Digital Photography for Booksellers


Maria Bustillos

Maria Bustillos

Booksellers are in an enviable position among retailers of rarities on the Web. For decades and even centuries, the book business has commonly been carried on by remote, through the catalogues of dealers and auction houses, by mail and by telephone, and through advertisements in trade journals. There is also a general consensus on description standards, however widely these may vary in practice. In marked contrast to dealers in paintings or porcelain, booksellers have long-held standards regarding the conduct of long-distance business, and generally don’t need to furnish photos or drawings of their wares to prospective customers, however far-flung.

However, it would be a great mistake to discount the value of photos in selling your books. Photos stimulate online sales by forestalling the uncertainty that might make a potential buyer back off. So, in fact, photos should be included in online descriptions whenever possible. For example: in the mind of a jaded buyer, the phrase “slightly foxed” instantly conjures an image of sickening blotchiness and mildew . With a photo, not only can you show precisely what you mean by this highly subjective term, but when he actually sees the inoffensively freckled page, your formerly apprehensive prospect will instead be convinced of your blamelessly conservative and professional character. (Ch-ching!)

In the following article we will go over the basics of preparing photographs for your online sales. We will be focusing on digital cameras rather than scanners, because they are both faster and more practical for our purposes. By all means continue to use your scanner if you have one, but do consider investing in a low-end digital camera as well. There are bargains to be had in used cameras these days, since many early adopters are upgrading. I’m told that online retailers and auction houses don’t have the best prices; your best bet for a used camera is probably your local Recycler, Loot, or newspaper classified section.

Choosing a camera

For Web purposes, it is not necessary to have a spectacularly fancy camera. I’m still using the old Casio QV-300 I bought through a classified ad for $200, three years ago, and it still takes great photos for regular Web use. Remember, Web graphics cannot display at greater than 72dpi resolution, and you need to produce images that will download fast: that means small files. In short, you needn’t buy a cannon, when what you really want for this task is a pop-gun.

Great in-depth digital camera reviews, tutorials, articles and classified ads are available at the excellent Megapixel magazine.

The main features you will need on a digital camera for Web use are:

Zoom feature (also known as macro or macro mode)
A decent sized screen, so you can see what you’re doing
Low light settings (newer cameras are vastly improved in this regard)
Reasonably easy import of images to your computer
Software for photo optimization

Zoom is definitely the single most important feature for Web photos of your books. Instead of just saying “bumped” you’ll be able to show it exactly, like so:

This photo is small and not at all detailed by print graphics standards, but it gets the point across nicely and, at 20K, will download in a flash. Such a photo can really tip the scales on the decision to buy an expensive book.

Screen. Some of the newer entry-level cameras have an inadequate display. For ease of use, make sure you have a full-color display that is easy to read.

Low light setting. The worst problem with my old Casio is its inadequate light sensitivity. I have to use photo lights or very strong diffused natural light to get the best results. Dark photos can be lightened using image editing software, but you’ll lose a lot of detail and probably have hard-to-correct color imbalances. You’ll be photographing books indoors, like as not, so make sure the camera can handle low light. Also, you’ll need a strong working light (those halogen emergency lights you can get at the drugstore have gotten really inexpensive, and they are very strong.)

Image import. Newer cameras come with special memory cards such as CompactFlash and SmartMedia that can be removed, sent to print on paper and reused. There are also card readers available for image download (around $50). And there are popular new models that save the information straight onto a floppy disk that you pop right into the camera. These fancy accoutrements do provide a convenient alternative to film cameras, but I find it’s quite easy to plug the camera right into the computer (mine comes with a cord that goes into a serial port). If your camera is to be used for selling online, again, you can keep things quite simple and inexpensive.

AC adapter!! You’ll definitely need your AC adapter most of the time–these cameras eat batteries like no other appliance I have ever seen.

Image editing software. New cameras come bundled with easy-to-use image editing software. One of my partners uses his free bundled software with excellent results. If you want to get a little more professional, though, I highly recommend Photoshop 4. You won’t need the latest (expensive!) version, Photoshop 6, which contains improvements mainly for Acrobat and vector graphics files. Photoshop 4 included the first version of layers, the most important single improvement yet made in this near-miraculous program. (I have 5, but I still actually prefer 4!! Ho well.) You should be able to buy a used copy of Photoshop 4 with registration for between $50 and $100. Again, the best place is your local classified paper. Note: make sure you don’t get Photoshop LE (Limited Edition) by mistake-it’s not the complete program.

A note on file formats: the only graphics formats you can post to the web are .gif and .jpeg. Don’t save your photo files in .gif format, though; .gif is intended for solid blocks of color, not gradations. Your photos will look best on the web in .jpeg format.

You’ll be able to import images to your computer in a variety of formats using image editing software. Many use .jpeg compressed downloads, because you can pack in more images, but I prefer a lossless format (such as .bmp or .tif) for the download. Note that each time you edit and resave a .jpeg file, the image recompresses and degrades. The “powdery” look you see on many Web images comes from excessive compression and the resulting degradation. You can protect the crispness of your images by saving in .bmp or .tif until the very last save–then use .jpeg for the final version.

Let’s take a Picture.

Okay, here is a book I am rather fond of, A Nose to Fit your Face by Murray Berger, M.D. This copy (signed!) is in tolerable shape, except for the dustjacket, which is pretty ghastly. We’ll take a photo of the worst flaws, and a photo of one of the great illustrations.

As far as composition goes, a very few principles will suffice to make your photos look professional. The main one, again, is lighting. With a little practice you’ll find the right room and the right time of day to light your photos. Add artificial light if you need to. The main trick is to have the light as even as you can, and watch out for glare. Don’t have your hand showing; don’t have distractions like windows or cats or coffee cups showing. Just a plain background and the book makes the handsomest presentation. If you need to hold the book open, crop your hand out afterwards. Another hint: pure white or black backgrounds are not the best. They make the camera work too hard to equalize the color balance in the rest of the photo. Any neutral to cool pastel color makes a far better background–buff, pale blue and the like. (If you use fabric, make sure it’s not wrinkled!! You can always “iron” the background in Photoshop, but that’s a little time-consuming.)

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Here is the original image I downloaded from my camera:

Let’s crop that, shall we?

Much too dark! Let’s lighten it up a bit and add some contrast. (Accuracy is the goal here-sometimes I get carried away and wind up improving on Nature; a bad idea, for obvious reasons.)

That’s starting to look pretty good … this camera doesn’t read reds very well, so maybe I should balance the colors a little bit …

And finally, we can add a little explanatory text.

A note on compression: the original image downloaded at 225K in .tif format. When I compress, we’ll have a far smaller file; in fact, this last image comes in at 26K. But I don’t want to compress too much, because I want the sharpest small photo I can get. This takes a little practice, but you’ll soon get the hang of it. On Photoshop, you can see the file size you’re working with at the lower left of the program window. You can also check the resulting file size in Windows Explorer or Winfile. (Apologies to Mac users; I haven’t a clue how the Mac directory system works.) I generally save at 6 .jpeg compression for the average 72 dpi photo, which results in a file size of 15-40K. Another tip – a broad range of colors won’t compress as well as an image in a narrow tonal range of colors, so you can get away with a bit more detail on a tonal photograph and still come in under 25K, the suggested size for single images on the Web. Many will argue that 50K is a fine file size, but I tend to err on the side of caution. Having to wait for images to download really puts people off, and puts them into a not-buying frame of mind.

Here are the three finished images for this book. You can put up as many images as you want, practically, on all the auction sites. But always consider download times as a matter of paramount importance. Most people have 28.8 or 56.6 modems; I think three is kind of a natural upper limit, considering that each photo will take several seconds to download. That said, patience grows proportionately with risk. Prospective buyers of your choicest stuff will definitely be willing to wait a little longer for that last detail shot.

Photo hosting.

The next step is to publish your photos on the web; that is, to a server (a computer which is constantly connected to and providing files to the Web.) Most ISPs, including AOL and Earthlink, offer their customers a fixed amount of storage space with the monthly fees. It used to be a bit tricky to use the AOL system, but I understand it is simpler now. Each system is different, but any ISP can provide sufficient online instruction for putting up pictures–or failing that, at least an impatient kid who can walk you through the process over the phone.

In the case of auctions, you don’t have to worry about where your photos go; you can have the auction itself keep your photos on the Web for free. In fact, they’ve nearly all made it extremely easy to do this. There are plenty of well-meaning creatures providing customer service at such places, I can say with absolute authority.

To my knowledge, it isn’t possible to add photos to listings at fixed-price venues like ABE and Bibliofind. This is a pity (and is liable to change, I think) because the efficacy of photos is well known to auction sellers, and to those dealers who maintain inventory on their own sites.

While is isn’t a good idea to invest too much time on lower-priced books, you’ll find that photographing those particularly rare, lovely or bizarre books well worth the trouble.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website