For many photographers, album design is a tedious drudgery that takes hours or even days to complete. Photoshop is amazing for image manipulation, but it's really not intended for print design. And while Adobe InDesign is powerful page layout application, it provides no guidance in good design practices. SmartAlbums is a helpful program for Mac (there is not yet a Windows version as of the date of this publication) that addresses the challenges photographers face when creating albums for their clients.
SmartAlbums is a template-based design application with over 500,000 layouts, supporting over 40 album vendors worldwide. Whenever you choose a vendor, book size and dimensions, SmartAlbums will load the appropriate template library and set all the printing parameters for that specific vendor and product. You don’t have to worry about which layouts will work and which ones won’t
SmartAlbums puts a lot of effort into making this experience as intuitive as possible with a focus on good design. Not only will you be able to make a professional album quickly, each spread follows the rules of good design.
My first album made with SmartAlbums was a 40-page (20 spreads), 8x8" flushmount book. With only a rudimentary understanding of the tools, I was able to complete it in 30 minutes. Now, I average 15 minutes for a finished version I can present for client evaluation or print. You might think that it's too fast to do a professional job, but that is the whole surprising point of SmartAlbums.
1. Starting a SmartAlbum
Creating your SmartAlbum project file is really easy. When you’re ready to create an album, you can click on the
New Project icon. If you’ve already made an album you can access it from the list,
or click the Open Project icon and navigate to the SmartAlbums project file.
You’ll need to create a project file for each album you design. Let's start from scratch with a new project.
The SmartAlbums project file that is a lot like an Adobe Lightroom catalog: it is a file that references your source images, the relevant template library, and the album’s specifications. It's non-destructive!
2. Select Your Vendor & Album
In this section, you can choose to use an included album company or use a custom preset if your desired Album Company or format isn't there. SmartAlbums supports flushmount albums and not traditional matted albums or flushmount-matted combos. You could still design the flushmount portions of a combination album in this application, but you'd still have to use your vendor's preferred methods for the rest.
3. Set Template & Appearance
As of version 1.1.8, only the "Clean & Modern" template library is available. In this window, you can further refine how many layout templates are available to you for that specific album. Narrowing your template library can be done in the "Template Library Filter" section and can be helpful in eliminating frames you don't like.
Personally, I keep the "All templates" option because I like the flexibility and it won't force a restart if I or my client decides they actually want squares or non-3:2 frames. Once the template library is filtered, you can't undo it without starting a New Project. So, I keep it.
4. Import Images
On the leftmost side of the Image Browser, you can import your images. Another option is to drag and drop them into the Image Browser where they'll import and be available. SmartAlbums will also automatically create new Bins if your photos reside in different folders. If not, you can create the bins manually.
You may get a warning if your photos aren't in the vendor's preferred colorspace, usually sRGB, and if their resolution falls below the album's preset. This is a helpful warning because the wrong colorspace could cause major color/tonal shifts or rejection by the album vendor and would let you know if an image wouldn't work as a large frame.
5. Custom Album Setup
SmartAlbums supports dozens of vendors, but if your specific album vendor or type isn't listed you can create your own templates by clicking the Custom Album button. Enter the specifications and save the settings as a preset.
The SmartAlbums Workspace
The workspace has four sections: Spreads Window, Timeline, Image Browser, and Image Inspector. Each section has functions to help you customize your layouts, organize your photos, and work quickly.
The Spreads Window
Here is where your spreads and layouts are visually displayed. Each new spread starts blank. The layouts automatically adjust depending upon how many photos you've dedicated to that spread and the layout you've chosen.
You can drag and drop your photos directly onto the spreads. SmartAlbums will choose a layout based upon the number of images, their orientation, shape, and the specifications of the album.
At the top of the Spreads Window you'll see a little button between two arrow icons. Clicking this button will show you the different design templates available for that spread. The kinds and number of layouts displayed depends upon the photos you have in that spread. Once you see a layout you like, click on it and the spread will be updated.
Personally, I prefer just using 'Up' or 'Down' arrow keys, cycling through the layouts until I see one I like. I think it's a lot faster because I'll bump into a visually appealing design faster than scrolling through templates. Use the 'Left' and 'Right' keys to cycle between spreads.
Right below your spreads is the Timeline. This section shows the photos currently in the album, their order, and how they're divided. You can drag and drop images onto the Timeline as well, but they'll be added to the current spread. You can split groups of images into new spreads by adding "cuts."
You can add a bunch of images to the Timeline and separate them into spreads by clicking in between the images on the Timeline, creating "cuts". This method is an alternative to dropping the photos directly onto the spread, quickly prototyping your entire album very quickly.
For example, a wedding client chooses 40 images for their 16-spread (32 sides) album. I drop that selection onto the timeline and quickly cut-up the visual story until I hit the 16-spreads. As I make these cuts, SmartAlbums is creating the spreads and choosing an appropriate design layout each time. I can then go back to make tweaks.
You can also affect the spreads by rearranging the order of the photos in the Timeline for that spread. Along with using the 'Up' and 'Down' keys, you can do most of your work in the Timeline.
SmartAlbum's image browser works like your conventional image browser, but with a few features that speed up album design. If you're familiar with Adobe Bridge, Lightroom, Photo Mechanic, or basically any industry-standard image management application you'll find the image browser familiar.
Across the top of the Smart Albums Image Browser is the menu. You can filter, sort, and assign metadata like in other applications. SmartAlbums also recognizes color class and star ratings from other applications.
Another cool organizational feature of the image browser is the bins system. You can divide your image collection into bins from within the browser or drop entire folders from the outside onto the New Bin icon to create one. This divides your project's image collection into manageable, logical pieces.
Here is where you can adjust the details of each image on the spread as well as some features for that particular spread. You can scale, rotate, and position your images using the appropriate sliders or dragging the image about in the image window of the inspector. You can also check your trim/bleed margins for photos that bump into them.
For the spreads, you can change the spread's background color, toggle an image border and color, as well as change the gap sizes. You're not stuck with the options you established during the initial setup of the project.
6. Designing Your Album
Once we have our workspace loaded we can start create our spread designs. I strongly suggest dividing your image collection into bins if you have a single, large collection. For weddings, I usually create three or four bins: Getting Ready, Ceremony, Formals, and Reception.
If you didn't create this sort folder structure when you were doing post-production and simply dumped your finals into one folder you can sort within your SmartAlbums project. Don't worry, SmartAlbums' bins don't affect your source's folder structure. Create your bins and drop the relevant images into them.
Manipulating a Layout Design
Whether you dropped the photos onto the Timeline or the spreads, the photos will be arranged for you. Use the 'Up' or 'Down' arrow keys to cycle through your options until you find something you like. Sometimes you'll need to manipulate the layout a little further. SmartAlbums has several ways you can refine a layout beyond the basic template cycling.
Adding/Deleting an Image
If you have a set of photos on a spread, but wish to add or delete a photo, that's easy to do and has a few variations. The main way to delete is to simply select the photo either on the spread or on the timeline and press the Delete key. Adding a photo can be done by dropping a new photo onto the spread or timeline.
This enables you to modify either the entire spread or just one side. If you drag a new photo onto the center of the spread, then it will affect the entire spread. If you drop the image onto one side, then only that side's layout will change. However, there are limits to this feature. Firstly, no image can cross the gutter. Secondly, is the applications adherence to good design conventions. So, there are instances where the whole spread will be affected when adding or removing images.
Changing images is another way to manipulate your spread's design. You can reorder, swap, substitute, and force drop. I'm grouping these distinct functions together because you're either swapping an image's position or trading one image for another. All of these actions utilize pervasive drag-and-drop functionality found throughout SmartAlbums.
In the timeline, simply reorder the photos for that spread. The layout will usually adjust unless the photos for that spread are all horizontal or all vertical. You can also insert a new spread between ones already in place by drag-dropping new photos in the space between spreads.
This is replacing one image on a spread with another image on a spread. Simply drag one photo onto another and drop it there. The photos will exchange places and your layout will remain the same. You can also do this across spreads.
Sometimes replacing a photo with a different one is more effective at storytelling. To do this, drag-drop your new image onto the old one to replace it. You can do this move on the spread or the timeline.It works the same way as swapping, but I distinguished it because the image doesn't already exist in the spread or other spreads.
SmartAlbums will prevent you from dropping vertical images into horizontal frames and vice versa. To do a force drop, drag your photo over to it's new place -- a red tint will appear, blocking you -- and hold-down the Command (Control in Windows) key and release the photo onto it's new spot. The photo will be forced into it's new home and the old image will swap into other spot.
You can then adjust the positioning of the photo in the image inspector. You shouldn't need much repositioning as SmartAlbums uses face-recognition technology to center on faces. This is a great way to maintain your layout and present new crops to your photos, adding uniqueness to the album.
7. Exporting Your Design
Once you've finalized your draft -- potentially in just minutes -- you'll be ready to export to your client for review, blog or social media, to your vendor (if finalized), or even Photoshop or InDesign. Click the Export button (Cmd+E) to access the exporting options.
You can export to a variety of formats to match your design, proofing, or vendor's requirements. When you export for print your vendor's default resolution is already loaded. You can change this if you'd like. For proofing, you can choose to display varying degrees of information and watermark your files, too. I prefer to display the file names, spread numbers, and watermark to make client changes accurately referenced.
Exporting to Photoshop or InDesign
SmartAlbums' integration with Adobe Photoshop and InDesign enables me to take a single spread, a range, or the entire album and adjust my designs even further. Just remember that exporting to Photoshop or InDesign is a one-way export, so leave this type of exporting for last.
SmartAlbums exports to Photoshop as a PSD file with layers, guides and margins, and the images as they appear in the design. Please note that the photos within the PSD have been cropped and the resolution changed according to the design layout. You won't be able to non-destructively scale the images to a larger size or recover cropped portions of the image. However, you can use Photoshop's strengths like retouching or other effects to work on your spreads.
Because of the some of the image repositioning and resizing limitations of the PSD route, I prefer to use InDesign. Because InDesign is built for print publishing it has tools that are more suitable for adding text and refining your layouts. SmartAlbums exports an IDML file with all the guides and margins, but goes one step further by providing linked images to the source file!
The InDesign route enables to you to not only change the frames themselves, but also upscale, re-crop, etc. the images without pixelation (up to 100% original) because you have access to full resolution of the source file. InDesign provides much more non-destructive flexibility in your design than Photoshop.
One last note on exporting: SmartAlbums applies sharpening to your images similar to the 'Medium' setting found in Adobe InDesign. So, when exporting your finals to InDesign or uploading to your vendor check the sharpening process to avoid over-sharpening your album. You can change the SmartAlbums sharpening settings in the Image Quality tab of the Preferences menu.
Once you're done with any additional design or retouching work on your spreads, you'll be ready to upload the output files to your vendor for ordering. It's really that simple.
8. Extra Smart Goodies
There are three extra features I'd like to touch upon before we wrap up: resizing an album, exporting images, and Auto-Sync. I think these features are very helpful for the busy photographer.
Sometimes you or your client wants a different album size after all. No problem!
- Create a New Project: You'll need a project file to house your new, resized album.
- Select Vendor, Album Type & New Size: Choose the same vendor and album type otherwise your project may not copy over properly. Pick a new size, but make sure is has the same aspect ratio as the old project. A square album cannot be converted into a rectangular one, nor can a horizontal rectangle be reoriented to a vertical one.
- Copy & Paste contents: Go to your original project and select all the spreads either in Spreads Window or the Timeline (Cmd+A). Copy and paste them into the Timeline of the new project. Your photos will render into their new spreads and your Image Browser should show the photos used.
Exporting Images from the Image Browser
A neat little feature is that you can export portions of your album's photo collection from the Image Browser into the Finder. For example, you can use this feature to create a folder to show which photos were used or unused by the album. Once exported, full-resolution files will be copied to that folder.
- Create a New Folder in Finder: Open a Finder window and navigate to where you want to create a folder, then create a new folder.
- Drag & Drop into new folder: Filter or select the photos you want to copy, then simply drag & drop that chunk into new destination as you would any other file. Done!
SmartAlbums doesn't apply post-processing on your photos like other applications may do. The developers say that programs such as Photoshop and Lightroom are much better tools for such things. Actions like retouching, B&W or Sepia conversions, and image rotation beyond 45-degrees must be done in an external editor. However, SmartAlbums will automatically update itself with any changes you've made to the source file.
Just drag & drop the image(s) into your image editor or Option-Click and choose "Edit In...", make your changes and save your file into the same location and name. SmartAlbums will reflect those changes.
SmartAlbums debuted in November 2013 and since then has steadily gained a traction with photographers. Watching the introduction video to application I couldn't belief it was that simple to use. But it really is.
There is nothing wrong with being able to provide your clients professional albums while getting your life back. With about a half million templates and scores of vendors with accurate parameters, album design is fun again. Now, when a client wants an album I'm not weighed-down by gravity of the workload, but am rather uplifted because I know I can serve my clients quickly and professionally.