful of companies (ie: printing & binding houses) throughout the world that the pro photographer will belong to who print and bind the books that the photographer designs. So before you go saying “You already have a printer, can’t you just print out an album for cheap for me?” remember that your album requires the work of many talented people to produce and there’s a good chance your album is being printed halfway around the world in one of the highest-quality print houses available.
The print-cost of the book itself will vary depending on the style of book you order. You can get budget-friendly, soft-cover, glue-bound books for a fraction of the cost that a thick page, lay-flat album with a custom box because the soft-cover book requires substantially less materials to make. More materials = more cost… it’s a pretty simple concept.
The paper that professional quality albums are printed on is top-quality paper, specially coated with a protective UV spray to ensure that your colours stay true and vibrant for years to come. And speaking of colour…
Materials – Ink & Colour: Why do I look like I have a sunburn?!?
Your photographer has special equipment that they use to calibrate their colours. What does this mean? It means that their computer portrays the colours in the photos exactly as they were in real-life. When they shoot a picture of a bright red apple, it will appear on their monitor as the same vibrant bright-red as the original apple. Pro albums go one-step further: the print houses and your photographer have a way of working together to ensure that they colours stay vibrant and true. Professional printing houses allow the photographes to download their “colour profiles”. If colours were a language, sharing a colour profile is equivalent to speaking the same language. Pro albums mean true, vibrant colour on every single page.
Design – Good design & consistent style
When you were looking for a photographer, I bet you chose the one whose style you liked the best. Afterall, photography is an art – and like any artist, each photographer has their own style. So let me ask you this… why would you hire a photographer, whose style you adore, to shoot your wedding, but then attempt to design your own book with a layout and style that some random website gives you? Seems silly to me. It’s like cooking a five-star meal and serving it on old paper plates.
Designing a book is not simple. Although “drag & drop” programs are available to the general public, a good photographer would never consider using such a thing. Each page is designed, from scratch, in photoshop. Horizontal pictures, vertical pictures… we find a way for them to all work together! Square pictures? Sure, no problem! What about adding a cool transparent-style background? No prob, we can pick the right page and photo for that. Want your wedding colours incorporated into your album? Sure! Sounds great. How about having your vows written in the book? Another smashing idea…. Don’t forget about the custom cover – we make that too! Just as no two weddings are ever alike, no two albums are the same either.
Albums can take upwards of 20 to 30 hours to design the first draft, depending on the number of pages required. A good photographer will also include one or two complimentary revisions where the client can swap around some photos or try some different layouts. This way, clients still have some control over the album that they are paying for, but they are working with the talent of their photographer to ensure that their visions come to life in a well-thought-out and breathtaking design.
Quality – Original Files vs. JPEGs
Any regular ol’ digital camera takes pictures in a JPEG format. JPEGs are small (they don’t take up much space on your memory card) and are immediately viewable (that is, you don’t have to run them through any special programs to see the picture). Professional cameras, on the other hand, shoot in RAW – a type of file that stores incredible amounts of data and needs to be processed, or “digitally developed” before it’s viewable. If you compare it to film days, RAW files were the original negatives while JPEGs are the physical prints you get from said negatives.
Just like in the film days, if you wanted a bigger photo, the photographer went back to the negative and processed it from that. (They would never just photocopy one of the small proofs! That would be ridiculous.) Although things are digital now, your photographer still goes back to the high quality RAW (or PSD or TIFF) files when ther are printing out enlargements or making albums because these files have the most data in them and are therefore of the highest quality.
Although the disc of JPEGs you have purchased from your photographer will print out nicely from a local lab, if you start processing those photos and making albums out of them, the quality will start to diminish. Saving a JPEG multiple times is like making a photocopy of a photocopy… every time it saves, you’re losing a bit of data. How will this loss of quality appear? Colours may not be as vibrant, the image may appear more pixelated and the image may no longer look as “crisp” as it once did.
So those are the general “pros” of a professional album. It’s undisputable that the albums are of superior quality to anything you could ever buy online or get from your local print shop. There are, unfortunately, some cons too.
As I mentioned, the cost of the book is basically materials + time needed to design. So what’s up with thse $3,000-$5,000 albums that you see being offered by some photographers? Are they made from gold? Did they take 200 hours to design? What could possibly justify a price like that? Nothing.
Unfortunately, like some vendors in the wedding industry, some photographers have absolutely unreasonable markups on their albums that can’t be justified by the amount of materials or design time that have gone into the album. These photographers are the reason that people automatically roll their eyes at the idea of professional albums – because of the reputation of the albums being extraordinarily expensive.
If you know a little bit about the photography or design industry, you’ll know that “templates” are showing up more and more. This makes me sad. Templates are the easy way out. It’s like typing your test answers into your scientific calculator so you can cheat on a test (yes, young-ins, that’s what us “oldies” had to do before we had cellphones!). Templates are designs that photographers can buy in which they can just “drag and drop” your photos into them and… voila! Album made. There is absolutely no skill that goes into using templates – you barely even need photoshop knowledge.
How do you know if your photographer is using templates? Take a look at some of their other books – do you see identical pages? If you request to make some changes….do they say “sure” or “I don’t think so….”. Google “photoshop album templates” online – do you see an exact duplicate or your album? Bingo. You’ve got a template made album.
Some photographers use design services to create their albums for them. The albums are still technically “one of a kind” and “professionally designed” – but they are done so by a third party design company – not your photographer. Not only are you getting a third party company’s style, you’re paying the extra cost that the photographer has to incur when they use a service like this.
To a point, you need to trust your photographer. But please, ask them questions about the album – if it sounds like they can’t “quite” customize it the way you may want it, there’s a chance they are not doing 100% of their own design and this can take away from your product.
Ask your photographer where they get their albums from. If they refuse to tell you which company, don’t buy the album. There… I said it.
As I mentioned above, there are a handful of printing and binding companies in the world that are of professional quality. These companies only service truly professional photographers – they will only register you once you provide your business ID, tax #’s, your website, etc. They charge high prices for their materials, but they are worth every penny because they are the best possible quality. There are some other printing services; however, that claim to be professional – but when you compare their products to a truly professional product, the difference is obvious. Their prices, though, are a fraction of what a professional printing house will charge.
So what am I trying to get at? If your photographer won’t tell you where the albums come from, it might be because they aren’t using a truly professional service! Maybe they’re using a do-it-yourself site, too! Afterall, those sites charge less which means your photographer would make more.
Limited Variety (Photographer dependent)
Unfortunately, some photographers only offer 1 or 2 types of albums: large, lay-flat style coffee table albums and maybe a smaller version of that album that they call a “parents” album. Not everyone can afford thee luxury of the massive coffee-table albums and when photographers refuse to offer a variety of sizes and prices, they may actually be forcing their clients towards the make-your-own websites.
So there you have it, folks. I hope that shed some light on the magical and mystical world of professional photo albums. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate do-it-yourself websites. I think everything has a time and a place. I think the best time to use a do-it-yourself website is for when you want to make little albums of photos you’ve taken yourself at your child’s birthday party or during trips you have taken. Using do-it-yourself programs to print out an album from one of the most important days of your life is not the best investment into a product or into your memories.
Photography is an investment, especially when it’s photographs of a very important day in your life. You should always consider investing in professional products as the quality far outweighs that of any do-it-yourself service can offer. No matter what that do-it-yourself website says, it absolutely cannot offer you a professional quality book because it’s not working with the calibrated, professional files the way your photographer does. However, if budget wins the battle over quality, then these do-it-yourself books may be your only option. If you’ve decided that you want the quality of a professional album, you can make sure that you get the most out of your investment by choosing a photographer that offers a variety of sizes and prices of albums as well as one who allows you to have a say in the design so that you can guarantee that you are happy with the final product.