The Travel & Things guest Blogger for February is wildlife photographer extraordinaire, Chad Cocking. This post is about that coffee table book that all wildlife photographers yearn to produce. But be warned, it might not be quite as simple as it seems, especially if you are on a tight budget and have to self-publish.
In his own words…
My name is Chad Cocking, and I am doing a fantastic job of turning my “gap year” into a “gap decade”. During my university days in Johannesburg, I developed an interest in wildlife photography decided to combine this with my love of nature and become a field guide for a couple of years to be out there, enjoy the bush and take a few photos. Some fifteen years and many hundreds of thousands of images later, I am still here, and still loving it!
I have been based in South Africa’s Timbavati Private Game Reserve since 2007, and have thoroughly fallen in love with this piece of Africa. Having spent so long in one area, I have been fortunate to follow generations of lions and leopards through various trials and tribulations, and these incredible creatures invariably make up the bulk of the images I capture.
Yet the bush is about so much more than just the big cats, and I have tried to encapsulate both the landscapes – and the diversity of life within them – in the two books I have published so far The Story of Motswari (2013) and Contrasts (2021).
When visiting the wonderous natural landscapes of the Kruger to Canyon region, just about everyone ends up taking photos at some point. Some will whip out their smartphones and snap a few selfies and panoramas, whilst others will lug many kilograms worth of camera equipment around hoping to get the perfect shot. Weeks and months pass by, and the photos one takes become buried deeper and deeper within the hard drives of our computers and very few will get to see the light of day again. For those more determined to share their images with the world, there are a few alternatives.
These days the most common way is to share them on social media platforms, but with hundreds of images flooding our social media feeds daily, one is lucky if their favourite photo gets more than a few seconds of screen time before it gets swiped into oblivion. Another option is to have a photo printed on canvas or fine art paper. Getting an image from its digital form into a physical one will bring it to life, but such prints tend to only be seen by a few and only showcase a single image at a time. Creating a book is one means of gathering a whole collection of images and having them available in a physical form for the reader to appreciate, and if printed in bulk has the potential to reach a much wider audience than a framed print hung on a wall.
As good as ones’ images may be, the truth is that very few photographers are in a position that would result in a publisher approaching them to create a book. So, unless you are one of those gifted individuals, how exactly does one go about creating a book? The first step is to decide who is going to print the book. There is a myriad of online printers that specialize in printing photo books (local companies include myphotobook and Rapid Studio, whilst Blurb is a good international option), all of which provide you with customizable layout templates and easy to use programmes to get your images into a book format that can then be printed in high quality, hardback cover options of various sizes.
The problem with this option is that due to the individualistic approach of customisable books, printing costs are quite high for large-format books (page counts over 100 pages will set you back at least R1500 per book), so one is unlikely to print such books in high volumes for resale purposes, but this is a fantastic option for creating a book to showcase a collection of work for an aspiring photographer – it is tangible, high quality and lends a professional look to the images you wish to share with others.
The epitome of contrast… what goes up, must come down.
If the objective is to sell the books, then one must consider printing in bulk and self-publishing a book through a publishing company. Printing in bulk drastically reduces the per-unit printing costs – which will differ from publisher to publisher based upon order size, print quality and page count – but a sizeably financial outlay is needed to cover the print run (one is looking at between R200 000 – R450 000 for 1000 books). The plus side is that due to the lower unit cost, one could resell the books for a reasonable price which would not only recover these printing costs but could also generate some profits to help fund this expensive hobby they call photography!
Deciding how you will publish your book is an essential part of the process, but it is also the easy part! The real challenge begins when one starts to put the final product together.
As much as a victory as coming up with a theme and selecting the final images may have felt, one must not be fooled into thinking that the book is almost done; on the contrary, this is just the start of the book creation process! With the final images in mind, it is now time to lay them out on the pages of the books. Even if one is a good photographer, it does not necessarily mean that this creative flair extends to having a good eye for layouts and design, and it may be a useful idea to employ the services of a layout artist to assist in the process.
Two of the most difficult aspects of the process of creating a book are deciding which images to include in the book, as well as finding a narrative or theme around which to structure the book. One of the “downsides” of digital photography is that it costs us nothing (other than time) to take ‘one more photo’, and as a result, after most trips or shoots, one ends up with hundreds – if not thousands – of images. Multiply this over countless sessions, and it is not uncommon for catalogues to run into hundreds of thousands of images. Whitling down this mass of images to a few hundred that can be considered for inclusion in the book is no easy task!
Each image has a different memory and emotion attached to it, and deep down one wishes they could put all the photos in the book, but the culling process requires an honest and sometimes brutal approach if only the best images are to be selected at the end of the day. It is highly recommended that image management software like Adobe Lightroom is used in this process to flag, rate and/or label images from your catalogue to more efficiently be able to reduce the final selection of images down to a manageable amount. Bear in mind that the number of final images will depend greatly on the page count of the book, and that will depend upon your budget, so it is vital to get those finer details ironed out in the beginning.
Depending upon the nature of the coffee table book, you may or may not opt to include some text in the book. If you go this route, it is sage advice to employ the services of a copy editor (or two!) to edit and correct any errors. The layout artist will assist with font selection and sizing, but the photographer will still be required to sit and painstakingly go over all the text and layout elements of both the soft proofs (digital files) and hard proofs (digitally printed copies of the book) of the book to check for any mistakes that might have missed an array of observant eyes.
It must be said though that no matter how many times – and how many people – have a look at these proofs, one must still expect an error or two to go undetected until you receive the final printed books, and then some small error will be spotted!
The second major challenge at this stage of book creation is finding a narrative or theme for your book. In truth, this theme – or at least a rough idea of it – needs to be decided before the image selection process, as it will greatly determine what kinds of images one will be selecting for the book. An alternative approach is to first select ones’ favourite images, and then later scrutinise those in an attempt to find a way of linking them together, but generally speaking, the process will be easier if the narrative of the book is known beforehand. This will help ensure that the book is not simply a random collection of images thrown together, but rather has a theme that serves to draw all the images into a cohesive whole, giving the book an easy flow as the viewer turns from page to page. It is a great idea to spend time paging through other coffee table books of a similar nature, and making notes on what elements work, and what could be transferred to the project at hand. Do not simply copy what others have done, but do not be shy to use them for inspiration.
If this is the first attempt at such a project – particularly if working through a publisher – then it is a necessity to work with a layout artist familiar with preparing print-ready works that can be handed over to the printers. The reason for this is that the printing process requires several technical considerations on the layout side that are best left to those with experience in the field; these include the addition of trim and bleed lines, the balancing of gutter losses for double-page spreads, and quite vitally, the accurate conversion and colour correction of images from RGB colour space (the way the images are captured and displayed on your camera and computer) to CMYK (the colour model of the printing world). This latter step is of great importance to ensure that the printer can accurately recreate the colours that one sees on the computer screen. Layout artists will also ensure that there are a good variety of layouts and images sizes on the spreads to ensure that the book doesn’t become predictable and monotonous when flipping through the pages.
For Contrasts, my initial idea was to publish a book that showcased the different seasons on the Greater Kruger region – an area in which I have guided and photographed for the past 15 years – and set about taking fixed-point photographs of several spots within the reserve over a year to record how the landscapes changed with the seasons. However, when I looked at these images, for many months of the year the changes were very subtle and not as impactful as I thought they would be. Concurrently, many of the other images that I had earmarked to be included within the book had no seasonal connections to them and didn’t fit the narrative that I wanted to follow. Scrolling through my so-called “definite inclusions” collection of images, one that stood out was an image of a tawny and a white lion drinking next to one another. A lovely image, but there was no seasonality to it whatsoever; what it did have though was a strong element of contrast. The more I thought about that, the more I realised that what I wanted to show most about the seasons of the Greater Kruger was the strong differences that existed between the dry and wet season landscapes, and it was through this thought process that the concept of Contrasts was born. Once I had this idea in mind, the whole process flowed far more smoothly; I could make a list of all the contrasting elements I could think of in the bush, and then set about finding images that showcased this – lion vs hyena versus hyena vs lion; black and white rhinos…the list was endless! This showed me the importance of a well thought out theme, and with that pegged, it opened up the possibility of including so many more of my images into the book, whilst still being able to find room for my “definite inclusion” images too.
I have just self-published my second coffee table book, Contrasts, through a local publisher (SA Media Services) and decided to attempt the project on my own, having learnt from the experiences of creating the first book. It was an endeavour that took me almost two years to complete once I had decided upon a theme – a theme that incidentally started as a somewhat different concept before I realised that the images I wanted to include in the book didn’t fit the narrative I wanted to tell. Yet, I didn’t mind the change in approach, as I had learnt from previous experience that these projects are living entities and will constantly change the more you work on them. I cannot tell you how many new photos I take during the project that I end up including in the books long after I have made my “final” selection! That being said, there does come a point at which time you have to be disciplined enough to say that no matter what shots I get from this point forward, I will not be including them in this book, otherwise the book will just never be done!
Yet, after all the long hours of staring at a screen, scrolling through thousands of images, mulling over which images should be paired with which to the point where one doesn’t even want to look at the book anymore – especially true once book layouts and image selection make their way into ones’ dreams – there is no doubt that when the day arrives that the doorbell rings and the courier company drops off the first copy of the book, that the excitement and anticipation of seeing the book in the flesh for the first time will be palpable, and almost uncontainable!
All images are the property of Chad Cocking and may not be used without permission.