Background – Why am I reviewing a Photobook offering?
Saal Digital is a manufacturer of photo products, based in Vienna, Austria. It offers a wide variety of ways to get photos into print – Wall Decorations, Cards, Posters, Photos and, the topic of this post, Photobooks. The company’s proposition to selected photographers was this – review their offering and publicise the review on social media in return for a discount voucher to be redeemed against its Professional Line Photobook offering.
The TL;DR, if you’re in a hurry, is this – I recommend the service. I used their Windows-based photobook editing package, which is powerful, flexible and responsive, and took delivery of a high quality book of photographs printed on fine art paper in a linen-feel cover. The service I got from their support desk was responsive and helpful. I noticed that the images as printed were darker than they appeared on my PC, but on investigation, I feel this is a calibration issue with my display.
A couple of comments: firstly, with such great flexibility in the book editing package, one can get bogged down in the creation process. The website provides several (excellently short) video tutorials to help the novice make sense of what can be a bewildering set of possibilities. I thoroughly recommend that anyone using the service check these out to make the creation process go smoothly.
Secondly, I recommend the service, but if you want top quality, be prepared to plan ahead. I completed the book on 30th April (56 pages of images) and was quoted a delivery time of 13th May. The book actually arrived on 11th May and is of very fine quality. The above issue with darkness aside, I’m very happy with the way the images have come out on the fine art paper, with some great colours and detail.
(By way of comparison, Photobox suggests a delivery time of 6-11 days, but their top quality offering, whilst very good, is not as fine as the Saal Digital Pro Line, but then It’s slightly cheaper. Photobox are in the habit of offering deep discounts if you’re prepared to keep an eye out and wait; so you can do a perfectly good photo book with Photobox for less than Saal Digital’s price. But Saal Digital has offerings of superior quality.)
If you look very very closely at the book I received, it’s possible to see that the images on the left-hand pages are very slightly misaligned, with the top left edge being a fraction nearer the top of the page than the top right edge. You have to look carefully to notice it, and I suspect that my selected layout was unwise, with the images very near the top of each page, making it possible to spot this. So my advice would be to steer a little clearer of the top of the page than I did.
Read on if you’re interested in more detail.
Having been accepted into this scheme, my original idea was to use a forthcoming holiday to Jordan as the subject matter for the book. However, nature, in the form of the SARS-COV-2 virus, intervened and kyboshed that plan. However, there are many ways a photographer can get benefit from lockdown, and one of these is to revisit photographs from previous projects. I have used Photobox, a UK-based service, for previous books and been satisfied with the results for a high-quality portfolio book. So I decided to use the Saal Digital proposition as a reason to revisit my portfolio, re-edit some of those photos and also select and re-edit new ones for inclusion in a second portfolio book. Like the first, it would be based around photos I had taken on my travels over the last ten years.
Select your book
The Saal Digital Windows-based photobook editor is a very comprehensive tool. The process is driven by selecting images, which are displayed in the PC’s folder structure in a windows on the left. But before you select your images, you need to have a clear idea in your mind as to what kind of book – an “article” in its terminology – you’re going to produce. (As well as a photo book, an article could be some individual photos, wall decor, cards, posters and a variety of other possibilities.)
Within the Photo Book selection, a variety of options are on offer, from basic photo booklet through to so-called “Professional Line” Photobooks. These are offered in a variety of different formats – square, portrait or landscape, with the largest being a 40×30 Landscape offering. I elected to go for the 30×21 Landscape format, which is a similar size to the Photobox offering I’d done previously.
Having selected this option, the software asked for a choice of cover, for example, acrylic or leather/linen, the cover surface, what kind of paper (glossy, matte, fine art) and whether a gift box is required. Some covers can feature photos, others only text. A starting price for your selection is displayed, and which adjusts as you change options or change the number of pages in the book.
You then have three options – a “one-minute” photobook, where the software does all the work for you, “auto layout” which places images within a layout of your choice or an empty template so that you can have complete control (which was my selection). There are tutorial videos, helpfully each only around one minute long, to explain how each works and how you can manipulate the format as you go along. I recommend watching a couple of these videos as they might give you some ideas as to clip art or layout selections before you begin.
The final step is to select the number of pages you want in your photobook. You can add pages later, so you’re not committed to a number; but this step does give you an idea of what the final cost is going to be.
Select and place your images and text
You’re then in the hands of the layout section of the software, which shows you the current page you’re editing in the centre, a window of all of the book pages on the bottom, your folder structure on the left, a set of tools at the top and some resources on the right (so you can change your article type if you wish, for example, or select page layouts). You are also shown thumbnails of any images in the directory you’re looking at. I did all my photo edits before I started, so all the photos were in one directory, which I think made the whole process a lot simpler.
The look and feel of the tool corresponds closely to the Windows look and feel, so you can select multiple images with Ctrl-click or Shift-click as you would in Windows, and there’s a right-click menu of options as well. For example, if you’re using the one-minute option, you could just select all the images and drag-and-drop them on to the current page window and the software will do the rest. You have flexibility in adjusting things afterwards if you want – and this applies to auto layout as well.
I used a one-photo-per-page approach, so merely had to drag a selected photo across, then position it, size it and caption it. Once you’ve elected to use a photo, the software places a tick against it in the thumbnail view, so that you can easily see which images you have used and which not. The software gives an assessment of the image quality for printing and will for example alert you if it’s too small; you also are alerted if you’re trespassing too near the edge of the page. Having positioned the image, I could then edit it further if I wished (rotate, mirror, etc, or adjust the colours and brightness. The menus at the top are all context-sensitive, so appear as needed when you select an object to adjust. You can copy or cut-and-paste easily between pages, which I found useful in keeping consistency in layout and positioning of captions.
The software really is very good and very flexible. It is possible to do sophisticated layouts with layered images, rotated images, a wide variety of text tools and clip art. This is why I suggest you have a clear idea of how you want your book to look before you start – there are so many options and possibilities here that it’s easy to get bogged down. The tutorial videos are very useful preparation, I found.
As you create the book, the pages are visible in a window along the bottom so that you can easily skip from one page to another. A preview of the book is available so you can see how it looks thus far; and you can save the project so that you can come back later if you need to take a break.
All in all, I found it very easy to get exactly the look I wanted
Finish and buy
And that’s it! At the bottom right is an indication of the price of your book, including VAT but excluding shipping costs and the tempting “Add to shopping basket” button, which will take you to a dialog for giving shipping and payment information – credit card and PayPal options are available. If there are any last-minute issues with your layout (e.g. page accidentally left blank), the software will alert you before allowing you to spend money, which is a nice touch.
It’s a very smooth process, and the finished article, with the one layout caveat I mention above, is of very high quality – lovely image colour and detail. Overall, a very satisfactory project and I shall revisit the service for any top quality photo print items I need in the future.