Back on January 10th I had talked about how I was in search of options for printing some photo books for myself, family and others. At that point the only service I had ever used was Shutterfly thanks to a coupon I had received from Amazon after buying a lens. Overall the Shutterfly experience was not overwhelmingly positive. Their software was a web based tool which worked but not very well. I found the site had a tendency to go down while I was trying to work on the book and that laying things out and setting things up was a slow and tedious task as it was not always responsive and didn’t always do what you were asking of it. I needed to move beyond them and find a better solution.
It has been a while since I used Shutterfly (maybe a year or so at this point) but I am not that interested in trying again because in addition to the mediocre software experience the quality of the finished product was also mediocre. The book certainly feels well enough put together but the overall look and feeling is decidedly cheap. Paper is on the thinner side and has an inconsistent glossiness. The prints themselves exibit some mild banding and the halftoning pattern is quite noticeable not just in transition areas but uniform areas as well. Overall it gives the prints a coarse look that is unattractive, particularly on out of focus areas with a transition in color or tone. The books were reasonably affordable but not enough of a deal that I’d keep using them.
I had been exploring options like Lulu, Blurb and MyPublisher but had not settled on any of them yet although I was leaning towards MyPublisher based on the reviews of the overall process. I’d love to use Asukabook whose product I saw at the PhotoPlus Expo, unfortunately they only cater to professionals requiring various proof of said status which I lack. Their prices are also quite high although the image quality and overall book quality is second to none from what I looked at.
Recently two new printing options have come to my attention. One of those is SmileBooks, a company based in Europe. Two weeks ago I was asked to provide a review of the total process from creating the book to the finished product and I plan on that being up soon. The other company is Black River Imaging in Missouri. Black River Imaging extended an offer to a regional photography group for a complimentary book which I learned about last weekend. I took the opportunity and put the book together in their software and submitted it to them on Monday. The book arrived today indicating quick turnaround and shipping which is always nice!
The software problem
Not everything about Black River Imaging is nice though. The single biggest flaw in the process is their software. When you produce a book like this almost all of these companies provide a tool for laying out the book and in many ways that tool is the heart and soul and the only real look in to the process that you have. Black River Imaging is like SmileBooks, Blurb or MyPublisher in that you download their program to do this. Shutterfly and Lulu instead rely on a web based tool. Each approach has its ups and downs, I’d rather not have to install more pieces of software I’ve never heard of from multiple different publishing companies but those tend to work better and faster than the web based tools. Black River Imaging managed to figure out how to make their downloadable program entirely a downer.
The first bad sign was that it is Java based. It seems to run out of somewhere in my internet cache rather than being installed like SmileBooks or MyPublisher. I have a love-hate relationship with Java apps generally. While you may not need to install them generally I find they’re slow. This was no exception.
Besides the general performance issues, the software interface and layout was about as poor as I could have imagined. To build your book you have to select the type which is located in a Sizes button that gives you a series of different options. Once you have accomplished that you need to pick the size and cover for the book which is performed in one step. The fun part begins when you want to start selecting layouts for your pages. I wanted a square image centered on each page with a moderate amount of space around each edge. I also wanted to make the page background black rather than white. Doing that wasn’t terribly difficult although it was again buried in a menu (this time called “Options”).
The most frustrating part of this was finding an actual layout with a square image centered in a square page with the border I wanted. There are 176 layouts for an 8×8 square press book which divided among nine separate tabs in the layout browser. That feature could have been made to the user’s advantage if the layouts were placed in tabs by some sort of order or category but instead there seemed to be no organization or reason for why one design was in one tab and a similar design was in another. I found a few layouts that looked like they might be right scattered across a few of the tabs but even then I wasn’t done wrestling with the software. When you apply them you find out that in some cases the square where you want to put the image isn’t an image area, but a text area. Others might be for images but they have a diamond or circular shaped mask that is invisible to the user in the layout browser!
To eliminate the mask or convert that text box to an image box you have to click an obscure button with no tooltip popup that enables a layout editing mode. Now you can right click on the page display and remove the mask or change the “node” type from text to image. I’ve never heard of anything like this called a node, I don’t know what was wrong with layer or object like other programs use. It’s also quite difficult to edit the layout’s shape or size. I have yet to figure out how to grab the box -sorry, that’s a node- and move it around or change its size and shape. I can delete it or add a new custom shaped one though. I should note that until you click that obscure icon to bring up this editing mode right clicking on the page you’re working on does nothing.
When I had finally finished designing my book I really wasn’t sure if I had done anything right. Instead of telling you it is a book and the pages are in order you just have a list of these pages you made which corresponds with the order they’ll appear in the book. The cover you chose is just arbitrarily placed like another item in a shopping list at the very top. I’m happy I wasn’t paying for this because if I had been I would have had no confidence that what I had done would lead to the result I wanted. Unlike other tools there’s no WYSIWYG book preview tool and the overall software experience did not leave me with any confidence.
There is good news about Black River Imaging though. As mentioned the book arrived at my home four days after I submitted the order. Even better, it has a very good professional look and feel to it that easily outclasses the Shutterfly product. The paper is of a heavier weight and a higher quality and have a very uniform high gloss finish. There is no banding and while the halftone pattern is still visible it’s quite fine and not nearly as visible as it is in the Shutterfly prints. Colors are clean and saturated and contrast is very good. They also use hinged pages which lie pretty flat when the book is open adding a nice touch. I had wanted a simple linen cover but the discount code supposedly didn’t apply to those, I had to get the photo cover which is a more expensive option. Surprisingly I’m glad I did, it does look nice as the cover is printed well and has a high quality glossy finish as well that adds some more appeal to the book. Additionally, unlike Shutterfly who uses the back side of the last page to advertise themselves there are no markings in the Black River Imaging book indicating the manufacturer. The Shutterfly books had a value of around $35 and the Black River Imaging book was worth $70. If I were buying from either company in the future I’d go with Black River, the increased price is justified by the final product even if the software is a crime against humanity.
While I’m happy with the results I am axiously awaiting my SmileBooks book to arrive. As mentioned a full and more structured review of their product will be posted here soon. All I can say for the moment is that SmileBooks has provided a better software experience than any of these other services I’ve used or tested out before. I’m unsure if I’d use Black River Imaging again but I can recommend them based on the quality of the product. I’ve already started thinking about laying out that photo book I’ve been planning for a long time in the SmileBooks software though. Even though I haven’t received the book everything I’ve read about them and their parent company and my experience with the software provide me with a good deal of confidence.
If you’re interested you can learn more about Black River Imaging at their website.