Why I published my new photo book on Amazon

I experimented on several fronts publishing my new photo book on Amazon.

I published my previous photo books (Exceptional Ordinary and Textures of Ireland) on Blurb, because that service is made to create, publish, and sell beautiful photo books. The print quality is very good. Their tools for creating books are so-so, as I learned when I produced Exceptional Ordinary. The layout controls were limited, and the tool was clunky to use. I made Textures of Ireland in Microsoft Word because I am highly skilled with it. Regardless of how I produced these books, they both turned out very well.

Available now – click the image to learn more and to get your copy

My big problem with Blurb is that their price for printing a single book is pretty high. To keep printing costs down, I use their least expensive option, the magazine format. Unfortunately, that limits me to the 8½x11 form factor. I’d prefer to use a form factor that fits the way I want to tell my story through photos. But other form factors have far higher printing costs at Blurb.

My first two photo books sold modestly. I think there are several reasons why, but I think their prices ($14.99 at launch) are one of those reasons. Pricing is a black art that I’m only starting to understand. But I have a theory, and it’s this: Books like these are a casual purchase, or a purchase that someone might make simply because they enjoy and want to support my work. Such a purchase needs to be priced to strike a balance: high enough to show that the book has value, but low enough not to feel expensive.

I wanted to experiment with a price of $9.99 to see if it would strike that balance, but still let me earn a couple bucks per copy. Amazon’s lower costs let me do it.

What I didn’t know was whether Amazon could print my photographs well. My Blurb books are beautiful. The photographs have good contrast and tonality. But Amazon optimized for printing books that are mostly text. Would Amazon be able to deliver good photo quality?

No, it turns out. The images are low in contrast, showing lots of middle grays but no deep blacks. Thankfully, it’s a passably good look, and it happens to suit this book’s subject matter. If you didn’t know I wasn’t fully pleased with it, you might think I meant the photos to look that way.

To be fair, I chose the least expensive paper option to keep costs down. It’s a mid-weight paper optimized for text printing. Amazon offers better papers, but they would have nudged printing costs up, threatening that $9.99 price.

As I did with my last book on Blurb, I created Vinyl Village in Microsoft Word. It’s not as flexible as a good desktop publishing tool, but for the simple layout I used it worked fine. If I had wanted a more complicated layout, I would have had to buy and learn a desktop publishing tool. Amazon doesn’t care what tool you use to make the book as long as it can output a print-ready PDF, and Word does that easily. That PDF is what you upload to Amazon.

The simple interior layout of Vinyl Village made Word a not unreasonable layout tool.

I used Adobe Photoshop to make the cover. Amazon gives you a cover template that fits your book’s form factor and thickness, and you lay out your cover on it. Again, Amazon requires a print-ready PDF of your cover file. Photoshop can output those natively.

There you have it: why I used Amazon to publish Vinyl Village. If you’d like a copy, click here for more information.

My photo essay book, Vinyl Village, is available!
Click here to learn more and get a copy!


Announcing my new photo book, Vinyl Village

My new book is now available!

It’s a photo essay about the suburban neighborhood I live in — a vinyl village. That’s where the title comes from: Vinyl Village. It’s a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from the point of view of many, many walks I took through the neighborhood studying it closely.

The book is available worldwide on Amazon:

If your country isn’t listed, go to your country’s Amazon site and search for Jim Grey “Vinyl Village”. If that doesn’t work, try the URL, where you replace the XX with your country’s domain.

I’m pleased to be able to price Vinyl Village at just $9.99. (It’s priced equivalently in other countries.) Publishing on Amazon is key to me being able to offer the book at this price. Amazon takes a much smaller cut than services like Blurb, which I have used in the past. I’ll write more about my experience publishing a photo book on Amazon in a future post.

– – –

“Vinyl village” is a pejorative term for the kind of suburban neighborhood I live in: curved streets filled with frame houses, all swathed in vinyl with some brick decoration. Generally, the houses are built to a minimum standard. They are up to code, but in the least expensive possible way.

But the book isn’t about construction standards. It’s about the way the houses are built to be attractive from the front, but the sides and the back are huge swaths of vinyl interrupted only by the occasional, randomly placed window. It’s also about how the houses are arranged on the land, revealing the vinyl-slathered sides and backs of dozens and dozens of houses and making private back yards hard to come by. Finally, it’s about the high-voltage power lines and the petroleum pipeline that run through, and the Interstate highway that borders it.

For a neighborhood that has this many challenges, it sure has no trouble attracting residents. Houses for sale here frequently sell the day they’re listed. It’s rare for one to stay on the market longer than a week. It’s because this neighborhood is the least expensive way to own a home in what is otherwise a wealthy suburb with well-regarded schools. Few of us get to live in our dream homes. We find the best situation our finances allow, and if we are fortunate, we like it well enough.

Come take a look at my neighborhood. It’s so quintessentially American.

More details, and how to get your copy, at Midnight Star Press here.

My photo essay book, Vinyl Village, is available!
Click here to learn more and get a copy!


Thoughts on digital files vs. prints for archiving photographs

We’ve had several lengthy discussions in the comments here about which is the best way to make sure your archive of photographs survives the ages: digital files or prints.

I think it’s a tempest in a teapot, because it’s incredibly unlikely that anyone will care about our photographs a generation from now.

You might be able to make some of your photographs last. Print them, frame them, and give them away as gifts. If you’re able to find or make a market for your work, sell some of your prints. People tend to keep the art that hangs on their walls.

But that will likely represent a small fraction of your output. What about the thousands of other images you’ve made in your lifetime?

The sad truth is that you are almost certainly not the next Ansel Adams, Henri Carter-Bresson, or Annie Liebovitz. It’s unlikely that someone will discover your work one day like it’s a treasure trove, a la Vivian Maier.

Even if your photos feature generations of family, soon nobody alive will remember the people in them. Your children, if you have any, might enjoy keeping a small selection of family photos after you die. If you’re lucky, your grandchildren will want a couple of them.

Because most your images are unlikely to survive the generations, I claim that it doesn’t matter how you keep them. Store them as digital files, as prints, or both. You just have to be intentional about it and do the requisite work.

Digital files

A scan of one of my negatives from July, 1982

“But file formats will become obsolete!” That’s a specious argument. The JPEG has existed since 1992; the TIFF since 1993. Because technology changes incredibly fast, any digital format that survives 30 years is essentially permanent. Software will be able to display and manipulate our photographs in their current formats until after we all die.

Even if JPEG and TIFF were superseded, there will be software that lets us convert our files to new formats. It will be a boring job, but we will be able to do it.

Your bigger worry by far is a hard-drive crash. A good backup practice can eliminate your risk. I back up to an external hard drive and to a cloud storage provider. Every time I add, change, or remove a file, software on my computer instantly doubly backs it up. When my main hard drive failed a few years ago, I lost no files. Also, your backups make it easy to move your files when you buy a new computer, as you must every so many years.

You will also want to add notes to your photo files to remember key information about them. I store camera, lens, and film, as well as a description of what and/or who I photographed. At least on Windows, you can do this right from the operating system, no special software necessary. It’s easy, but tedious.

You will also need to create some sort of system for storing and searching your photos. I store mine in folders by year, and then by date/roll of film. I should have started using Lightroom or a similar program to tag them all from the beginning so I can search them and find individual images. I didn’t, and now I have an enormous job ahead of me someday.


If you choose to print your photos, you will want to choose a good-quality printer or printing service so the images last. Inexpensive prints, such as those from the drug store, are likely to fade sooner. You will want to write details on each photograph, and then store them in acid-free boxes, probably separated with acid-free interleaving paper.

You probably won’t print everything you photograph, as storage will soon become a problem. For this reason, I print and store only the small fraction of photos I like the most.

Because a flood or a fire would destroy your prints, consider printing doubles and storing the copies at a different site.

Passing on your work

After I’m gone, I hope that my children will keep at least some of my printed photographs, maybe even frame one or two of them to display in their homes. Printing and storing only my favorite work will make it much easier on them to do this — they will pick through a few hundred prints, rather than tens of thousands of digital files.

I could also store my favorite work on a thumb drive or special external hard drive for that purpose. Make it two, with one stored offsite, in case something happens to the first one.

But whichever I choose, I have to keep after it, and make sure the chosen images make their way into my children’s hands after I go.

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Comparing the Canon PowerShot S95 to the Apple iPhone 12 mini camera

This may not be the most useful post in the world, because who other than me regularly shoots these two cameras? Who knows, maybe this post will end up ranked #1 on Google for “Canon PowerShot S95 vs. Apple iPhone 12 mini” for the five people a year who might do that search.

But on my Ride Across Indiana, I sometimes made a photo of something with both cameras as I thought I might want to use the image for that night’s blog post and to share with friends on social media. I didn’t have any way to get photos off the S95 and into my phone.

Every digital camera makes decisions in its software about how to render a scene. It’s fascinating to me how differently these two cameras manage the light.

In each of these pairs, the Canon S95 photo is first. I’ve done light post-processing on all of these photos but they are not substantially changed from how they came from the camera. Sometimes I tried to zoom the iPhone and the S95 to the same extent, and sometimes I didn’t.

I notice three main differences: the iPhone tends to pull out shadow detail to the point of flattening scenes, the iPhone over-sharpens everything, and the S95 is far more likely to blow out highlights.

1: Old alignment of the National Road west of Dunreith

National Road west of Dunreith
National Road west of Dunreith

2: Indiana Statehouse.

Indiana Statehouse
Indiana Statehouse

3: My bike by an abandoned bridge west of Plainfield.

Abandoned US 40 bridge west of Plainfield
Abandoned US 40 bridge

4: Rising Hall in western Hendricks County.

Rising Hall on US 40
Rising Hall on US 40

5: Old house in Putnam County.

Old house on US 40, Putnam Co.
Old house on US 40, Putnam Co.

6: Bypassed US 40 bridge, Putnam County.

Old US 40 concrete alignment with bridge, Putnam Co.
Old US 40 concrete alignment with bridge

It’s great to have a capable camera in my pocket all the time. But I think I prefer the S95 shots every single time.

I wish I still had my old iPhone 6s — I don’t remember its camera doing such aggressive processing.


Why you should never pick up an SLR by the lens

In 2012 a friend gave me his Nikon N65, the first auto-everything SLR I ever owned. I was suspicious of all of that automation at the time (read my review here), but after awhile I came to like it and have owned and enjoyed a number of similar cameras.

Nikon N65

The N65 came with a couple of lenses, including a 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G AF Nikkor. Nikon sold those by the bajillion, often mated to an SLR body in a kit.

To my surprise, I came to really like that 28-80 and I used it a lot on the one Nikon AF body I kept, the N90s (review here). It also worked fabulously on the Nikon Df DSLR I bought this year! Here’s a sample photo from that combo:

Lexington Cemetery

This lens is plenty sharp, albeit with some barrel distortion at the wide end. Every now and then I catch a little light vignetting. But Photoshop can correct all of that.

This lens’s one flaw is its build quality. Its body and mount are plastic; the lens weighs next to nothing. Not long ago I did something stupid: I picked up a camera this lens was mounted to by the lens itself. The focus ring twisted a little, something inside went crack, and the lens would no longer focus. It had seized up hard.

Fortunately, replacements are inexpensive on the used market. If you trust the wild west of eBay, you can get them for 20 bucks, sometimes with an SLR body attached!

I wanted one with a warranty in case something was wrong, so I shopped UsedPhotoPro. There I found the similar 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6D AF Nikkor lens, for just 30 bucks shipped. D lenses all have aperture rings, where G lenses do not. That means I can use this lens on a wider range of Nikon bodies! The D version seems to be a little better built than the G version, too.

But my lesson is learned: no more picking up a camera by its lens!