First smile, first bite of food, first plane trip. I’m only a year into parenthood and I’m already drowning in a virtual sea of digital images. But the real problem is that all these photos sit in oblivion on my hard drive, seemingly never to see the light of a photo album.

If I’m overwhelmed, then I’m sure you are too. So I spent a few weeks reviewing eight photo book Web sites to find the best books for price, quality, and time spent creating. For encouragement, I talked to Richmond-based Sherry Petersik, a mother of two who documents her house renovations with her husband, John, for the blog Young House Love.

Petersik first made the switch from traditional photo albums to printed photo books in 2011, when she became dismayed by how much space albums took up on her shelves—not to mention how much time it took to print out the photos and assemble the albums. “It was an emotional decision for me,” she says, “I always felt behind.”

Now Petersik and her husband John are able to fit five years of photos in the same amount of space that one traditional album took up. And they document a year’s worth of adventures in only a few evenings at the end of the year.

Another reason to go with printed albums? Most companies will keep your photos and books stored indefinitely. Should a book get lost or destroyed, simply order another. Plus, Petersik says, “We think that the quality of photo books is nicer than albums with shiny sleeves.” I agree. Whether you’re creatively challenged, or you want to challenge your inner Martha, I think you’ll be able to find a photo book here that’s picture perfect for you.

With $780 million in revenue and 22 billion photos that it hosts in the cloud, Shutterfly is the market leader in photo books—with a Good Housekeeping seal of approval to boot. Choose one of seven sizes in Custom Path to select the layout templates yourself or one of five sizes in Simple Path to have the photos arranged for you. Then choose from more than 200 book themes. And the optional add-ons are endless: custom dust jacket, crushed silk cover, lay-flat pages, adhesive memorabilia pocket. Photo editing tools can correct for red eye and create special effects, but not much else.

Once your photo book is done, you can get a free digital version to share on Facebook and e-mail, and also on your iPad via the company’s Photo Story app. Shutterfly promises to store your photos forever, making it easy to order one of their myriad other photo products, including wall art, mugs, throw pillows, tablet cases, calendars, and cards.

A hardcover 8-inch-by-11-inch book costs $39.99 for 20 pages, and then $1.00 for each additional page (max of 111 pages), but Shutterfly customers know to wait for the inevitable deal to arrive in their in-box or mailbox.

Already deep into Apple’s ecosystem? Then try iPhoto’s software for a quick way to turn those photos into books. We like that you can edit the photos for quality, red eye, and even blemish removal right in the bookmaking process, and that when you drop an additional photo in the book, it updates the layout—even if you place a vertical photo in a horizontal spot. The synergy between how Apple users’ store photos and this photo tool is hard to beat, and limited template options makes for a faster production process. There are 18 themes to choose from, all of which would make for a tasteful, modern, clean-lined album. A hardcover 8-½-by-11-inch book costs $29.99 for 20 pages, and then $0.99 for each additional page; max of 100 pages.

We found Blurb’s entry-level Bookify software to be polished, intuitive—and most of all, addictive. Just upload your photos to the photobar— Bookify can slurp up photos easily from your computer, Dropbox, iPhoto, Picasa, Flickr, and more. (If you have a family blog, Blurb can even turn that into a photo book with its BookSmart tool.) Then you simply select a layout template and drop the photos in. For photo paper books, you can choose between only five book sizes and four book styles, but here the limited selection is welcome because the options are timeless. Nothing kitschy.

Additional features—organize photos on the photobar by date or filename or a custom sorting, see only the photos not already placed, flip a layout to be right or left-handed—were things we found ourselves wishing for when testing out the competition. The company claims that you can make a book in as little as one to two hours, but if you’re like us, once you get started you may not want to stop. Bonus: Connect Blurb to your Instagram or Facebook account to make an even quicker book. A hardcover 8-inch-by-10-inch book with an image-wrap cover costs $31.99 for 20 pages, and then $0.40 for each additional page; max of 440 pages with standard paper and 240 for heavier paper.
FOR PRO PHOTOS: Pinhole Press
The books at Pinhole Press are elegant, contemporary, and put the emphasis where it belongs: the photos. The software is just as simple as the book designs—though there’s no ability to fix photo flaws or quality—making it the perfect service for showcasing your professional wedding or newborn photos. Pinhole Press also offers a curated selection of craft-inspired products: reusable wall decals, recipe magnets, cookbooks, magnetic calendars, day planners, memory games, flash cards, and more. I customized the Mini Storybook of Names and Faces to help my son learn the names of our relatives. The photo quality was good and the paper in a thickness that will stand up to repeated story times. Pinhole Press’s popular Panoramic Photobook in a modern or classic style is a hardcover, 8¾-inch-by-8¾-inch book and costs $84.99 for 60 pages. The price may seem high, but it accounts for a cloth spine (in one of five subdued colors) and quality, lay-flat paper—all options that would be upgrades from the competition’s basic prices.

Top Consumer Reports rated Mixbook the number-one rated photo book in 2014 for offering the “most customizable” templates, fonts, and software—and also for options that meet any budget. The 20 book themes are hip, the designing software intuitive, and we love that you can edit photos for quality and more right in the software. You can also add text boxes where you want to add more explanation of photos. A hardcover 8½-inch-by-8½-inch book costs $29.99 for 20 pages, and then $0.50 for each additional page; max of 399 pages.

For parents, the best part about Mixbook might be its app, Mosaic, which won a 2014 Appy Award and allows you to see photos clearly on your phone, select 20 for a book, choose black or white backgrounds, and presto! Place your order. (Do make sure to edit photos in an app such as Lightbox before you start your Mosaic.) The process is so fast (Mosaic promises four days), I had a 7-inch-by-7-inch photo album with a beautiful linen cover of my family’s summer vacation within days of our return. The price for a Mosaic is $20, plus $5 for shipping.

Mixbook is fast, but the company’s brand-new Montage brand is faster yet. For $59.99, you get to choose 20-120 photos to upload. Then add captions, and Montage will assess quality, chronology, and importance in order to build an 8.5-inch-square book in 15 minutes. The price includes a leather cover and lay-flat pages. A great options for those with no time to design layouts, let alone choose cover and paper types.

Though the software takes some getting used to, fans swear that the quality of the finished product by MyPublisher (a company owned by Shutterfly) is better than others. And the ability to control images and templates is beyond what most companies offer. Flip pictures, flip layouts, adjust photo quality, remove red eye, add a text box, change the font, and more. Don’t use MyPublisher for the optional backgrounds, embellishments, and stickers though—best to stay with one of the 10 well-done already designed theme options.

The price-check tool allows you to check your price as you go—which is nice, because the cost can vary widely depending on size, lay-flat pages, type of printing, cover types (including photo finish, linen, and leather), end sheets, slip covers, and other book accessories. Commenters on Petersik’s blog all tell her that the end product photos are crisper than Shutterfly’s. A classic hardcover 8.75-inch-by-11.25-inch book is $29.99 for 20 pages, and then $0.99 for each additional page; max of 100 pages.

Kolo produces top-quality products from Connecticut, using linen, paper, or leather covers and archival paper that’s made to a proprietary recipe. All cover colors are complementary and all book sizes are designed to be part of a memory system—stack books in one of the company’s boxes to make a shelf of albums look orderly. My favorite part about the photo book option, MyKolo, is that the finished products are expandable. Should I come across additional photos from an event, or should a page become ripped or stained, I can easily order more pages. The designing process, as well as the layouts, was fairly simple and nicely highlight photos as the starring element. If the traditionalist in you just can’t stand the idea of not having the physical prints present in your album, but you still want to save time, Kolo can load a photo album with prints for you. The 8.5-inch-by-11-inch photo book is $49; the cost goes up after that in 1-page increments up to 100 pages. Like most of the photo-book services today, lay flat pages are also available for an extra $2-$3 a sheet.

TIP: Printing books is one thing, and printing photos is another. If you want to print your photos for frames, professional family photographer Kelly Hill of Maryland-based Kelly Leighton Photography recommends “Colors can be distorted and beautiful images ruined by a bad printing job,” she says. “Mpix has professional quality printing at a very reasonable price.” All Mpix products arrive with an invoice signed by someone in quality control, showing that the company is serious about their photos.

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I learned a lot in the process of making eight photobooks in three weeks. Learn from my mistakes and get advice from the pros.

  • Put all of the photos you’d like to use in one place—make sure to winnow down to the best of the bunch. Petersik, of Young House Love, keeps all of her favorite photos from the current year in one folder on her desktop. That way she has them already together when she sits down with her husband to make the family yearbook each year.
  • Edit the photo for quality, red-eye, and more in a photo-editing software such as Adobe’s Photoshop Elements, Apple’s iPhoto, or Google’s Picasa. (Note: iPhoto and MyPublisher allow this kind of editing right in the book-making software).
  • Most of the sites have the ability to auto-arrange photos for you. If you’ve already culled your photos down to the essentials, this is a time-saving option. If you prefer to have more control over photo order and layouts, choose to arrange the photos yourself.
  • Don’t use text if you want to save time. But if you do use text, double- and triple-check your spelling and grammar. Even better, have someone else do it for you. You don’t want to spend $50 on a book with a bunch of typos.
  • Make sure you’re signed up as a member of the photo-book-making software you choose, and wait for the inevitable deal in order to save money on the final product.

TIP: All things considered, the prices between companies don’t vary too much. For example, if you choose a higher-end company and add less doo-dads, the book could cost as much as a book from a lower-end company with all the extras. I’d recommend budgeting $50 as a good total price for a photo book. Often, it pays to make the book before you need it, because then you can wait for a coupon before you order it.

Roberts is a freelance writer. She can be reached at

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