Laying out images on a page

The problem of laying out image on book pages may be approached on several levels. To pick the right pictures, select the sequence, and placing them in a pleasing way is the hardest part, and since I don’t know the first thing about that I’m not going to pick up that topic. The easy part is to learn how to make friends with your software so you don’t develop any stress related deceases while making your book.

Since I’m usually on a budget when it comes to computing power, I have found a couple of ways to cope with large images. The important thing for me, since I’m no good at the aesthetic part of placing the images, is to be able to shift them around and try many solutions in a fairly short time. The best way to do this, is to work with low res pictures. Here is how I go about when making my book:

  • the first task is to export all the photos that are candidates to fairly low res files. It may be tempting to export jpegs at this stage, but if you intend to use tiff or psd files in your final compilation, you better export the same file type now, just to get the exact same file name later on. I usually don’t make them bigger than 1000px on the longest side at this stage. Keep these pictures in a separate directory in close relation to the document file.
  • Most software worth mentioning, use placeholders to insert pictures into a document. The exact procedure for inserting a picture may vary. Some software, like Scribus, requires you to make a placeholder first, and then fill it with a picture later, others like ordinary word processing usually create the placeholder automatically when you insert the picture, while others again may do both. The important thing now is to insert the images into your document, and make sure the placeholder has the same size. Yes, I said the same size. This is also software dependent, but you may get all varieties of stretching and cropping if the placeholder is of a different size. Usually you will find a function that match the picture and the placeholder if you right click on either one.
  • Resize and move the pictures around until you’re satisfied with the layout. The response should be fairly snappy now since you work on small files. When you resize the pictures (and placeholders), make sure you maintain the aspect ratio. This is usually done by holding some combination of shift, ctrl and alt while dragging.

Make sure you spend enough time on this part, because any effort done from here will be wasted if you change your mind.

What follows now is some routine tasks. It is the back end process you must do when all the creative work is done, and you want to produce a high quality file to send to the press. I have solved quite much of it with scripts and actions in Photoshop.

  • You don’t want your desktop publishing software to resize your images. They’re not good at it, and it will ruin all your output sharpening. This is also a good reason why you don’t need the full size images before this stage. You don’t really know the exact size until you’ve finished the layout. So what you want to do now is to go through all the images one by one, right click on them and bring up the properties and read out the exact width and height in mm, cm, inch or any other measuring unit that is related to the real world. Don’t use pixels. Write down the dimension for each picture, and be as precise as you feel is necessary. I usually take it to the closest mm.
  • Decide on the necessary resolution for you output device. Many on demand book presses recommend 300ppi, while your Epson printer wants 240ppi or 360ppi. I don’t know what other printer brands use.
  • Open each original image file in turn using your favorite photo editor, and resize them to the dimension in your notes, using the resolution for you output device. Do all your output sharpening and other magic to make the pictures print well. These picture files should have the exact same names as their corresponding low res file, and they should be places in the same directory, effectively replacing them. Remember not to overwrite you originals. I use scripts for this task.
  • Now, depending on your software, the process of inserting the full size image files may take anything from 20sec to 30 minutes. InDesign does this really nice. You get a list that warns you about broken links. This list should contain all the pictures in your document. Just tell InDesign to fix these links, and you’re done. Other software may require you to right click each picture and update, while the really stupid software requires you to drag and drop the new picture on top of the old. Either way, this is when you get the benefit from using the exact same file name in both the small and full size image file. If your software requires you to delete the old picture and insert the new one, you should consider changing software. It may improve your health and keep your blood pressure down.
  • Since you wrote down the size in mm or inch, and the actual picture size is in a discrete number of pixels, there may be a slight mismatch between the placeholder and the picture. The next task is then to make sure that all the pictures, and their placeholders, have the same size, the native size of the image file. This would prevent any resizing during printing. This is also a time where you will find out if your software is worth the money. InDesign reads both the physical size meta data, and the resolution meta data, and resize the placeholder to this, which is really nice. Apple Pages assumes all the images are at 72ppi. As a result of this, you must open the property for each image and type in the exact same physical size as you exported the image to.
  • If you want to make a slight adjustment to one of the pictures, go through the process of resizing it again from the original, and do the output sharpening again. The quality will be better than just resizing the one you already inserted in the document.
  • Export the complete document to a file format supported by the printing press, usually pdf. Make sure to tell the pdf export not to resize any images, and to use lossless compression.

Now you should have a high quality original where all the pictures have the native resolution of the output device. All the work that is part of the back end process may seem tedious, but with a little practice you can put together a book of 35 pictures in less than an hour. I did our wedding album, which contained around 100 pictures in a variety of sizes, in less than 2 hours. The selection, layout and sequencing took me several days.

Oh, I didn’t say anything about it, but give the color management some thought as well. Everything is so much easier if you export all the pictures to the same color space, which should be the color space used by your desktop publishing software.


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