Product catalogs were once an expensive undertaking. Companies like Sears, J. Crew and J.C. Penney made millions from their catalogs, but behind that revenue was the cost of paper, printing and postage. Today, you can make a vibrant and compelling product catalog from your laptop without any out-of-pocket costs. All you need is a decent camera on your phone and the right software.

Before You Create a Product Catalog

Before you get started on your catalog, you'll need to start gathering photos of your products. If you are reselling products, chances are that your supplier will have good photos you can use. You'll want high-definition photos. As a general rule of thumb, JPG files should be 1 MB in size or larger. It's easy to reduce a file size as needed, but blowing up a small photo into a larger one will leave you with blurry details and pixelated edges.

Of course, having images that are the same as everyone else selling the same products won't help you distinguish your brand from the competition. So consider taking your own photos using a good digital camera, like a DSLR, that will let you change the aperture settings so the product is in focus while blurring out the background. If you're on a budget, the camera on your phone will give you great images as well.

You can use almost any image-editing software to crop and edit catalog photos. Photoshop and similar apps like Gimp will allow you to adjust the white balance, fine-tune the colors and sharpen the images. However, if you start with great photos in good lighting, you often won't need advanced editing features.

Designing Your First Catalog

Designing a professional-looking catalog usually calls for professional publishing software. Adobe InDesign, Microsoft Publisher and QuarkXPress are great options. However, if you're looking for something less expensive, or free, you may also want to consider:

  • Affinity Publisher
  • PDFelement
  • PDFrizator
  • Scribus
  • Serif Pageplus
  • Spring Publisher

The difference between these programs and Microsoft Word is that they are layout programs, while Word is a word processing program and can't give you the same degree of control over the placement of images and text boxes. Furthermore, if you're planning on printing your catalog, Word won't give you the best color options, nor does it offer features like bleed lines, which printers will require. Talk to the printer to get their requirements.

That being said, if you're creating a small digital catalog, you can still use a word processor like Word or Google Docs. There are even small product catalog templates available in .docx format. Select a custom page size, reduce the margins to the minimum allowed and use text boxes below or beside the images. Just be prepared for a lot of tweaking when the program automatically moves things around when you add more images or text.

Publishing Your Catalog

Once you have finished designing your catalog, you can export it to a PDF file. This is a standard feature in both Windows and Mac operating systems, so you don't need special software to do this. PDF files can be opened on any device, so you can email it to your customers, or upload a link to your website.

If you want something a little more fun than a plain PDF, a flipbook is another option. There are a variety of apps that can transform a PDF file to a flipbook, which gives your catalog the appearance that they are printed on paper, including the ability to flip pages. Flipbook software often gives you a free trial period so there is no cost for your first book, and they often include product catalog builders. These transform the PDF into an HTML5 file, which can be viewed on any web browser.

Finally, if you do decide you want to print some catalogs to give to customers, you can send your PDF file to a professional printer. Again, you should contact the printer to see what requirements they have, including image resolution, color separation and bleed lines. You'll have to pay for the printing, paper and postage, of course, but at least the design was free.