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Review: Album DS Design Software

By Betsy Finn, Cr.Photog., CPP

If you’re looking for an album design solution that integrates with Photoshop, then you need to give Album DS Design Software a shot. Let’s just say there’s a reason that Professional Photographer's Hot One Award judges picked Album DS (version 6.1.1) as the winner for Album Design/Layout. Before trying out Album DS, I hadn’t found a program that would fit my needs. I tried various programs, but resorted to Photoshop since the programs couldn’t render my envisioned design properly. After giving Album DS a shot, I think I finally found a program with enough flexibility for me.

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Image ©Betsy Finn

When you first install Album DS, the installer will ask you which of the templates (700+), masks (200), frames (570+), backgrounds (326) and clipart you want to install. You can install a sampling of the resources, or install everything at once. Despite the large resource library, you’re not limited to the included templates. Album DS lets you convert templates you already have, or even make your own on the fly.

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Album DS operates within Photoshop, much like a palette or panel. From the Album DS interface, you can manage images, view already designed spreads and browse templates. In addition to the basic interface shown below, you can enable or dock large mouse-over preview panels for template designs, images, clip-art, backgrounds, masks and designed pages.

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A common limitation of some third-party templates is that you can only design a single size album. With Album DS, you will be free of this—it automatically resizes the designs to fit whatever size album you choose. When you start a new album design, you can use one of the existing presets, or make a new preset to match your lab’s specifications.

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As you work on your design, Album DS maintains a link to your images so you can edit and resize the various components of your design without worrying about image quality degradation. Your source images will never be cropped or edited in any way; Album DS creates a working copy, which it accesses during the design phase and that can be edited as you go.

If you know which images you want to include in a particular spread, and want to see which templates you can use, Album DS has a wonderful template filtering tool. Simply select the total number of images, designate how many are horizontal and how many vertical, and then let Album DS find the templates that will fit your needs. I found this to be a huge timesaver.

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Once you find the template you want to use, simply double-click, and Album DS will load the template, resized to fit your current album design. Adding images to the design is a simple matter of selecting the image area on the template, and then double-clicking on an image to have it fill that opening.

To make the design process run more smoothly, I’d recommend setting your selection tool to Auto-Select and Show Transform Controls.

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If the templates don’t seem to be quite what you need, you can modify any layout as you work on the design (and save your designs as templates to use later). Some album design programs are restricted to rectilinear mat openings, but Album DS can drop an image into whatever shape you want: squares, circles, even irregular shapes.

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Obviously, Album DS does a great job of allowing you to create unique designs manually, but if you’re looking for automation, there is an auto-design feature. Album DS can auto-design an entire album for you; you can also use Album DS to create proofs and picture packages.

Since Album DS has such versatility, it can take a little while to get the hang of things. If you’re used to simply opening a new program and catching on as you go, you’ll probably feel a little lost at first. In retrospect, I’d recommend watching a tutorial or signing up for their free webinars before getting started. To shorten the learning curve, Album DS has a Live Help feature in the interface. When enabled, it will provide an explanation for whichever tool or feature you are using in Album DS.

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My one complaint: The window Stay On Top mode, when enabled, literally stays on top of all active programs (even if you’re not in Photoshop). The developer explained to me that Album DS doesn’t monitor which programs are active because that would eat up considerably more CPU resources (i.e., slow down the computer). Makes sense…right? A quick workaround is to use the hotkey to turn off Stay On Top (Windows: F2). Cmd+M will hide the window on a Mac.

To sum things up, I think Album DS gives you the freedom and flexibility of Photoshop, but the convenience and automated options you need to help your studio run efficiently.

Album DS is compatible with both Mac and Windows, and works with Adobe Photoshop versions CS to CS4. Pricing for Album DS starts at $349 for a single seat license; additional seat licenses are $125 each and users can get one free by attending a free DS webinar. Application DVDs are shipped to download purchasers in the U.S. and Canada at no additional cost. For more information, visit AlbumDS.com; a free demo version is also available for download.

Betsy Finn, Cr.Photog., CPP, has a portrait studio in Dexter, Michigan (BetsysPhotography.com); she shares tips and ideas for photographers at LearnWithBetsy.com.