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The Best Photos for Your Book: A Step-by-Step Guide

Planning a memoir or a family history starts with words: interviews, letters, a manuscript. But it’s the images that really bring it to life. Photos in particular will give your readers insight into your story like nothing else.

When it comes time to choose those photos, however, we often find our clients paralyzed. The piles of photo albums, the shoeboxes of weirdly colored Polaroids, the iCloud libraries on their hard drives—it’s a lot to take in.

And winnowing them down starts to feel like a chore. (There’s a reason we love professional photo organizers!)

So we’re pleased to offer our exclusive RLM photo-choosing system. It’s not difficult, but it is a little counterintuitive. Because in order to work efficiently, you need to start with the book’s manuscript, not those plastic-coated album pages you’ve been dying to tear into.

Organization Checklist

Step 1: Skim the book’s manuscript and highlight places in the text that would be enhanced by an image. Don’t worry about whether you actually have any of these images! Imagine that you’re the reader. At what points in your reading would you ideally come upon an image that helped you understand and visualize the people, places, time periods, and cultures that you’re reading about?

Step 2: From those highlighted phrases, compile a list of images that would support and enhance the text. Photographs of people are an obvious choice. But don’t neglect places (houses, neighborhoods, or maps), pets, important objects (like collectibles or wartime medals), and even ephemera like letters and ticket stubs.

Step 3: From that list, collect all photographs that would be appropriate for your project. Note each photo’s source, so that it can be returned easily. Look beyond your own photo collection for special images—original photos, high resolution scans, or documents—that family members, friends, or even archives might have on hand.

Step 4: Make copies of photos that exist in digital form or as slides. Using a laser printer is fine for this purpose. (Check out the smartphone app SlideScan, which converts slides to digital images.) To reduce the handling of fragile photos, shoot each with a smartphone and make laser copies. (Once the selection process is over, consider using a scanning service to ensure high-quality images.)

Step 5: For an extensive family history, it could make sense to go through this process more than once, focusing on paternal, maternal, and descendant categories, for example, to keep this stage of the project manageable.

Step 6: Create batches of photos: those that should definitely be included, those that should definitely not be included, and those that you’re unsure about. Don’t eliminate important photos that are very light or dark, muddy (with all tones as shades of gray), or dirty, or those marred with white spots or scratches. These images can be adjusted, cleaned, or retouched.

Adjusting settings and levels within a photo editing program can make the difference between a so-so image and one worth using.

Assessment Checklist

Step 1: Review the photos in the Definite batch against the list of preferred shots. Check off those list entries for which you have photos.

Step 2: Divide the photos you intend to use into smaller batches, grouping by subject matter, location, time period, or any other useful category. Order the photos chronologically within each category. Photos in the Unsure batch should also be grouped using the same categories and organized chronologically. Label each batch of photos (Post-It notes are ideal), and always use a pencil with soft lead, rather than a pen or marker.

Step 3: On a large flat surface, lay out the smaller batches of photos to be included in the book. If space allows, display so that each photo can be seen, even partially, while keeping the batches separate. Review each image in the Unsure batch against the still-to-find entries on the compilation list. Then review each Unsure image with others in the Definite category. Eliminate images that don’t contribute to the text or that are too similar to shots already slated for use.

Step 4: Evaluate your remaining Unsure options more thoughtfully. Consider the following:

  • Does the photo capture a unique person or facial expression?

  • Does it offer hints as to how people lived—vintage photos taken in kitchens can be a goldmine in this respect—or provide a deeper understanding of the subject’s interests or life?

  • Does it show people relating in a way that the reader might appreciate or find insightful?

  • Does it draw you in? Do you wish you knew what happened right before or after the shot was taken?

  • Does it convey something about the relationship between the photographer and the subject?

  • Does it add to the variety of images?

Photos from another era or culture can convey, succinctly, what life was like at the time. In this photo from the early 1900s, a young woman's mother acts as a chaperone during her courtship.

Photos that show people connecting—with each other or the person behind the camera—often make the strongest images.

Extra Credit: Think Outside the (Photo) Box

Here’s where it gets interesting. Hunt down unusual documents and objects that will help tell your story in personal, surprising, and unique ways. (I remember fondly one terrific layout that included a napkin with a handwritten phone number!)

Documents: Wedding licenses, certificates, contracts, land deeds, diplomas, and census records; birth announcements; letters and postcards; recipes; report cards; significant receipts, ticket stubs, holiday cards; dance cards; telegrams; and handwritten poems.

Objects (If they can't be scanned, they can always be photographed instead): Brochures, military medals, dogtags, jewelry, and the covers of diaries and books

If you’re a memoir writer or family historian faced with way too many images, remember that this is a great problem to have! Your story will be enriched with visuals and unique design options that will engage your readers.

As with all complex projects, the key to efficiency is breaking down the big tasks into manageable chunks. Try our system for narrowing down your choice of images, and watch your book come to life.


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