Shutterfly Photobooks Review

October 2010 (updated 2/2014)

I recently took advantage of a coupon good for a free Shutterfly photobook to make a book comprised of some of my favorite digital scrapbooking layouts.  To make a Shutterfly book, you work at the Shutterfly website <>, where you drop your photos into one of many premade layouts; I dropped a few photos into a few of their layouts just to get a sense of how the procedure worked.  The process was simple, but you are limited to Shutterfly’s layouts and backgrounds.  If you want full control over where your images are on a page or even something as simple as having one of your own images as a custom background, you have to photoshop your own layout and set it as a full bleed image.  Furthermore, you cannot use .png images at Shutterfly.  In contrast, Smilebooks (reviewed here)  allows you to download desktop software that can be quirky and even frustrating to use, but gives you enormous control over location, overlapping and cropping of your images and text and allows use of .png images having transparent backgrounds.

Since my project was a compilation of 300 ppi 12x12 or 8.4x8.4-in layouts I’d already done in Photoshop, almost all of my Shutterfly pages were full bleed pages.  If you search the Shutterfly website for “digital scrapbook,” you’ll get extremely important instructions, specifications and templates for turning your layout into a full bleed page – however, even with the instructions and specifications, making full bleed pages was somewhat tricky.  When I worked with the Smilebooks software, I got a WYSIWYG view showing me exactly how my page would appear in the final product; Shutterfly gives you rough guidelines telling you where your critical elements can(not) be, but warns you that the trimmed area may vary slightly because of equipment tolerances.  Update:  after my second book, I came to realize that Shutterfly's previews are very bad at showing you how much of your image you will lose to the book's gutter.  Even when I moved elements further away from where the gutter was likely to be, there was still a risk of losing design elements in the gutter.  Furthermore, Shutterfly's page trimming is not very consistent.  For various reasons (see the update at the end of the review) I had to have my second book printed three times and what was lost to the gutter was a little different in each case.     
This image from Shutterfly's instructions for digital scrapbooks is supposed to make you understand that your critical design elements have to be kept within the red lines and that you'll definitely loose content outside of the dashed trim lines, where the page is actually cut.  However, the site warns that the trimmed area can vary slightly because of "equipment tolerances," which I assume means that anything outside the red lines is at risk.  Even when my design elements were within the red lines, I worried about how the page would look when I didn't know for sure what would be trimmed.  If you are sure you're designing a layout for a Shutterfly photobook, design something that looks good even if the page margins change somewhat and which has critical design elements towards the center.  Absolutely keep critical elements away from the page gutters.
I followed the instructions (redesigning my layouts when necessary) to keep my critical elements a quarter inch away from the trim line and none were cut off in the final product, but some of my pages didn’t turn out quite as I envisioned, particularly when important elements were close to the book’s gutter.  Update: now that I have done a second Shutterfly book, I've come to realize that everything outside the "live" area will probably end up bound into the gutter on the affected side of the page (and as a result the pages don't really look properly centered in the final product).  Some of my critical elements that were close to the live area border on the gutter side came dangerously close to being buried in the gutter.  Critical elements adjacent to the gutter should be moved well within the live area, whereas critical elements adjacent to a page's free edge can butt up against the live area border.  When I feared that there was no way to move my critical elements away from page edges and still preserve the desired look of my page, I dropped the entire layout into a Shutterfly premade layout featuring large single square centered on a plain background.  A page number appears on those pages - the page numbers aren't objectionable, but I saw no way to eliminate them using tools on the site.

When you design the back cover, be aware that there will be a barcode in the bottom right corner, so you will need to keep critical design elements away from the bottom right corner.

Click image to enlarge in new window

If you’re photoshopping your own layouts, you should use an sRGB color space; if you’ve done your own color correction, you need to turn off Shutterfly’s automatic color correction – and you should do so early on while your photos are still in a virtual “album” waiting to be added to your project.  If you forget, turning off color correction once your book is underway turns out to be a tedious, multi-step process.  Unfortunately, the procedure for disabling color correction is not intuitive and is easy to forget because it’s buried in a hidden edit menu.  While in your virtual album, select all of the images, then select “Apply effect” from the Edit dropdown menu.  On the page that subsequently appears, check the box that disables automatic corrections.

My book arrived promptly and image quality was excellent.  My Shutterfly images were a bit more saturated than the images on my color-calibrated monitor, but there were no obnoxious surprises in the final book; in contrast, my Smilebooks images were gorgeous, but leaned toward red – I had to make sure red was toned down in my images so that people didn’t look sunburned.  Other Shutterfly pluses:  sharing a virtual version of your photobook with others is free and easy, and internet scuttlebutt suggests that customer service is good should you have a problem.  My only beef with the finished product was that the cover has spots that look as if some sort of coating is about to peel off.  That’s not a deal breaker, as I doubt I’ll be ordering hardcover books often.

A 20-page bound softcover costs $20 and a hardcover $30.  Additional pages are $1 each and shipping is $8.  That’s not too different from Smilebooks ($27 for a bound 26-page softcover with $8 for an additional 8 pages and $8 for shipping.  Smilebooks also has an option for a stapled book whose base price is $17 for 26 pages.)  I should be on e-mail lists for both companies; Shutterfly constantly peppers me with promotional offers and though I know Smilebooks has coupons available, I never hear about them unless I actively search their Facebook or Twitter pages.

Since I am an experienced digi-scrapper and photoshop my own layouts, I’ll be making my Shutterfly vs. Smilebooks purchasing decisions based primarily on price (which in turn depends on which company has the better promotions at any given time).  The number of pages in my project will have some bearing as well, with Shutterfly showing greater flexibility where the number of pages is concerned.  If you don’t photoshop your own layouts, go with Shutterfly if you want easy-to-make layouts and aren’t especially picky about page appearance.  If you want your page to look “just so," want a custom background, or need to use a .png image with its transparent background intact, go with Smilebooks - but be prepared to occasionally hassle with balky software.  It might be prudent to order a few ordinary snapshots from any image processing company you haven’t dealt with before to get a sense of how your color will come out before making an entire book.

Update: my second Shutterfly photobook was not so successful.  The book was improperly trimmed so that there was a white stripe on the outer edge of every page and some of my critical elements were buried in the gutter even though they were within the live area.  Customer service turns out to be in India.  Each customer service rep was polite and tried to be helpful, but it took three calls to come close to getting satisfaction because the first two CSR's didn't do things right.  There was a half hour wait to speak to a CSR, so I spent over an hour and a half getting my replacement.  In the end, even the third CSR didn't quite get things right - he didn't credit me with enough money to pay the 25 cent sales tax on shipping.  I paid the 25 cents - I wasn't about to wait another half hour and I figured Shutterfly will probably pay more than 25 cents in credit card company service fees - and deserved to!  The replacement book had one page printed in black&white instead of color.  Shutterfly finally got it more or less right on the third try - pages were trimmed in such a way that stuff close to the gutter came dangerously close to being lost - but after a month's worth of hassling, I wasn't about to pursue the matter further.

Update (2/2014): I have done quite a few Shutterfly books and for the most part, they've been OK. I have had to replace a few (maybe 10-15% altogether?) for various problems, but the default for (e-mail) customer service seems to be "don't argue with the customer, just give her a replacement." Because there can be issues, I would not recommend doing an important project (e.g. for a gift) last minute and it'd be best to do a couple of books before any important book so you get used to the color and the software's quirks. Shutterfly can also change things on you without notice (on a recent book the position of the barcode changed compared to previous books and the change wasn't reflected in the preview). If you see anything in the preview that doesn't look right, pay attention, because what you see on the preview is almost always what's going to be in the final product. I have missed stray lines that accidentally got inserted by the confusing software and colors that were off because my source file had the wrong color profile - in retrospect, those errors were in the preview. To avoid losing content to the gutter in an 8-in book, I shrink my 12x12 LO's until they're 6.9x6.9 on the Shutterfly customize page view and move the LO slightly away from the gutter. The LO has a narrow black border, but the print quality is excellent even when the LO has been downsized that much.

Note to myself.  Google table is funky, won't let me adjust left side of table rightward.
substitute <table style="margin: 0pt auto;" cellspacing="0"> for the table style line (you lose the borders, but can bring them back by clicking around