Do-it-yourself holiday photo gifts make a big impression

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During the holiday season, a personalized photo gift makes a big impression; it’s proof that you put thought and effort into a meaningful and distinctive present. Whether you’re giving to family, friends, or clients—for this holiday or another occasion—the following products and do-it-yourself ideas will work well. Let’s focus first on preparing your photos for gifts and then ordering them from reputable online sources.

Fix up your images

Before launching your Web browser, go ahead and perform any color corrections or blemish zapping on your photos. If an image needs cropping, you can do that through the online services listed later in this story that offer that option. Don’t worry about the image resolution (the measurement of the number of pixels)—these services handle everything. In fact, many of the images that appear on the products below were captured with an iPhone 4S and processed with Instagram, the popular photo-editing and sharing app. However, if you pick an image that doesn’t have the pixel dimemions to reproduce well at a certain size, you get a warning.

Color consistency is critical, especially if you’re creating a product containing multiple photos (say, a coffee mug or a shopping bag). If the photos differ greatly in color, they’ll look terrible side by side. An easy fix is to add a color tint, giving the photos a more cohesive look and making the product appear more professional. To add a color tint in iPhoto, select the image and click the Edit button at the bottom of the iPhoto window. Click the Effects tab at the top right, and then click the B&W, Sepia (brown tint), or Antique (adds a subtle vintage feel to your photo) button.

Your clicks are cumulative, so click each button again to intensify the effect. To remove an effect, click the Undo button.

To add a color tint in Adobe Photoshop Elements 11, open the image in Expert mode (called Full Edit in previous versions) and click the Effects fx button at the bottom of the Elements window (or choose Window > Effects in previous versions). Choose the Effects category toward the top right of the window (click the third button from the left in previous versions to open Photo Effects) and, from the pop-up menu under or next to the button, choose Show All. Scroll down to the bottom of the resulting previews, and double-click one of the last six thumbnails for a black & white, blue, green, purple, red, or brown tint.

When you add an effect in Photoshop Elements, it’s applied to a duplicate of your image layer so your original remains untouched.

Once you’re finished processing the photos, create high-quality JPEG versions of them to use with your online service. In iPhoto, select an album or individual photo(s) and choose File > Export. In the Export dialog box, click the File Export tab, choose JPEG from the Kind pop-up menu, and Maximum from the JPEG Quality menu. If you’re creating 5-by-7-inch or larger images, go ahead and choose Full Size from the Size menu; otherwise Large works fine for most projects. Click Export, and in the next dialog box create a new folder for the photos.

Another way to export images from iPhoto is to drag/drop them from the iPhoto window into a folder.

If you’re using Photoshop Elements, choose File > Save As and pick JPEG from the Format pop-up menu. Click Save and, in the next dialog box, enter 12 in the Quality field and click OK. If you’re processing a slew of photos, choose File > Process Multiple Files; in the resulting dialog box, pick the folder where the images live and, in the File Type section, choose JPEG Max Quality.

Click the checkboxes in the Quick Fix section and Adobe Photoshop Elements tries to correct your images, too.

Ordering photo gifts online

In preparation for a recent workshop, I scoured the Internet for a diverse array of high-quality, photo-based products. No matter which service you use (only a few are featured here), the process is basically the same: Create an account, upload your photos (it’s handy to create project-specific albums, such as “maui shopping bag”), and start your project. This site lets you create durable and colorful photo magnets from your Instagram photos ($15 per sheet of nine; magnets are roughly 2 inches square). The deadline for Christmas delivery to the U.S. and most places in the world has passed, but the deadline for the UK and Europe is December 13. Use code FRIENDCR69 to get $2 off. Turn your images into a high-quality, frame-mounted canvas with a black or white border (price varies by size; $35 for 12 by 12 inches). Upload images from your computer, or connect via your Facebook or Instagram account. This site lets you create custom skins (stickers) and hard cases for laptops, iOS devices, and more. Use their art or upload your own photo (or a logo for branding). If you’re doing the latter, it’s helpful to use photos that have a similar aspect ratio as the device you’re designing for. Price varies by product; it costs $27 for a 14-by-9.5-inch skin for a 15-inch MacBook Pro. Order by December 13 for UPS standard delivery or December 20 for UPS expedited delivery. To create a nice detail to add to holiday or client correspondence, try using original photo stamps ($20 per sheet of twenty 45-cent, first-class-letter stamps). Postage is also available for postcards. The design calls for a nearly square image, so Instagram photos work well. Allow one week for delivery.

Snapfish Offering a slew of practical products, this service has the simplest interface to use, unlimited photo storage, the best product previews (a rotating 3D view on some items), and a downloadable iPhoto plug-in (accessible as a tab in the File > Export dialog box).

Notable products feature a reusable shopping bag ($15, including velcro tie and optional monogram); metallic-finish 3D-cube tree ornaments ($18 for 1.5 by 1.5 inches. Use squarish photos—Instagram shots work well, as do color tints); puzzles ($25 for 10-by-14- inch, 252-piece puzzle with a nice box containing a photo on top); Photo Gallery coffee mug ($14 for 15 ounces, up to 14 photos on a black or white mug).

Shutterfly This is a great place to order prints, as well as classy yet affordable products including flashlight keychains ($4 for a 1.3-by-1.8-inch photo on each side); playing cards ($15); tree ornaments ($10); calendars ($20 for a 11-by-8.5 centerfold or 12-by-18-inch top-bound style); dry-erase calendars ($30); and more.

It also offers spectacular prints on framed canvas called gallery wraps. Price varies by size; $90 gets you a 16-by-20-inch wrap, allowing 2 inches on each side for the photo to wrap around the frame. Foam-core-mounted images called standouts are $30 for 10 by 10 inches, and you can choose between a white or black border. Framed prints are also incredibly affordable—$25 for a 5-by-7-inch print with nonglare glass, matted in a 2-inch frame. Choose black-and-white and sepia tints, and you can order additional retouching.

MPix offers some of the classiest products around, though you get no product previews, and you must upload photos individually for each product (in other words, they’re not stored online). Notable items include magnetic list pads ($16 for a 2-by-8.5-inch pad with 50 pages and 1 photo); weekly notepads ($15 for a 5.6-by-9.8-inch pad with 52 pages and 2 photos); and desk easel calendars ($25). The site also offers nice wine/beer bottle labels, though be sure to affix labels before chilling the bottle or the label will bubble.

PinholePress This site uses your photos to create hand-sewn products (made in Washington, D.C.) from your Instagram photos. Products include tote bags, purses, and a lovely throw pillow ($64; 15 by 15 inches). For best results, avoid photos with Instagram frames (borders). The deadline for Christmas delivery has passed, but there's still time to celebrate the New Year and, of course, birthdays and other holidays in 2013.


Now let’s explore some fun, do-it-yourself, photo-based projects including napkin rings, wooden photo cubes, and gift tags. These projects cost less than $2 each, and are easy enough for the kids to help out.

Photo napkin rings

This project is a great way to add a personal touch to your holiday dinners and themed parties.

Take a 4-by-6 photo printed on heavy-weight photo paper and cut a 2-by-6-inch strip from the portion of the photo that contains your subject. Roll a napkin fairly tightly and then bend the photo strip around so it forms a loop. Attach both ends of the strip on the inside using clear tape.

Photo-based napkin rings are smart, personal, and easy to make.

Gift tags

Set up your document in Photoshop Elements.

This project yields eight gift tags that are 4.25 by 2.75 inches. In Photoshop Elements, follow these steps:

Step 1: Choose File > New > Blank File, and in the New dialog box, choose U.S. Paper from the Preset pop-up menu and click OK.

Step 2: In Expert mode (Full Edit in previous versions), choose View > New Guide and set a horizontal guide at 0.25 inch. Repeat and set horizontal guides at 3.0, 5.25, 5.75, 8.0, and 8.5 inches. Now set vertical guides at 0.5, 3.75, 4.75, and 8.0 inches. (If it’s helpful, turn on Rulers by choosing View > Rulers.)

Insert guides for your tags.

Step 3: Choose File > Place and then navigate to where the image lives (use a family photo to avoid including text indicating who the gift is from). Next, take a peek at the Tool Options bar at the bottom of the Elements window (or at the top in previous versions) and make sure the Constrain Proportions checkbox is turned on. Now drag one of the automatically activated corner handles inward to reduce the photo size until it fits inside the guides. Press <Return> (or select the green checkmark) to accept the size change.

Step 4: Duplicate the photo layer by pressing -J. Activate the Move tool by pressing V and -drag the duplicate layer into the next photo area (-dragging constrains your move to be perfectly vertical or horizontal). Repeat this two-step sequence until you have eight photos positioned within the guides.

Step 5: On relatively thick paper (matte presentation paper works well), print the document by choosing File > Print, and then cut the print in half lengthwise (at 4.25 inches) and then cut it again in fourths (at 2.75, 5.5, and 8.25 inches).

Activate the Move tool and Shift-drag the duplicate layer into the next photo area.

Step 6: On the left edge of the newly liberated tags, snip each corner at a 45-degree angle. Using a hole punch, punch a hole halfway between the two angled cuts.

Optional: Add a hole reinforcement label on the photo side (this makes the hole stronger and adds a nice visual detail to the tag).

Step 7: Tie thin holiday ribbon (3/16-inch curling ribbon works well) through the gift-tag hole and then affix the tag to a package using tape or by tying it onto a bow.

Your finished holiday tags.

Wooden photo blocks

For this project, cut a 2-by-2-inch section from six photos, which will be glued onto each side of a 2-inch wooden block. Be sure to measure the blocks first, as they may not be exactly square; if you buy larger blocks, increase the photo size accordingly. You’ll also need a bottle of glue (Mod Podge is a good one) and a foam brush, both of which are available at craft stores. You can manually cut sections from existing photos or follow these steps to prepare the photos in Photoshop Elements.

Step 1: Choose File > New > Blank File and choose Photo from the Preset menu, then choose Landscape, 4 x 6 from the Size pop-up menu and click OK.

Set up your document.

Step 2: In Expert mode (Full Edit in previous versions), choose View > New Guide and set a horizontal guide at 2 inches, then set vertical guides at 2 and 4 inches.

Step 3: Choose File > Place and add a photo to your document. Take a peek in the Tool Options at the bottom of the Elements window (or at the top in previous versions) and make sure the Constrain Proportions checkbox is turned on. Use the automatic corner-resizing handles to make the subject—not necessarily the whole photo—fit within the guides. Press (or select the green checkmark) when you’re finished.

Add photos to your document.

Step 4: Press the M key to activate the Rectangular Marquee tool, and then click and drag diagonally to draw a box around your photo but inside the guides. Add a layer mask by clicking the circle-within-a-square at the top of the Layers panel (it’s at the bottom in versions 9 and 10). Repeat this sequence of steps to fill the remaining slots with different photos.

Optional: You could also crop the images into 2-inch squares (or to the size of your blocks) before adding them to your template.

Step 5: Print the document on 4 by 6 photo paper and then cut the photos apart (it’s helpful to use a ruler and an X-acto knife atop a safe cutting surface). To print enough photos for two blocks on one sheet of paper, use 8.5 by 11 in step 1 and then place 12 photos in the document instead of 6.

Using a layer mask lets you hide the edges of your photo that don't fit inside the guides.

Step 6: Glue the photos onto each side of the block using Mod Podge applied with a small foam brush. Press the photo down with a soft cloth until it adheres to the surface, and then start on another side. It’s also helpful to do all sides but one, let the others dry, and then do the last side (to keep from gluing the block onto your work surface).

Step 7: Once all sides are dry, apply a thin coat of Mod Podge to all sides of the block except one and let dry. Once dry, coat the remaining side and let it dry. This protects the photos and gives the block a nice, subtle texture.

Here the edges of the block were colored with a marker so the wood isn't viewable if the photos don't go all the way to the edges.

Product photos by Lesa Snider and  Kate Hailey. Craft photos courtesy of All rights reserved.

This story, "Do-it-yourself holiday photo gifts make a big impression" was originally published by TechHive.

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