Software for creating a field guide

I’m working on creating a field guide, but haven’t found a good book layout design/publishing software to use. Anyone here published a field guide or other book with lots of photos that could recommend some good software? Thanks!


I’m interested too! I was using LaTex, because there’s a good plugin to format a dichotomous key, but placing the illustrations is a mess.


is your source material already structured? for example, if you’re making a guide on trees, do you already have the information for your various trees laid out in a database-like structure where each tree is associated with a common set of fields and values (ex. common name, scientific name, max height, max trunk diameter, max age, etc.)

how many items do you plan to include in your field guide (for example, if a trees guide, how many tree species)?

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I have an idea for one project, where data will be collected in a database first. For the other project, i have the information in text format and have to transcribe/format it.

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Many of the online photo book places have free photobook making software that you can download or use online, but it’s all pretty basic.

Some options are:

For software that’s ebook only, you can download Calibre (free) and convert to whatever format you want. You can also make books from “scratch” in Calibre, but I’m not sure of the process.

Adobe InDesign is the professional software often used for that sort of thing, but it’s A) pricey and B) has a steep learning curve.

QuarkXPress is apparently a good alternative to InDesign, but I’ve never used it and it’s also expensive.

Here are some more options too:


What makes you say the learning curve for Indesign is steep ?
Of the Adobe suite it’s one of the most straightforward imo.

There are also easy scripting options within Indesign using basil.js for automated layout if you have a database to pull from. I’ve experimented with automated layout in Processing too, but it’s really unsuited to the task.

I was curious about a kind of automated field guide using iNat data - harvesting comments from experts and mixing with images so I tried that within Jupyter Notebook + pyNaturalist, but that’s really really not suited to layout. Fun though!

I heard LaTex isn’t the easiest to use, but the results certainly look slick for research paper sort of content.

Not a field guide, so a bit tangential, but with regard to easy layout of keys, I think the results from the UK project FSC Identikit look really intriguing to use insofar as they offer the ability to turn a spreadsheet into a multi-access key (which I much prefer to dichotomous keys) which is also interactive / online.



I recently published this guide on seashells with thousands of photos in it, and used Affinity Publisher (as mentioned by @earthknight above). Costs around $85 as a one-off payment, but you can do a free trial for a week or so to see if you like it, and once you buy it you get a key to install it on as many devices as you want.


You guide turned out looking really nice. Must have taken a lot of work.

Because, in my experience with it, it’s not all that intuitive. For really basic things it more-or-less is, but there are a lot of options and fiddly bits, and learning those properly takes time. Kinda like how learning to drive a car across a parking lot is easy, but learning to drive one properly for a mixed surface track takes a lot of time to build the necessary skills.

Personally, I find both Photoshop and Lightroom to be more approachable and straightforward than InDesign, but I’m also more familiar with them… and with those there is still a lot I don’t do with them.


@crowspath - I have used photo book designer software ( Quite happy with that because it’s easy, has a lot of layout options and formats.

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cheers :)
around 4 years all up of compiling, writing, photographing etc
definitely made easier though by Affinity, I love the entire suite; find it very intuitive to use for the most part

Also have a look at the R package Bookdown ( With this software it is quite easy to create very flexible technical documents, which can be easily exported as.pdf or a webpage.


My sister used Adobe InDesign for the two field guides my family has written (mosses and mushrooms) which both required managing thousands of images. This let her make the files using the same platform the publisher was going to use to print, cutting out meddling middlemen, and it made a nice workflow where she could tweak images in Photoshop (or other Adobe platforms) and have it automatically cascade over into the final layout (in InDesign). It has taken her years to be this good in Adobe, though. And most people probably don’t want to micromanage as much as she did.

I’ve used InDesign myself to make plates for some of my robber fly papers, though that’s nothing on the scale of a field guide, and my license was already paid for. In my experience, all Adobe products are quite fiddly and non-intuitive but also incredibly powerful. They’re like R-- it’ll take you days to learn how to do anything beyond opening a file, but once you get over that hump you have a tool that can do literally anything imaginable. And for what it’s worth, I thought InDesign was one of the easiest-to-pick-up members of the Adobe suite. But I don’t use it often.


My experience with inDesign is very much inline with @tristanmcknight - it got released right around the time I was in school for graphic design and I took all that down time between graduation and employment to learn how to use it as much as I could. Then I used it for a number of years before leaving the field. It was, by far, my favorite program ever and I mourned the loss of it when I gave up the cost of the license.

It let me do what I wanted (rather than having other software trying to make it ‘easy for me’ by doing what it thought I wanted - or should want). I even wrote simple correspondence in inDesign because I could format everything to my liking.

But even so, I likely only utilized a small portion of its capabilities and it took a fair bit of work to learn it. And I had already used the precursor/alternative Quark so I understood graphic design / publishing work flow in general. But, with my knowledge, I considered inDesign easier to use than word processing programs like MS Office, OpenOffice, and LibreOffice (which drive me nuts).

For what the OP wants, I don’t know that the financial cost and the time needed to figure it out would be worth it. After losing inDesign, I looked into alternatives and Affinity was getting good reviews especially in its similarities to inDesign (for those users). I haven’t sprung for it. At the moment, I bash my way (while cursing) around LibreOffice for the mundane text stuff I’m doing at home. But I think the price of the software looks very reasonable.

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Good list!

For a simple publication I agree on BookWright with Blurb. I have used it twice.

Scribus is good for Linux users - I use Scribus in Linux Mint.

I also used QuarkXPress for “profession” publication work (advertising and industrial equipment manuals). It has a fairly steep learning curve and a steep price - overkill for what the OP wants.

I beta tester Adobe InDesign over a decade ago - it was pretty good then but I haven’t touched it since.

I somehow didn’t see there were any replies until just now!! Thanks for the response. I have about 70 species. All the information is in a spreadsheet (except the photos). The fields are more broad (Leaves, Bark, Twigs, etc.) and the values are sentences describing this. I’ve been using Google Sheets to mock-up a template, which worked pretty well.

Thanks for the list. I’ve used BookWright before, but didn’t find it that easy for managing lots of photos and text for some reason. I’m excited to check out Affinity though.

Whoa, beautiful. It looks like your final version has similar elements to what I plan on producing and so this could be a great fit. Thanks for sharing!

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Thanks for the tip. TechSoup has a discounted rate on Adobe InDesign. I’ll look into that and weigh against Affinity, but I don’t mind spending the time to learn the software to make the field guide I want to make. I do however, have an aversion to subscription based software rather than a one-time fee.

And thanks for the field guides. I’ve used the mosses one before and it’s fantastic.

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