Customized Postcards

Copyright 1990, Tom R. Halfhill


Turning your favorite photographs into postcards is a great way to amaze and amuse your friends and family. The traditional ways of doing this, however, are somewhat less than satisfactory.

Basically there are three methods. If you have your own darkroom, you can get special black-and-white photographic paper that's precut to size and has standard postcard information preprinted on the back. If you don't have a darkroom or if you want color postcards, you can take your negatives to a commercial photofinisher that offers prints on special postcard paper. Finally, you can buy cardboard window envelopes that turn ordinary album prints into "postcards."

All of these methods have drawbacks, however. If you're a darkroom worker who wants to do it yourself, you may be disappointed to discover that ready-made postcard paper is available only in a very limited number of paper types, grades, and surfaces, so you probably won't be able to use your favorite paper. If you're taking your negatives to a commercial photofinisher, you'll find that the options are equally limited. And while the cardboard window envelopes turn your prints into something resembling a postcard, it's not the same as the real thing. Also, all of these methods result in rather bland, generic-looking cards that lack the specific information found on the back of real postcards—a short description of the photograph, the photographer's credits, and so forth.

Now there's a better way. As you can see from the examples accompanying this article, you can produce your own customized postcards with any message or design you want. (See photo below.) And if you're a darkroom worker, you can print the photograph on any kind of printing paper you wish—color or black-and-white.

The basic postcard template is simple—a 5x7-inch box, a brief description of the picture, a credit line, a return address, and a few other details.

The Miracle of Desktop Publishing

What's the trick? Simply take advantage of the desktop publishing technology that's been revolutionizing personal computing for the past few years. Not only does this method make it possible to produce postcards as good as any you can buy, but it also lets you create cards with a personal touch that just can't be duplicated by mass-produced postcards.

If you're familiar with computers, it probably won't take you long to figure out how these customized postcards are made. But even if you're not too familiar with computers, don't worry. You don't have to be a computer expert to get the kind of results shown here. Chances are you have a computer-literate friend or colleague who will be glad to help you out.

Something else you don't need is an expensive desktop publishing system, although naturally a more powerful system will yield better results. The examples accompanying this article were produced on an Apple Macintosh computer with a laser printer. Nearly equal results can be obtained with an ink-jet printer, such as the Hewlett-Packard DeskJet or DeskJet Plus. Artist friends declare that my laser-printed cards could pass for the real thing. But surprisingly good results can be achieved with even the simplest home computer and printer. Let's take a step-by-step look at how it's done.

Start with a 5 x 7 photograph, color or black-and-white. It doesn't matter whether you make the print in your own darkroom or have it made commercially. If you make the print yourself, it's a good idea to use the double-weight version of your favorite paper so the finished postcard will be more sturdy. (I prefer to use resin-coated paper, which also helps make the postcard more resistant to handling and moisture when it's mailed.)

Keep in mind that the 5 x 7 print will be trimmed a little before we're done. I like my finished postcards to have a 1/4-inch white border all around, so I start with a 1/2-inch border to allow for the trim. If you want a borderless postcard, start with a borderless print or a print with a 1/4-inch border.

The next step is to create the reverse side of the postcard which will eventually be mounted back-to-back with your photograph. This is where the computer comes in. Using some kind of desktop publishing or graphics-design program, you need you create a template similar to my example above. The job is child's play if you've ever used such a program, and not very difficult if you haven't. What's more, almost any kind of graphics program will work. As you can see from my example, all you need is the capability to create a few simple lines and boxes, plus a few short lines of text.

To produce my postcards, I used a Macintosh program called Aldus Freehand. Even though I'd never used the program before, it took me only a short while to create my template. Depending on which kind of computer you (or a helpful friend) are using, any program from Adobe Illustrator to Electronic Arts' Deluxe Paint should be just fine.

Creating a Template

Begin by drawing a box that will measure exactly 5 x 7 inches when reproduced on your printer. (Aldus Freehand has a built-in "ruler" that lets you draw to exact measurements on the screen; if your software lacks this feature, experiment with several printouts to arrive at the correct size.) I drew my 5 x 7 box with a dotted line to show that it's intended to be snipped out with scissors, but a solid line would serve the purpose just as well.

The remaining design elements are all up to you. Remember, this is your customized postcard, so you can make it look any way you want. Treat my sample template as a general guide. The only important thing to keep in mind is that soon we'll be trimming about 1/4 inch from all four sides of the card, so you should keep all design elements at least 1/2 inch inside the borders of the 5 x 7-inch box.

My postcard template is pretty simple. At the upper left, I reserved room for a brief description of the photograph. By using a relatively small type size, there's enough space here for three or four short lines of text. At the lower left, just below the half of the card where the handwritten message usually appears, I placed my credit line ("Photography by Tom R. Halfhill"). At the upper right, I drew a small box around the words "Place Stamp Here." This is unnecessary, of course, since the box will be completely covered by the stamp, but I wanted my postcards to look more official in their unmailed state.

Just below this, I placed the words "Post Card," using the same style of outlined type found on many actual postcards. Again, this was just for the sake of realism. Some postcards follow this with a few horizontal lines to indicate where the address of the destination should be written, but I decided the card looked cleaner without them.

To separate the two halves of the card—the areas where the greeting is written on the left and the address is entered on the right—most postcards have a solid vertical line. This is where I decided to get a little fancy. I stumbled across a feature in Aldus Freehand that lets you take a line of text and run it vertically instead of horizontally. So I entered my home address, stood it on end, and enclosed it within two vertical lines. Although postcards customarily don't leave room for a return address, I liked this touch. It sets my tailor-made postcards apart from real postcards in a unique way, since a mass-produced card obviously can't include a printed return address.

When you've designed your own postcard template just the way you want it, print out a final copy. To make your postcard a little sturdier, use a good quality heavyweight paper, if your printer will accept it. If your graphics program allows you to work with full-size 8-1/2 x 11-inch sheets, you can fit two of these 5 x 7 templates on a single sheet in order to conserve paper.

Don't forget to save the template file on a disk for later use. That way, you won't have to redraw the entire template whenever you want to make a new postcard. All you'll have to do is load your template from disk, revise the photo description, and print out a new copy.

Finishing the Postcard

Now you're ready to begin assembling your postcard. First, cut out your postcard template along the 5 x 7-inch line. Next, mount it back-to-back with the 5 x 7 photo.

You can use just about any mounting method you want. Traditional dry mounting is best, but most of us don't own an expensive dry-mount press. The least expensive alternative is to use the spray-mount adhesive that comes in aerosol cans. It's fast and easy, but nonarchival. Another approach is to use the double-sided, peel-apart, adhesive mounting sheets available at many camera shops.

The mounting material I prefer is Scotch 568 Positionable Mounting Adhesive. This is a double-sided adhesive that comes in rolls and can be cut to any size. It's easy to handle, doesn't require a special mounting press, and is considered archival. You can find it at most well-stocked camera shops, or get it by mail from Light Impressions, 439 Monroe Avenue, Rochester, New York 14607.

After you've mounted your postcard printout back-to-back with your 5 x 7 photo, use a very sharp razor knife and a metal straightedge to trim about 1/4 inch off all four sides. The easiest way to keep everything straight and true is to use a metal T-square.

After mounting the finished template back-to-back with your 5x7-inch photo, complete the postcard by trimming off about 1/4 inch on all four sides.

That's it; you're done! If you're as fumble-fingered as I am, you'll probably mess up one or two postcards before you get the hang of it. For that reason, you might want to practice with a few scrap prints before trying to make postcards out of your good prints.

All of the homemade postcards I've mailed so far have held up very well, arriving at their destinations in near-perfect condition. And they never fail to impress the friends and relatives who receive them.


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