6 steps for making a milestone album for someone special

I’m sharing these popular instructions again — reprinted from two years ago — for photo album makers thinking of making a meaningful gift this year.

As you look to the year ahead, think about whether the most important people in your life may be celebrating a milestone.

Is your mother turning 60?

Are your sister and your brother-in-law celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary?

Is your father finally retiring?

If someone special is celebrating a milestone in the near future, it’s time to think about making Special Someone an album.

Such a gift requires a little bit of planning, a lot of cooperation from Special Someone’s friends and a few hours to assemble an album, but the result will be worth every bit of effort.

I made such an album recently for my mother-in-law when she turned 70. My husband and his brother hosted an open house for about 60 of her friends and family, and I made her a beautiful keepsake full of memories and birthday wishes for her to enjoy until her next milestone birthday.

Nina album cover


Here’s how I did it:

1. Plan ahead. Three months in advance, we sent “save the date” cards to everyone in Special Someone’s address book (we had my mother-in-law participation, but you could do this on the sly if you’re a good detective or if you have an inside man). The cards included this message:

We’re creating a memory album for Special Someone to present to her at her birthday party. Please share a memory and/or photo of Special Someone so we can include it in the book.

What to contribute: Send a message (a story, memory or birthday wishes) and/or photo(s) to Special Someone’s daughter-in-law, Album Creator. Email or snail mail accepted. If you can’t bear to part with a printed picture, mail it, we’ll scan it and send it back to you.

Don’t delay! Send your message right now, while it’s fresh in your mind.

Include your email and mailing address.

About 15 invitees sent me something during the next 8 weeks.

2. Remind: We sent invitations six weeks in advance. Included in the invitation was this message:

Don’t forget! If you want to contribute a memory, good wishes or a photo to Special Someone’s memory album, send it NO LATER THAN DATE to EMAIL or ADDRESS. Thanks to all those who’ve already contributed.

A couple dozen more people responded, including my mother-in-law’s brother who had an abundance of photos. In my situation, the only people I had to bug to contribute were my mother-in-law’s 20something grandchildren.

Typed and handwritten messages side by side.

Typed and handwritten messages side by side.

3. Decide format: I scanned all hard copies (including handwritten notes) so I could create a digital photo book. I chose to print with Shutterfly because of its fast service (when complete, the album was delivered within a week).

album black and white

4. Select a design: One theme throughout a book ties different subjects together, so I recommend sticking to one color scheme or coordinating designs. Here, using a classic background, black and white images blended beautifully with color images on other pages.

Early years

Early years

5. Organize: I used a roughly chronological approach to the album, so friends from high school (with pictures of high school) went in the beginning, messages from her card club friends in her current life went in the middle and messages from her grandchildren went at the end. It wasn’t perfectly chronological though; images of she and her brother were near the beginning, whether they were toddlers or retirees at the time.

I tried to put similar people together on the same pages (co-workers, for example, and aunts).

Album Chris

I got a lot of family reunion photos (because, of course, that’s one of the places Special Someone often sees those who contribute to such an album, so I grouped them together here with an image in the background of South Dakota, where many relatives live(d).

6. Print and present: We put my mother-in-law’s album on display at her party so all the contributors could see their own contributions and others’ in print. But we presented the album to her a couple of days before so she could absorb all the wonderful things people said about her and remain composed at the party.

In the end, her book was 50 pages long and covered almost every important achievement and person in her life. One life. One book. Amazing.

album wedding

I sprinkled appropriate quotes and titles throughout the book, but the theme I used was sewing because my mother-in-law is an accomplished seamstress (she sewed the gown I wore to marry her son and many contributors mentioned her talents and gifts). One of my favorite quotes was this:

Destiny itself is like a wonderful wide tapestry in which every thread is guided by an unspeakably tender hand, placed beside another thread and held and carried by a hundred others.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke


Unmeasurable comfort in concrete form — a photo album

The role of social media played in the shooting of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward is being hotly debated in the wake of their horrifying deaths at the hands of a tragically violent former co-worker, but the aftermath highlights something far longer lasting: Parker’s photo album.

Parker created the photo album to celebrate the six-month anniversary of dating her boyfriend, Chris Hurst, who was interviewed today by ABC News’ anchor Robin Roberts.

“It brings me innumerable comfort,” said Hurst, clutching the book, when Roberts said, “I hope that book brings you some source of comfort.”

Innumerable comfort.

So much comfort, it can’t be counted.

A book. A simple book of happy photos created lovingly by the woman he adored.

I conclude my lectures about the ABCs of photo organization with a story of a similar album–one made by my sister for my brother’s 25th birthday. He died a year and a half after that birthday, and now nearly 19 years later, that simple little book still remains in a place of honor on my parents’ coffee table.

Tweets, Facebook feeds, news video and other social media standbys can go viral, reach hundreds of thousands of people in seconds, as the WDBJ7 tragedy showed. But photographs in that album Parker made and the words she wrote will be around so much longer than all those ephemeral electronic images.

Besides sharing our sympathy for all the people touched by this tragedy, we can learn two lessons about the value of memories from this shocking event:

  1. Photo albums bring a great deal of happiness to the people for whom we make them, and — when death comes, as it always does at some point — those albums can bring immeasurable comfort. Don’t let a social media site be the only place you share important memories with special people. Choose a more concrete option.
  2. It’s never too soon to create a photo album for or about someone we love. Parker was only 24, and she should not die at that age, but she did. Do not delay.

Comparing four different photobook printers

With so many photo book printers in the marketplace, it’s tricky figuring out which one to use. Too many choices contribute to paralysis, and that’s not good when it comes to your photo collection because unprinted images are in greater danger of being lost (depending on how many back-up systems you have in place — unfortunately, most people have no backups). The bottomline line, then, is any photo book printer is better than not printing at all.

To summarize further, just about any printer has its pros and cons. For example, some people value price above all else. Other people demand and easy-to-use interface. Still others require long-lasting quality. Not wonder it’s tricky to choose just one.

With all that in mind, I recently printed a client’s photo book with four different vendors including three that I don’t see reviewed in very many places. Just to see which one I liked best. My comparison is a small sampling of a much larger marketplace, so consider this to be one opinion among many (click here for a pretty comprehensive review of 10 top vendors and here for a comprehensive look at 12 vendors plus a lot of images). And if you have comments about your experiences with any of the following vendors (or others), please chime in.

So that I was comparing apples to apples, I used the exact same photos and design for each of the four books. That means I didn’t use the design interface offered with the individual vendor (if there is one). The design was a 20-page 8-by-8 hardcover photo book, heavy on full-color images, light on text. I designed my books in Storybook Creator 4 (now known as Panstoria’s Artisan), and I uploaded finished PDFs to each website. The cover was simply a pattern (background) I created.


Shutterfly cover

Shutterfly is my go-to-vendor because I think the company offers pretty good quality for the price, and it’s very fast.

Pricing: $32.61 including $7.99 for shipping

Processing Time (from time of order to delivery by standard means): 4 days (fastest of the four)

Print and Color Quality: Very good. In fact, I found no discernible differences on the print quality of the interior pages among the four vendors I used.

Binding: Glued. Glued bindings lay flatter than sewn bindings. Generally, glued binding are considered to be poor quality because eventually all glue dries out, and those pages will fall out of the book. In my experience with Shutterfly, this would take decades but if you’re creating a book for future generations, beware.

Shutterfly back coverShutterfly logoNotes and irks: The flysheets are textured but otherwise kind of cheap feeling. Shutterfly imposes its presence on your book with its logo on the inside back page. And there’s a small-but-still-obvious bar code on the back cover. Like many vendors, Shutterfly offers deals and coupons frequently. Create an account, and you’ll get word of sales via email.


picaboo cover

Picaboo is more of a boutique printer, one not always found in other online photobook reviews.

Pricing: $26.48 including $8.99 for shipping (I had a coupon; create an account and get tons of email deals)

Processing Time (from time of order to delivery by standard means): 8 days

Print and Color Quality: Very good.

picaboo binding

Binding: Sewn. Seems secure, but it’s kind of sloppy looking.

picaboo glassine logoNotes and irks: For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to customize the binding. So it came out white and clunky. I suppose if you want all your books to have the same color (and you label them with titles), this might be an asset; I thought it was a big drawback. Like Shutterfly, Picaboo loudly brands itself — with a printed glassine sheet in back. No bar code, however.

Panstoria Print Shop

panstoria cover

Panstoria is the same vendor that distributes the design software I used. So if you don’t use Artisan, you can’t use the print shop because there’s no online design interface. I like the power and control of the software so this isn’t a problem for me, but novices might find this frustrating.

Pricing: $37.67 including $7.68 for shipping

Processing Time (from time of order to delivery by standard means): 14 days (this was the longest processing time of the four vendors)

Print and Color Quality: Very good.

Binding: Sewn.

panstoria cover sway

panstoria logoNotes and irks: I liked the flysheets; there’s also a blank glassine “protector” sheet between the flysheet and the first printed page (a sign of attention to detail and quality to me). However, the cover itself is starting to curl — ugh! The branding is obvious with Panstoria’s name and a tiny QR code on the inside back page.

Professional Photo Albums

Professional Photo Albums

This vendor is a business-to-business model, so one has to be a member of the Association of Personal Photo Organizers to access it (meaning novices can leave their project design to a pro). The user interface is more complex (which is good when you want precision like an expert would, bad when you want ease of use).

Processing Time (from time of order to delivery by standard means): 11 days

Print and Color Quality: Excellent. Quality is especially apparent on the cover, which came out brighter and crisper than any of the others. This leads me to believe they are color correcting on press, which speaks to the quality.

Binding: Glued.

professional photo albums back coverprofessional photo albums flysheetNotes and irks: The book is actually 8.25-by-8.25, and the minimum number of pages is 26 (not 20) so I had to create six additional pages. So even though this is the most expensive option, you get more for your money. The flysheets are the best of the bunch, a heavyweight textured cream-colored paper. There’s no logo to be found anywhere, though there is a bar code on the back cover.

Have you used a photobook printer? Liked it? Disliked it? Please share.

Memory sherpas focus on the story and its most telling plotlines

Organizing photos into categories often makes more storytelling sense than chronological order. That approach improved the final result of a project I finished recently.

A woman whose father died earlier this year wanted to share some photos of his life in a way that showed who he was, especially to his grandchildren.

Before even seeing me to create this album for her, she had divided the roles he played in his life into six categories:

  • Soldier
  • Father
  • Policeman
  • Landlord
  • Retiree

The final category was “lessons, advice, faith” which was designed for stories and memories. Each category, of course, had photos illustrating those roles.

In the end, we expanded the “father” category to “family” so we could include photos of his parents, brother and grandchildren in addition to his children. This added context to his background.

The result is effectively concise. Brevity is the soul of good photo organization. In the space of 20 pages and 50 photos, we told the story of a man’s life. In addition, we added photos of a lot of memorabilia: Images of medals, police patches, newspaper stories, club memberships. Displaying all those bits and pieces in this way is much more streamlined than a box of memorabilia. Here are a couple of pages in the album:

example 1


example 2

Sometimes, people mistake “photo organizing” for slotting a bunch of photos in box with a lot of file dividers (or the digital equivalent). Yes, that’s one way to organize photos. But better than that is organizing a few, carefully curated images in some way that tells a story. An album, like this one, can be the best way to organize a lifetime of photos. Even better, a printed album created from digital images is easy to duplicate. This client ordered enough copies so that everyone who loved him could have a copy and know what made this man special.

The call of the curator requires people who are selfless and willing to act as sherpas and guides. They’re identifiable subject matter experts who dive through mountains of … information and distill it down to its most relevant, essential parts.

~ Seen on Micropersuasion

Try 4EverBooks for quick, quality printing of digital images

Printing your digital photos in the form of a photo book counts as printing. Don’t be fooled into thinking a print only counts as a 4-by-6 on photo paper. A digital album is a great way to organize a bunch of photos and tell a story.

Hundreds of companies now print digital albums. I tried 4EverBooks recently with photos taken last Thanksgiving. My husband, stepson and I visited Puerto Vallarta for a week and enjoyed all kinds of food besides turkey plus a lot of beautiful weather.

Those digital images were languishing in my computer until I decided to try 4EverBooks.

The software to create a 4EverBook album is free. You download it to your computer (which I like because that way is generally faster than working over the internet). Versions for Windows, Mac and Linux exist; I used Windows and made an 8-by-8 softcover album which retails at $19.95. Options range from $12 to $80 and above.

4EverBooks’ software automatically chose a great image for the background to the cover of my album.

It was so easy to use! I loved the feature that added my photos to a book automatically. I moved a few things around, but generally, the photos appeared in logical order. The background designs were fairly simple (though I had the option to use my own photos as background, which was interesting and made me think I should take photos differently in the future. I didn’t add photo captions. In the space of about an hour, I created and ordered the album. It was so satisfying!

Once created, 4EverBooks gave me the option of sharing my album on Facebook.

My album arrived by mail in a couple of days — amazing. I also could have chosen to have my album delivered to a local photo store. On the softcover copy, the cover is the same paper as inside (which is the say, thin), but the binding is impressively stitched (which I prefer for longevity to glued bindings).

If you’re thinking about creating books as gifts for the holidays, 4EverBooks is a good option.

Poetry, love-themed design make meaningful album for daughter

One doesn’t need to be a poet to add meaning to a photo album. But poetry is nice.

While one’s own words add a level of sophistication and value to an album project, I’ve always thought it would be fun to create a non-chronological photo album for someone using the text from a book by Dr. Seuss or Max Lucado throughout the whole book.

Safer from a copyright perspective would be to use poetry by Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson but they don’t have quite the same fun.

Whatever the copyright consequences, I created a beautiful album for my stepdaughter using the poetry in “Letter to My Daughter.” It’s written by Maya Angelou or possibly Pamela Redmond Satran, depending on whether you believe Snopes.com.

In any case, it has lines like, “A woman should have … a feeling of control over her destiny” and “A woman should know what she would and wouldn’t do for love or more.” I found photos from throughout my stepdaughter’s life directly or vaguely related to each line and created a 30-page 12-by-12 photo book. Here are a few pages:


To “A woman should have … a past juicy enough that she’s looking forward to retelling it in her old age,” I added a photo of my stepdaughter dressed as an old lady for Halloween when she was about 5.

For “A woman should know … where to go — be it to her best friend’s kitchen table … or a charming inn in the woods — when her soul needs soothing,” I used a number of photos of my stepdaughter by or in the water. Boating seems to be her favorite weekend activity this summer.

Many pages feature three to six photos, so I was able to incorporate about 95 photos in 30 pages.

For the decorative backgrounds, I used the Wedding Fresh Spring pre-designed pages in digital download from Creative Memories ($8.95). Using StoryBook Creator 4.0, it was easy to delete titles like “I do” and “Cutting the Cake.” The color scheme was feminine without being Pepto-Bismol pink, which accented the photos. The look is classic and contemporary at the same time.

The final result is meaningful and beautiful. And unlike anyone else’s album. Perfect for my stepdaughter.

‘Like flies in amber’

If you’re looking for some inspiration to create an album with your photos and your voice, check this out. I got this from a fellow member of the Association of Personal Historians, who shared this quote (and he highly recommends the book):

“People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.”

~ Diane Setterfield
in “The Thirteenth Tale,”
Atria Books, 2006