Creative Photography Exercise: Make Your Own Photo Book

Creative Photography Exercise: Make Your Own Photo Book

Editor's note: This month only – check out our brand new Creative Assignment Cards (all 250 of them) for just $19! Click here to learn more. Thanks for reading, Andrew.

The more I think about creativity and photography the more interested I get in making tangible things. In photography, that means prints and photo books. Prints look good framed and hung on a wall in your home. Photo books are ideal when you want to include lots of photos or show the results of a photo project. 

Photo books are the modern equivalent of a photo album. But unlike photo albums, photo books work best when you only include your best images in them. Editing your photos (as in selecting which ones should go in the book) becomes part of the creative process. So does deciding which order the photos should go in and how to lay them out.

If the creative briefs in The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments have inspired you then you can think of this exercise as an extra assignment. It works because it gives you a goal: making a photo book with your best black and white photos.

Saal photo book

Creative exercise: make your own photo book

Making a photo book is a useful creative exercise, and not just because it encourages you to make something you can hold in your hand and look at.

It also gets you to look at your photos and think about them in a different way. Images are arranged in groups in books, so you need to think about themes and visual connections. 

You can learn more about these ideas in How to Choose Photos that Work Together as Prints and Photo Book Layouts

Saal photo book

Saal Digital photo book

A few weeks ago I took advantage of an offer from Saal Digital. I received a voucher code giving a £100 discount on a professional line photo book. The deal is advertised on Instagram and aimed at professional photographers. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to make a good quality photo book and test a high end print on demand setup, so I signed up.

I’ll tell you more about my experience with Saal Digital at the end of the tutorial. But first I’d like to explain some of my thought processes behind creating the photo book. This should help you with what can be daunting task – deciding which photos go in it.

Saal photo book

My thought process

It’s important that the photos in the book work together as a whole and that you develop them in a similar style. I chose to use black and white photos in the book as it helped create the unity I was looking for. It also fitted the fine art approach of making a high quality photo book on thick matte paper.  

Tip: It’s a good idea to make Virtual Copies (if you’re a Lightroom Classic user) of the photos you want to include in the book and re-develop some of them, if necessary, so they have a similar treatment.

Purpose. I decided that the purpose of the book is to showcase my favorite photos taken over a fifteen year period. It’s a general, portfolio type book, not an in-depth exploration of a specific subject.

Likewise, you’ll need to think about why you’re making your photo book. If it’s to show the results of a long-term project, for example, then you’ll take a different approach when you select the photos to go in it.

I used 102 photos in the book, in 16 sets of six. Groups of six worked well from a practical perspective. I placed one image on each page and laid out each set of six images over three double page spreads. You can use fewer images if you want to keep the cost down or your subject is more focused.

Six is a good number for a set. You need to have explored a subject in some depth to have made six good images with variety. It also means that you’re not overwhelming the content with a particular subject.

Saal photo book

It’s important to decide what photos to leave out. For example, the biggest body of work I have is my ongoing project of photographing craftspeople. I have enough photos to make a dedicated photo book, so I didn’t include any of them in this one. You’ll have to make similar decisions, depending on the purpose of your photo book.

I wanted a simple layout with minimal text. So I added one photo per page, with a short caption underneath. This style looks good and is quicker and easier to do than a more complex layout with multiple photos on a page.

I enjoyed going back through old photos looking for images that I’d missed before or hadn’t got around to developing. I was also looking for themes that I can see now but didn’t follow consciously at the time. One I discovered was the subject of cacti in South America. You can see a spread below. The photo on the right was one that I discovered in my archives. What themes and ideas are hidden in your archives?

Saal photo book

I added photos made with a variety of cameras. That includes an old Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT / 350D and JPEGs made with a black and white photography app on an iPhone. The idea was to see how much difference it made to the reproduction quality.

The result was a beautiful photo book from Saal digital. I’ve illustrated this creative exercise with layouts from the book.

Making the photo book

The voucher applied to Saal Digital’s Professional Line Photo Books. I selected the 30 x 21 cm book size and chose HighEnd Print Matte paper. With the title page and end page the total page count came to 106.  

The full price, with a linen cover, was around £170. Without the voucher it’s a hefty investment and not for everybody. But there are cheaper options at Saal Digital (and other companies like Blurb) if you want to make a less expensive photo book. You can also keep the price down by adding fewer photos. 

But the book is a wonderful thing. It’s hand-made, has a linen cover, thick pages that lay flat and beautiful print quality. The iPhone / Digital Rebel XT photos have reproduced as well as those from my newer cameras. I’m proud of it and glad I did it. 

A photo can’t convey the quality of the book, but it gives you an idea of how it looks.

Saal photo book

The Saal Digital photo book experience

My Saal Digital experience was mixed. There’s a desktop app you can download to make the book, but it crashed every time I opened it (I use a Mac). So I couldn’t use the app, which was a disappointment as I wanted to test it out.

I got around that by downloading an InDesign template from the Saal Digital website. That works for me as I use InDesign, but it’s not a solution if you don’t. 

But it wasn’t easy to use the InDesign template either. For example, you can download an Export Preset from Saal Digital to optimize your PDF file for its printing process. But the preset didn’t work. In the end it felt like a leap of faith exporting and uploading the PDF file for the book. 

But, as I mentioned, the book itself was beautiful, so it all turned out okay. If you want to try Saal Digital’s services for yourself, and you’re not an InDesign user, I recommend that you download the app first to make sure it works on your computer.

For my next photo book project I’ll make a book using the highest quality printing and paper options in Blurb, to see how it compares in price and quality.

Saal photo book


The main reason I put together this creative exercise is to encourage you to create your own photo books. The process is fun and teaches you a lot about your own photography. It’s also a great way to get your best images off your hard drive and into a format that other people can view and hold. 

Looking at photos in a book encourages you to linger, to enjoy the feel of the paper, and to take in the details that you miss when looking at photos on a computer screen or phone. It’s an immensely satisfying exercise that helps you appreciate the results of your hard work.

The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments

If you need inspiration for your photo book, then take a look at my latest ebook The Magic of Black & White: 50 Assignments. It gives you 50 creative briefs and is packed full of ideas to inspire you to go out and make beautiful black and white photos. Click here to learn more.

Saal photo book
Saal photo book
Saal photo book
Saal photo book

Further reading

Creative Assignment Cards

Introducing Lightroom Classic ebookThanks for reading. You can get more great articles and tips about photography in my popular Mastering Photography email newsletter. Join today and I’ll send you 47 PhotoTips cards and my ebook Introducing Lightroom Classic . Over 30,000 photographers subscribe. Enter your email now and join us.

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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