Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Photobook - some thoughts on editing and sequencing

The workprints
 Anybody who has ever made a photobook has started out with a system, a methodology of going about it. A way of (hopefully) making it brilliant. Much has been said about this subject and guidelines laid down by people who know more than most.  Think Gerry Badger and John Gossage. Yet still, why is it that so many photobooks I look at just don't cut it?

Right now I'm in the process of editing, sequencing and designing a new bookwork so this post is really written to myself, a reminder of things I must remember not to forget. I've written about this before but the fundamentals can bear repeating over and over again. Here goes.....

1. Have a strong compelling idea. Fresh, exciting, demanding. Not derivative or seen it all before.

2. Come up with a riveting, compelling title for the book. And do an amazon check and make sure somebody else hasn't got there first.

3. Start with really good photographs, many more than you will finally need.

4. Including  bad pictures will only drag down the good ones.

5. Don't shoehorn in a crap picture just because it fits the idea. Nor include a great picture that doesn't fit the idea.

6. Make a sequence that surprises, challenges and puzzles. Ask more questions than give answers.

7. When you put pictures together don't make the reason blindingly obvious and make sure the sum of the parts is not less than the impact of the individual photographs.

8. Try and sequence the book based on a conceptual flow not purely visually.  A  sequence made visually is generally too obvious not to mention dull and boring.

9. Don't have more pictures than necessary. A book of around 50 or so pictures will work best. Less is often more.

10. Give the pictures room to breath with plenty of white space.

11. Consider the rhythm and flow of the work. Sequencing photographs is like composing music.

12. Think about what makes a great artwork and make sure what's been done measures up to that. Does the work have  a sense of mystery, a veiled narrative and a reason for the reader to want to come back (and back) to consider the work?

13. Don't over-design  the bookwork. The book is for the photographs not as a showcase for clever design. In fact avoid "clever" completely.

14. Make sure the work has a feeling of authenticity about it. Avoid the contrived.

15. Make the edit and the sequence and then do it again, and again, because it can always be done better. Always.

16. When you have something you really think works make a book dummy which is a close as possible to the final book. This will give you a sense of the outcome of the work on both a visual and tactile level.

17. Finally, remember there are no rules. And even if you think there are, set out to break them. 

In the past I've made bookworks by printing postcard size prints of the potential images and spreading them out on a large table to edit and sequence. Although with this book I did make postcard prints I also went directly to making an indesign document and then converting the work to PDF files as I went. I've ended up with umpteen PDFs that chart the progress of the work, gradually refining and hopefully making the book better. I find this method really flexible and simple and using indesign is a breeze.

The NO pictures

The YES pictures

The book dummy

As an addendum to this post, in an email exchange, Jörg Colberg, founder and editor of the well known and influential blog Conscientious wrote this. All true and good advice.
Well, first of all you have to have good photos to make a good photobook. Without good photos, it's an uphill struggle (some books don't need good photos, but they rely on a great concept). And then the concept of the book just has to work. There's a lot of gimmicky work out there, where people are trying too hard to be cool. So making a really good book is very hard, much harder than most people think. And people don't realize that the only thing that will make books stand out is the quality of the whole package, not your elaborate shrink-wrap or whatever you come up with. So yeah, substance it is.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for another really interesting post. I check your site everyday to see if you've added something new.
I have a question. In your opening paragraph you mention that much has been said about this subject by others. I'd like to read more. Do you have recommendations for specific essays, books, blogs, etc. by Badger or Gossage or others? I know, of course, about Badger's two Photobook books, but was curious if you had other sources in mind.
Thanks for your time and for being so generous with the information you've already provided.


nice one.
also nice to see how we use same points, but put in other words...(english is not my native language...) my point 04. is your 06. 'The sequence of pages may provide yet another context.'

Richard Smallfield said...

Hi Harvey,
Thanks for this. Proofing, sequencing and compiling a book is on my list of things for
this year ... starting with a Blurb marquette. So your post was
relevant to me and I linked to it from the Developing Tank Blog (

Have you read 'Publish Your Photography Book' by Himes ans Swanson?


Ron Roelandt said...

Just what I needed. I might get the chance to make a book this year, and your tips are more than useful. Thanks!

Andrew said...

Work prints are great when you want to get a better sense of how things might appear in print form, but it's often easier to create preliminary sequences at the computer first. Adobe Lightroom is quite handy for this as it allows you to create and save variations. It can be really helpful, especially when you want to return to square one without losing (potentially good) ideas you've come up with in the past. said...

Sound advice Harvey. Very timely for me too as I am in the process of making up my first book dummy. Thank you Kirsty

Anonymous said...

Where in lightroom do you do this?

khan said...
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