20 Tips for Designing Your Own Photobook
- Marianne Stenger
- 7th February 2022
- 1. Sian Davey
- 2. Misha Vallejo
- 3. Margot Raggett
- 4. Edgar Martins
- 5. Niall McDiarmid
- 6. Gloria Oyarzabal
- 7. Maryna Brodovska
- 8. Paula Abu
- 9. William Fortescue
- 10. Neus Sola
- 11. Simon Bray
- 12. Mark Carwardine
- 13. Mimi Mollica
- 14. Chris Hoare
- 15. Felix Rome
- 16. Keith Wilson
- 17. Irene Mendez-Cruz
- 18. Tanya Aldcroft
- 19. Lisa Devlin
- 20. David Biggs
British photographer and former psychotherapist Sian Davey’s work focuses on themes of family, community and belonging. Her first photo book Looking for Alice tells the story of her daughter Alice, who was born with Down’s syndrome. Davey has since won numerous awards for her work and gone on to publish her second photo book Martha.
Photographer's tip: “I would say it's important to have clarity around what the story and photo book is about,” says Davey. “I like to share wide edits of the work with people I trust to give me feedback, because you never know what narratives you may have overlooked.”
Ecuadorian photographer and audio-visual storyteller Misha Vallejo’s first photo book, Al Otro Lado, was published in 2016 and documented life in the marginalised and dangerous border region between Ecuador and Colombia. Since then, he has published two more photo books and had work published in media such as The New York Times Lens and Esquire.
Photographer's tip: “The advice I would give is to think hard and long about why your project should be a photo book and cannot be anything else,” says Vallejo.
“As storytellers, we have to be honest about our reasons for making a book, since there are many other ways in which a photographic story could be presented and have greater impact, whether it’s a web presentation, an exhibition or a publication in a magazine.
We also need to be aware that not all nice pictures make a good story if put together. The edit or selection of photographs plays a crucial role in photo books. There are times we need to leave our "babies" or preferred pictures out in order to make the story stronger. This is a very painful thing to do alone as a photographer, which is why I always work with an editor.”
British wildlife photographer and conservationist Margot Raggett is the creator of the acclaimed book series, Remembering Wildlife. The photo books feature images from nearly 200 of the world’s best wildlife photographers, and have now raised nearly £800,000 for conservation projects in 24 countries across Africa and Asia.
Photographer's tip: “With the Remembering Wildlife series, I always aim to tell a narrative through our images and the order in which we show them. Whether it is from birth to old age or night to day, I feel that taking the viewers on a journey is the best way to engage them.”
Portuguese photographer Edgar Martins began his career in photography in London. His award-winning series and two-part photo book, What Photography & Incarceration have in Common with an Empty Vase, was created in collaboration with inmates at a prison in the Midlands region and examines representations of prisoners.
Photographer's tip: His advice for photographers looking to publish their first photo book is; “Don’t rush the book to fit any external deadlines. Get it right. Be ruthless with editing. The whole should always take precedence over the individual image. Also, find a good designer that challenges you, and make sure you work with a printer that is not shy about sending you tests and samples along the way and that respects and understands the artistic process.”
Scottish street and portrait photographer Niall McDiarmid documents the people and landscape of Britain through his photography and his prints are held by the National Portrait Gallery and Museum of London among others. He has also published numerous photo books including Via Vauxhall, South Western, and most recently, Breakfast. His advice for designing a compelling photo book is to find your own path.
Photographer's tip: “I hesitate to give too much advice, as I feel that when I started I was always looking at others’ work, worrying about whether I had the right approach and concerned that my work wouldn't match up with others who had gone before,” he says.
“However, when I stopped listening to advice and just pressed on as hard and fast as I could, that is when things seemed to come together for me. So that would be my advice. Find your own road and keep your pedal to the metal.”
Spanish photographer and visual artist Gloria Oyarzabal has spent years researching the effects of colonialism and infiltration of colonial gender norms in African cultures. The resulting project Woman Go No’gree has received numerous awards, including the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photo book of the Year Award 2020.
Photographer's tip: "Ask yourself what story you want to tell and, above all, why. Later will come the when, how and where,” she says. “Is the story circular or does it have a beginning and an end? Sometimes the narrative is given to you by your own images, so listen to them.”
“Decide on chapters and group them together, this can be by theme, by colour, by movement or by discourse. Order these chapters according to what you find most coherent, funny, accessible, critical, political or emotional. Remember, photo books are meant to be read. Have fun, get excited, and learn to untie yourself from your own pictures. Review your values and ethics. Be skeptical. Be perseverant.”
Ukrainian photographer Maryna Brodovska’s self-published photo book My Dear Vira was shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photo book Awards 2020. The book acts as a letter to her childhood friend who emigrated to the United States and offers a nostalgic look at their friendship, but also touches on the illusion of connection we get through social media.
Photographer's tip: “When you think about building your photo book, you need to understand why this book is important for you personally,” advises Brodovska.
“Don’t think of how to impress someone, just be honest with yourself. Building your photo book is a long but exciting journey, and you will need to have enough motivation to reach the end of it. Try not to copy someone else’s works. Use references carefully and try to find your own voice.”
South London-based documentary, street and editorial photographer Paula Abu also works as the creative director of her own publication The Floor Magazine, which is aimed at supporting up and coming artists of all mediums.
Photographer's tip: “I believe something that’s really important is to ensure that your style is consistent,” she says. “This means that regardless of the context of the images, whether they’re portraits, scenery or fashion, there is always an underlying cohesiveness that allows the book and collection of images to come together with a lot more ease.”
British wildlife photographer and storyteller William Fortescue runs photo safaris in Kenya. His photo book East Africa, which documents some of his travels throughout East Africa, won Book of the Year in 2019.
He points out that in order to pursue a career in photography, you need a portfolio and it’s rare that someone will pay you to create one.
Photographer's tip: “When building a portfolio, focus on things that you love and not what you think someone on social media will like,” he says. “Your passion for your subject will shine through in your work and the more you enjoy something and the greater your knowledge on it the better your images will be. Once you have your portfolio, start to contact the people you want to work with.”
Spanish documentary photographer Neus Sola’s projects focus on issues of identity, gender and ethnic minorities from an anthropological perspective. Her ongoing series “Poupées,” looks at the population of young gypsy girls living in one of the poorest districts in Perpignan, France.
Photographer's tip: "The exercise of transforming a photo series into a book goes through a particular process of reflection that is different from that of an exhibition,” she says.
“With a book, you have to think about aspects such as rhythms, temporality and the connection between images. For example, leaving blank pages or including a series of similar images in a row sets a leisurely pace. The size of the book also matters. A small photo book can have a more intimate connotation, like a diary.
Even the type of paper speaks to what is inside. Although I’m a big fan of matte paper, for my book Poupées I used glossy paper, which reflects the predilection of the gypsy community for gloss. In a book, any choice has to speak. When everything is coherent, the book becomes an object with soul.”
British photographer Simon Bray explores our connections to one another and the places we love. His first photo book, The Edges of These Isles, focussed on the notion of place and journey. He has since published a number of other books, including Siblings and Loved & Lost.
He explains that when it comes to including text in your photo book, captioning is very dependent on the type of imagery being displayed and the preference of the photographer.
Photographer's tip: “Some imagery needs context. A landscape image may well be enhanced by naming the location. A more journalistic type image may need backstory to explain in greater detail what could be a very complex situation that is hard to sum up in an image,” he says.
“Other projects may just need a paragraph at the start to explain the concept of the project or introduce the theme and then let the imagery do the talking. A good rule might be that if you’re trying to caption images but are struggling to know what to write, then maybe it doesn’t need it.”
Renowned conservationist and wildlife photographer Mark Carwardine has written more than 50 best selling wildlife books and guides, including Last Chance to See with Douglas Adams, and the field guide Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. When designing a photo book, he recommends including a variety of images but also stresses the importance of adding only the best ones.
Photographer's tip: “Variety is critical. Be very careful not to put in similar images - every image has to tell a different part of the story,” he says.
“Less is more. Don’t worry about including lots of images, unless they are all front cover shots, of course. Edit ruthlessly and include only your very best shots. Otherwise, if you include mediocre ones, to build up the numbers, the overall impression will be mediocre.”
London-based photographer Mimi Mollica’s photo essays deal with social issues and topics related to identity, environment and migration, among others. His most recent photo book, East London Up Close, is a vibrant and colourful book that highlights the sights, characters, architecture and ever-changing community of London’s East End, which he has called home for more than two decades.
Photographer's tip: “You must trust the people you work with. Choose a good publisher, editor, printer, designer, PR agent and audience too,” he says. “After an editing session, sleep on the sequencing and go back to it after a day or two. Don’t be shy about applying small or even drastic changes. It’s a process. Keep track of the changes by saving each edit or sequence you’ve worked on.”
He also suggests the following strategies during the planning process:
- Think about a flavour you want to give to your book and stay consistent with that idea, with a pertinent design and layout, choice of paper stock and format.
- A book is viewed differently than a slideshow or a wall exhibition, so don’t assume that a sequence you worked on for a show would automatically be suitable for book format.
- If you feel overwhelmed by the chaotic amount of images you are considering for a book, it’s time to start coupling images and building up small sequences that make sense together. Eventually you will put these sequences together and form longer blocks.
- Don’t be afraid to “kill” some images you’re emotionally or personally attached to, as they might not necessarily fit within the narrative you’re creating.
- Print out whatever you are working with, whether small prints or pdfs of your InDesign. This will help you gather a more realistic feel for what you’re creating.
Throughout 2020, photographer Chris Hoare documented a community of allotment-goers as well as the Bristol landscape and seasonal changes across its official and unofficial growing spaces. The resulting photographs, commissioned by Bristol Photo Festival, have been published in his photo book Growing Spaces, and coincide with the inaugural summer festival.
Photographer's tip: “When making a photo book, for me it has always been really important to have help with trusted friends and colleagues,” he says.
“When working on the sequence, which often takes longer than you think, it’s about not settling with the first edit, but gradually tweaking it over and over. It is of course super subjective to get it right, as what is right is just what feels to work at the time of doing it. But, through conversations and a critical way of looking at the pictures, it always seems to get where you want it in the end.”
Nature and wildlife photographer Felix Rome published his first photo book Wild Knight with Bob Books. It showcases some of the unique wildlife in Knight Inlet in British Columbia, Canada. To document the changes through the seasons, he spent months camping in the wilderness.
Photographer's tip: “Design is an important feature of a photo book,” he says. “Allowing the images to breathe will create the greatest impact. Not every image is going to be amazing, so selecting only a few top images to be double page spreads will create a deeper impression on the viewer. At the end of the day the main focus of the book is the images, so make them stand out. It’s easy to create a photo book, but hard to make a good one. The story is everything.”
Award-winning writer, journalist and photo editor Keith Wilson has made a name for himself as an editor of fine art photography books, including the first two books in the Remembering Wildlife series and Photographers Against Wildlife Crime.
Photographer's tip: “When it gets to the point of working from a 'shortlist' for inclusion in a book, I like to work with prints,” he says. This might sound very technologically low grade, but in my opinion there is nothing better than laying out a whole bunch of 4x6in prints to work out which pictures to keep.”
“It's imperative that you look at the prints in relation to each other; they have to make sense to each other, whether as part of the whole story or within a self-contained chapter. You may have four or five photos which are in effect illustrating the same point, but there's only room for one. So you have to be ruthless, even if it means casting aside a picture that is a personal favourite.
A photo book will make no sense for the reader if all the images are wonderful singles yet remain disconnected from each other. So, by looking at one hundred or more small prints on the floor at once, you can pick and choose, rearrange the order, find the gaps that need to be filled, and decide on the start and finish, all in a very efficient way.”
French-Venezuelan marine & natural history researcher and photographer Irene Mendez-Cruz designed her first photo book Kiss of the Oceans as a celebration of the diverse, yet fragile marine life of the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Panama.
Photographer's tip: “To make a strong photo book, my advice would be to have a clear idea of the narrative of your book first. Ideally before you even shoot the project,” she says. “Once you have the structure and the text figured out, you can then choose the images that will best serve the purpose of each chapter.”
“Choosing images is a very personal process and as a photographer you need to trust your instincts. I find that often the problem is having too many images and having trouble downsizing. If you don’t know which ones to take out of the final selection, start by choosing the ones that you absolutely can’t do without. It is very enriching to get feedback from others as they might see something or feel a connection with an image that you might have otherwise ignored.”
Wedding and family photographer Tanya Aldcroft regularly designs customised photo books for her clients. She points out that the most challenging aspect of designing a photo book is the photo selection, and this is especially true if there are a lot of images to choose from or if the photos she’s using are not her own.
Photographer's tip: “The most enjoyable aspect is creating the layout and aesthetic on the page, be it making colours compliment each other or producing a montage of special and complimentary moments,” she says.
Award-winning wedding photographer Lisa Devlin often creates wedding photo books for her clients. She points out that it’s important to make an impact with the cover so that the book stands out as something special.
Photographer's tip: “It might be on a shelf or coffee table but you want to create something that they really want to show off,” she says. “I like full image covers with some simple text, like their names or the wedding date and sometimes choose an image that fits well across the back cover too. I do the cover at the end so that I can make it look like a good introduction to what is inside.”
Wildlife photographer David Biggs published his beautiful wildlife photo book with Bob Books and won the Book of the month competition in March 2020. His image Champagne Starlings also bagged him a top spot in the British Wildlife Photography Awards.
Photographer's tip: When it comes to designing an engaging photo book, he says one important thing photographers can do is ask a few trusted people for feedback. “Try to get at least three people to give you an honest opinion on what they think of the content and the layout.”