Make A Photobook!

I'd highly encourage any photographer to print his work. It can be something you want to hang on the wall if you have the space in your place, or making small prints, like a photobook can be just as rewarding. Viewing photographs on print is an entirely different experience which I want to discuss in this blog entry, as well as how making prints can help you to improve your game in photography. I have also recently made a few photobooks for my own personal work, mostly a collection of recent street photographs, and I have showcased a full photobook (every page) in a recent video I have made, with this similar topic (click here for the video).  

My latest two photobooks, made this year. A collection of photographs shot on KL streets from January to April 2021. They also include some shots taken with the Olympus Air! 

In addition to the two books with new images, I made another photobook for my Bangkok trip in 2019. I figured out, why not, since we are now stuck at home and can't travel, so looking back at these photos while making the photobook was quite fun too. 

Most people view images on screen these days. The magic of print is slowly lost on the current generation of photographers, who crave instant gratification of getting likes and comments on their social media, posting immediately. Viewing experience on screen, any screen, either smartphone, laptop, or even large television screens will be different from viewing photographs on actual prints. What we see in real life, at least most objects do not emit light - humans, animals, plants, structures, they reflect light. Our eyes see reflected light to make out our vision. However, images shown on screens were 100% backlit by LCD or OLED, these images are made of millions of pixels, individually shining their own light. On the other hand, paper, or any printing medium does not emit their own light, but rely on other source of light to shine on the print to reflect light. The reflected light off prints will give you a more organic, realistic and more complete viewing experience when seeing photographs. They represent reality much, much better. 

Also, when presented images on screen, many people are so quick to pixel peep. They will pinch to zoom and scrutinize the fine details, noise level, and identify areas with highlight clippings. The focus was placed wrongly on the technicality of the images, rather than really looking at the core of photography. When you show someone your photographs on prints, they have no choice but to look at the image at its entirety. You cannot pinch to zoom a print, and if the print quality is good enough (say 300dpi resolution or more) you can put your eyes as close as you can to the paper and you will not see any pixelation. When you see print, you see the core of the photographs - the idea or message that the photographer is trying to convey, the emotion that the image is invoking, the moment and drama that the shot has successfully captured - the storytelling aspect of photography which has been lost by instant gratification of online social media viewing. Hey I am not judging, I am also guilty of the same crime. Aren't we all, mostly?

Making a photobook is so easy. I used Photobook Malaysia, and this is not sponsored by the way. I have no affiliation with them, though they probably know of my existence since Malaysia is not exactly a large place. Their service is simple to use, you can design a photobook using their app or website without buying anything, and when you are ready, the cost of each book, the ones I have printed (8"x11" landscape) is about RM40/USD10 including local shipping. It does not take too much of your time, and it is so so so fun to do! The feeling of receiving the photobook, and looking at your images on print is just priceless. 

The second book for this year. I used to print a photobook quarterly. But I guess the timing for the past more than a year has been screwed up due to multiple lockdowns. I just print whatever I can. 

My favourite street shot from Bangkok, Thailand in 2019. I wonder when we can travel again. 

Curation is important, how you arrange and sequence your photographs together so they flow from one to another and when seen in a series, they make sense and can tell a larger story. 

I will make a few more prints digging out from my older photographs. But I am more excited to make new photographs and print them. I am not sure when that will be possible again. 

How can printing a photobook, or making any prints make you a better photographer? It is the curation process that counts. When you want to make a book, you need to select, organize, cut down, sequence and finally fit just the few curated images into the book. Yes you can fit 500 shots in a monster sized book, but that defeats the purpose. Doing mini projects, or having a series of photographs in mind will help you to tell a story more effectively - typically within the same topic or theme. Say you want to shoot a series of images with trees in your neighborhood, or specifically looking for yellow cars in various locations (hello Matti Sulanto). Once you have enough photographs, you then go through a tight curation process to narrow down your shots. You need to decide which babies to kill. This is the painful process. All photographs are babies and they are precious. We are emotionally connected to our own photographs because we made them with love, we spent time, resources and even the gear that we use to shoot those images are not cheap. They mean a lot to us, but you see here is the problem - that emotional attachment is not visible to your audience. The people viewing your photographs cannot understand why those photographs mean so much to you, so you need to be able to put these emotional connection aside, and look at your photographs objectively. Then kill your babies.

What separates a great photographer from the rest? His curation process. He knows how to hide his bad shots. He knows only to show the best of the best of his work. All photographers have bad shots. But not all photographers hide them well enough. Curation will help you understand that and more importantly, understand yourself better. Once you have printed those images, you will have another second look - you will clearly see how some images cannot fit into the series, or should not have been printed. This is a learning process, an on-going journey even for the most experienced photographers. It is not as simple as just selecting the few images that you like and print. You need to truly look at your body of work, reflect on yourself, understand yourself a little better, know where you stand, your progress of photography and this will ultimately help you decide your direction that you want to pursue next in photography. Print that photobook, and all this, will start to roll. 

If you are new to photography, I highly suggest that you consider making some prints! Photobook should not be expensive, and printing will make you a better photographer. My friend Wesley Wong (master printer in Malaysia) always said - it is not done until it is printed. 
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  1. Great idea Robin. My daughter is always pushing me to make photo books. She makes books several times a year of her work. I think I'm too lazy to properly choose and edit my photos. Digital editing is just not as neat and relaxing as spending the day in a darkroom.

    1. Thanks Bill, I think it also helps if you can find a more efficient way to organize and look through your photographs. A lot of modern tools available for cataloguing, labeling and tagging images for quick searching and sequencing!

  2. It looks like you just fill entire pages with images, which is a decent approach. One annoying thing about online photobook services is the way that they have page templates, often with weird arrangements of tiny frames, that steer the user along some kind of formulaic path to an "aesthetic" end result which will inevitably copy the promotional examples in a way that hardly emphasises the actual images, these being reduced to the status of page backgrounds or tiny postage stamps. It becomes a chore to have to unset all these templates in these services.

    (As I was writing that second sentence, I reminded myself of Ming Thein's writing, and I hope he is doing OK in his post-blogging, horological state of being.)

    One other thing that some services are good at, but others incredibly poor at, is the quality of the actual book. One local service to me (although probably printed somewhere abroad) does rather nice hardcover photobooks that aren't expensive. Previously, I used a well-known international photo product vendor whose photobooks were scarcely more than overpriced leaflets, and the fancy online interface also failed to show things like the page gutters, meaning that the positioning was all wrong in the final product.

    Anyway, I agree about photobooks being nice things, but I can't help feeling that I have written that before!

    1. Thanks Paul. My layout is simple and I did not have anything fancy planned out. Also I wanted to experiment a little bit, and see how the photobook handles the images.
      Ming Thein is doing great, thriving in fact in his Ming watch business! I have not seen him in a while, since the whole lockdown/pandemic thing, but will find opportunities to catch up when I can.
      Yeah quality of print is another problem. The service I used was quite ok, for consumer level, but not for higher grade/more demanding prints. They are cheap after all, and for the price you pay, it is very worth it.