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10K Mystery Packs

Since getting back into photography, I haven’t spent a huge amount time or effort on getting more followers on social media. As a result, until recently, my follower counts have stayed pretty modest. I am, however, slowly approaching an important milestone. On Instagram, I should hit 10,000 followers sometime in the next month if all goes well. This milestone is important because it opens up a bunch of new creator tools and features, such as the ability to post links in stories, so I’m pretty excited about getting there.

I’ve been toying with the idea of doing some kind of giveaway for quite a while, and this seemed like a good opportunity to finally do it. I’ve come up with — and discarded — several ideas. Most involved raffling off different types of mounted prints or producing some kind of publication. But with what’s going on with shipping and logistics right now, larger items are very expensive to ship and are much more prone to getting damaged or lost than in times past. The reality is that I could only afford to do gifts like those for a couple of people.

I really want to do something unique but also inexpensive enough that I can afford to send them to quite a few people. Ideally, it should be something that’s kind of silly and fun, too.

I was recently at the game and comic store where one of my kids works. I noticed that they sell mystery packs of dice at the main counter. They’re sealed, opaque mylar bag with a set of gaming dice inside. You know they’re dice, but you don’t know the color, the style, or whether they’re opaque, translucent, or transparent until you open the bag. These bags are so popular that they have trouble keeping them in stock. I even bought one myself, even though I had absolutely no need for any more dice.

As I walked around the store, I noticed that there were several other types of items sold in similar ways: miniatures, cards, artwork, and even comics. I think they’re popular for the same reason that collectible card games are. Sure, you’re buying cards, dice, miniatures, or whatever, but you’re also buying a moment of excitement and anticipation at the possibility of getting something you really like or something rare or unusual.

I’ve been thinking about ways to make that idea work as a giveaway. I’ve been prototyping sealed packages of 3×4 archival photographs. Each pack has four uncensored prints of my images, mostly shots that I’ve posted (censored) to Instagram over the years. Several of the photos, however, aren’t available online and won’t ever be.

I realized pretty quickly that I can make and ship these pretty inexpensively, so I can afford to give away a bunch of them, rather than having to choose just a couple people, so I’m moving forward with making them in anticipation of crossing over 10k.

Here’s a bit about how I’m making them.


The first order of business was to find some kind of packaging I could use for the mystery packs. The only real requirements I had is that the packages need to be sealable and that you can’t tell what’s inside once they’re sealed. Mystery bags don’t need to be fancy. I’ve seen them created using paper bags with black sharpie writing on them, but I didn’t want to go quite that DIY for this.

The mystery bags of dice come in heat-sealed mylar zip bags. They look nice, so that seemed like a possible contender if it wasn’t too expensive. Turns out: it isn’t.

Heat-seal mylar bags are a surprisingly inexpensive form of packaging that can look pretty professional. You can find decent heat sealers for about $25 on Amazon, like this one that I bought:

The heat sealer I picked up. It’s not exactly industrial grade, but it works well.

You could also use something like a Foodsaver to seal the bags if you happen to already have one of those in your kitchen.  The individual bags are also fairly cheap. I ordered a sampling of different bags that seemed like they might work, and they ranged from about 5¢ to about 15¢ each in small quantities, depending on style and size.

After creating several prototype packs using different options, I settled on these 15cm×10cm bags which cost 7¢ each. They fit the prints well. They’re not snug, but also don’t have too much extra space, either. The prints are easy to put in, and to take out after opening. They’re fully opaque, so you can’t see what’s inside, and once sealed, the only way to find out what’s inside is to tear it open.

Creating an Insert

Some of the bag options I played with had a clear front panel, so I designed an insert to go inside those to act as a label and to obscure wht prints behind it. I made the inserts in Affinity Publisher (a really good, but very affordable desktop publishing program). Unlike the prints, which are going to be archival and high-quality, I just printed these 4-up on my color laser printer. Even though I eventually settled on a fully opaque bag, I decided to keep the inserts.

Since my laser printer can print double-sided, I also wrote a little thank-you note for the back that has details about the edition and links to all of my photography-related social media accounts.

Printing Labels

For the exterior label, I went looking for pre-cut laser printer labels that are not quite as big as the 10cm × 15cm bags. The best option I found were these labels that print 6-up. I kept the labels fairly simple and graphic. After a few rounds of experimenting, I settled on this design.

Making the Prints

If you’ve followed this blog at all, you know I love  printing. I currently use a Canon PIXMA PRO-100 printer with archival dyes and paper. It’ll do borderless prints up to 13″x19″, but I initially decided to do these prints 4-up on letter-size paper. Photo paper gets exponentially more expensive as you move to larger sizes so, while it would be more convenient to be able to print a whole bunch of 3×4 prints on a couple of 13″x19″ sheets, it ended up being considerably more cost-effective to print on smaller sheets of paper. The smaller paper is also easier to work with when cutting out the prints.

One of the 12 different sheets of common prints..

This worked well, but still involved a lot of cutting, which I wasn’t thrilled about, since I’m creating four sets of 60 prints, and this approach requires 6 separate cuts per sheet of four images. I realized that I have a lot of 4×6 archival photo paper and that two 3×4 prints exactly fit on one 4×6 sheet of paper. Since my printer can do borderless 4×6 printing, that means I only have to make one cut for every two prints. That’s a lot less cutting, so moving to 4×6 paper was a no-brainer.

Here’s what the finished packs look like:

The first 30 mystery packs completed and ready to go.

All in, these cost me less than 60¢ to make each pack. The four 3×4 prints cost me about 12¢ each to make (for a total of 40¢ per pack), the packaging costs about 7¢ per, and the label adds maybe another couple of cents.  That doesn’t include my time or the cost of the heat sealer, though. Because these packs are small and light, I can send them using first class mail for $0.58 or $1.30 international. That’s pretty affordable for a physical giveaway.

My plan is to create 45 packs to give to Instagram followers on a first-come-first-served basis once I reach 10k followers. I’m not planning to sell any packs, nor am I planning to re-print the edition. I may create additional series when I hit other milestones (25k maybe?), and I’m contemplating creating a single “XL” version of the set made up of  larger prints, but haven’t made a decision about that yet.

Release Date

I have no release date yet. I won’t send out any mystery bags until I have more than 10k followers on Instagram. Most likely, I will start sending them out about a week or two after crossing over, but it will depend on what’s going on in my life when I reach the milestone. I have a trip planned toward the end of the month, so if I cross over while I’m out of town, it will be a little while before I’m able to start sending them out.

Getting a Mystery Pack

Follow me on Instagram if you’re interested in getting one of the mystery packs. I will announce how to sign up to get them over there, on a first-come-first-served basis. They will be completely free, and there will only be three requirements to get one:

  • You must be following me when I reach 10k. The 10,001st follower will have to wait for the next milestone.
  • You must be over the age of 18 and must also be a legal adult where you live if the age of majority there is higher than 18.
  • You must not live in somewhere where censorship laws make fully nude photographs illegal to own or to import.

Please don’t DM me about getting a pack before I cross 10k followers. I’m not accepting sign-ups until I’ve gotten there.

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