Pros and hobbyists alike, we’ve all done it before. We’ve spent countless hours taking, organizing and editing our personal photos, only to leave the final jpegs on our hard drives, collecting digital dust.
And no wonder: with the digital age, you not only have countless shots to choose from and the opportunity to edit them endlessly – you also have to make all of the design decisions that go into creating a custom album. With all that choice, it’s no wonder that the easiest thing to do is to do nothing at all.
Album design applications that offer premade templates and a limited selection of design features may make the decision-making process more manageable (and the likelihood of you finally printing your vacation photos a whole lot higher). But they are by nature limited; finding a company that offers an aesthetic that suits your tastes and a print quality that meets your standards can be tough.
Your Very Own Custom Moleskine
We’ve long been fans of Moleskine, the century-old Italian design company renowned for its timeless black notebooks favoured by the likes of Hemingway and Picasso. When we saw that they had teamed up with MILK to offer photo books, we were very excited. Our very own custom Moleskine at long last! So we decided to check it out, to see whether the Moleskine+MILK pairing could deliver a smooth album-building experience that produced a finished product boasting professional-quality printing and classic design.
Today, I’m taking you through my experience creating a Moleskine+MILK Photo Book plus, design through to delivery.
The Photo Book plus is the mid-range option among the three album styles offered by Moleskine+MILK (for more on the other two check out the company’s website). It’s marketed as a step up from the basic album, with extra design features, digital functionality, and a set of predesigned spreads – or “editorial themes” – that differ depending on the kind of book you’re after. In essence, the themes are meant to narrow down the choices you need to make when creating an album, while still giving you enough flexibility to choose the elements you want to include – from photo and text spreads, fonts and colour schemes.
Sitting on a stack of travel and food photos I’d taken from a trip to Italy in 2012, I opted for the “multipurpose” theme, to gain access to a wide range of spreads, including text-intensive cookbook-style layouts and more standard photo-friendly spreads.
All in all, the album construction looks solid (not to mention sleek – just like a classic, hard-sided Moleskine notebook). The cover is sturdy with smooth edges and the pages are well-aligned. It looks and feels like a quality Moleskine product, which means it should stand up to the test of time.
Moleskine+MILK have added a couple of cool features to make the final product feel less like a notebook and more like an album: a nifty hard-sided linen case and printed labels, attached to both the book and the case, showing the title you’ve chosen for your album. Nice touches!
Holding with the Moleskine aesthetic, the album comes standard with matte, ivory paper. The ivory isn’t so far from white as to be distracting, and the finish is smooth and elegant, not the plasticky finish you sometimes find in photo books. The weight feels great in your fingers. Thin enough that it’s easy to flip through pages, but not so thin that you feel like you’re going to rip your work.
That being said, the paper isn’t thick enough to prevent the silhouettes of photos on other pages from peaking through. Fortunately, this only occurs on whitespace – you never see a photo coming through another photo. Not a huge deal, in my opinion – we found the same issue with similarly-priced albums we’ve made with other companies. But something to be aware of if you’re super-picky about paper weight, since there are no other paper options here.
I’m impressed with the print quality. Moleskine+MILK use press printing and even at close range, photos look super sharp. I sharpened before exporting and exported at full size, and would take the same steps next time around.
On the whole, colours, saturation and contrast all look great. Everything’s just a touch warmer than it appears on my computer, but I suspect this is because the images are printed on ivory paper (and I wouldn’t hesitate to print on ivory again). As always, colour calibration of your own monitor is key to making sure your prints turn out as you’d like them to!
Darker tones came out a bit darker than I’d expected, sometimes to the point where a bit of detail was lost in areas with lots of blacks or deep shadows (everywhere else, detail was awesome). I wasn’t disappointed with the end result, but I’d be tempted to try to correct for it next time if I was working with shots with dark blacks.
Overall, the photos printed beautifully – edges are sharp, textures look impressively true to life, and the finish is an easy-on-the-eyes matte rather than super-shiny. The text, too, looks great. It’s elegant, well-saturated and crisp.
Here are the specs on what you get when you order a Photo Book plus:
- 7×10 portrait or 9.25×7.4 landscape album
- 60 pages
- Black hard-cover book with inset album title printed on ivory cardstock
- Black hard-sided linen case with album title printed on ivory cardstock
- Moleskine styling inside and out (elastic closure, ribbon bookmark, extendable inner pocket, stitched binding, standard “If found” front page, Moleskine logo embossed onto the back page of the book cover and back of the slipcase and printed inside the front cover of the book)
- Downloadable PDF of your album designed for tablet (but works on anything with a PDF reader)
- Digital “Flip Book” copy of your album that can be shared on Facebook, Twitter or via email
- Ability to embed video into your Flip Book
Total Cost: US$100 + shipping and subject to import duties and taxes (shipping to Canada from New Zealand, where Moleskine+MILK is based, came in at US$18.99). Preordering a book (paying before you start building it) will save you $30 off the list price – a good deal!
What makes the Photo Book plus unique from the other Moleskine+MILK products is the “editorial theme” function, which gives you access to a library of customized layouts that have been designed to work well with the type of book you’re making, whether it be a wedding album, a travelogue, a cookbook, or one of eight other themes. Essentially, they’ve done all the layout work for you. And I have to say, being able to drop a snazzy recipe template into a book of travel photos is pretty cool.
From there, your design options get pretty limited. Like I said before, the paper type is set (ivory, matte). You choose one of five fonts and one of eight colour schemes, which are then used throughout your book, with the extent of your choice being whether to set the font size in a text box to small, medium or large. As for the spreads themselves, you choose which layout to use, but there’s no option to resize or move the photo and text boxes.
For someone with album design skills, all of this might sound pretty restrictive. And at times, I felt a little frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t tweak things here and there. But in a sense, the restrictions are really one of the key selling features of the book. They’ve done all the detail work – figuring out how big margins should be and what font sizes will work well with the proportions of the book – making it all that much easier for someone with no knowledge of programs like InDesign to make really beautifully designed books.
And even if you do know how to use InDesign, these books can shave a lot of time off of your process by taking care of all the layout details for you.
Having the flexibility to include as few or as many photos as you want, within a reasonable range, would be nice. Right now, the page number is set to 60, no more and no less. That being said, Moleskine+MILK does offer expandable, hard-sided books starting at US$50 for 20 pages ($35 if you preorder) plus $1 per extra page. So the option is there, it just doesn’t come with the same extent of snazzy layout options.
As a brand new company, Moleskine+MILK still has a bit of a ways to go before their book-making process matches up with the ones offered by veterans like Blurb, but I’m impressed with what they’ve done so far. Their online book-building tool is pretty slick, and gives you a great sense of what your album is going to look like in print. And the process is straight forward: select your theme, upload your photos, choose your layouts and you’re off.
As the company grows, it would be great to see basic functions like spellcheck and undo/redo built into the application. Until then, expect to spend some time proofreading or copying and pasting text in from a word processing program.
When I was writing the draft of this review last week, I had made a note about how great it would be to see a function added that would allow you to easily drag and drop photos from the library to the template. When I was making my album, I had to reload images and templates every time I wanted to make a change. Well good news, guys: they announced just yesterday that drag and drop has been added! I gave it a whirl last night and found that it worked nicely. This is a HUGE plus. Albums should come together in lightning speed!
There are still a few bugs that need sorting out (like photos that inexplicably fail to upload), but you can tell from the existing functions – like near-constant autosaves, the feature that rejects photos that are too small to ensure a quality print, and the recent addition of drag and drop – that the company is committed to making a user-friendly, quality product. With that in mind, I fully expect the bugs to be ironed out, and fast.
They’ve made a good effort to incorporate web functions into the design process (no option to do offline design as of yet). You can upload photos from Flickr, Picasa and Facebook (web-sized photos will be too small to pop into full-sized spreads, but they do work in the smaller templates), and share a preview of your work in progress and the final album with friends via Facebook, Twitter and email. They’ve also built in a collaborate function, where you can invite your family and friends to contribute to the album you’re creating. The possibilities there are pretty cool!
Moleskine+MILK states in the fine print that they’re not a data hosting site, so once you’ve printed your book, your library is wiped and your opportunity to edit your album is gone (you can reprint the same album though). For the benefit of the company and their customers, I hope that they add a short-term data storing feature down the road; personally, I’d happily buy more copies of the album I made if I could swap a few photos and bits of text here and there. But since I’m pretty sure my mom doesn’t want a book that’s been dedicated “For David”, I’m stuck with the one copy.
The books are printed in China and, having submitted over Chinese New Year, the product took a while to get to me – about a month from when I hit “Submit” to when it arrived in the mail. The company does warn that products submitted over holidays will take longer to arrive, so if you order a book outside of holiday season you can reasonably expect a shorter turnaround time (7-14 days, according to the website).
Having only been in the album printing business since the fall of 2012, Moleskine+MILK is on to a good thing. There is still some work to be done before the book-building process is 100% user-friendly and bug-free (yesterday’s addition of drag and drop is a giant step in the right direction!), and they don’t yet offer the same range of design features that you’ll find with a company like Blurb (no ability to use InDesign to make your own layouts). But from our email exchanges with them and the activity on their Facebook page, it’s easy to see that they’re committed to adding helpful features, working through wrinkles with speed and generally offering a great product.
And they already do. Despite the few hiccups I encountered as I built the Photo Book plus, I can’t wait to start building another one, because the final product is stellar. Like I said at the beginning of this review, I’ve long been a big fan of the Moleskine design, and the application here is beautifully executed. The styling and construction are great, and the photos look goooood. And despite my desire to fiddle around with layout sizes, I love that the templates make it easy for anyone to build a beautiful book!
The end product will inspire you and the people you share it with to get their photos off their hard drives and into albums. With one quick flip through the book I made, Lauren and Rob were already excited about making one of their own. Success!