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How to self-publish a book – Part 4: Photo Editing

Now we get down to the really technical stuff.

When I started taking photos for The Japanese Pantry, I knew jack-all about photo editing. I had played around with a few of the settings in iPhoto before and could occasionally sort of guess my way into editing a photo well enough, but I really was just eyeballing it, not applying any actual knowledge.

Becoming a better photo editor took nothing more than investing my time to learn how to do it – reading articles, watching YouTube videos, and fiddling with the software until something just “clicked” in my head. I’m not going to go into how to edit photos because that’s a whole book worth of knowledge on it’s own and really just something that takes practice. What I do want to talk about is the strengths and limitations of the few pieces of photo editing software I used, and what I would have done differently if I knew then what I know now.

I work on an iMac, so the default piece of photo editing software I have is iPhoto. iPhoto is great for storing and sorting casual family photos, and it does offer some basic editing functions that can clean up an imperfect photo in a pinch. I was really happy with it before I started writing the book, it had plenty of functionality for touching up my random photos of salads and cats for the blog. Once I started trying to use it to edit photos to a more professional standard though, I immediately ran into some issues that I knew could not be overlooked.

Here are the two main problems I found with iPhoto that would eventually drive me to upgrade my software: 1) You cannot “spot edit”, meaning that any adjustments you make will apply to the whole photo rather than just the part that needs adjusting, and 2) The batch editing function is severely impaired. Editing a batch of similar photos would require you to make the same adjustments to each photo individually rather than applying them across a spectrum of nearly identical photos to save time. iPhoto has a batch editing function, but it never worked properly for me for batch editing more than 2 files at a time, so it might as well have not existed.

In these first 3 photo examples, all of the same shot of matcha green tea, you can see the results of the first problem I mentioned in action. The first photo is the original photo completely unedited in any way. The second photo has been cropped as well as sharpened, and the third has been adjusted for exposure and white balance. The third photo represents the very best I was able to do with iPhoto.

original uncropped matcha

Unedited matcha photo

As you can see in the second and third photos, my edits applied to the whole photo rather than just the parts that needed adjusting. Sharpening brought the front of the spoon into greater focus, but at the expense of highlighting some imperfections, such as the texture and bits of fuzz on the white backdrop and some scratches on the front of the spoon. Cranking up the exposure helped to bring the background closer to true white, but it washed out the color of the matcha. Adjusting white balance could only do so much – there is still a faint blue cast to the background, but removing it skews the entire picture too warm. This was the best it could get.

I spent some time researching professional editing software trying to figure out what was going to give me the most bang for my buck. After much deliberation, I decided on Aperture.

Aperture info

Aperture is another Apple product that I knew I could move seamlessly into from iPhoto. I also looked into Lightroom and Photoshop, but in the end I decided that they were both a bit too expensive for a novice who didn’t even know what she needed yet. At $80, Aperture was just right for trying out some real professional software without the risk of over-investing.

Right off the bat there was lots of new functionality to get familiar with. Like all Apple products, Aperture was intuitive to use, I could just dive right in with trying new things and not worry that I was doing something wrong that couldn’t be undone. Aperture seemed to solve all the problems I had with iPhoto – I could spot adjust, batch edit, more accurately correct white balance, retouch more seamlessly, “turn off” an edit I’d made to compare it with the original quickly, and so much more that I didn’t even realize I needed until I had it. Just look at how much brighter and more vibrant this cleaned up photo looks after editing with Aperture…

That’s the photo that made it into The Japanese Pantry, and on the whole I’m pretty pleased with it.

There was just one thing that Aperture couldn’t do that I realized was going to be a deal breaker if I couldn’t figure out some way around it… Aperture does not support layering. I did not realize this until I’d already purchased it and nearly cried my eyes out thinking I’d just wasted my money on a piece of software that would always be lacking.

If you’ve never used layering before, here’s the jist. Layering allows you to take a part of an image and make it into its own editable layer. Imagine a stack of 3 pieces of transparent paper: The top layer is a picture of a bird, the middle is a mountain, and the bottom is the clear blue sky. You could easily drag the image of the bird to another part of the sky, take out the mountains layer entirely, or replace the blue sky with a picture of clouds, simply by interacting with a single layer at a time. Layering allows you to move, edit, omit, or replace parts of an image like a digital scrapbook.

For my matcha image, I needed to either remove or replace the background which was still not white enough even after editing with Aperture. I searched around and found a plug-in that would work with Aperture to allow me to do just that. Perfect Layers by OnOne Software was just the ticket.

Perfect Layers info


With Perfect Layers, I can combine the best parts of 2 or more images to make one perfect picture. To use, you just highlight the photos you want to work with in Aperture and right click on “Edit with Plug-in”, then select Perfect Layers. Perfect Layers automatically opens and loads the images for you to work with.

For my matcha photo, I first tried “painting out” all of the background with Perfect Layers, but I found that it left really hard edges around the shadow underneath the spoon, making it look fake. I wanted to keep the shadow, but make the background really white, so I decided it might work better to make a version of the matcha image with the exposure completely blown out to get a bright white background that I could more easily blend around the shadows in the original image. This is the image with the exposure cranked up to the max…

matchaThis technique worked perfectly. I was able to either paint in the white background or paint out the matcha subject where needed to get one unified image. The only complaint I have about Perfect Layers is that it does not have “smart edges,” meaning that the software has no ability to detect and trace around the edges of an object for you. For every image, I was tediously painting out the dark background being extra careful to get as close to the subject as possible without touching it. This was really hard to do with just a mouse and I ended up having to make tons of corrections to little areas where I’d “colored outside the lines.” This could easily be remedied by using a Wacom tablet or other digital stylus for more fine control, and honestly, the version of Perfect Layers I was using was free, so I really can’t complain too much.

Now that the book is finished and I’m back to photographing recipes for the blog, I’m more aware of exactly what it is I need in photo editing software. Using Aperture with Perfect Layers was a good first start into understanding and using professional photo editing software, and if I did not have more books planned in the future it would be fine for editing my random recipe creations. Since I do though, I think I’ll be looking into Lightroom and Photoshop again, possibly on a subscription basis to reduce the cost and get software updates for free.

If you’re on a Mac and considering upgrading to Aperture from iPhoto, I would say that it’s absolutely worth it if you don’t foresee yourself ever needing the layering function. Aperture really does have a great workflow, uncluttered look, intuitive controls, and much higher level of editing power than iPhoto. There were only a few functions in Aperture that I couldn’t figure out how to use myself, but a look around YouTube produced enough tutorials to familiarize myself quickly. If, however, you’re fascinated by the idea of moving around parts of an image like a scrapbook and making artistic changes to photos that are outside the realm of typical editing, you’re going to need a platform that supports layering, and Aperture with Perfect Layers isn’t quite enough. There is a paid version of Perfect Layers from OnOne Software that would completely supplement the layering function, but if you’re trying to get into professional photography you’re going to find using a plug-in product clunky and annoying pretty quickly.

That was a long, long post. I know this is completely boring to those of you who read this blog for the recipes, but I’m hoping that someone will find this helpful since I wish I had known all this stuff before I starting writing my book. Would have saved me so much time.

In the last installment of this series, I’ll talk about the book layout software I used. Yes guys, I designed and laid out my book by myself. When you self-publish, there’s no one to do that for you! (Recalling an entire day I spent trying to find the perfect calligraphic Japanese kanji font.)

Part 1: Getting Serious

Part 2: Anthologize and CreateSpace

Part 3: Photography Skills



How to self-publish a book – Part 3: Photography Skills

Before I even started writing The Japanese Pantry, I knew that I wanted to create a book full of color and life. I have a hefty collection of cookbooks on my shelf, and the ones I love the most are the ones that have a photo for every single recipe. I was a complete novice to photography though, so I knew that if I was going to create a cookbook full of stunning photos like the ones in the books by celebrity chefs, I was going to have to teach myself how to work a camera properly, and fast.

Understanding Exposure

I purchased Understanding Exposure, by Bryan Peterson, to learn more about how a camera works and how to interpret light. I found this book extremely helpful, and set to work testing my new knowledge with my little point-and-shoot camera. I would set up little photo experiments where I would photograph the same object from the same angle multiple times, changing one of the cameras settings slightly each time to see the effect it created from the previous shot. My skills somewhat improved, but it still seemed that I just could not recreate the professional shots I was going for even when I did everything “right.”

The game really changed for me when Jeff got me a DSLR camera for Christmas, a Canon Rebel T3i. It became so much easier to manipulate the camera to do what I wanted it to do. I was so impressed with the change in quality from our Canon Powershot S90 (which really is an excellent point-and-shoot if you can’t go full DSLR) that I ended up going back and retaking some shots for the book with the new camera. The Rebel is definitely a beginner’s DSLR, but I’ve found it to have plenty of functionality for my current needs.

Love my gift!

I also have to give some credit to IKEA for my rapid improvement in photography skills. Wait, what??? I mentioned this last year when I first announced that I was writing a book but it bears repeating because it’s kind of incredible when you really think about it. Every single picture that appears in The Japanese Pantry that was not taken in a light box, was taken on a little square IKEA end table. Every one. I had nothing else at the time.

My photography table

This tiny setting forced me to get really creative with my photography to keep every shot from looking the same. I spent a tremendous amount of time on each shot getting my angles just right, the focus right where I wanted it, being careful not to let any of the area around the table show up in the frame. And I didn’t have a tripod that would let me get low enough to the table either, so nearly every shot had to be hand held. I would take a deep breath and release the shutter as I breathed out, just like a sniper. Sometimes I would be able to get the shot in about ten tries, but oftentimes it would take 30 or even 40 or more shots to get everything just right.

Also, because I didn’t have the stability of a tripod to take longer exposures, I could only photograph recipes on bright sunny days with plenty of light. This was severely limiting for me and one of the major reasons why I missed every deadline I made for getting things done with the book. Sometimes we’d have entire weeks of rain and gloom during which I was unable to take any photos. I’d work on whatever else I could, but it was not uncommon for me to just not get any book work done for days due to insufficient lighting. I wish now that I’d invested in artificial lighting sources way sooner. I’ve only just recently starting using light kits to fill in for the sun, and I’m kicking myself for wasting so much time without them.

I did my very best to edit the shots I got with my computer’s stock photo editor, iPhoto, but quickly realized that I had the need for more professional editing software. In the next installment of this series I’ll show you what software I went with and discuss its strengths and limitations.

If you missed them…

Part 1: Getting serious

Part 2: Anthologize and CreateSpace


How to self-publish a book – Part 2: Anthologize and CreateSpace

In part 1 of this series I discussed the huge realization I had that writing a book was going to be actual work. I have no idea how I got it in my head that I could just bang out quality content with no real plan and without any professional equipment or skills. Ha!

One of the first things I realized I would need to upgrade was the organization of the content I was creating. I had a random Google Doc filled with clusters of notes about various Japanese ingredients, a folder in iPhoto with all of the pictures I’d taken that had been edited to the best of the software’s ability, and some vague ideas in my head about what each page of the book would need to say and how it would all look. It was obvious that I needed to start pulling all this various stuff together and start laying it out closer to how I would display it in the book. Enter, Anthologize


Anthologize is a free WordPress plugin that allows you to write a book as if it were a series of blog posts. You can either use it to pull together existing blog content into a book format, or you can create new content by making a separate draft page for every page of your book and filling it with new material. I found it really helpful because I didn’t have to learn anything new to use it. I could write each page as if I were writing a blog post, laying out all the text and photos as I thought they might appear in the final book. I still have all the draft posts on my blog from when I was using Anthologize to write The Japanese Pantry, and I’ve even started my next two writing projects with it, using it to store my notes and ideas until I can start putting them into action.

I have to say that Anthologize is not perfect. It can be a bit slow to load changes and it’s somewhat cumbersome to go make a blank post draft first and then go into Anthologize and add it to your project. I would not recommend it for a book that has many parts or chapters. Mine had about 30 parts that I frequently needed to make changes to, and I’d say that was about the limit of how many parts I would be able to manage in this format. It is, however, free. It’s also much better than the scattered mess of book content I was dealing with before. I may look for something else to use once I start headlong into my next writing project, but I may not.

The other thing I needed to decide on before I could move forward was what service to use for publishing. I started out with a self-publishing service called Lulu, which is one of the more well-known and widely used online publishing tools. After trying to fit my content into some of their book-writing templates and looking at their costs, I decided that Lulu was not going to work for this particular project. I didn’t like any of the book layouts I was being forced into, I found the workflow tedious and confusing, and I was going to have to price my finished book very high to make any profit. After some more shopping around, I came upon my current self-publishing service – CreateSpace



I decided to go with CreateSpace for several reasons. They’re owned by so they come equipped with a reputable sales channel that many people already use and feel comfortable buying from. Their production costs are low and their cut of the royalties is very reasonable; the author also has full control over setting the sales price to insure they receive an adequate royalty on each sale. There is an author dashboard that helps you keep up with all of the steps that need to be completed to make a book ready for sale…




CreateSpace also offers services for designing a book cover, laying out your book content, and marketing the finished work – all optional at an extra cost. You can even make a Kindle-ready version of your book fairly easily. Also, you can purchase an ISBN number (the unique numbers around the book’s barcode that serve to identify it electronically) for a drastically reduced cost through CreateSpace, as opposed to purchasing one directly from Bowker, the company all books published in the U.S. are registered with.

Unlike Lulu though, you cannot compose your book directly on the CreateSpace website. You must write it using your own software and then upload it in an appropriate format to CreateSpace. Once uploaded though, CreateSpace can check it for printing errors online using their Digital Proofer feature. It allows you to flip through your book as if it were sitting right in front of you, but with helpful annotations showing you exactly where you need to make adjustments to make your book files printable. It’s a little buggy though, and often shows errors that truly don’t exist. If you’re confident that you’ve fixed any real issues, you can skip this step and have it reviewed by an actual human to confirm that it is indeed printable.


Digital proofer


All in all I’ve been really happy with CreateSpace and will absolutely use them for any future self-publishing I do. Their customer service was able to help me with some issues I was having, and there are tons of support forums that will answer nearly any question you can think of. I would highly recommend them if you ever decide to self-publish a book of your own.

That was a long one! In the next part of this series I’ll talk about photography – how I improved my skills and what equipment I used.