Musings on Photography


Posted in book design, web issues by Paul Butzi on October 4, 2009


I’ve been continuing to plow through making online PDF portfolios of the work that currently is up on my website. That’s meant some time refining the look and feel of the online PDF portfolio presentation – and I’m now fairly content with what I’ve got.

Some lessons learned:

  • unlike on paper, on a screen images do not look good surrounded by a broad white border. After considerable fiddling around, I’ve settled on a brown that is nearly black for presenting warmtoned B&W images. To my surprise, this also works well for color images, so I’ve used that throughout.
  • It finally occurred to me that I needn’t feel obliged to use any particular page proportions just because they’re common in the print world. I settled on a page size that’s something of a compromise – it gets slightly letterboxed full screen on a 5:4 ratio monitor and slightly pilarboxed on a widescreen (16:10 or 16:9) monitor.
  • Unlike images, reading substantial amounts of text presented white on a dark screen background is unpleasant. So for pages that are entirely text, I have switched those pages so that they’re a creamy warm white with black text.
  • For this sort of thing, the graphic design should be as simple as possible but no simpler. Using subtle color differences to background text on the title page, for instance, makes the whole thing look a heck of a lot more polished.
  • Bright white page numbers on dark pages are eye magnets. I’ve toned them down to a muted grey, which seems to work.
  • Presented on a dark screen, a lot of images have dark regions that ‘bleed’ unpleasantly into the dark surround at the edges. My solution, shamelessly stolen from Brooks Jensen, is to add a .25pt dark grey rule around each image. Most of the time you can’t even see it. On an image that’s dark, it ‘frames’ the image neatly but not obtrusively.
  • To get the copyright page out of the way of the browsing of images, I’ve folded the copyright page and colophon together into a single page at the end of the PDF document.

The process of banging out these PDF portfolios has been interesting. Making them has dragged me into reviewing most of the photography I’ve done since about 1998. Not surprisingly, much of what I’ve made (including some of what I’ve put online) is dreck. But some of it, I think, still feels good and right and true, and it’s been fun and rewarding to go through that work, blow the dust off, polish and buff it somewhat, and put it into a presentable format.

To my great surprise, while editing some of that work, I’ve gone back to my archive of ALL the images I made for those projects/during those periods, and sort of ‘re-edited’ the work, adding back in some images which in retrospect I think ought to be in there (not often) and weeding out images which, with the passage of time, I no longer feel so keen on.

The most interesting edit job was going through all the images I made in the Snoqualmie Valley between the fall of 2005 and the summer of 2007. It was my first color photography in decades that was not vacation snapshots. After floundering around a bit, I ended up breaking the work up by season, sequenced the photos chronologically, and was startled to discover that this works well and also made it evident how my photography changed over that period of time. The work at the end of that period does not look much like the work at the beginning, although while I was making it the process felt unchanged.

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Blurb PDF upload

Posted in book design, books, digital printing, Solo Photo Book Month by Paul Butzi on August 16, 2009


Today’s goal was to take one of my two SoFoBoMo 2009 books and do the work needed to generate a PDF I could upload to Blurb, to get an actual printed copy using Blurb’s recently announced/introduced PDF to Book service.

Blurb provides InDesign templates that you can download, and I did indeed download them. There’s not really much to the templates (in my current understanding) than the right page size, bleed settings, and margins, along with some simple instructions created on a separate non-printing layer in the template.

I took the path of setting the page size and bleed to match the Blurb template for the book content. I’ve discovered InDesign’s Layout Adjustment controls, which make it much simpler to adjust page size and still have all your photos, text frames, and so on stay aligned horizontally and vertically on the new pages. I was making just small tweaks to the page size, so I didn’t resize the content of the book, just let the page size change adjust the white border on each page.

The Blurb PDF->book service requires you to upload one PDF for the book content, and one PDF for the cover. So one of my first acts was to take the cover out of the ‘content’ pdf version, and create a new ‘cover’ InDesign file. I started the cover from the Blurb provided soft-cover cover template. It took me a bit of puzzling to figure out how to get stuff aligned properly on the cover – my InDesign skills could use some improvement.

But, after a couple of hours of fiddling, I had PDF’s for the cover and content that I was ready to upload to Blurb. I went to the website and used the ‘make a book from your PDF’ process they have there to upload the two files. It worked fine – nice and slick. You upload the files, they run some pre-flight checks, and you can either watch the pre-flight process run, or you can go away. Either way, you get an email telling you the files uploaded ok, and then another email with the results of the preflight check.

First time through, BOTH my files failed the preflight. The feedback they give on why your files failed seemed pretty detailed – mine both failed because the page size was wrong, and the feedback tells you what size your page is in the PDF you uploaded, and what size they expected.

I solved the content problem pretty quickly – somehow I’d managed to mangle the bleed settings when I did my last check before I generated the PDF to upload – I realized you needed the ‘inside’ bleed set to zero, but when I set it to zero, I didn’t ‘unlock’ the settings, so I set the bleed to zero for all edges. Don’t worry if that doesn’t make sense – if you get to this stage with your own file, and look at the dialog, it will all make sense. Anyway, once I’d found that, I generated a new PDF and figured I’d upload it and see if that fixed the problem.

Here’s the one hitch I found in the otherwise excellent website upload process Blurb has put together – I wanted to upload just the one PDF file and have it pre-flighted again, but to replace one of the two PDF files you need to go through the whole process again, typing in the title, author, specifying the size and paper and cover type, and uploading both files. That’s a bit of a hassle, and it doesn’t seem like it should be too hard for Blurb to fix, so I expect that to change in the future as they get feedback.

My new ‘content’ PDF passed the preflight, but of course I’d just uploaded the same old cover PDF again, so that failed.

The softcover PDF generation is a bit tricky, because the width of the page is dependent on how many pages you have in the book (because that tells you the width of the spine). I spent a disgusting amount of time banging around on the Blurb website before I stumbled upon the ‘book calculator’ that tells you what size the cover should be, but eventually, I found it, calculated the new size, and adjusted my cover in InDesign. Uploaded the new PDF and it still failed the preflight. I still had the width wrong.

This time around, I adjusted the size of the design in InDesign based on what the preflight said it wanted. Again, it turned out I’d somehow screwed up the bleed settings. After adjusting the page width, I had to go and adjust the columns on the cover layout, and then adjust the alignment of the stuff on the cover. Fortunately, I have a really simple cover design and was a bit more clever about centering things this time.

The PDF I got from that go ’round passed the preflight check with flying colors.

I went and ordered a copy. We’ll see how it turns out when the book arrives. I was amazed that 2nd day deliver was some piddling amount (like 30 cents) more than regular delivery, so I paid extra for second day delivery. Now I remember that the last time I ordered from Blurb it was shipped from a spot less than 15 miles away from my home, so perhaps I’ve wasted 30 cents. Oh, well.


One thing I forgot to mention is that in addition to the InDesign templates for both the content and cover, Blurb provides a really super useful thing – an EXPORT preset file. You fire up InDesign, go to the PDF preset stuff, import this file, and it adds a PDF preset which makes InDesign emit exactly the variety of PDF that Blurb expects. I downloaded this preset file along with the templates, read the instructions, realized I needed to use this preset thingie, and Voila! I had an easy way to generate the PDFs in exactly the right flavor, color, charm, spin, charge, format, PDF variant, sub-variant, options, and religious denomination that Blurb wants and expects.

This preset file is the bee’s knees, the cat’s pajamas, the dog’s bark, and the full nine yards, all rolled into one. I did not spend more than 30 seconds messing about with the PDF export dialog and its many rooms, crevices, buttons, check boxes, drop-downs, etc. and apparently I got the right variety of PDF right out of the gate. Yowza.

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