Digital photos viewed on a screen are great, but there's still something special, tactile and more permanent about having your best photos on paper. You can, of course, print digital photos, at home or professionally, and paste them into a photo album. But too many people lack the time or skill to assemble really memorable albums.
Now, however, you can easily and quickly turn your favorite digital pictures into a truly professional keepsake photo album. I'm talking about a real hardcover coffee table book, permanently bound with linen or leather covers surrounding heavy, glossy pages that contain your photos and text. You design these books on a computer, order them over the Internet and receive them in a few days. Each 10-page book costs as little as $29.95 (leather is $10 more), and each additional page costs about $3.
I have done this for some of my photos, and the books I got looked terrific and made great mementos. You could do a separate book on each year's family vacation, with your favorite trip photo as the cover. Or, you could order books to commemorate special events, such as weddings, graduations and major birthdays and anniversaries. New parents might create a book for each month of a baby's first year.
There are three ways to design and order the books. One is by using an Apple Macintosh computer and Apple's excellent iPhoto software, which has included the option to design and order a bound photo book for well over a year. A second option is to use a Windows PC and Adobe's new photo-organizing software, Adobe Photoshop Album. Like iPhoto, it includes an option for designing and buying a book.
Finally, if you lack these programs, you can order a photo book from a company called MyPublisher at its Web site, www.mypublisher.com. However, the Web site is old, slow and difficult to navigate. It is to be replaced next month with a totally new design. Because the site is in flux, we focused on testing the book-building features of the two programs.
Adobe Photoshop Album, which costs $49.99, is designed to help you organize large numbers of photos on your Windows PC through an elaborate system of tagging the pictures with key words representing people, places and events. You can then search for photos by using these tags. For instance, you could quickly call up all pictures that include your dog or were taken on your Hawaiian vacation.
Once you have your digital photos organized this way, the program allows you to create a bound book from them, choosing from multiple layouts, selecting which photos go on which page and adding captions. Adobe uses many icons that help in the step-by-step book-creating process, but you have to skip from one screen to the next so often that the process can get tiring.
Not only that, but, because the Adobe program lacks any concept of a virtual "album," or collection of photos, you have to do a lot of manual picking and uploading of individual pictures before you design your book.
I started creating my book by first choosing Get Photos and importing some photographs from a folder on my hard drive. The next step walked me through fixing the photos, including auto-editing buttons, which did a nice job of improving the images. I then created a photo book by opening a section in the software called Photo Creations, which includes the Photo Book. I selected the pictures I had pulled from my hard drive, dragged them onto a smaller screen and clicked Start Creations Wizard.
The wizard walked me through choosing from one of three styles, including Just Photos, Modern or Traditional. All styles can display either one or four photos per page, or you can choose a repeating pattern of photos per page (in 1-3-2 or 1-3-4-2 patterns). I chose traditional, mixed 1-3-2. I followed steps to customize the book with the title, subtitle, author and captions, then previewed and finally ordered the book online.
Apple's iPhoto comes bundled with newer Macs, or can be downloaded free (www.apple.com/iphoto). The first version, released in January 2002, enabled users to make photo books, but iPhoto 2 has a few enhancements that give it some real shine. The best part about this program is its interface, which hasn't diverged much from the original version, with good reason. You never have to page through multiple screens. Instead, your pictures are displayed in one central box, while only the buttons below those pictures change. This format makes editing and organizing so ridiculously simple that you might wonder if you missed a step.
Unlike Photoshop Album, iPhoto 2 lets you quickly and simply organize digital photos into virtual albums. So it's easy to use an album as the basis for a book. And the book-building feature is seamlessly integrated into iPhoto, so you needn't upload pictures at the outset. You only upload the final pictures in the book, at the end.
To start, I opened an iPhoto album of pictures that I took in New Mexico. The pictures had a series of four buttons beneath them: Import, Organize, Edit and Book. I clicked on the Book button and saw a smaller, horizontal view of my pictures in page format, as they would appear in the physical book. A pulldown menu labeled Page Designs allowed me to choose how many pictures I would show on each page, and the number of photos per page can be different from the next. This system offers more flexibility than the similar process in Photoshop Album.
IPhoto offers six book themes to choose from, including Catalog, Classic, Picture Book, Portfolio, Story Book and Year Book. Story Book arranges the photos on a slant with room for captions, and Year Book can display up to 32 tiny images and captions per page.
After ordering, the books that I received in the mail looked virtually the same. Both programs create books in four cover colors, including shades of red, green, blue and black. Adobe offers both linen and extra-cost leather covers, while Apple offers only linen.
These photo books make great gifts and are a beautiful way to display your pictures. I can recommend the Adobe product, but iPhoto is easier and better, both at building books and at organizing your photos in the first place.
_ Katherine Boehret of the Washington Post contributed to this report.