In the era of smartphone photography, photo albums usually become slideshows on Facebook or part of the scrolling feed on Instagram. But with Americans snapping over 10 billion photos a month — and using increasingly capable camera phones — there's never been a better time to print out favorite memories to create anything from a personalized gift to an intimate documentary.
We scoured the web for the best photo book services to suit a variety of projects, including uber-personalized albums with notes and illustrations no-frills options and heavyweight coffee table books.
Best Photo Book Services
|Techlicious Top Pick for:||Award Winner||In a nutshell|
|Best for customization||Mixbook||A comprehensive photo book creator with tons of customization features|
|Best for unique styles||Pinhole Press||For creating sleek, modern photo books in a variety of shapes and page lengths|
|Best for quick and easy layouts||Montage||An express photo album creator that works by auto-sorting your pictures into one of a few layouts|
|Best for giving as a gift||Blurb||A desktop publishing tool for pro-level photo projects|
|Best allround||Shutterfly||A feature-heavy photo album creator with great choices for covers and paper|
The important factors we looked for were:
- Ease of use: Is the software straightforward for adding photos and customizing layouts?
- Customizability: Do you want the option to add text and flourishes, or do you prefer a simpler end result?
- Upload sources: Will you be using photos from social media or online photo storage sites, or are most of your pictures on your hard drive?
- Editing features: Will you want to tweak photos inside the photo app, or do you have a separate photo editing app?
- Cost: Basic albums may vary from $15 to $30, with more for features such as leather covers, heavier paper and lie-flat binding.
Costs begin at about $16 for a 20-page book and go over $100 for larger books with premium paper and covers. Careful shopping often turns up discounts of 20 percent to 40 percent.
It's a good idea to select the pictures you want to use ahead of time to give you an idea which size book you might want. Pricing for additional pages can push the cost well over what you would have paid if you'd chosen a thicker book to start with.
The best for customization: Mixbook
This is the photo book site to choose if you are intent on — and have the hours to devote to creating — a super-customized album with photos you edit within the interface, layouts you tweak and exchange for others, and plenty of stickers, backgrounds and text boxes for polishing the results.
Mixbook will warn you when you upload pictures from Facebook or Instagram that have been compressed and may not print well or when you zoom in too far on pictures already placed within the album.
There are over 200 designer themes in categories such as Romance, Wedding, Kids and Seasonal containing thousands of backgrounds and stickers (bats, hearts and words such as Dream or Happiness) for adding a personal (if sometimes twee) flourish to every page.
Many themes come with preset quotes that you may find inspirational or cheesy. They're easily deleted or amended.
Though some of the themes feature a heavy-handed, guided style, the Everyday options — particularly the blank and portfolio themes — contain more elegant templates.
If all this customizability is too much, use an AutoFill feature to populate your album with uploaded pics, then rearrange any offenders later.
The result: Choose from softback, hardback or leather-bound albums, with the option of lie-flat pages that don't bump over the spine or the cheaper, eco-friendly satin finish option. Album sizes can be square, landscape or portrait.
Ease of use: The editor interface crams in tons of features, but it only takes playing around with a few pictures to grasp it all.
Customizability: Very high. You can edit pictures for brightness, contrast and saturation as well as reflect, zoom and add black-and-white or sepia filters, drop shadows and reflections. Stickers, frames and wallpapers can be tweaked on every page.
Upload sources: Computer, Facebook, Picasa, SmugMug, Flickr, PhotoBucket, Instagram.
Delivery time: Four to 11 business days.
Cost: From $15.99 for a softback 8”x6” 20-page book; up to $126.98 for a hardcover 12”x12” book with lie-flat paper.
Returns: Yes, or reprints. You pay return postage.
You'll love: The ability to invite collaborators. With the huge range of design features available, having friends and family add their own touches can create a uniquely personal album for the lucky recipient.
But: Many of the 200 themes contain cheesy phrases or cartoony illustrations. For example, a Christmas template with bells and season's greetings makes for a prefabricated sort of style that's not so personal.
The best for unique style: Pinhole Press
If you're after something sleeker, Pinhole Press offers a great variety of photo book styles. While other sites require at least 20 pictures to make a book, this one can print an accordion fold-out Brag Book with eight photos, spiral-bound soft books for 13 photos and standard cloth or leatherbound books for anywhere from 40 to 181 photos.
There's also a cute album intended for babies. The Big Storybook is designed to hold portraits with name captions in big type to help the newest member of the family learn who's who. Apparently, it's been used by Martha Stewart.
The album creation interface is comparatively no frills, great if you don't want to sink too much time into jazzing up the album with various backgrounds and effects. Instead, a modern home page shows what type of book you can choose along with the price and number of photos required conveniently displayed. Clicking through takes you straight to the album editor.
Uploading pictures is simple. As with other services, you'll get a warning if you're trying to upload a picture that is likely not to print well.
Pinhole Press also creates other photo gifts, including a full suite of wedding-related items such as invitations, guest books and, of course, photo albums of the big day.
The result: You can create spiral-bound or cloth-covered soft and hardback books, panoramic albums where spreads lie flat (no break when photos take up two pages)and cute accordion fold-out albums that hold fewer than 10 photos. Paper can be matte or glossy.
Ease of use: Excellent. A streamlined home page clearly shows the different types of books you can make. Album creation is done via a simple drag-and-drop interface.
Customizability: Low. You can rotate pictures once they're placed, but you can't zoom or shift like you can with Mixbook and Montage. However, if you're more focused on the hard copy product, Pinhole Press offers great variety.
Upload sources: Hard drive, Facebook, Instagram.
Delivery time: Four business days.
Cost: From $24.99 for eight-photo album; $74.99 for the signature 98-photo 8 1/4”x10” hardcover.
Returns: Yes, with refund. If the mistake is in print, you can request reprints within 15 days of receiving your order.
You'll love: Being able to choose mini-albums for as few photos as eight or heavier books to document big occasions that spawn up to 180 photos.
But: Photos saved online (say, from Facebook or Instagram) have to be downloaded beforehand, which can be a hassle if your main photo collection is housed at a site such as Picasa or Flickr.
The best for quick and easy layouts: Montage
If you're not up to designing spreads and micromanaging the placement of every photo, Mixbook's speedy little offshoot Montage can quickly create a leatherbound photo book from pictures on your hard drive or online photo storing sites including Instagram. Once you upload your photos, Montage tosses the ones that are blurry or underexposed, then automatically sorts the rest into a handful of different designs, from a double-page picture overlaid with a second, smaller pic to magazine-style layouts of five photos. All pages lie flat, so that photos printed the full width of the open book don't break across the gutter.
On the cover is a random mix of photos inside that you can edit. You can add a title to the cover, but you can't adjust the font or size of this title.
You can fine tune photo placement or head straight to choosing the size of photo book you want: 6”x6”, 8”x8”, 10”x10” or 12”x12”, with the option to upgrade with silver halide printing for a glossier, smoother look and feel and a fitted gift box.
The result: A hardback photo album with cushiony leather covers and lie-flat pages in a silk, semi-gloss paper.
Ease of use: The streamlined web interface is intuitive and quick to upload pictures. The lack of additional frills for the photo book means you can go from choosing pictures to checkout in about 15 minutes.
Customizability: Minimal. You can adjust the placement of the photos and pick from around 10 design themes for the background of the album, ranging from simple outlines to geometric backdrops.
Upload sources: Hard drive, Facebook, Picasa, SmugMug, Amazon Cloud Drive, Flickr, Dropbox, Instagram.
Delivery time: 7 to 8 business days.
Returns: Yes, free, for up to 90 days.
Cost: From $21.75 for 6”x6” up to $74.25 for 12”x12”, with standard features. At the time of writing, a 25 percent discount was in effect.
Returns: Yes, sender pays postage, but you can return it any time.
You'll love: The auto-sorting of your pics into designer layouts, including removal of the low-quality ones.
But: There are no editing features or ability to add captions. Automatic collage-style spreads means that ideally, the pictures you choose for the album should have at least a tenuous link to each other.
The best for giving as a gift: Blurb
If your goal isn't so much a personalized photo gift as it is a showcase of some unforgettable photographs, Blurb can help you create that perfect book from scratch. Primarily a self-publishing platform for novels and photography books, the service has several templates for personal books such as travel, family and wedding albums.
You'll have to download a desktop publishing client first, either a plug-in for Adobe InDesign or the standalone BookWright, a layout tool that lets you drag and drop photos onto the pages of your book-to-be. Book shapes can be square, portrait or landscape.
You can also assign preset layouts such as side-by-side portraits, two horizontal images or a single image centered in white space, allowing you to place photos in almost any configuration.
Photos are not auto-fitted. Instead, you shift and zoom to get the effect you want. Optional guidelines help you line up photo edges and get specific with exact distances. If there's a caption, memory or even entire short story necessary to pair with an image, you can add text boxes anywhere, at any size. A full text editor allows text and font changes, letter sizing and web linking (for e-book versions).
If you're making a book to sell, there are easy links to distribute it through Blurb itself as well as Amazon and iBooks.
Not surprisingly for a site aimed at semi-professional creators, BookWright is all about high-res snaps. You can upload photos only from your hard drive, but Blurb's Bookify web editor lets you create 7”x7” 60-page books from Facebook or Instagram pictures.
The result: A coffee table book with classy covers, heavyweight paper and the option to distribute in print or digitally through Blurb.com, Amazon or iBookstore.
Ease of use: The desktop publishing software BookWright is straightforward to use, with preset layouts to assign to each page of the photo book. You can also download starter templates if you're not sure where to begin. That said, Blurb is aimed at semi-pros, and using it requires more time and more of a vision of what you want to end up with.
Customizability: High. But unlike Mixbook, which hurls features, backgrounds and effects at you, the customization here comes from the bare-bones album template you start with. You also get more choice in cover type, paper type and trim size.
Upload sources: Hard drive, Flickr, SmugMug, 500px, Instagram, Facebook
Delivery time: Seven to 11 business days.
Cost: For a 20-page book from $14.99 for 7”x7” softcover book with standard paper; $33.99 for a 10”x8” hardcover landscape book with dust jacket and matte paper.
Returns: You can get a replacement only if original is damaged or defective.
You'll love: If you have a vision for a high-quality photo book and the photographs to match, Blurb gives you the power to execute it just so.
But: If your aim is simply to knock out a cute Christmas or birthday gift, a simpler site for casual users is probably more your speed.
The best all around: Shutterfly
The original photo gift creator Shutterfly has an extra string to its bow: free, unlimited photo storage for camera and hard drive pictures.
Once you've uploaded your photos from your hard drive, Facebook or Instagram, create photo albums based on one of over 200 templates (45 if you choose the auto-created Simple Path instead of Custom Path). Like Mixbook, many of these have a somewhat gaudy style with embellishments, patterned backdrops and colored frames. If that's your style, there's plenty to please; if not, you’ll find plainer options that are easy to tweak toward an even more low-key look.
The AutoFill option can chronologically sort and place photos, which you can rearrange later if necessary. Layouts are displayed in a vertical toolbar, with the current photo spread in the main window so that if you prefer a particular configuration, you can easily assign it.
Choosing the so-called Simple Path in theory allows you to create a photo book more quickly, but it limits your ability to move pictures, add or remove text boxes or edit text font and color. If you're after a particular style for your book — for example, no text boxes or a clean look — going for the full-featured Custom Path gives you the tools to do that along with options for premium-feel covers and paper.
The result: Pick from cloth, matte, leather or linen covers or go premium with crushed silk. Photo books can be sized from square 7”x7” to 12”x12” or 8"x11" to 11"x14" landscape, with options for lie-flat paper to show off those double-page spreads.
Ease of use: Though the album editor has several tools for adjust layouts and tweaking embellishments, the system is fairly simple to get to grips with.
Customizability: High. Even with the supposedly low-fuss Simple Path, you can easily pick photo configurations you prefer based on dozens of preset layouts that mix and match picture sizes and text boxes for captioning.
Upload sources: Hard drive, Facebook, Instagram, Shutterfly; this is a bona fide photo storage service too.
Delivery time: Three to seven business days.
Cost: From $15.99, 7”x9” book; $219.99 for a 11”x14” book with crushed silk cover and lie-flat pages.
Returns: Yes, no-quibble refunds.
You'll love: The high-quality options for album covers and heavyweight paper.
But: Though Shutterfly's Simple Path can quickly create an auto-sorted photo album, if you prefer a cleaner look (read: no text boxes and cutesy frames), you'll still have to put in some work cherrypicking your preferred layouts within the album, which is more complex than Montage (see above).
Best Photo Book Services Compared
|In a nutshell||A comprehensive photo book creator with tons of customization features||For creating sleek, modern photo books in a variety of shapes||An express photo album creator that works by auto-sorting your pictures into one of a few layouts||A desktop publishing tool for pro-level photo projects||A feature-heavy photo album creator with great choices for covers and paper|
|Ease of use||Intuitive, modern, fresh interface||Streamlined interface guides you through uploading and rearranging||Album creator is quick, simple to use||Must download a desktop client; more complex than other services yet still straightforward||Many features in streamlined web editor, easy layout tweaks|
|Customizability||Very high; dozens of layouts, embellishments and backgrounds||Low; pictures can't be edited or moved once they're placed; wide choice of photo books, covers and paper||Minimal: rearrange, zoom in or out or change themes||High; more text functionality than any other service||Very high; assign preferred layouts to each page and kill or add embellishments and captions|
|Upload sources||Hard drive, Facebook, Picasa, SmugMug, Flickr, PhotoBucket, Instagram||Hard drive, Facebook, Instagram||Hard drive, Facebook, Google Photos, SmugMug, Amazon Cloud Drive, Flickr, Dropbox, Instagram||Hard drive, Flickr, SmugMug, 500px; Blurb also has a Bookify web service for creating books exclusively from Facebook or Instagram pictures||Hard drive, Facebook, Instagram, Shutterfly|
|Editing||Yes; effects and photo-fixing||No||No||Minimal; rotations and reflections||Yes, filters|
|Cost of basic album||$15.99, 8”x6” softcover||$24.99, 8-photo accordion album||$29, 6”x6” lay-flat hardcover||$14.99, 7”x7” softcover||$15.99, 7”x9” 20-softcover|
|You'll love …||The ability to invite friends to add and edit photos||The unique hard copy formats||How fewer choices lets you create a snazzy photo album in minutes||The ability to execute your vision||Premium options like crushed silk covers and lie-flat pages|
|But ...||Many of the themes go overkill on embellishments, so you'll have to hunt for low-key options||Considering the options for small-scale photo books that don't need high resolution, an inability to upload from Facebook and Instagram feels an omission||You can't change the cover title font||It's not for the casual photo album creator; you'll need time and a vision||Despite the auto-create option, this can still require quite a bit of manual work, especially for a simple look|
[Images via Mixbook, Pinhole Press, Montage, Blurb and Shutterfly.]
Updated on 9/13/2016