The Joys & Sorrows of Photobooking (Second Part)
Saturday 24 March 2012 — Category: Printing
Today’s article is a continuation of The Joys of Photobooking (First Part) which was posted a few days ago. If you have not done so already, you will want to be sure to read that article first, so you don’t start in the middle of the story! So now, let’s see ... where was I ... ah, yes!
Up until this point, producing photo books had been smooth sailing. Little did I know that soon I was going to be entering some rough seas. Let’s discover how this change of course took place.
In October 2011, I envisioned my most special, deluxe photo book yet. Being a big fan of black and white photography, I decided to go through my hundreds and hundreds of best shots from the past six months and see which ones would work as black and white pictures. I found that most color photos don’t look equally as nice in black and white, but I did find 150 that did. You can see the collection by viewing the Black and White 2011 photo album.
Feeling like an Ansel Adams wannabe, I was dreaming that a photo book of my black and white photos could turn out similar to one of the nice Ansel Adams books at Amazon. Wishful thinking, huh? Well, you never know until you try!
I laid out the 150 photos into an 80 page book. Because I wanted this book to be a black and white masterpiece, I decided to go all-out with Blurb’s optional upgrades. They had recently added two new, thicker “ProLine” papers, so I chose the “Pearl Photo Paper.” I also upgraded the black endsheets and linen cover to “ProLine Charcoal.”
These three upgrades took the price of the book from $75 to $121! But, I felt, my black and white photos were worth it! With great anticipation, I eagerly awaited the arrival of my new work of art!
When the photo book arrived, I removed it from the packaging and sat down in my burgundy recliner to feast my eyes on what I had created. But the more I turned the pages, the more disappointed I became! Many of the photos seemed dull and lifeless ... too dark, with not enough contrast. In addition, each page had a slight cyan tint to it, rather than pure black and white. I sure did not remember them looking that dismal on my computer screen! Finally I just sat there in shock, unable to comprehend what had gone wrong.
I contacted Blurb’s customer service via e-mail, and tried to explain the problems. During our multi-day e-mail conversation, I did discover one interesting fact about how they print these books. Even though my project consisted entirely of black and white photos, they STILL used a four-color printing process — which includes halftoning — to print the pages.
That explained why, as I looked at the pages using a magnifying glass, I could actually see little dots of COLOR ink! In a black and white photo! You can see it for yourself in the photo to the right. It is a 2,400 dot-per-inch (dpi) scan of one of my black and white photos in the Blurb book (you can see the original photo here). Seen at 100% magnification, you would have to be blind to not see that the page is full of color ink!
When I asked Blurb about this, they referred me to a page on their Web site which explained:
“Shades of black in your images will be printed as four-color builds. This process preserves the neutrality of your black and white images while producing a deep, rich black color that would be impossible to create with a pure shade of exclusively black ink (which would dry on the page as a dark gray color).”
I REALLY do not think those nice Ansel Adams books at Amazon were printed with COLOR ink. They look like true black and white images to me, as you can see for yourself in this 2,400 dpi scanned image, taken from his book Ansel Adams in the National Parks. Not a drop of color ink to be seen! Now THAT is the way a black and white photo book SHOULD be printed!
It seems to me that Blurb needs to have a separate printing press dedicated exclusively to printing black and white photo books, using special inks made for that purpose. But perhaps that would be too high-end for them?
AdoramaPix does not have this problem, nor the halftoning issue, because they use real photographic prints for their books instead of a four color printing process. The grain of the photographic paper is much, much finer than the large dots of halftoning, as you can see in the 2,400 dpi scan to the right. The “bumps” you see are the texture of the matte paper they used.
After some days of this back-and-forth, they finally asked me to send the book back to them, and they would take a look at it, and see if the problem was their fault or not. They even sent a shipping label for the return postage. But as I sat down to write a letter to them to accompany the book, explaining why I was so unhappy with the quality of the book, I started to have doubts.
As I sat in front of my computer, looking at the book under a bright desk lamp, it suddenly didn’t seem so bad! It was then that I discovered that the type of light you use to look at a photograph has a big impact on how it will appear. With my desk lamp, the cyan tint was greatly reduced, and the images didn’t look so dark and dingy. Hmmmm.
In addition, during this time I found out that I had not converted my color photos to black and white properly. I had used the Photoshop Desaturate command, and then adjusted the brightness and contrast to help the picture look its best. Wrong, wrong, WRONG! What I should have done is use Photoshop’s OTHER adjustment, appropriately named “Black & White” — gosh! Why did that menu item escape my notice for so long?!
So, in light of all this, I wrote to Blurb that I had decided NOT to send the book back to them, because the problem wasn’t their production process, but a combination of using a type of paper I had never used before, having converted the photos to black and white incorrectly, the fact that photos look darker on paper than on the screen, and the reality of their using color ink to print black and white photos. I told them that I was still very unhappy with how the book had turned out, but that I would live with it and try to do better on the next project.
Their reply astounded me! They issued me a store credit, not just for the $121 cost of the book, but for $135, which covered the cost of the book, plus shipping, plus a few dollars extra! I was blown away! But there were a few conditions on the store credit: I had three months to use it, and it could be used on only one order, and not split across multiple orders. So I now had a second chance, and my work was cut out for me.
I spent a couple of weeks reconverting the 150 color photos to black and white, this time using the proper technique in Photoshop. I also ordered Blurb’s Swatch Kit, so I could compare the look of the different papers they offer. This helped me to see that I preferred how black and white photos looked on their Premium Lustre paper, rather than their two ProLine papers.
Because using Blurb’s Premium paper was going to be a lot less expensive than the paper I had previously chosen, and because I had to use the store credit all at once, I realized it was time to create my next photo book project, which had been in the back of my mind for months. I gathered together the hundreds of my best photos from 2011 and put them all together in the Oregon Ramblings 2011 & Lake Tahoe photo book.
In the black and white photo book, 16 of the pages had some sort of long, vertical mark on the page. To me it looked like it was from a roller wheel in the printing press that the paper had been run through. It was on one or two pages of the color book too, but there it was not as noticeable.
SO ... I contacted Blurb again to explain the problem. They told me to send them a photo of the problem, which, as you can see, I did. I told them that I could live with the color book issue, but that the black and white book was unacceptable, since the marks were on so many pages, and because this was a reprint from an earlier problem.
Blurb quickly issued a reprint order, and I hoped that I would receive the corrected book soon, because I was going to my parents' house in about two weeks. The reprint arrived quickly, and again, I was amazed at Blurb’s awesome customer service. They had gone ahead and reprinted BOTH books, even though I had told them that the color book was acceptable, even if it wasn’t perfect. One more example of Blurb going the extra mile and taking excellent care of their customers.
The reprinted books were fine. Now I had two copies of each book, so I was able to give my mom one set as I had planned. And I learned that even though Blurb may make a mistake once in a while, they have the dedication to do whatever it takes to make their customers happy. That kind of customer service seems very rare these days!
As far as future black and white photo books go, I’m not really satisfied with Blurb’s four-color printing process. Why use color inks on non-color images? Especially when professionally-printed books, like those of Ansel Adams, do NOT use color ink, and the photos look wonderful — much better than Blurb’s.
AdoramaPix’s largest photo book may be two-thirds the size of — and a third more expensive as — Blurb’s largest book, but at least with AdoramaPix the image quality is way beyond Blurb’s. Definitely something to keep in mind when pondering the joys and sorrows of photobooking!