In 2005, I began working on a book of Los Angeles photographs. This article describes my experience with the project and I’ll discuss everything I did to complete the book, from finding a publisher to checking the proofs.
I hope this article will be useful to those considering embarking on a similar project, whether for personal enjoyment, publication, or both. I’ve written this as a diary, but in reality I’ve pieced this together from my notes, emails, and memory.
Note that both the book and this article are still works in progress. The book is at the printer (as of April 2006) and I plan to add more material to this article discussing the marketing and sales of the book.
Finding a publisher – 6/14/2005
When I tell people about my book, the first question that everyone asks is, “how did you find a publisher?” Finding a publisher for a photographic book is something that many photographers aspire to but is extremely difficult.
In my case, I had it very easy. I didn’t spend any time showing a portfolio, writing query letters, or sending emails to publishers. I didn’t have any trouble finding a publisher because the publisher found me. They browsed my photos of Los Angeles on my website and liked my work enough to offer me a book deal.
I admit that luck played a large part in this, but whenever I think about it, I am reminded of a famous quote by Louis Pasteur “Le hasard favorise l’esprit preparé” or chance favors the prepared mind. So for those photographers who haven’t yet made a website, you should really do so as you never know who might be browsing your work.
In mid June, the publisher, Twin Lights, contacted me by email and asked if I would be interested in doing a book of Los Angeles photographs. I had never heard of this publisher, so I did some research and checked out their website. They are a small company that specializes in high-quality, hardcover, coffee table photography books of local interest. They seemed very professional and I learned that they had won awards for book design.
After I replied that I was interested, they sent me a two page contract. It was surprisingly readable and very fair. The important points in the contract were:
- I would be listed as the photographer of the book.
- The publisher wanted copyright over the collection of photographs in the book, but not over any individual images.
- The publisher wanted 300 images by September 30 and would select approximately 150 for use in the book.
- The initial print run would be 4000 books.
- The publisher would provide an advance as well as royalties for books sold in additional print runs
I asked for a few small wording changes to clarify some of the terms. Basically, these changes mainly ensured that it was explicit that I retained copyright of the images.
After I accepted the contract, I began putting together a tentative list of subjects that might be appropriate for the book. I had lived in Los Angeles and Orange County for several years so I had a good idea of what I wanted to include. But to be complete, I also scoured tourist guides, books, calendars, postcards, and websites for ideas on possible subjects. I also asked friends what they thought would be good subjects but wouldn’t necessarily be well known.
My subject list ended up being four pages long.
The publisher also sent me a copy of their photo book for Washington D.C. to give me an idea of the types of pictures they were looking for. The book had many nicely done pictures of monuments and tourist sites. It was a little sparse on images of people, but I decided that L.A. couldn’t really be done without people.
I also did some research to see what photo books already existed on L.A. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much available. Most of the existing books were either too expensive for a mass market publication (over $50) or were architecture-based, mainly featuring pictures of expensive homes (these were probably pictures the photographer had taken on assignment for a magazine).
I also took stock of the images I already had of Los Angeles. I had perhaps a few hundred, but not nearly enough in terms of coverage and depth for the book itself. Thus, I planned to make several trips to L.A. over the summer.
First Trip to L.A. – 6/30/2005 to 7/5/2005
I flew into LAX on the evening of Thursday, June 30, and I picked up my rental car. I was hoping to arrive early enough to shoot at Santa Monica, but unfortunately it was dark by the time I arrived. I drove south to Long Beach and checked into my hotel.
I set my alarm for really early in the morning, as I had planned to get up early for a sunrise shot of the 101 freeway from Mulholland drive. However the next day I learned two important things about shooting in the morning: (1) that you can experience grid lock on the L.A. Highway system even before 6AM. And (2) L.A. Is covered with haze that doesn’t burn off until later in the morning at this time of year.
In the five days I spent there, my schedule typically looked like:
- shoot in the morning
- scout locations during midday
- shoot in the afternoon
- get to my night location
- wait in position and shoot as the sun sets
- eat dinner late at night and get back to the hotel at 9 or 10pm
- check images on the laptop, burn backup dvds, charge batteries
I had many subjects to cover and only a limited amount of time so I tried to optimize my shooting schedule by
- covering locations close to each other to minimize travel time, and
- selecting the best light for the subject based on the time of day which would determine things like the color temperature, direction, and the softness that I wanted.
I also tried to arrange my travel to incorporate time for scouting locations before actually shooting. For example, I spent some time driving around downtown Los Angeles looking for good spots that I would return to later.
Since I was only in L.A. for five days, the dominant factor in determining my schedule was based on what I wanted to shoot at sunset and twilight.
Digital Photography on the road
I learned how to shoot on film and I really love the way transparencies look on a lightbox, but for me, digital has many advantages and the new pictures I shot for the book were done entirely with a digital SLR camera.
However, one big drawback of digital photography is managing your pictures on the road, which can be very cumbersome. With film I could just take a few bricks of fujichrome and not worry about anything else. Once the roll is shot, I don’t have to do anything with it until I return from my trip. However, with digital, I have to keep track of where my captured images are stored and how they are backed up.
I shoot in RAW format and each day I took about 500 pictures or roughly 5GB of images. I had 3 1GB CF cards and a number of smaller cards. This would last me about half a day of shooting. After the morning, I would sit in my car or a coffee shop and backup my images to both a laptop and a personal storage device (a stand alone hard disk with a built in card reader) before reformatting. Occasionally, I had to repeat this process again before shooting at sunset if I filled up my cards in the afternoon.
At night in the hotel, I would check the files on my laptop and then burn a DVD of the day’s shoot. I was hoping to be able to edit my files on my laptop, but I simply did not have the time.
Interlude – Peru
Once I returned from L.A. I had to prepare for my summer vacation which was a trip to Peru at the end of July. Thus, I didn’t have much time to edit and review the images other than to note which subjects I thought I had covered well or poorly.
Preparing for my trip to Peru involved planning in terms of the locations that we wanted to see, getting gear and clothing, as well as going on long hikes to help prepare us for the Inca Trail. Unfortunately, in the Bay Area, there’s not really anything you can do that truly prepares you for hiking at high altitudes in the Andes and the best substitute we could find was Mission Peak (a six mile hike with a measly 2200 ft elevation change).
Peru was a fascinating country and we saw Lima, the Amazon, Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and finally we hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. I took many photos of Peru and you can see them in my galleries.
Second Trip to L.A. – 9/1/2005 to 9/5/2005
I made a second trip to L.A. over the Labor Day weekend. This time I flew into Bob Hope airport in Burbank. This is a far better airport to use than LAX since it’s much less crowded and you can even get your rental car right at the terminal without taking a shuttle bus.
While I was at the airport, there was a man wearing a gorilla suit and carrying flowers. I can only assume that the guy had made a serious mistake with his girlfriend.
My main goal in this second trip was to get pictures of any important sites that I missed in the first pass. At the top of my priorities were:
- Downtown skyline at night
- Beverly Hill’s Hotel
- Graumann’s Chinese Theater at night
- Queen Mary
- Muscle Beach
Of these sites, the only the downtown skyline and Grauman’s Chinese Theater caused problems. For downtown, I wanted a distant view of the buildings taken with a long lens. Unfortunately, L.A. was still covered in haze and the sky wasn’t clear enough for this type of picture. Grauman’s Chinese Theater caused problems because there’s not much space to back up and making sure the light trails from cars looked right was difficult because they were all stopping to see the site.
At the end of my second trip, I had gotten images of almost all the important sites in Los Angeles. The only major site I didn’t get was of the Griffith Park Observatory ñ unfortunately it had been closed for remodeling and wouldn’t re-open until the middle of 2006 and so it was impossible to get a clean picture since it was covered in scaffolding.
Sorting, Editing, Captioning, and Selecting Final Images
After my second trip, I started sorting, editing and processing my images. In general, for travel photography I only delete images that are technically bad (out of focus, over-exposed, etc.) and keep most pictures since I can’t always go back and reshoot. I used to edit much tighter for film, but with digital photography storage is very cheap and captioning is much quicker since one can batch caption a whole set of images at once.
As I was editing I started noting the images I wanted to send to the publisher. Basically, I tried to make sure I had coverage of all of the important locations, with several variations of each subject to give the publisher some choice. I also tried to provide both horizontal and vertical shots of the same subject.
|Vertical and horizontal shots of an Excavation at Pit 91. Miracle Mile, La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles|
As I was selecting images, I also made sure that I had the necessary caption information. Usually, while I am photographing, I’ll try to take note of any difficult to identify subjects. I can often fill in missing information by searching on the Internet.
Final submission – 9/26/2005
I sent my final images to the publisher on a DVD for their selection for the book. This comprised over 600 pictures organized in 55 folders. I named each file with a unique identifier followed by the caption. For example, a file name might be bay006777 L.A. Memorial Coliseum and Olympic Gatewayî
The images were small jpegs, about 600 x 400 pixels in dimension, sorted by location. The files were color corrected, and sharpened automatically with a Photoshop action, but they were not spotted.
Publisher’s Selections – 10/19/2005
The publisher finished selecting images for the book and sent me back an Excel spreadsheet listing the images they wanted. They had picked 150 images.
Many were strong images that I knew would be picked. Other picks were not necessarily my favorites but I could understand their selection. There were also some pictures that I liked that were not selected:
I was fairly certain the publisher wouldn’t include the last picture, but I included it simply because I liked it.
One lesson I learned from this experience is that if you have a strong preference for a particular image in a set of similars only include the one that you prefer. For example, I sent in two images of people on rides at Santa Monica Pier.
I really like the one on the left, but the publisher picked the one on the right.
Since I had only color corrected the images, I did final processing on the selected images which included spotting to remove dust spots. Basically, I make them into a finished master image with everything done except sharpening. I sent the hi-res versions to the publisher on a DVD.
Providing prints to the designer – 12/8/2005
The publisher asked me to send 4×6 prints to the book designer. Presumably, she would use these as a physical model to help decide on the layout of the book.
Making the 4×6 prints was relatively easy since I already had all of the large files in one spot. I decided to print my pictures at COSTCO. I downloaded a printer profile from drycreekphoto.com and then prepared my images in Photoshop as follows:
- resize all images to 4×6
- sharpen and convert to printer profile
- save as jpeg
I created a Photoshop action to perform the steps and then ran it as a batch process. I burned a CDROM of the prepared images and drove to COSTCO.
When I got to COSTCO, they had a kiosk where I could insert my CD and select images for printing. The woman working the counter assured me that they ran their printer without any auto-corrections at all. I was dubious, but when I picked up my prints two hours later, I found out that she was correct. The color looked right and you can tell if COSTCO machines have made adjustments by looking at the text printed on the back (you should see ìNNNNî without any numbers).
The quality of the prints themselves, while fine for proofing did not seem all that good. I believe that the COSTCO kiosk further compresses the JPEG images before sending them to the printer.
Photographer’s Picture – 1/22/2006
While I was visiting Los Angeles to see PhotoLA, I had my friend, Geronimo Quitoriano, take my author picture. I had previously tried to take a self-portrait but I wasn’t happy with the results.
The publisher used a tighter crop of the picture for the dust jacket.
Biography – 2/7/2006
I needed to write a biography for the book. This was very difficult and it took me several weeks and many rewrites to get it done. It’s always difficult to write about yourself.
Before starting, I spent a lot of time reading biographies by other photographers, both online and in print. Mostly, the biographies provided information such as
- a summary of the photographer’s accomplishments, such as experience working for magazines, exhibitions, awards, publications, much like a curriculum vitae.
- a description of personal details of the photographer, such as how they came to the field or other unrelated information such as where they grew up and so forth.
- a philosophical discussion of what it means to be a photographer.
The great difficultly I had was that I have been involved with photography for only a few years and thus have not had much experience compared to more established professionals. Most of the photographers with books talked about their years of experiences with various magazines and other corporate work. They also mentioned any competitions and awards they had won. I have never entered photography competitions (not interested) and have not yet tried to get my work into galleries.
Here is the biography I came up with after much work.
Stephen Bay is a California-based photographer, whose work has appeared in newspapers and magazines including the San Francisco Chronicle, Gardening How-To, and Somerset Studio. As a former Los Angeles-resident, Stephen relished the opportunity to photograph and showcase his favorite city.
He was born and raised in Toronto, Canada and is the youngest son of Korean immigrants. He earned a degree in engineering from the University of Waterloo, followed by a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of California, Irvine. Stephen became interested in photography during his final year of doctoral studies and soon began offering his work to the public.
Stephen now resides in San Jose with his wife Kara, his dog and three pet rats. More of his photographs can be viewed on his website, bayimages.net.
Cover Image – 3/27/2006
I saw the cover image for the first time in late March. Although I had known they planned to use an image of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, I wasn’t sure how they were planning to use a horizontal image for the cover.
I really like the crop and it’s not something that I would have thought to do myself.
Proofs – 3/31/2006
The publisher sent me proofs of the book via FedEx.
The book was layed out using a combination of pictures printed with a full bleed alternating with pictures with borders. For the most part the pictures looked fine. Of course, they were not as good as you could achieve on a professional print made with inkjets or photographic paper.
A few images had problems. For example, in the three pictures below, the Santa Monica Promenade was too dark, the color was off in the LAX Theme Building, and there was posteurization in the sky around the sun. None of these problems appear in the digital image, but only occured in the proof print.
I made a note and printed proofs on my HP Designjet 130 printer for the publisher.
I also had to proof the text and I found several typographical errors as well as some errors in the caption descriptions.
Once the book is printed and I can get sample copies, I will start marketing it. My wife previously worked in publicity in Los Angeles and had compiled a press list which will make a good start.
Where to get the book
As of April 2006, the book is still in the printing stage. When it becomes available, you should be able to find it in most major bookstores in the L.A. Area, and you will be able to order the book directly from the publisher. I will put up a link when it becomes available.
- Private Photographic Book Publishing by Michael Reichmann discusses the technical and financial aspects of self-publishing a photography book.
- The making of California Earthframes by Bettina and Uwe Steinmuller discusses the process of making their book. I had a chance to see the Steinmuller’s present their book at a photography meeting and it was very well done.
- Some Unvarnished Truths About Book Publishing, LensWork #60 (Sept-Oct 2005). In this article, Brooks Jensen writes about the sobering realities of photographic book publishing. He presents quite a few hard numbers concerning the financial aspects of publishing a photography book and explains why most are unsuccessful. For anyone interested in publishing, even if you aren’t specifically interested in photography books, I highly recommend reading this article (you can order it as a back issue).
- How To Sell Your Photos for Books, Postcards and Stock Photography by Andrew Hudson.