The era of digital cameras is marked by instant gratification: You can snap a picture and text or email it to 10 friends in a matter of seconds. But too often, images languish, unseen and sometimes forgotten, in a desktop folder or on a memory card. With online photo-book services, it's easy and fun to give photos a tangible (and well-designed) home. We tried five popular tools and created books that play to the strengths of each one. Whether there's a baby to celebrate or a vacation to remember, these personalized volumes make truly memorable keepsakes. Long-term gratification, indeed.
Of the programs we tested, three -- Snapfish, Kodak, and Shutterfly -- are part of photo-sharing websites, where you can upload pictures and share them with friends. Blurb offers free bookmaking software (Blurb Book Smart) to download; you can import images from sites such as Flickr and Picasa. Apple's iPhoto, a photo-storage program, comes installed on Mac computers (it is not available for PCs).
If you're new to photo books or want minimal fuss, try Snapfish. The site is easy to navigate, and the options are wide but not overwhelming.
Like all the services in this story, Snapfish lets you choose from several book sizes and page layouts. You can include up to nine photos per page, add captions, or print text-only pages. (Fonts are identified by style: elegant, playful, modern.) Background colors and patterns may be added page by page, so you don't have to commit to one design package.
Our Take: Pet Album
We used the 8-by-8-inch book to chronicle a puppy's first year. It has custom hardcovers and 20 pages.
With a well-priced small-format book, Kodak is ideal for making multiple albums.
Kodak offers simple layouts and four book sizes -- the largest is 12 by 14 inches -- so there's something for everyone. The smallest, a 5-by-5 3/4-inch Pocket Photo Book, is great when you want to print a number of copies. It lends itself to thank-you tokens (say, for bridesmaids), holiday presents, birth announcements, and more.
For an expert-looking product, Blurb's free software delivers, with adaptable design and upgrade options.
Flexibility and polish are two of Blurb's big selling points. Unlike some other programs, which crop photographs to fit preset shapes, this one lets you resize photos to be as small as you want. The premium-paper option, which yields a superior image quality, has a maximum page count of 160 -- the highest of our featured programs. You can even sell the finished product through the website's online bookstore. If you make an album of a child's soccer team, for example, you can share it with others without shouldering all the expense.
Blurb accommodates irregular-size images, so we did a modern take on an old-fashioned family album, scanning black-and-white photos and paper mementos. (Scanned files can be used as you would photo files.) The large landscape format (11 by 13 inches) comes in hardcover with 20 to 40 pages; we used premium paper. The black background is a nod to vintage photo books. To capture rough edges like the envelope's, we scanned the image with black paper behind it. This created a black border that, when cropped, blends in with the page. Captions in white mark the date and family members' names. For the cover, we chose putty-gray and designed a "Photographs" emblem for the center.
Bookmakers who like highly decorated pages and an array of background patterns will find ample room for experimentation with Shutterfly.
At the page level, Shutterfly shines with customizable elements. There are dozens of design packages relating to the occasion or season. From there, personalize each page with layouts, borders, and backgrounds. Shortcuts are available with the Storyboard tool: When you flow in photos, the program selects a layout.
In line with Shutterfly's scrapbook style, we created our own -- an ode to fall and two young frolickers -- using the 12-by-12-inch book, a standard scrapbook size. On the front, scanned artwork peeks through a die-cut window on the leather cover. Inside, we paired two portraits: a scanned drawing and a photograph. We also added a glued-on glassine envelope, filled with pressed leaves, and a sticker label.
Apple's iPhoto, the built-in photo library for Mac computers, also includes a bookmaking feature. Count on clean, uncomplicated layouts and good-quality printing.
The books come in three sizes, with softcover, hardcover, and wire-bound options. The smallest, at 3.5 by 2.6 inches, is about as big as a deck of cards and costs about as much; the largest is 8.5 by 11 inches.
Our Take: Travel Journal
To display lush photos from India, we chose the large hardcover format, with 20 pages and a photo-printed cover and matching dust jacket. The streamlined layout and spare, gray captions don't get in the way of the images. Best of all, you can make a book like this in little time, so it can be at the printer while the memories are fresh.
For digital and scanned photographs to print clearly, each image should have a resolution of 150 to 300 dots per inch (dpi). If the resolution is too low (most programs will warn you), the image will come out pixelated or grainy. If you still want to use it, stick to a small size. When scanning photos and ephemera, select the appropriate dpi.