Gotta catch up? Wanna try something new? Check out ROAM’s guide to the latest photo album services, from classics to newcomers to high-enders to apps.
By Maryann Jones Thompson
I’m no scientist but I believe in a phenomenon I call “The Photo Lovers Paradox:” The more photos you take, the less photo albums you make (forgive my grammar;)
I am Exhibit A. I take thousands of photos of my kids, my friends, my trips, my dog, my day, and more. They live forever on my phone, laptop and external drives. Some batches are lucky to make it to an article, a photo site, a social media account, but very, very rarely a photo album.
Take the shot above. It’s one of my VERY favorite family photos. On a dive trip to Palau a few years ago, our divemaster grabbed our camera, motioned for us to get together, and started snapping away during a safety stop. Her pix came out better than any of our land-based family portraits. I used this photo on ROAM, on social media, and even on a Christmas card, but it’s never made it into a “Palau 2016” photo book (nor have any of these other pics from that picturesque trip 🙁 )
I’m years behind in making albums from most of our family vacations. A big reason for this is that I take too many photos. That means I get overwhelmed trying to decide which photos to put in. Then I wonder, did my husband, son, or daughter get a shot on their phone that should be included? Are the shots from the underwater in that directory? Did we have GoPro shots too? Do I have to edit each pic? What was the name of that building/critter/vista/person so I can write a caption? Ack! I gotta remember: Done is better than perfect!
My Shutterfly Co-dependency
In fairness, another album production bottleneck is my commitment to making books with Shutterfly. While I am grateful to this pioneering online photo service and they now hold tens of thousands of our pictures, their site and interface are just as ornery as ever. Almost everyone I know uses Shutterfly and almost everyone I know is utterly frustrated by its photo-book making process.
That said, The NY Times’ review site Wirecutter just reviewed the leading photo bookmakers, and guess what? Shutterfly came out atop the ranking. The reviewers say the service makes it “easy to create a clean and simple photo book with image quality on a par with books twice as expensive.”
But as Shutterfly has fluttered along over the years, literally dozens of other photo bookmakers have arrived on the web delivering everything from museum-quality, leather-bound books for posterity to paper-covered snapshot albums pulled straight from your social media feed.
How to Choose a Photo Book Service
While there’s a photo bookmaker for every photographer and traveler, it is tough to do an apples-to-apples comparison between services simply based on price and product. Here are the factors that’ll drive your decision:
- Quality – What kind of cover, paper, finish (matte vs. glossy), binding (layflat vs. not), color, and print quality do you need? Or does none of this matter?
- Price – Do you want to spend $20 or $200 per album? Continuous discounting and coupons are an industry practice. Whatever the budget, NEVER buy a photo book online without a coupon. (If you somehow missed the opening “splash” screen with the coupon code, just go to an incognito browser window and get another one.)
- Convenience – Do you already have all your photos uploaded somewhere that offers photo album services? Do you need to pick it up today, get it next week or can you wait a month? Can you take the time to choose the photos or is it okay to just print every shot, one to a page?
- Layout – Do you want to arrange your photos on the page by yourself ? Or do you want/trust “auto layout” functionality? Do you want special stickers and themes or do you prefer simple layouts?
- Length – Are you like me and want to layout a few hundred photos in each book? That’s gonna add up to a 50- 80-page book – and that’s gonna cost you 😉 Most price quotes are for albums with just 20 pages! (Who are these people with just 20-pages-worth of photos?! I don’t know any of ‘em, that’s for sure…)
Cost-Conscious Buyers Beware!
Another caution on cost: If you have a maximum budget for your album, you need to do a bit of planning and research BEFORE beginning to design your album. Be sure you know how many photos/pages and what type of cover, binding, and other finishes you want and do your best to estimate what that book might cost shipped to your home.
The “From” price points (i.e., “From $19.99” or “From $39.99”) listed for a particular album are for the minimum length (10 or 20 pages), softcover book – a size and presentation rarely sufficient for a family vacation. Shipping costs are another item to keep an eye on.
If you don’t do these cost calculations in advance, you may spend hours laying out and captioning a picture-perfect picture book in a service’s app, only to find that you cannot afford to buy it – and you need to start over at a less expensive bookmaker. (Trust me, I’ve been there!)
30 Photo Book Makers Worth a Look
To find the latest and greatest photo bookmakers, we talked to photographers and travelers and parents. We searched the Web, the expert sites, and social media. We then looked closely at each site to figure out its unique offerings. (All screenshots below are from the service’s site.)
We decided to focus on U.S. services. There are many photo bookmakers around the world but the cost and time to ship an album can make these services less appetizing to American customers. (Though if you’re in Europe, check out these top-rated providers: Bonusprint, Bob Books, Journi, PikPerfect, Resnap, Colorland, Cewe and the Popsa app.)
The collection below contains a list of the photobook-making sites, apps, and retailers we believe travelers will find most compelling in six categories:
- The Classics
- The Contenders
- The High Enders
- The Convenients
- The Behemoths
- The Feed Pullers
- The Apps
- Shutterfly – Ah, good ol’ Shutterfly… They pretty much started the whole world of online custom photo products and their site still looks shockingly similar to when it started two decades ago. This is good and bad: While “the devil you know” can be a good option, as stated above, I am constantly frustrated by its album-maker and hear the same complaints from other photographers. Shutterfly has responded with its “Make My Book” design service that costs only $10 or – as Shutterfly’s never-ending sales and coupons go – free of charge. I must agree that their prices always seems to be the lowest for a quality product and their shipping is lickety-split. They also now offer many premium upgrades, including six-color printing, flush-mounting, and deluxe layflat pages.
- Snapfish – Like Shutterfly, these guys have been around forever. Though price comparisons are tough, Snapfish did seem to be one of the lowest-cost album services out there, according to Wirecutter.
- Picaboo – This early player is still around, offering layflat pages and higher-end covers on its albums, as well as numerous other photo products and gifts.
- Mixbook – Here’s the bookmaker that’s got the buzz right now. Several ROAM contributors love Mixbook. The upload and layout tools are very easy to use; the print quality is great; and they offer several different themes and colors, including many travel-related themes. But if you’re cost-sensitive, Mixbook’s cost per book can be a rude awakening: You’re not in Shutterfly-land anymore.
- Nation’s Photo Lab – Offering high-quality printing and papers, NPL is gathering steam as a leader in the space. Their “Buzz Book” is a compelling softcover option, with 40 pages printed on 100# paper for $15.
- Zno – This SF Bay Area service was born out of frustration with traditional photo lab deliverables. The company began its own processing and service with the aim of providing high-touch quality. Impressively, they do it at a compelling price point.
- Mpix – Another very well-reviewed, American photo lab, MPIX delivers a variety of photobooks at reasonable prices, including their panoramic books – not an easy format to find.
- Papier – If you appreciate great stationery, you will appreciate Papier. The London-based service prints in the U.S. so costs aren’t higher for Continental design-driven albums.
- Social Print Studio – This SF studio delivers a variety of cool photo products. Their style is simple and modern. I love their tiny and tiny and mini books.
- Collage – Photo books are only one of the products offered by this digital photo specialist, but the layouts are easy, the quality is fine, and the reviews are great.
- Pinhole Press – In addition to storybook-caliber photo albums, this service offers an entire line of custom photo books for kids with spiral binding, ready-to-go layouts, board pages, and not-too-expensive pricetags.
- Blurb – This SF-based publisher offers hipster style, simple layouts, a popular app, and uniquely, the ability to self-publish and sell your photo book online.
The High Enders
- Bay Photo – If I needed a travel album with wedding album quality, I would go where the professionals go – Bay Photo. This Santa Cruz company has been making exquisite products for years, and now it offers the same online to amateur photographers, with numerous cover and paper coating options.
- Artifact Uprising – Prices here are double for what you’d get with a classic album – but so are the details. They offer incredible binding, cover and paper choices, as well as board books, which are fun for the tiniest travelers. Weirdly, some of their hardcovers only come with dust jackets, which may not last long with younger, busier hands.
- Flipchap – Though its name sounds like a Chatbook competitor, Flipchap is a highly-rated high-ender, earning the top pick for wedding albums from blogger The Photo Book Guru. Its location in Malaysia enables the studio to deliver a variety of upgraded covers, printing and paper for less.
- Printique – Formerly Adorama Pix, the prints from this service are highly rated by several publications, including Digital Photography Review and Consumer Reports. Their softcover albums are competitively priced and their paper choices are impressive. I found their blog articles helpful for budding photographers who want to raise their “print” game.
- MILK Books – Another “so pretty you’re almost afraid to flip through it” option for your best albums, MILK offers all the high-end finishes and even Moleskin binding to match your travel journals! Customer reviews on TrustPilot are excellent.
- Walmart – As with all products, Walmart delivers for less – and fast! They’ll print you a 20-page, double-sided photo book on the same day! And if you don’t have that kind of time, they’ll do a 15-page, single-sided photo book in one hour!?!
- Walgreen’s – Need a layflat photo book with a custom cover today? They’ve got that. If you’ve got more time, Walgreen’s other photo books are available with free delivery for in-store pickup.
- Costco – Leave it to Costco to come up with bulk discounts for photo books: You can get two 30-page softcover albums for $19.99! They’ve also got a 12” x 12” layflat album of 30-pages for $39.99.
- CVS – If CVS is your preferred photo pickup spot, they’ve got a variety of books for you.
- Google – If you’ve got your photos stored in Google Photos, then their technology aims to help you pick the best shots to put in an album. Of course, their pricing is very competitive.
- Amazon Prints – They control the rest of our shopping so why not give them our photo book business too?! Too true, but even haters will turn their heads at the offer of a 8”x8”, matte-finish, double-thick page, layflat, 20-page album for $22.49 with free shipping for Prime members. We give up, Amazon! Take all our money!
- Apple – The album maker relied upon by so many photographers was discontinued. Apple now works with Motif (see below).
The Feed Pullers
- Chatbook – “I don’t have time to make photo books” says Chatbook’s splash page – as if they’re me! Though the mind-blowing concept of pulling pics from Instagram and printing them into a simple book is what launched the service, they now offer more customization and printing options.
- Pastbook – Where Chatbook is evolving to offer more services, Pastbook is staying true to its “one-click,” instant photo book promise. Put in your Instagram or Facebook account, and it will automatically generate and print you an album. Done and dusted!
- My Social Book – This pioneer in social media feed-photo books is still well-reviewed and relied upon by thousands of travelers.
- Squared – This is a new Europe-based shop but their Retro Prints albums have a unique look, framing shots from your feed in a vintage snapshot or Polaroid-esque white frame. (Granted, this costs more than a basic social-feed book…)
- GrooveBook – I’m attracted to the promise of GrooveBook: Pay them $3.99 and every month, they’ll send me a simple snapshot album of the past four weeks-worth of happenings from my phone. There are a lot of details involved and it might not be the best solution for a vacation photo album, but for day-to-day snaps, I’m in!
- FreePrints – Don’t ask me how the business model works, but the five-star FreePrints app will deliver you a free 5”x7” photo book every month.
- SimplePrints – This album-making iOS and Android app has been around a while but still gets good reviews in the AppStore.
- Motif – When Apple killed its photo album service in 2018, Motif stepped in to replace it. Their iOS app lets you layout pages on your phone (where most of our photos live these days 😉
Maryann Jones Thompson – May 2020
After a thousand years in publishing as a business journalist, ghostwriter, content strategist and market researcher, Maryann brings her experience traveling as a backpacker, businessperson, expat and mom to writing and editing for ROAM.
© ROAM Family Travel 2020 – All rights reserved
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