Everyone, it seems, except the most compulsively organized, has hard drives or boxes full of family photos waiting to be placed in albums or scrapbooks. All too often, that day never comes, and the psychic burden of their presence grows heavier with each passing year. To solve this dilemma, we tried four different custom scrapbooking services that would do the work for us.
Two of the services created old-fashioned glue-and-paste books using colored card stock and fanciful embellishments to showcase our photos; the other two arrived at these effects digitally, in printed albums or album pages. While the former offered textural variety and richness, the latter were less bulky and accommodated more photos. Our experience taught us that professionals really do know how to scrapbook better than we ever could, although each book required some investment in our time as well as money.
Nancy Nally, editor of Scrapbook Update, an online trade journal, says that custom scrapbooking services are "a quiet underground" niche within the larger $2 billion a year scrapbooking industry. One byproduct of the recession is that consumers have begun to place greater value on handmade gifts, even as their leisure hours seem to shrink, Ms. Nally says. Many commission scrapbooks as a gift for a child graduating from high school or getting married, or as a tribute or anniversary gift, she says.
Every service we considered has an online gallery showcasing sample pages of its work. Some we found too saccharine or "gee whiz" for our taste, but many were beautiful and creative. Price per page varies widely, from about $7.50 to $50 per page, with less labor-intensive digital versions priced lower than hand-made albums.
The first service we tried was Colorado-based Generation Scrap (generationscrap.com). We ordered a 10-page, 8.5"x11" ($15 per page) album that would cover our trip to Italy two years ago. The price included all paper, supplies and a handsome leather binder. Although owner Renee Bernhard gave us the option of sending digital images by email, on a disk or flash drive, and have the cost of printing them added to our bill, we opted to send her prints. We liked Ms. Bernhard's clean style ("I don't cut pictures into shapes like hearts or stars," she told us) and her use of high-quality papers. All services now use acid-free, archival-quality papers, but price and quality can still vary.
We learned that the trade-off in scrapbooking is that the more photos we wanted on the page, the less room for embellishments such as buttons, ribbons or trim. A crowded page also left less room for "journaling," the captions that explain and comment on the photos. Since our focus was on the photos, Ms. Bernhard instructed us to send two to three photos per page. We mailed our photos and memorabilia and emailed Ms. Bernhard the titles and journaling for each page. Two days after she received our package, Ms. Bernhard emailed us suggestions for a color palette (earth tones), and asked if our style preference was "more casual/cute" or "more regal." We opted for midway between casual and regal.
We loved the sample layouts Ms. Bernhard sent (including brand names and colors of card stock, borders and embellishments she used), except for the line that read, "This is what I'm thankful for today," which was a little too greeting card for our taste. Ms. Bernhard eliminated that sentence. Three weeks after we mailed our photos, our elegantly designed album arrived in the mail. We could have done without the plastic sleeves covering the pages, but Ms. Bernard later told us this is the standard way of preserving carefully crafted pages for generations. Total cost including tax and shipping: $166.28, plus the cost of photo printing.
Our next scrapbook, from Seattle Scrapbooking Services (Seattle Scrapbooking Services.com), was more ambitious, a 30-page 12"x12" ($300) memory book of our son's middle school years. Owner Patty Fouts instructed us to fill one envelope per page with photos and memorabilia. Instead of labeling photos by writing on their backs, she suggested using post-its, as some inks contain print-damaging acid.
We spent days sorting through hundreds of digital images, ordering prints and writing short captions and titles. When she received them, Ms. Fouts complimented us on our organization, but asked us to shoot more pictures of our apartment and son's bedroom. A problem with her email server temporarily impeded our communication. Two-and-a-half weeks later, we received four layouts by email. We were taken aback to see that Ms. Fouts had added some of her own journaling to our minimalist text. A perfectionist, she had also researched some of the places included in the album, adding factual guidebook-type information. In one happy case, she even dug up the digital logo of a sports club our son attended and used it to create a handsome banner.
Ms. Fouts agreed to change the parts of the journaling we disliked for no charge, noting that we were the first customers to object to either her journaling technique or the childlike stick-figure decorations that we found a little young for our son's age. A little over a month after we shipped our photos, our completed scrapbook arrived via FedEx. Although it required the most work on our part, the scrapbook was an amazing labor of love: charming, personal and filled with delightful surprises. On one page, Ms. Fouts used digital photos she had asked us to send to create a complex layout of small photos embedded in a larger one. Ms. Fouts later told us she shops for embellishments to match the book's themes and colors. Total cost: $370.74, including an extra page and leather album.
For our first foray into digital scrapbooks, we contacted Rachel Wright of Minnesota-based Captured Time Custom Scrapbooks (capturedtimebooks.com) and ordered a 12"x12" 20-page book ($70 for design services, $80 for printing by scrapbooking supply business Creative Memories). As a consultant for Creative Memories, Ms. Wright earns a 30% commission on scrapbook printing fees and any supplies she sells. She suggested planning for one to 10 images per page, and advised that we let her edit the photos, since each time an image is digitally altered it degrades slightly. We selected 127 images, copied them to a disk and mailed it to Ms. Wright, emailing her our journaling.
Except for Generation Scrap's book, our albums ended up larger and more expensive than we intended them to be. Usually we were informed of our choices, but with Captured Time, the process was less transparent. By the time we realized we were facing a $63 increase in price, Ms. Wright had sent us a link to a 34-page online proof, though she sweetened the deal by offering to design four of the extra 14 pages free. In the future, we would do well to set a price limit up front and stick to it. Later, Ms. Wright told us that cutting pictures "is always the hardest part" and acknowledged our complaint, saying, "feedback is important." We also realized after the fact that unless we specified which images were our favorites, we ran the danger of having average pictures put on the cover or blown up to full-page size, and some of our favorites relegated to montage status. Despite these quibbles, the finished product was well designed and handsomely embellished. Total cost: $233.55.
For our final album, we ordered a 10-page 8"x 8" digital scrapbook ($130) of snapshots from this year from Colorado-based Catching Keepsakes (catchingkeepsakes.com). We emailed 40 jpeg images to owner Tania Settje, receiving beautifully designed email proofs a week later. Once again, not all our photos fit, so we agreed to a discounted $26 for four additional pages. It was not until late in the process, however, that Ms. Settje realized that we needed a minimum of 20 pages to have the book printed. Concerned about our mounting scrapbooking fees, we opted to have the pages printed singly and placed in plastic sleeves in a post-bound album. The final product, though it would have looked better in a printed book, made a charming keepsake. Total cost: $163.50.