Friday, April 24, 2009

We are creating memories - and trying to figure out the best way to preserve them.

Have you seen that commercial where the digital picture characters are all crammed into a limited space and one of them eventually has to be zapped because another more important picture is being added? I'm pretty sure my memory cards sparked the idea for that t.v. ad. I can't begin to guess how many pictures we have sitting in digital file form on memory cards and flash drives, on CD's, and in our computers' memories. In the spirit of trying to journal, trying to document the events in our lives, and trying to give my kids the magic of remembering, discussing, and treasuring the things we do together, I've been working on using the pictures we've never seen in print form to create personalized memory books. Now I am finding that this kind of thing can be quite consuming in many ways and downright addictive!

I suppose we can blame this spurt of creativity on the fact that I've had pneumonia and complications from newly-diagnosed asthma for almost a month now and have been confined to my bed (and my laptop) more than I normally would be. Perhaps we could point toward the fact that I've been sort of laid off at the theatre because there was not enough demand for the owners to be able to employ me for a while and I no longer have that creative outlet. Maybe this could be a result of my husband being in Hawaii and then on other business trips for the greater part of the last month (yes, including the time when I had the worst of the pneumonia.) No matter the instigating factors, the end result is the same. I am finally producing something tangible and, if I do say so myself, doggone good! I love seeing and sharing the storybooks I have created with our pictures!

To make this entry useful for the general population, I'll share some of the thoughts I've been mulling over during my recent (if relatively limited) experiences to provide a bit of a review of the services with which I've been experimenting. Each of the sites I have tried has some good qualities (some more than others) and each has some drawbacks. The following evaluations and comments are completely my own opinions, based on my own circumstances. I do not receive any kind of compensation for any of my observations, nor do I intend to cause any harm or damage to any of the companies involved. (The companies are welcome to read and consider my comments, if they wish, to get a feel for the way unbiased, real-world people are thinking about their services and products.) These are just things I've been considering as I have been trying different ways of translating our memories into print form.

My favorite storybooking site for quality and the end product is Heritage Makers. It has, by far, the most embellishments, options, backgrounds, styles, and general bells and whistles of any site I have tried. The possibilities for page layouts and personalizations are almost infinite, since the user can (and must) place and adjust every picture and every piece of anything on every page. Of course, this technology involves not only more labor but also an extra cost. The HM site is the only one I have worked with that charges a monthly fee for access to more than their basic resources. The end result is definitely a better-made product than the others, with sewn bindings (instead of glued), acid-free pages, and overall archival keepsake quality.

What I am finding with HM is that some of the bonuses are also the very things that become drawbacks. With infinite possibilities also come the aforementioned extra costs, as well as countless decisions, processes, and technical things to figure out and try to learn and remember. Because there are so many things the user must adjust, there are several toolboxes/storage areas that take up screen space and must be moved from place to place and/or opened and closed in order to access the work space. This site involves a definite learning curve and requires regular practice to keep up with the technology. For me, all these possibilites translate to more time, which is one of my most limited and costly resources. They also lead to greater frustration and more second-guessing than I have felt with the other companies, as well as to a longer interval between project start and actually being able to order, receive, hold, and enjoy the end product. When the possibilities are practically endless, it's hard to feel like I've explored all options and put everything the way I want it.

Time is also more of an issue with HM because the "credits" for products that a customer purchases ahead of time (say, in a promotional combo package or when the site is having a sale) have an expiration date. (This fact is not mentioned much when a person is making a purchase, by the way, and I do not remember it being clearly written or emphasized on any order form.) For people whose computer files and pictures are very organized and who have a firm grasp on both their visions for their projects and the technology involved, this may not be much of an issue. For our family, however, the time pressure has become a huge issue. I purchased several credits for items in May and June of 2008. I did complete one beautiful, priceless (to me) keepsake storybook in the first month after I opened the account. I love it so much and it came out so close to being perfect in every way for my purposes that I can hardly imagine ever making another one that I would love or appreciate as much. My other pictures are not quite so accessible or organized, but I thought I had plenty of time to work on the projects bit by bit. My husband, however, was notified that he was losing his job in the second month after I purchased the credits. His new job pays less than the other, so our funds are even more budgeted than they were before. Even if I had been able to complete the projects, we could not have paid the additional amount necessary to have the items shipped to us.

Our time for such projects has also been more strictly budgeted because I started working outside of our home and he started traveling more. To complicate matters, our computer had unplanned issues and eventually our monitor and scanner became useless. We, of course, have not had the resources to get a new monitor and have only recently been able to install one that works. Our home computer still has issues when I try to upload pictures to and navigate the HM site, but I have not yet been able to determine if this is a consistent problem with HM or if the problem lies more with my computer and my connection to the internet.

I did not know all these roadblocks would arise when I purchased most of the credits, but I am, nonetheless, going to have to do something with the projects or my investment (which is greater than it would be with the other companies I have seen for similar, if lower quality, products and services) will be lost. The months of premium membership for which I paid, but was unable to use, are a complete loss. What I have learned from this experience is that I cannot purchase from this company just because it holds a sale - no matter how great of a sale it is or what I dream of being able to do with the sale items - or because a friend hosts a show. I have to make rational decisions based on what is best for my family at the time and what resources I have available. If I am going to purchase items from this site in the future (which I am sure I will), I will have to have my files and ideas organized and my time set aside so that I can complete the project in a timely manner. I will also have to consider the cost of adding the premium membership to the price of the item credit that I purchase, as I cannot justify maintaining that pricey membership in the hopes that I will be able to work on projects regularly. That hope is just not realistic for my family's situation at this time.

Let's move on to another site. I'll do Snapfish next because this evaluation is the really easy. For picture printing, I have always been happy with the services and quality Sfish offers. As far as photobooks are concerned, however, I have not been impressed with it. The options for backgrounds are most limited, and embellishments are nonexistent. The whole process is relatively quick, mainly because there are not many options from which to make choices. Uploading pictures to the site is quite fast and well-organized, and the book-building process is easy to navigate. The pictures fit into a basic number of layouts and a few set sizes of windows. I cannot comment on the quality of the actual printed book because I have not yet ordered and received mine. I will add pertinent information here when I upload the remaining pictures (delayed, again, because of the problems with the family computer as well as by my general lack of excitement with the options they offer) and finish the last couple of pages in the book. (Their discount promotion ends in the next few days, so I will definitely have to submit my project soon.)

Another website I could use to turn our digital picture files into tangible book form is Kodak Gallery. I had forgotten about this one until it sent me a notice that I hadn't bought anything in so long that it was about to delete my stored pictures. As it turns out, a small photobook would fulfill my purchase requirement for the year. I thought Snapfish had the most basic program out there until I tried to make a book through Kodak. Just about the only choices to make here are the size of the book (I am trying the one for which I have a discount code), the design for the covers (both the same, chosen from a small selection) and the design of the pages (backgrounds all the same w/ limited variety and layouts.) I will post about the quality of the final product when my little photobook gets here.

As evidenced by my last couple of posts on this blog, the remaining company I have tried and will mention is Shutterfly. I have used this site for photo storage, picture printing, and Christmas card production over the past few years. Although one of the cards I made a couple of years ago printed much darker than I expected, all the other cards and prints I have purchased from them have arrived exactly as they looked online. As a member of their site, I receive regular emails and sale ads, one of which included a code for a free photobook. (Free book with paid shipping.) When I gave it a try, I had limited computer function and was not able to fully explore the options available on their site, but I did easily and quickly put together a basic photobook that arrived at my home within just a few days.

This photobook brings our family a lot of joy. (As I mentioned before, we barely have any pictures that are actually printed, so this whole group of themed pictures in book form is outstanding!) Its construction is not what I would describe as high quality; it is not going to be coming apart any time soon, but the binding is glued instead of being sewn and the book arrived in a simple cardboard mailer and plastic envelope, as opposed to the gift/protective sleeve that was also included with the HM book. The book only cost me what I paid for shipping, after all, and it has been well worth that amount. This promotion was also a success for Sfly, I think, because it got me looking at the product and giving the process a try. Now that I have learned a bit more about this part of the the website (time investment being pleasantly little as Sfly is a place where I already stored photo files for free and the site and this book-making process are incredibly fast and easy to navigate), I have figured out what errors I made in my haste to complete this first book before the discount code was no longer valid. I have also figured out things I like and dislike about this website.

Shutterfly's system has a very easy-to-access variety of backgrounds, edge styles, and preset layout options for their pages. There are not as many options for the covers, but the options they do have work well. I like that I can generally find a background and a basic picture edging I like for most of my purposes. Sfly does not have nearly the number of themes and choices as the premier version of HM has available, but it has considerably more than Sfish and Kodak. I especially appreciate the layout options for 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5+ pictures and the ease and speed with which any of these choices can be placed, changed and viewed. As I think about all the projects I have purchased and the ones I have actually completed, I am sure this one element has been the key reason I have been able to slap together so many Sfly projects so quickly.

With convenience comes limitation, of course, and I would be remiss if I did not mention my frustration with the way that so many of the layout options do not use up enough of the page space (I want to be able to see more picture and less background a lot of times) and do not allow me to make individual pictures bigger or smaller than their preset dimensions. While this program does allow me to combine text - a good selection of fonts, even - with my pictures, the size and space limitations are a factor again. Personalization of the photobooks is also limited because the website does not offer any embellishments or ways to place anything outside of the preset layouts. Without going to an outside website for templates and using a photo-editing or publishing program to embellish photos and then uploading the whole product to be placed into a Sfly book, there is no way to raise the keepsake or heirloom status of the books I make on Sfly. The end result is usually a fun, touchable, portable memory book, but not so much of a replacement for a real scrapbook or other specialized storybook.

To summarize, my experiences have taught me that Snapfish and Kodak have a way to go before their photobooks would be my first or even second choice, but I am glad to see their efforts at offering this type of product. I am excited to have learned as much as I have about Shutterfly's photobooks and other photo products and most especially to have an easy way to post the virtual products I create to my blog and other websites. I am thrilled that I have been able to combine various promotional discounts to order and quickly receive a variety of actual products from Shutterfly, as well. Although their layouts are not all completely space-efficient, they do not offer embellishments, and the available themes are not unlimited, the advantages are that the workspace within the site is convenient to use, the creative process is easy to learn, understand, and navigate, the backgrounds do come in a decent variety of styles, and the layouts and storyboarding options make it possible to put together fun books in a relatively short time. I also appreciate the fact that I can work on Shutterfly products a little bit at a time and store them as works-in-progress or just as fun projects at no additional cost. Heritage Makers delivers the ultimate quality of product, but also requires the greatest investment of time, energy, and finances. This is truly the place to go for heirloom kinds of keepsakes. They offer such a variety of embellishments and themes that there must be something to appeal to any person's style or needs. This company also makes a variety of other photo gifts and products which I have only seen on their site, as well as offering a template gallery (the majority of which templates are only available to their premier members) which can help members to jump-start various projects. I have found them to be the gourmet meal of photobook making or storybooking, as they call it. While I am not able to use their services every time, I am most thrilled with and moved by the product I receive when I do make the required commitment to and investment in a project with Heritage Makers.

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