5 Things to Keep in Mind When Designing a Photo Book

Marianne Stenger
25th October 2016

Whether you’re a professional photographer or view it more as a hobby, creating your own photo book is a great way to showcase your best work and use your photos creatively, not to mention that seeing your work in print for the first time can be very satisfying.

The process of designing a photo book can strengthen your photography skills too, because you’ll be forced to examine your photos more closely and think about the meaning behind each one.

Not sure where to start? We asked Simon Bray, a Manchester-based photographer who recently self-published his own photography book The Edges Of These Isles, to share a few tips on how to pick a theme, choose an effective layout and include the right information.

1. Work out your book’s theme or motive

The first thing you’ll need to do when you create a photo book is work out the book’s purpose. Are you hoping to create a strong portfolio that demonstrates your capabilities as a photographer? Or maybe you’re looking to commemorate a recent trip you took?  

“If you know why you are taking the images in the first place, it’ll be much easier to convey a sense of narrative to your viewer,” says Bray.

“It can be tempting at an early stage in your development as a photographer to pick out your best or favourite images and print them out, which is a lovely exercise for you, but not a very constructive way to share your work with anyone else,” he explains.

Instead, he suggests building a project that has a theme, motive or story, so there is something that ties it all together.

“With my recent project The Edges Of These Isles, I knew that I would be shooting landscape work in six locations across the UK alongside an artist. This gave us a great framework to begin with, and allowed us to work within those self imposed guidelines without restricting our creative freedom.”

2. Select photos that fit your theme

Once you know what the photo book’s purpose or theme is, it’s time to start selecting photographs that fit with your vision.

“Selecting the right photos is a tricky business,” Bray says. “Photographers new and old fall into the trap of picking out their favourite shots, or the ones that felt the best at the time of shooting, which often doesn’t lead to a strong edit.”

One thing he recommends when selecting photos is printing out your potential images as 6”x4” prints. This gives you something physical to work with and allows you to see how the images correspond, determine whether there are common themes, colours, shapes, tones, and start pairing up images.

“Keep a record of what you’ve decided and then ask a trusted photographer to do the same and see if they pick out different combinations to you,” he advises. “It will get you thinking about how images respond to each other and bring something greater to the book than if they were single images.”

He adds that studying your favourite photo books can also help. How have the photographers edited, sequenced and displayed their images? How does the book feel to read from start to finish?

3. Give the photographs enough space

The layout of your photo book is another important aspect to consider, and working out how much space each photograph should be given is a big part of the process.

“Some images need a lot of room to breathe, with white space around them that acts as a border, while others you’ll want to fill the page with to immerse the viewer into the scene,” Bray explains.

Of course, if you don’t feel confident designing your own book, you can always ask a designer to help you, although you should definitely be involved in the ordering, sequence and edit of the book.

“For the Edges Of These Isles, we employed a designer to help us with the layout,” says Bray. “It’s amazing how a fresh set of eyes can see new ways to complete a page and even make fairly small adjustments that end up making a considerable difference to the reader experience.”

4. Think about the text you want to include

Since obviously your photo book is all about the photos, the captions or descriptions you include may not seem all that important, but you’ll still need to think about them. Bray says captioning is very dependent on the type of imagery being displayed as well as the preference of the photographer.

“Some imagery needs context. For instance, landscape imagery may well be enhanced by naming the location, whereas a more journalistic type image may need back-story to explain in greater detail what could be a very complex situation that’s hard to sum up in an image.

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.”

His own recently published book focussed on the notion of place and journey, so he says it felt right to offer descriptions of the personal experiences they had on their trips rather than the imagery. But if you’re trying to caption images and find yourself struggling to know what to write, maybe you don’t need to include any at all.

5. Have fun with it

Creating your own photo book should be an enjoyable process, so try to have some fun with it. “It doesn’t need to be stressful, just take your time and think about the details. If you can get it right, it’ll be a delight to hold in your hands and share with people,” says Bray.

“The best way to learn is by doing it, and these days you don’t have to find a publisher or have loads of people chipping in, because creating your own photo book and releasing your work into the world has become far more affordable.”

Of course, it’s still a good idea to take your time and make sure you’re displaying a concise and meaningful body of work, as this will carry more weight and significance than if you’d just compiled a load of images that you shot at the weekend.

“We spent two and a half years working on The Edges Of These Isles before it was published, which is a long time to be holding back images from shoots that you really want to share, but it was worth the wait. Give yourself a reason to take the photos and once you’ve set those boundaries, you can build something that has meaning and will translate into a great book.”

Simon Bray is a photographer based in Manchester, UK. He has just self-published his first book, The Edges Of These Isles, a landscape collaboration with artist Tom Musgrove, which exhibited at The Whitworth, Manchester. He is also currently working on a documentary project exploring loss, called Loved&Lost, as well as undertaking commercial work.

To find out more about his latest project, watch the film and purchase the book you can visit: www.theedgesoftheseisles.com