Stop pixel peeping and start printing: How to plan your first photo book: Digital Photography Review

There are a lot of people I’ve met in my photographic (and writing) career who want to publish their own books but dismiss it as an unattainably lofty goal. Creating a photo book is indeed long, hard work, but it’s straightforward if you have an organized plan, a clear vision, and a solid understanding of the final format in which you want to distribute it. I’ve created several online-only photo books and even a physical photo book, a collection called Postcards from the End of the World, published by Carrara Books in 2022. While each book I’ve assembled presented unique challenges, it was worth the effort to see them to fruition.

I’m going to share what I’ve learned in the process of publishing my books – both digital and physical – so if you want to see your name on the cover of a photo book someday, you’ll know exactly what it’ll take.

Shooting a theme

Your book’s theme is the most crucial part of the process, as the choices you make here will influence every other decision further down the line. The photos should be the driving force of your book, and everything else should be tailored to bolster their impact on readers.

Fire season in Reno, NV.

ISO 800 | 1/500 sec | F6.3 | Nikon D750 + Sigma 50mm F1.4

Photo: Victoria Scott

Looking for recurring themes in your own work can be a great way to begin work on your first photo book if you’re unsure where to start. For some of my photo books, I don’t have a clear idea exactly what the ‘plot’ – or ‘gallery theming’, if you prefer – is going to look like beforehand.

Instead, in my day-to-day shooting, I discover repeated motifs in my work and then try to imagine ways to build upon them. For my physically-published book, Postcards From the End of the World, I began by shooting a lot of apocalyptic-looking images of abandoned places without any real plan to make a book out of them. (Fire season in Nevada has a way of helping that process along.)

A ‘Postcard’ from the ‘End of the World’.

ISO 160 | 1/2000 sec | F4.5 | Nikon D750 + Sigma 50mm F1.4

Photo: Victoria Scott

It was only when I’d taken a lot of these images that I developed a plan for a book based on the images I already had. The photo book would be an imagining of what it would be like to be the last person to shoot photos of the planet, and it would cover a fictional ‘journey’ from middle America to the Pacific. I went through my galleries from the past year of shooting abandoned places to find more images that would work for the theme and then rounded out the project with a few specific trips for vistas that would complete the book’s vision.

The Pilgrimage.

ISO 64 | 1/2500 sec | F2.8 | Nikon D750 + Sigma 50mm F1.4

Photo: Victoria Scott

If you’d rather get started on making your book faster or you don’t have a large gallery you can pull from, you can just go out and make a book from scratch. For my first online photo book, The Pilgrimage, I decided to venture into the deserts of my then-home Nevada on a long weekend, and I wanted to return home three days later with enough photos to publish a book.

A storyboard is crucial when starting from scratch, especially in a compressed time frame. It doesn’t need to be a fully drawn-out storyboard like a director would have for a movie since it’s especially tricky to visualize what shots you’ll be able to take once you’re out in the world.

The layout for Postcards From the End of the World in InDesign features a ‘postcard’ design and one of my chosen images.

Instead, make a list of the general emotions and story you want your finished book to have, plus a ‘dream list’ of places you could find that would make for specifically strong imagery. Having at least one location planned – ideally for an introduction or conclusion that can guide the rest of the photos you take – is also a fantastic idea, as it will help shape the places you look for. In The Pilgrimage, I knew a few things: that it would be a tale about a lonely traveler making a journey to a strange place with religious overtones and that I would conclude the trip at an art installation in Goldfield, Nevada.

The finished product after I printed the book. The path from InDesign to printing was long but worth it.

Even though I was heading into the desert to places I’d never been, I brought a list of ideal scenes I was seeking (anything that depicted scarcity: empty water towers, abandoned gas stations) and sought them out. I also brought a few props (a vintage dress, a lantern) for specific shots I had on my storyboard dream list, and I used myself as a stand-in for a model when necessary.

“Make a list of the general emotions and story you want your finished book to have.”

I shot hundreds of photos over the span of two days. I returned home, organized a completed photo book by the third day, and published it online on the fourth day, right as I returned to work from my long weekend. The days were long, but forcing myself to a tight timeframe ensured I finished it, and the motivational boost of releasing my work into the world was phenomenal.

Formatting and printing

For this self-portrait project, I edited my images to look like wet-plate photographs to best serve the theme.

Photo: Victoria Scott

Whether you pre-plan your collection from the start or discover a throughline in your Lightroom catalog, transforming it from a bunch of photos to a coherent collection is just as important as taking the shots. First, as with any focused gallery of work, you should choose a cohesive editing style.

In the shots above from my series Self-Portraits of My Past Lives, the goal was to emulate the photographic look of the era I was attempting to mimic. The shots were, therefore, edited with various tools from the Nik Collection to simulate wet-plate photography or vintage films (despite being shot on a digital camera). Much more subtle techniques are also acceptable, of course!

With The Pilgrimage, every shot is either 2.39:1 or 4:3, alternating. The black background was chosen to make the desert lighting feel brighter.

You should also choose a crop format you plan to publish with, and even if all your photos are not the same format, there should be just a handful you use in order to make it feel strongly themed. For The Pilgrimage, I chose alternating crops of 2.39:1 and 4:3 to evoke both cinematic and television Westerns of the past, as it fit the mood I wanted to conjure. I laid out the photos in Adobe Indesign, where I do all my book layouts.

“I recommend physically printing out your photos first to choose your sequencing.”

Your crop formats may need to change based on the book and the style of printing you’d like. There are almost no boundaries in a digital book, but physical printers often have a small list of available formats. (Usual safe book printing sizes for the US are 8×11″, 12×12″, or 11×14″.) If you do choose to print the book, I recommend physically printing out your photos first to choose your sequencing and ensure that every image looks as good as possible when printed at full size.

When creating Self-Portraits of My Past Lives, I released it as a digital publication but allowed myself generous bleed margins and a square (easy-to-print) format so that if I choose to re-release it with a physical book later, I still can.

If you have a very specific vision that is an uncommon format, it can be virtually impossible to find someone able to print it. This was a problem I ran into with Postcards From the End of the World, where I wanted a 4×6″ borderless book to make the images look like real postcards. Finding a printer was difficult and required ordering in bulk rather than print-to-order.

Sending it into the world

Postcards From the End of the World was primarily sold on my publisher’s website. I promoted it via social media and word-of-mouth.

Now that your book has been created, it’s time to let people see it. For a digital publication, there are a variety of hosting platforms that independent creators can use. In the past, I’ve launched digital PDF-format books on itch.io and Gumroad; I use Gumroad exclusively now for its seamless Stripe integration and flat 10% fee, which means I get my money quickly. Neither site charges a sign-up fee; they only take a percentage of what you sell. If you’d rather release your work into the world without charging, both sites also allow you to list your book as a free download.

‘The most rewarding part of printing a book is getting to share a carefully curated version of the world through your eyes.’

For physical books, Blurb offers a variety of print sizes and styles and features simple Amazon integration, as well as its own bookstore, to dropship books through. It also hosts its own book-design tool if you would rather avoid a complicated app like InDesign. If you plan to handle shipping yourself (or don’t plan on selling your book), traditional printing outlets such as Bay Photo and White House Custom Color offer book printing in smaller quantities. (For Postcards From the End of the World, I had a publisher which allowed me to bulk-order, so I used Printsquare.)

Regardless of what you choose, the most rewarding part of printing a book is getting to share a carefully curated version of the world through your eyes.

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