Musings on Photography

Some SoFoBoMo questions answered

Posted in Solo Photo Book Month by Paul Butzi on February 18, 2009


After making the announcement that SoFoBoMo registration was open, I got an email from Mark Alfson. I suspect his questions (and my answers) are of general interest to a bunch of folks, so I asked Mark if I could post his questions and my answers here on the blog. Mark graciously agreed.

Herewith, questions with answers:

Just a bit of background first; might help with formulating answers for you.

I am a rank amateur at photography. While I have owned a camera of some sort since I was in high school, I never took it as a serious hobby. My photography endeavors were simply meant to record moments in my life and really nothing more. I purchased my first dSLR in December 2007 mostly because I was dissatisfied with the overall performance of point-n-shoot cameras, especially in regard to shutter lag, which made shooting pics of the cats and dogs rather frustrating (seeing how they tend to never sit still if they’re awake).

I’m very much enjoying my foray into photography, but have not gotten involved in using photo editing software for anything more than corrections, tweaking, minor adjustments, etc. I own Photoshop Elements 6.0, but have rarely touched it. I confess it intimidates me. It seems to have so much potential, but it’s almost like it’s too much and this is particularly odd for me as I’m fairly computer literate (built my own PC) and very software friendly. As an aside, I am not familiar in any way with things like web design, HTML, Java or publishing-type software.

SoFoBoMo appears to be an interesting challenge, but I’m not certain I am at a point whereby I would have a serious chance of making anything of merit. Between my very amateur status as a photographer and my complete lack of knowledge about Elements or publishing I’m concerned I won’t be able to complete the book portion of the project.

Ok, you haven’t actually asked, but let me point out that there’s no threshold of merit for SoFoBoMo. That is, if it has 35 photos and it looks like a book, that’s good enough. They don’t have to be great photos. It doesn’t have to be a great book. It just has to be done in the time window. That’s it.

So you don’t need to stress about quality at all.

1) After having looked over the various 2008 books I came away with the impression that a strong theme is important. Yet I don’t know that I can commit to a strong theme. One idea I had, which I felt was general enough to help me, but not so general that it didn’t appear theme-like, is something I called 500-yards. Every picture had to be taken within 500-yards of my home. Or 500-feet. I’m flexible. Would this sort of theme be too generalized for the spirit of SoFoBoMo?

Ok, good question. If you look at the completed books, you’ll see a lot of books with a theme. There’s no *requirement* that there be a theme at all. None.

So my points would be that a) themes are often something that emerges AFTER the photos are made, and b) having some sort of ‘plan’ even if it falls short of a rigid theme is probably a help in getting a book done. That is, you might find a ‘theme’ to be a structural help to finishing but it’s not a requirement, and you don’t need to have the theme figured out in advance.

2) On the SoFoBoMo website there is mentioned some software for creating a pdf file/book from Photoshop. Are we talking about Photoshop Elements? If not, what sort of options would I have to creating my book such that it could be seen online? The only software I currently own that I may be able to use is Microsoft Publisher, which I’ve only used a few times at a very basic level. I’m also loath to purchase any new software at this time because I’m: (a) unemployed and would like to spend my photography money on other purposes, and (b) I’m in the process of possibly going Mac and don’t want to purchase new and possible pricey software for my Wintel platform and then find myself in the Mac world 6-months from now.

There are a whole host of tools available for creating PDFs on the Windows platform. On a Mac, it’s built right in, so there’s no problem there. I used Adobe InDesign, which is pricey but was something I wanted to learn. Other people used free software (especially Scribus). But you have quite a bit of time to figure out how to generate a PDF, so you are almost certainly ok. Lots of people last year were operating under financial constraints, so I would suggest that you might go back and read their blogs and contact them for advice.

3) I noted that many of the books were viewable online at a site named Issuu. Is this site simply made for viewing such books (via whatever application they are created) or can one use the site to actually create the book? I think I would like to actually have my book (assuming it was finished) published via something like, but I don’t know if that site offers an option to create an online viewable version, etc.? What are my options for getting the image online for viewing purposes?

Issuu is just a convenient way to host a PDF so that people can view it, nothing more. We’re currently planning on doing an end run around this problem by allowing people to upload the PDF to the website and not have to deal with Issuu.

I may have more questions based upon your answers, but these are the major ones that will help me decide whether or not I think I should undertake this challenge. Of course, if you think that this sort of project is really geared more towards folks who are knowledgeable and comfortable with more advanced photo editing software as well as publishing type software, then please feel free to say so. I won’t be offended if the challenge is beyond my current abilities and that I might set my goals lower.

One of the more or less explicit goals of SoFoBoMo is that it’s sort of self-adjusting to the skill level of the person who tries it. That is, a complete novice can generate 35 photos, lay them out in some publishing or word processing software, generate the PDF, and be successful. At the same time (literally, during the same period of one month) a highly accomplished photographer can make hundreds or thousands of photos, edit them down to a reasonable set, sequence them, write accompanying text, lay it out in a professional publishing program, generate the PDF, and be successful. They won’t have tackled the same challenges – but that’s ok. Their books probably won’t be at the same quality level – again, that’s just fine. The point is that both of them tackled new challenges appropriate to where they are in photography and publishing, and thus both of them come out satisfied. And then perhaps next year, they’ll both do it again, tackling new challenges that were out of reach the first year.

10 Responses

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  1. Anita Jesse said, on February 18, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    I would like to encourage Mark to join us in this fine adventure. I barely missed bailing out last year because I felt so ill-prepared for the task, and I am deeply grateful that I resisted the temptation. The beauty of SoFoBoMo is that you are challenging yourself—no one else.

    I’m confident that most of us who participated last year would promise you that you will learn a great deal about many things (some you will be surprised by), and, in spite of the inevitable frustrations, you will be glad you participated. Besides, when you are feeling stuck, look around at the blogs of fellow book-makers. You will soon see that you are not alone.

  2. Gordon McGregor said, on February 18, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    I’d also add, if you have a computer and some computer literacy, then the skills to make a PDF are well within your grasp. There are quite a few free PDF generation tools that install as printer drivers – so you can do the layout in anything that lets you layout pages, then ‘print to PDF’. This is the same for Mac or PC (you just have to install FoxIt or PDF995 on Windows – the Mac already supports PDF printing)

    There are quite a few packages that help you lay out a book as Paul mentioned. You could even use OpenOffice (free) or Microsoft Word (if you like pain). Most people with a computer already have something that lets them put images and text on a page and then print it – so you could get away with just that.

    There is a world of free layout tools (scribus) and expensive layout tools (Adobe InDesign, Framemaker) and solutions at price points in between, that people have successfully made books with. I seem to remember Paul Lester did well with Scribus. I used InDesign, because I happened to have access to it.

    Blurb and the like have good book layout software, but none of them seem to be willing to spit out a high res PDF of the book – presumably because you might then just go off and print it somewhere else, rather than being locked in to their solution. I got around that last year by laying out my pages then generating full bleed/full page JPGs that I dropped onto blurb and printed. Not ideal, but not too painful to do.

    It would probably be worthwhile somewhere putting together a wiki/ editable resource to try to collect some of this knowledge/stuff together. I know we talked about it last year, maybe we could do it this year?

    Assembly/layout software

    PDF generation software

    Book publishers

    Resources about book design

    Resources about typography

    I have more to say about the themes later on – just notes in a book just now – I might try to write when I’m flying home

  3. Tara Smith said, on February 18, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    For me, making the book is the easy part. Many companies have free software that lets you drag and drop. Some examples are Blurb, MyPublisher, Costco has some, Shutterfly even.

    I’m having difficulty choosing a theme. When I heard about this a few months ago, I did one one my own called “31 days in my Backyard” and just took pictures in my backyard. Now I can’t think of any good themes.

  4. Martin Doonan said, on February 18, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    I’ve also been collecting together my thoughts on putting together photobooks. I’m somewhere in the middle of writing a sort of guide to using Scribus for this purpose, too.

    Another thing I would add about gathering advice is that you can probably ask questions of any of the SoFoBoMo bloggers. We’re generally a friendly, helpful bunch.

  5. Martin Ferro-Thomsen said, on February 19, 2009 at 2:28 am

    Thanks for mentioning Issuu. I’d like to say that we’ve really enjoyed all the SoFoBoMo books that were shared with Issuu so far. There’s some truly impressive talents out there!

    I’m sad to hear that you are considering not moving forward with our service. While it’s true that we do host PDFs (and Powerpoint, Word, OpenOffice etc.), we also do a lot more than that, such as make content available for Google (we have a high Google rank which is important) and present your content just like a real book with lots of interactive social features. We also make your books easy to share and embed anywhere, and even show you detailed statistics about who reads the books and where in the world they are.

    I should also add that our community is visited by many millions a month, where especially photography is popular. Here’s an example of just one SoFoBoMo photobook that had over 6000 views . Another photo-related example is JPG Mag; some of their mags have had over half a million views on Issuu so far.

    Our first priority is pleasing our members, so I hope you will reconsider and give Issuu a chance. Please contact me directly with any questions or concerns you might have. We’ve come a long way since we launched a year ago, and almost anything is possible with Issuu today.


    Martin, Issuu

  6. Gordon McGregor said, on February 19, 2009 at 8:45 am

    I’m obviously just a marketing machine when it comes to promoting my book (or I just enjoyed looking at my own book a lot)

    I actually really liked Issuu and being able to embed the small version in my blog. I know quite a few people had problems getting it to work properly, from different browsers, different PDF generators etc. There was a fair bit of chatter about it last year.

    Given that we are doing a book challenge, this next bit is probably irrelevant, but there is the whole discussion on if converting print media directly to virtual representations with the same underlying mechanisms (the notion of a page turning, a two page layout etc) really is the best way to display content on the net. Magazines that just throw their pages online with the same layout are really missing the point.

    I suspect quite a few SoFoBoMo’ers will use Issuu again, but given the problems some people had, keeping it as simple as possible and doing our own PDF hosting seems like a great idea. Not everyone that wants to take part is technically savvy and creating a PDF in the first place is quite enough of a challenge for many.

  7. Martin Doonan said, on February 19, 2009 at 10:41 am

    I turned away from Issuu because I couldn’t get it to work on my browser from home (although I’ve just tried it and is now fixed). I’ll probably not be going back because it doesn’t allow downloading of the original file – something I wanted people to be able to do with my SoFoBoMo effort.

    I’ll stick with Scribd which doesn’t have these limitations.

  8. Martin Ferro-Thomsen said, on February 19, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Martin, thanks for letting me know. I can appreciate why you made your choice. In case you ever want to go back, we do have download as an option now.

    Like Gordon mentions, the last challenge was ‘last year’ and Issuu has been though many iterations since then. Everything is now fully functional and usability has increased drastically. I hope many of you will consider giving Issuu another chance, and I think many photographers feel our service is adding to the book experience, making the look and feel closer to the real thing.

    Once again thanks a lot for getting back to me with that inside info.

  9. Hugh Alison said, on February 20, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    I signed up, but I haven’t been able to edit the page about the book – some of the fields are overlapping, and there’s no way to save the changes. I’m using Windows XP and IE7, I have tried using two different PC’s.

    Is it just me?


  10. Hugh Alison said, on February 21, 2009 at 5:39 am

    Completely fixed now – thanks – there are a few of us still using PCs – nobody I know doing heavy science with anything except XP though.

    I’ve been procrastinating about this book for at least ten years – now I’ve got to do it.

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