Declaration of neutrality
This review was not sponsored by Saal Digital. The company has given given me a credit of 40€ so that I didn’t have to spend my money on the book I intended to review. Beyond that, I have not received any money or other kinds of compensation or reward. The company has expressively asked the reviewers to express their opinions on their photo books honestly and openly and I intend to do just this, as you will be able to see from my – that much I can tell you already – not exclusively positive review.
In the review I will evaluate the process of creating the book using the dedicated Saal Digital design app as well as the finished book itself. I will cover the overall functionality of the app with their potential and limitations, but I will not write a complete tutorial. This would certainly go beyond the scope of this review.
When I review the book, I will evaluate build quality and image quality. Image quality in this review means resolution and accuracy of color and tonality when compared to the photos on the computer screen. I will review both, the book that I produced especially for this review using the 40€ credit and the photo book from 2015. In the end I am going to recommend the book for certain usage scenarios… and not so much for others.
Creating the photo book with the Saal Digital design app
Saal Digital provides their customers a dedicated application for free for designing and ordering all of their products. The software is built on the Adobe AIR framework which must be installed beforehand if necessary.
The product assistant
After installing the software successfully, the user can use an assistant which helps him choose a photo related product. The assistant features a clear design and is more or less self-explanatory. What I like in particular is that fact the additional information is always just a click away, often accompanied by images and illustrations. This way, the user can make educated decisions at all times.
You can also choose the number of pages right here and see the price of extra pages right away. This is cost transparency at its best.
Saal Digital photo books come in a great variety of formats, sizes and bindings. I won’t cover them all here and I don’t need to since the Saal Digital website offers great information on all of them. Portrait, landscape and square format, different sizes up to DIN A3 – everything is possible.
In the next step, the user can choose from a wide range of layout templates for single and double pages and (optionally) have the software fill it with photographs. This way, photo books can be created quickly and easily.
But: No decision made in the assistant is final. Everything can be changed and customized at any time, from the page layouts and the layout elements they contain to photos that were inserted automatically. It’s also possible to begin with a completely blank book and then pick a different predefined layouts – or design everything yourself from scratch.
The design app’s UI
After all decisions in the assistant were made, you get to the main design interface. It is well structured and easy to understand. It features a toolbar, a photo browser, a thumbnail view of the spreads of the book, and a large area for additional resources like layout template, clipart and background patterns. The main area of the window feature all the standard tools you can expect from an application of this kind like zoom, a configurable grid and alignment guides.
The text tool allows convenient editing of all text characteristics. However, the app doesn’t access your system fonts but a rather limited list of predefined fonts that ship with the application. If your are lucky and find something that suits your needs, fine. I, for one, wasn’t overly happy with the available fonts and experienced the font I had to use for my book project as an unnecessary compromise that was imposed on me by the software.
As I said before, this is not a full tutorial on the design app. However, I’d quickly like to mention that the software works as expected. You must drag & drop the images into the previously set up photo boxes, reposition the photo within the frame if necessary to find the best crop – and so on. Fortunately, the software doesn’t offer any weird experiments and offers familiar techniques and practices.
One word on the photo browser: It mainly works by accessing the file system of your computer. Users of Lightroom or similar apps must therefore export their processed images from their libraries to make them available for the design app. Only Photos app users on the Mac can access their libraries directly from the Saal Digital design app.
Image selection isn’t overly convenient. You have to click your way through the hierarchy of folders on your system which is only displayed as a directory tree. Given the small size of the file browser within the app window things get confusing pretty quickly. Once you find the desired folder, the images are displayed as thumbnails or as a list in a separate area below the directory tree which is also quite small. It offers several ways to sort your images and the app also indicates which photos have already been used in the book by putting a checkmark in the upper right hand corner of the thumbnails – this is quite handy. However, it would have been even more handy if you could hide those images completely, especially when dealing with a large number of photos. Here’s room for improvement in a future update.
All in all the design app ran without noteworthy hiccups. Every now and then an error message popped up which looked like this.
The text says, “An error occurred: 3003”. Whatever this means, it never caused any crashes or data loss. A simply click ok and go on working.
All in all the Saal Digital Design app leaves a solid and quite usable impression. Creating photo books is easy and the software is pretty stable. The less than perfect photo browser and the limited selection of fonts only marginally cloud the good general impression.
The book itself
As I mentioned above, I am going to review two photo books:
- The photo book on my hike along the Hadrian’s Wall Path (referred to as “Hadrian’s Wall Path 2014”)
- The photo book that I created especially for this review, called “Faces of Man”
Both books are rather different. Whereas “Hadrian’s Wall Path 2014” chronologically displays a rather larger collection of quite different travel photography in all kinds of (sometimes rather complex) layouts and size, “Faces of Man” is more minimalistic. For the most part, it has only one photo per page which always fills the page as good as possible. All of the images here are black & white. Most of them are portraits of apes on black background.
The books are different in size, too. For “Hadrian’s Wall Path 2014” I picked the largest format available, DIN A3 landscape format. This means that a page is 42cm wide. The spread has an epic width of 84cm – certainly not a lightweight book. I decided to make this book so large because I wanted to present the landscape shots from that trip as impressive as possible. And it worked really well. The cover of this book is glossy but I picked matte paper for the pages.
“Faces of Man” is a smaller, DIN A4 landscape. It is about half the size of “Hadrian’s Wall Path 2014”. The cover is padded and glossy and the pages are glossy, too. I have made these choices so that I could review a wide range of the options in the Saal Digital book product line.
However, there are other options, too, like leather covers in different colors, soft covers and ring binders. I will not, however, review these options here.
Both photo books have in common that they are exceptionally well made. Saal Digital uses true photo paper for the pages. This means that they are very thick and don’t bend or dog-ear easily, unless you intentionally use brute force to do so.
“Faces of Man” is brand new. This is way I can’t say anything about the durability of the cover. “Hadrian’s Wall Path 2014”, however, is one year old now (While the photos are from 2014, I have ordered the book in 2015). And it still looks as good as new, even though it has been seen and used by many guests and myself quite a few times. It even survived the ultimate stress test: My son (then 7 years old) has studied it acutely without harming the cover or bending a page. Given the sheer size of the book, note that the size and the weight of the pages strain the binding more than the pages of an average size book. And a book of this size often doesn’t have room on a coffee table. It is often put on the reader’s lap which also means a great strain on the binding. And yet: The book looks as good as new. Full points for durability for me – if I would use a point system in this review.
Saal Digital uses the so-called panorama binding. This means that the book opens to 180° and is completely flat when opened. It does not have a fold that hides away detail in the areas nearby.
This concept works great and allows for truly impressive spreads of up to 84cm wide. You must experience the effect of those epic spreads yourself. It is a remarkable view.
In “Face of Man” with its deep black pages it turns out, however, that there is a very thin fold in the middle of the spread and that it is not 100% neutral. It is apparent as a thin grayish line instead. However, while it is visible, it is not really an overly annoying.
Resolution and sharpness
The books deliver good results in this discipline, too. The photos are razor-sharp. I could not detect any loss of quality whatsoever. This is especially important in the ape portraits in “Faces of Man”. Every single hair here is, as I said, razor-sharp. And this degree of sharpness can be found in the DIN A3 sized books, too.
This may be hardly surprising for photos from a 24MP DSLR which have a resolution of 6000×4000 pixels. However, images from my iPhone 4s look really good in DIN A3 size as well.
Accuracy of tonality and color
Color and tonality accuracy is always problematic. Very often, photos look different on paper than on-screen. I have seen this myself with photos from other printing services. A color cast here, not enough saturation there, black & white photos that were either too bright or too dark – the source of this problem is always the same: Color management. After all, several devices have to be harmonized in all there different and limited color rendering.
At Saal Digital they seem to take this matter seriously. This is probably why they provide color profiles for their matte and glossy photo paper. They allow for soft proofing your work which means that you can (at least approximately) see what the image will look like on paper so that you can make necessary adjustments before ordering the book. This is a service Saal Digital offers for many other products in their product line, too.
In my book “Hadrian’s Wall Path 2014” the accuracy of the colors and the tones was close to perfect for both, color and monochrome images. Deepest shadows and bright highlights, I was blown away.
Don’t use glossy paper for low key photographs
In “Faces of Man”, however, I feel that the images look slightly darker on paper than they did on screen. It should be mentioned that this effect doesn’t appear evenly in the whole range of the tonal range. The highlights are rendered accurately. The shadows and the lower midtowns, however, seem to drown a bit in the deep blackness of the background. It could have something to do with the glossy paper which reflects the light pretty strongly. This theory is supported by the fact that I couldn’t see this effect happening with similar pages in “Hadrian’s Wall Path 2014”. Maybe it wasn’t such a grand idea to use glossy paper for low key photography of predominantly dark apes.
Great for family albums…
As mentioned before, the pages are made of true photo paper, the Fujicolor Crystal Album paper to be more precise. This is almost the same paper Saal Digital uses for their standard photo prints. In addition to the benefits for the durability of the pages, this also improves the way the images actually look on the pages. Colors are more brilliant and the images look sharper than on “normal” paper that is usually used in photo books. And yet, I cannot recommend the paper for every use. Here is why.
It may sound trivial at first, but it should be noted anyway. When I leaf through the pages of a photo book whose pages are made of photo paper then the pages feel like… exactly: Photos. And not like the pages of a book. It feels like photos with a book binding. For many purposes, this is completely ok. Holiday photos, albums of family celebrations or the newborn child, maybe even a private holiday album. Pages made of photo paper work great for these things. It is no coincidence that Saal Digital promotes their book for exactly these uses on their website. And the layout templates, clipart, fonts and background patterns that come with the design app serve these uses very well, too.
… but not for fine art portfolios
When I looked at “Faces of Man”, however, I realized that this concept doesn’t really work so well for another use. It was meant to be more of a fine art portfolio than a photo album. And while I am generally very fond of the quality of Saal Digital photo books, I still can’t help but wish for a more elegant and fine art feel than that of photo album that consists of bound photo paper. Just imagine a photo book of, say, Joel Tjintjellar, Michael Kenna, Nick Brandt or Martin Bailey. Would anybody here really like leafing through a book of such art if the pages feel like… holiday photos? Exactly!
For single photo prints Saal Digital also offer a product line called FineArt. You can choose between three different photo papers from Hahnemühle: FineArt Pearl, FineArt Photo Rag or FineArt Baryta. All of these papers feature a very elegant fine art feel and a more or less fine texture. A photo book with pages made of _these_papers – that might be a promising approach for fine art portfolios. Would it be expensive? Sure. But it would be worth the money. And it would be a unique feature, too, that would set Saal Digital photo books apart from the competition.
I should mention, however, that Saal Digital also offers the XT line of photo books. XT means “extra thick”. Each page is 1,08 mm thick. As I do not have such a book here, I cannot judge if it is better suited for fine art portfolios.
The photo books from Saal Digital are well made and perfect for many uses, most of which should attract private customers. Build quality, durability and image quality are all excellent. For fine art portfolios, however, the books just don’t have the right flair.