Wednesday, December 13, 2023

My 2023 books, or self indulgence writ large

Mostly my photos exist digitally. If you're reading this, you've probably seen many hundreds, perhaps thousands of my photos in passing over the years. Except digitally isn't the best way to display photos. One needs complicated technology to see the photos at all, to say nothing of the problems of finding them. And that's before thinking about storage. Digital photos (data in general, really) live a precarious existence. A hard drive crash or a forgotten password, and they're gone. Yes, I know, backups, cloud technologies, blah blah blah.

I have a few of my photos printed and framed. No technology needed to see them, once you're inside our house. Those will last the remainder of my life, at least. If whoever is cleaning up after me likes them, they could live another generation or two on someone else's wall. The problem is that some of the photos want to exist bigger than a screen, and yearn to take up lots of wall space. That one panorama is 10 feet wide. We do have more wall space, but it is limited. And the bigger problem is money. The printing part is actually quite reasonable, but it's the framing and glass that makes me wince, big time.

For a while I was thinking about getting one of those poster display things, and putting my prints in a sleeve of some kind. Some of you might remember flipping through them in a record store. But those take up space too, and the metal framework is ugly.

Or maybe decide on a maximum size for most prints, get them done, and put them in a box for storage. Except then looking at them is difficult.

Then I started thinking about books. Photo books in particular. Books have been around several hundred years in their current format (cover and sequential pages) and for thousands of years if you consider a scroll to be a book. Books need no technology to be be enjoyed. With a bit of care they can last hundreds of years. There are several books about 100 years old in our library, and even though they were printed on cheap paper that is yellowing, they are still perfectly readable. Whoever is going through our stuff after I'm gone is probably going to trash almost all the books, but a few might catch their eye. (Don't get me started on digital books/movies/songs and digital rights management!)

I've taken lots of photo books out of the library, and have bought a few. I could never get "a book deal" to have my work published in the traditional publishing industry. I'm not famous, and while I like to think my photography is pretty good, once I'm in the book market I'm competing against the very best photographers, some of whom are famous. 

Vanity publishing where I buy a print run of books and try to sell them doesn't appeal to me even a little bit. I'd have better luck trying to give away the early 80's edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that's living on our basement book shelves. (Anybody? I'll even deliver them anywhere in Calgary. I liked the sign in one used book store, "Don't even THINK about asking us if we take old encyclopedias!) 

But then I started hearing about Blurb books, and how I could insert my photos directly from Lightroom into their book printing process, and get a book delivered for a reasonable price. I somehow stumbled on a video talking about the process of making a book through Blurb and was excited by how easy it looked. The technology actually is pretty easy. I tried the Book module in Lightroom but didn't like the interface. The Book Wright software from Blurb is free and much easier to work with. Other software packages work as well.

The hard part becomes deciding what goes in a book, in what order, with what text. I was paralyzed with indecision at first. Then the video guy said the magic words. Test book. Make the first book a test book, put in a variety of images, and a variety of text fonts in different sizes. Learn the software. Print something, and see how it looks. Scribble your learnings in the book itself.  Nobody but you ever needs to see it. That takes all the pressure off. Have fun with it.

It's not expensive. That first one has some extra pages so I think it was about $30, plus shipping. That's not a big price to pay to find out what your photos look like in print. And yes, they really do look different in print compared to digital. Prices vary by the style of book, the size, the cover options, the kind of paper, and how many extra pages you want. The big layflat books sound expensive if I told you how much one is. How much is that, you ask? I don't expect to ever sell any, but I suppose if there was someone you loved a lot and you knew they'd be interested, it would make a really nice gift. But really, my consideration was the comparison to getting them printed and framed. Doing that could easily be 25 times the price of the book. Even just printing  one of the bigger ones on really nice paper could be the price of the book.

But then, I'm not doing them with the idea of selling them. I do them for me and a small group of friends, though if you still wanted to buy one after recovering from fainting about the price, come talk to me. It might work out with a sale and you'd save a bit of money.

The first book I was thinking about was my "This is 50" project, and it's still a work in progress. But since those were portraits, I thought the first test book ought to be pictures of people, portraits or not. I chose the softcover 8x10 size with standard paper, and started playing. 

The hardest part about the whole thing was coming to grips with the difference between the container size, and the photo size. If the photo is exported in the same aspect ratio as the container, life is good. Except many of mine are cropped to a variety of sizes for a variety of reasons and it's not a problem because they are viewed alone. That leads to problems in print, where images often are in groups, and are considered in relation to one another. This is a new world for me.

I like to be able to sleep on a book, then review and revise. This process can repeat a great many times if you let it. If a book is ready to go, then it's easy when a sale comes along. A final review then press the publish button. It's harder when you have several book ideas milling around, and then you find out there is a sale with a short window. That's stressful.

So here's the books done in 2023. I was thinking about one more, but couldn't quite come to grips with it, and rather than stress about it, decided to let it ferment for a while yet. After all, there will likely be another version of this for the 2024 books. Doing this is fun.

Clockwise from top left. 
1- My first book, portraits of various people, various times, various events. Some posed, some not. I was thrilled when I unwrapped the book!
2- A book of digitized film photos from the late 80's to mid 90's featuring Linda's mom and family. I got a deal there, and printed enough for her sisters and aunts. One of the sisters broke down in tears looking  through it. 
3- A hard cover test book of Alberta landscapes for a private client. 
4- A book of photos of Michelle in honour of our 10 year friend-aversary. I cannot say enough about what her patience and willingness to pose has done for me as a photographer.
5- A book of photos of Linda's family during an impromptu family reunion, at least one of which is still in transit.

The three big layflat books showing how thick they are.

The first big layflat. I knew some of the photos wanted to be big, and I was channeling an old work buddy who's rule for life was 'go big or go home.' The question, "what is the narrative" or "what story are the photos telling" was easy in this case. I knew I wanted to open the book with the bridge at the start of the Dempster highway, and finish with the same bridge at the end of the trip. The middle was the Arctic Circle. This is the second edition because a person I consult professionally wanted to buy it for their waiting room. That copy, right then, emailed cash, please and thank you. I tweaked a thing I had noticed and got another for myself. I can't remember if my mom got the first or second edition. You can see the first 15 pages as a preview here

There is no narrative here. Just beach photos for me to look at during winter here. If I had the opportunity, I'm pretty sure I could sell almost everything here, move to NZ and become a photo beach bum. I have sometimes wondered what would happen if I overstayed my visa, going from beach to beach, keeping a low profile. Bicycle from beach to beach, sleep in a ditch along the way. How long before they found me? Would they jail me or deport me? You can see the first 15 pages as a preview here

I'd been musing about the next book, with several possibilities milling around in my brain. Then Blurb  offered a huge discount, and I couldn't say no. I wanted to see more of the Yukon photos in print, so I splurged and put in lots of extra pages. By the time I finished the discount itself was $160! I'm told one reader was drooling as she looked over the photos. That makes me happy. I haven't set this one up for selling yet, so there is no preview. The only way to see it is visit me, or find my mom and sweet talk her into letting you look at her copy.

I was thinking about another book for another year end sale. Sort of the top of the list was a book oriented to the film photos I've done in the last year or so. The problem of narrative is a big one for this. Is it a story of me learning to use film? Some of the first photos are dreadful. Plus, one of the things with photography is that it doesn't matter what brand of camera or lens was used to capture the image. Most people don't even notice if it was film or digital, and even fewer care. So is there any point of a book of film images just because they're film? Hmmmm.

The bookshelf above my computer, from left to right. The magazines are the community association newsletters, starting March 2018 when I became their "official photographer." Most of the covers are my photos. It's sometimes handy to look back and see what I've done for previous covers for a particular month. 

Next is the current photo notebook. I try to stay on top of the rambles with a camera, with varying success. The small books, then the big books in the lovely presentation box. The old photo notebook. The two calendar books we used to keep track of stuff in New Zealand. So if someone was desperate to know which beach a particular photo was from, I could probably tell them. Camera manuals. 

Then purchased commercial books, starting with macro technique ideas I want to try this winter. My buddy Neil Zeller's COVID portraits book, which is full of posing ideas, though it wasn't intended that way. Helmut Hirler's New Zealand book was the most expensive I'd bought till my own layflat books came along. Peter Turnley's COVID portraits. The one on top is unused, and I'm thinking about starting it for medium format film project photos in particular. There are ideas milling around in my head.

Of the Day
Driftwood (NZ)

Driftwood (BC)

Flower and Film (new) (Kodak Gold 200. I'm not so sure I like how the dark red of the peonies turned out.)

Yukon More empty tundra.

Film (old)
Linda and her mom during the Ottawa tulip festival. 


  1. Very nice, Keith. My cousin has been doing a yearly photo 'album' with Blurb for a long time and I love the idea - a yearbook of the best photos of family, friends, holidays, etc. The spine has the year on it, so if she wants to reminisce, she just pulls that book. I also did 2 photo books for my mom, on our trips to Scotland, and she loves them.

  2. I'm super impressed with how quickly you got the books done. I promised myself I'd have two done this fall but haven't managed even one. sigh. A project for January.

  3. I appreciate your experimental approach to book making. Do it quickly - learn - move on to the next. My various real and imagined neuroses sometimes gets in my way. Cheers, Sean


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