How to Document Your Family with Photobooks
Like many of you, I have thousands upon thousands of digital pictures sitting on my computer, backup drives, disks, cloud, what have you. Aside from throwing together a family photobook for holiday gifts at the last minute, I’ve been meaning to print these pictures but haven’t.
As a photographer, I tell people all the time that printing your photos is imperative because technology is temporary and having something tangible to pass down to your children is important. It’s one of the most important things you can leave behind. And while I print the photographs from our annual family sessions, I have yet to do anything about all the pictures I’ve accumulated over the years because it’s overwheming.
I sat down with my friend Femeke who does an amazing job of staying on top of family pictures and asked her how she does it. She had a really good perspective on how and why she does things the way she does. We also talked about why we have a hard time staying on top of the pictures and she offered practical tips on overcoming it.
Femeke started out, like many of us, with print albums. That evolved into scrapbooks but those, while fun to make, were time consuming and a lot of work. She prints family photobooks because they can be constructed online and are easy to make. Most importantly, the process of making photobooks can be routinized so that it becomes something she regularly does without too much effort.
Organizing the Pictures
Femeke prints three photobooks annually—one for each child and one for the family. At the end of every month she dumps all the pictures into three separate folders. She goes through each folder and deletes all the ones she doesn’t want to keep. Her goal is to cull down to the ones she’ll most likely use in the photobooks, not to select the exact pictures.
She puts together photobooks for her kids after each kid’s birthday month so it spans the year prior. That way, she’s not working on them at the same time. She works on her family book in January. Organizing the photobooks this way takes the pressure off putting together one giant book at the end of the year.
Selecting the Pictures
I know my problem with culling, aside from having too many pictures to choose from, is trying to select the best—the perfect pictures. Femeke’s approach is much different. If it’s a nice picture, she keeps it in because she knows her children will enjoy looking at it. She reminds me that the photobooks aren’t really for us. They are for our children and children don’t seek perfection. They don’t see the pictures as we do with a critical eye but instead see memories.
I tell moms all the time to get in their family pictures for this exact reason. We avoid being in pictures because we see our imperfections but our children just see us. I’m realizing this same advice applies to printing our photographs too.
Femeke’s philosophy is to “keep it simple” when it comes to what makes it on the pages of her photobooks. She avoids the scrapbook like page layouts, however cute, and chooses pages with a simple photo array ranging from a few to almost a dozen pictures. She doesn’t write much on the pages except maybe the month or name of a special activity. This takes the pressure off having to come up with what to say about the photographs and streamlines the process. Femeke has also found the minimalism encourages dialog with her children. They will often ask her for more information about the photos and as a result, they end up sharing memories together.
Why Printing the Photos is Important
When I asked Femeke why it was important to print her photos, she said that the photobooks felt permanent. She talked about how looking at pictures on a screen feels temporary and impersonal. She sees the screen itself as a barrier, something to hide behind. Think about how we do things behind a screen, social media for example, and how people hide behind it and sometimes act ugly although they would never do it in real life. Doing things behind a screen feels inauthentic to her. Femeke wants to give her children an authentic experience with their family’s photos and believes that can’t be achieved on a screen. She values the real and tangible quality of printed photobooks.
Femeke told me about her father, who is an enthusiast photographer much like mine, and how she grew up with lots of pictures around her. She recalled how she would look at those pictures and while she didn’t always have first hand memories of her past, she created some of them from looking at photographs. She wants her children to have the same experience to look back on when they’re older.
Advice on How to Get Started
One of the reasons why I’m having a hard time putting the photobooks together is that I feel overwhelmed with the sheer number of pictures and all the years I have to put together. Femeke advises not to start from the beginning because you will feel overwhelmed and be paralyzed. She recommends picking a small project first, like a trip or short span of time, and making a photobook from that. Once you get used to putting small photobooks together, it will become a routine and get easier to do each time.
The Big Takeaway
Femeke and I talked about how when we were kids, we used to pull out family photo albums when we were bored and looked through them. We both remember this memory fondly and I would guess most adults have this same memory. It was important to her that her children have this memory too—that they have a tangible reminder of their childhood and life as a family.
She knows that her children already appreciate this experience because they will often pull out the family photobooks and look at them on their own. Her son had his birthday not too long ago and she hasn’t yet finished the most recent book. Without prompting, he asked her why she hadn’t made the book yet and is eager to see it. A side benefit is that as her son gets older, he likes being in pictures less. She tells him that if he wants to have photobooks, he needs to be in them and this seems to encourage him to be in pictures more.
For me personally, the most valuable advice I gleened from my conversation with Femeke was to let go of the idea of perfection. As a professional photographer, I’m always wanting the perfect photograph and often don’t take pictures when I don’t have my DSLR with me. I need to pull out my phone camera more and actively take every day pictures with it and put them in photobooks for my kids. The kids won’t notice which pictures were taken with what camera. They’ll just see our family. I have to let go of the idea of having the perfect, beautiful photo album with just the perfect layout and all the right descriptions.
Femeke says she is a perfectionist too and when her children started looking at the books, she noticed the pages were getting wrinkled and worn and it bothered her. But she came back to the advice she gave herself when she started creating these books—to let go of perfection. Because ultimately, these books aren’t for us. They are for our children and no matter how imperfect they are, our children will love and cherish them.
While I was there to photograph the family, you could tell the children truly enjoyed looking at the photobooks. They sat there the entire time, looking through different ones. They were excited to tell me about the pictures and point out who everyone was, especially themselves at younger ages. They would often stop to ask their mother about specific pictures and she’d relay the memory of the picture. You could tell it was something they all enjoyed doing and did often, unprompted. Just as our generation has fond memories of looking through photo albums as children, Femeke’s children were experiencing the same and creating their own memories.
I’m going to get started on a photobook for our family that I’ve been meaning to make for years. I will start with a book of our summer. What will you start with?
We talked briefly about Femeke’s favorite companies that she uses for printing but she’s finding they go out of business when she settles on one. My advice, as a photographer, is to try to choose a company that prints on archival paper. It might be a little more expensive than other companies but knowing the books will still be around when your children have their own families is well worth the investment now.