Thursday, November 18, 2010

How To Digi-Scrap for Free (or very nearly): Part 1

Approximately one year ago, I purchased a beautiful new laptop on a Black Friday sale. Since that time I have become immersed in the world of digital scrapbooking. My paper supplies have all but mouldered in the garage while I've digi-scrapped literally hundreds of pages of my son's first year, my niece, our courtship, and our family life. I've printed more than a hundred pages at 12x12 while keeping my monetary investment to about $1.25/page, including S&H and the plastic page protector.
I've purchased no paper, no glue, and no shnazzy little metal brads that you just Know you're going to use but immediately get lost in the bottom of the bag. Perhaps more surprisingly I've also purchased no software, digital paper, elements, or fonts. All I've done is filled up my hard-drive!

Sample digi-scrap page. Kit used from Suzanne C. Walker-

This a multi-part series covering software and organizational techniques as well as (so far) exactly one tutorial on actually creating a digital page.
This post is an overview where I hit the highlights of free graphics software and free digital downloads
See the additional entries here:

A quick blurb about my background: I've been using computers since my family owned a TI99-4A back in the mid 80's, and I've been using graphics software of some description for at least 12 or 15 years. I'm a PC person, not a Mac , although I've never gone as far as Linux! Still, I don't want to pretend that all of this is super-simple-intuitive to the uninitiated non-geek.
Frankly, if you have no time or patience whatsoever to learn digi-scrapping but still want a slick
bound book to give to the grandparents, your best bet is to use one of the myriad online
drag-and-drop programs such as are available everywhere from Costco to Walgreens, Picaboo, Smilebox, or Snapfish. You won't even pay through the nose. And if you do want to do "real" from-scratch digi-scrapping, you will probably find it Easier to use commercial software such as Adobe Photo Elements (~$100) if for no other reason than that all the tutorials and help files assume this is what you've got installed. My way is simply cheaper!

So, let's get started!

Your first can't-live-without program is Google's Picasa. (
This software manages your photo collection quickly and easily, performs about 80% of the color correction, red-eye removal, cropping, and sharpening you need, and has a good handful of special effects built in. You can ID people in your photos, add stars or tags to help you find them again, and upload your favorites to free online albums.
I also use it to manage my digi-scrap supplies, although it is not truly designed for it. I've evolved several techniques to help which I will share in a later post.

Your second integral piece of software is Gimp. (
This oddly named creature is an open-source full fledged graphics editor that will remind an old hand very strongly of Photoshop. Created first and foremost for Linux, there is nevertheless a very stable Windows versions available. I installed it when my laptop was brand new, and then never got around to digging out my paid-for copy of Paint Shop Pro. Gimp has a lot of advantages over the former - not to mention the free bit. It can handle layers, text, color correction, sharpening, custom brushes and special effects. And yes, it can read multi-layered Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro, PGP, and a myriad of other file types, rarely losing anything of real importance in the process. This is the program you'll use to actually assemble your pages.

Sample digi-scrap page. Elements mostly from and; others homemade.

Digital Paper and Embellishments
Now that you've got your photos and layout software, you need some fun paper, stickers, and letters to add to your pages.
There are a zillion places online that want to sell you what you need very badly - one of the first that springs to mind is, who also publishes a nice (free) daily newsletter. As mentioned above, I've never actually purchased anything from any of these sites. My basic impression, however, is that you end up paying $3 to $10 for each "kit," or perhaps around 25-50% of what you'd spend for physical materials at the craft store.
Thankfully, there are also an amazing array of people who want to give you your scrapping supplies for free. Sure, some of what's out there is low quality and even amateurish, but much is really very good. I'm not going to try and build a comprehensive directory of free scrapping materials - it's been done. I will, however, mention a few of my go-to sites.
  • My very favorite: Dreamsfulfilled (
    This wonderful lady used to posts free kits or kit pieces several times a month, and the quality is excellent. There's also an extensive archive. You could get everything you ever needed and more from this single source.
  • Scrapity Scrap ( sells many of her kits, but also has a great freebie section. Some of her kits are huge with 15-20 papers and 30-40 elements. Again, very high quality.
  • ShabbyPrincess ( sells most of their kits, but it is more than worth snagging their freebies. I think they may take first place in terms of quality and beauty.
  • A new favorite: Design House Digital. Get on their mailing list: most of their stuff is for-pay, but they release free mini-kits 1-3 times a week. Very good quality.
  • The Skrappy Kat has released several very nice free kits which I found most easily archived at
  • also has a good freebie section, mostly of relatively small packages of add-ons or ready-made pages that coordinate with their for-sale kits.
  • 2 Peas In A Bucket ( sells physical scrapping supplies, but also has a nice collection of free fonts that I find myself returning to again and again.
  • Finally, I do subscribe to's collect-a-kit newsletter. They also sell most of their stuff, but if you're willing to get a daily e-mail you can download one piece at a time of some fairly nice kits.
Digi-Supplies Tips:
  • When starting out, resist the urge to download everything in sight - unless it's from Shabby Princess! ;)
    It's going to take a lot of bandwidth and hard drive space (kits commonly run 30+ megs), and as fun as "shopping" is, you don't want to overwhelm yourself with supplies such that you can barely decide where to start.
    Moreover, I've found that what I use over and over is not what I downloaded in the first months of my habit. It took time to figure out my style, what was easy and what was difficult to utilize, and therefore what to bother downloading. (For instance, I almost never use "Alphas" - that is, fancy decorated letters applied one at a time like chipboard or stickers. I've learned to do my own in less time. I also practically never use pre-made pages or templates. You, however, may be different!)
  • When assessing freebies, make sure that you're getting true 12x12 size at 300 dpi. That means your "papers" will be 3600x3600 pixels. If they're smaller, you may not be able to print out at an acceptable quality, and nothing is going to irritate you more than to spend 6 hours on a page that looks all "pixely" when printed.
    (This, by the way, is - aside from pure piracy concerns - what stops you from simply grabbing any ol' clip-art from the internet and throwing it on your pages. If you do a little research, you'll find that your largest images are around 1024x768 but usually much smaller. These are going to print out at about 3 inches wide at best!)

If there's a fly in the ointment of digi-scrapping, it's getting your final product onto paper.
I don't know about you, but I don't own a 12x12 printer! In fact, for reasons to numerous to list I've sworn never to own another ink-jet / photo printer, period: all we have is a B&W laser. Costco serves for most of my photo printing needs: they do not have the lowest price 4x6 print, but their larger prints are considerably cheaper than other local options and they're easy to use.
Unfortunately, their 12x12 prints are still $3. They're beautiful, but it adds up fast! My local warehouse also prints a 12x24 for the $4, so you could print 2 to a page and cut them in half. But, not all warehouses offer it, and you have to order in-store, not online.

The alternative is They have three quality levels, the cheapest of which is about $1 regular price if memory serves. However, I was not happy with this "Value Matte" print. The paper is fairly flimsy, the colors not all that impressive, there's a 1/4 inch white border, and the ink feels like crayon. On the other hand, I've been perfectly happy with the next level up ("Standard Matte") which is regularly $2 plus shipping. This still ends up a little less than Costco. But if you're patient, they have approximately quarterly sales where either their Standard prints are $1 or shipping is free if you spend a certain amount. Get on their mailing list!

What this site is Not is user friendly. The interface is clunky at best. You can upload a few at a time thru the web, or they have a piece of client-side uploading software for streamlining large uploads (i.e. you install it on your hard-drive and use it to select your images and then send to the server.) Neither option is easy. The client-side software takes forever to find and "thumbnail" your images and then figuring out exactly how to add them to the queue is non-intuitive. (Helpful tip: If there are more than 100 images in your directory, numbers 100+ will not show. I actually had to move the extras to another location so I could load them.) Perhaps worst of all, neither your "album" on the website nor the client-side software allows you to re-order your images by filename or date, and should the upload crash half-way through a big upload (mine does all the time!) you'll have no real idea what's been successfully transfered or not. I found myself carefully comparing the online album against my laptop and taking notes of the missing files on post-it's. Ugh!

And prepare yourself: regardless of which online printer you use, the upload is going to take time - probably many hours if you're doing 20 or 30 pages. Even when you're paying for decent broadband the bandwidth equation is balanced in favor of downloads, and your digital pages are going to be anywhere from 6 to 16 megabytes even in JPG format.

What it boils down to: Use Costco if you're in a hurry, don't want to pay shipping, and want a less painful uploading experience. You can even take your files over to the warehouse on a thumb drive and avoid the whole bandwidth problem entirely.
But for absolute economy, I haven't been able to beat

OK, that's enough for post #1. The next post in this series will cover establishing a digital
workflow - which is geek-speak for nailing down which programs to use for what purpose, when, and in which order.

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