SAAL-Digital Photobook Review
14th June 2016
One of the problems with digital photography is how you actually display your photographs so that lots of people can easily see them. Social media and websites are all very well in their way, but they're not great if you want to quickly show someone, especially a group of people, some high-resolution examples of your work. Getting some quality prints made is one solution, but although they look good it's quite an expensive option, and with repeated use prints can quickly become damaged and tatty; not the best thing to show to potential clients.
A product that's been around for a few years now, but which is gaining ever-greater popularity, is the PhotoBook - a good, old-fashioned book with your photos actually printed onto the pages and securely bound within hardback covers.
The concept is really very simple. You use a software program to arrange photographs from your computer into a book layout. This software can either be a web-based program on the website of the company that prepares the finished book, or it can be software that you download onto your own PC. I have a slight preference for the latter, but both options will function in pretty much the same way.
The software will let you choose from a variety of different book formats, and guide you through the layout process, typically using templates which act as a starting point for where to put your images. These should be flexible enough to allow you to modify them as you se fit so that you can get the precise layout you want.
Once you've created your book design, you pay for the product and upload your images to the book publisher. Within a few days, you should have a real, honest-to-goodness book in your hands full of your own photographs.
I've been contemplating whether to try these out for a while now, and recently took the plunge having seen an eye-catching advert for SAAL-Digital photobooks. This is an honest review of my own experience of preparing and creating a photobook using the SAAL website.
Starting the Process
To start creating and ordering your book, you first need to visit the website and download the (free) bookbuilder software onto your PC.
This only takes a few seconds, and once installed you start the program. This is what the opening screen looks like: Select "Photobook", and we're away ...
This now displays a screen which shows the main different classes of book product you can create.
- A hardback photoook
- As above, but with extra-thick pages
- A softback photobook
- A small photo booklet
- A gift box to display books
- A coverless book if you want to bind and cover your pages yourself
For our purposes, I selected "Photobook"
The last selection choice we need to make is for the dimensions and orientation of our book.
This is a decision that isn't as obvious as it may sound. You'll probably have a mixture of portrait and landscape-format photographs, so which to choose?
In practise I found that landscape displays portrait layouts quite well with either some cropping or by putting two images side-by-side (or other more creative layouts).
Personally, I'd go for landscape unless I knew my images were all portrait. Square is another option, of course, which could suit either format, especially if you're going for lots of different layout options on different pages. In the end, it doesn't really matter because you can change your mind about your selection at any point in the creation process. Try them out is the best advice I can give.
I went with A4 and Landscape.
Creating Your Photobook
Now we've chosen the type of book, we can start customising it.
There are several things to consider, each of which affects the final price:
- Number of pages
- Cover finish
- Glossy / Matt paper pages
- Absence of cover barcode (this is very helpful, and not offered by all manufacturers. SAAL put no logos on their book covers, and being able to hide any barcode as well means there is nothing to detract from your cover image)
- Padded Cover
The number of pages option shows some of the popular numbers by default, but you can select the exact number you want using the drop-down box at the bottom-right of the screen. Even after you've chosen, you can add new pages at any time during the design process so don't worry about selecting the wrong option.
Each time you change an option, the current price is updated at the bottom of the screen.
When you're ready to continue, click the green Design button at the bottom right.
We now get yet more selections to make.
I was starting to get a bit impatient to actually add some photographs by this point, but I suppose the selections I was being asked to make were valid ones, so I went with it and chose "Select Design".
This creates blank pages first (no images inserted), and leaves you to add whichever images you want from your computer.
The similar-sounding "Select Design and Images" behaves slightly differently in that it prompts you to select your images beforehand, and then imports those images into the book for you. There appears to be no control over which images go onto which page using this method, nor how big they should be shown, so I'm not sure what use this option is.
I stuck with "Select Design"
Next ....? Yep - more templates to choose from. And then yet another one.
This, for me, was starting to get a little tedious - I just wanted to get on with adding photos now, and a lot of the template styles seemed rather childish. Still, something for everyone, I suppose, so if these look like your sort of thing then explore away.
I selected Layouts (Simple) and then Big Columns with Outer Margin.
I don't want to give the impression that all the template selection above was a bad thing - if you're the sort of person who is glad of having pre-defined styles offered to you, or if you're not terribly comfortable with using design software, then the templates may be just what you're looking for.
From a purely personal point of view, though, there were too many options with very little real difference between them. Still, that's only a minor complaint really.
Adding the Photographs
Finally, we're in a position to start adding photographs. Here's what the main page layout screen looks like:
The grey boxes on the cover and page areas are "Object boxes" - areas where you can place your images within the page.
Their initial position is provided by the template you chose earlier, but that's just a starting point; you're quite free to change the size of the boxes (hover the mouse pointer over a corner, then drag and stretch), and their location (just drag them around).
You can also delete them, or add new ones using the Add Object option from the top menu:
To add images, navigate to the folder on your computer that contains them in the region on the left-hand side of the screen, select the image you want, and then just drag it into one of the waiting object boxes.
It may immediately expand to fill thewhole page at first (it depends on the size of the image file). If it does, just select the image by clicking on it, and then use the + and - magnifying glass icons that appear next to it to adjust the size.
Sometimes the image box remains small when you drag the picture into it. If most of your images are destined to be full-page, it becomes a bit of a chore having to manually re-size them all, carefully aligning them with the page margins. It'd be a lot simpler if there was an action that would automatically make them fill the page - double-clicking, for example, but if such an action exists I've not yet found it.
To the right of the main screen is an area which lets you change background designs, lets you view layers (the individual objects that appear on each page - quite useful if there's say, an empty white text box on a white background - it's totally invisible unless you look at the Layers panel).
This lets you overlap images, bring some to the "front" (so they appear on top of those "behind" them), select clip-art graphics, play around with image boxes, apply fancy filters to alter your images, change the border styles or apply masks to the images .... so many different things, making it all very versatile indeed.
All this is fine if you're already fairly familiar with using graphical display software, even if it's just MS Powerpoint. That uses the same concept of image boxes, layers, re-sizing, adding text etc. Fortunately I am, so it didn't take me all that long to get going with this process. I can imagine, though, that if you're not remotely experienced with any software like that, though, then I suspect that this wealth of features and layout options will seem very alien - would you really know where to start?
This is compounded by the fact that the Help information is very minimal to say the least. There is no step-by-step guide that I've found, nothing that even explains the concepts behind placing images into pages like this and then adjusting their attributes.
I think this is a shame because the software is extremely good, assuming you know how to use it. I'd sympathise with anyone non-technical who threw the towel in after an hour or so. There's a lot to take in.
Placing Your Order
When you've finally finished your book design and are happy with it (you have the option to export it to a PDF file first to view it as a low-resolution slideshow) simply click the "Add to Shopping Cart" button in the bottom right of the screen. This starts an automated check of all the entries you've made in your book (such as blank object boxes, images overlapping, etc.) and prompts you to correct these before placing the final order.
This is really helpful because it's very easy to overlook lots of these whilst editing, yet they might be more noticeable in the finished product.
You then confirm your album preference choices you made at the start of the process, and save your project (if you haven't already done so). Then follows a straightforward payment system, after which your project is uploaded to the SAAL website .. and you're done!
I received an email confirmation immediately, and furthermore received a second email saying my order had been dispatched less then 12 hours later! (And considering I placed my order at 2am, that's pretty impressive!) The book takes a little longer to actually arrive - SAAL are based in Germany - but mine still arrived in only 3 days. I think that's more than acceptable.
The Finished Product
This is the all-important test. All the software and design features above would count for nothing if the book itself was poor, so I was highly excited on opening the package.
I wasn't disappointed.
The book is beautiful - really, really beautiful. The binding seems good and strong (time will tell there, I guess, but it doesn't look like it's about to fall apart any time soon). The padded cover feels firm and luxurious, and the fold-flat binding is a real plus point.
Most importantly, though, is the image quality. This really is beyond reproach - it's stunning. I chose matt finish (the site recommends this as showing fingerprints less-easily than gloss). The pages are good and thick, not thin and flimsy, and the whole package just oozes quality.
So, there we are - a descriptive walkthrough of my first SAAL-Digital photobook experience.
The verdict ...?
- Very versatile and flexible software
- Fast order acceptance and delivery
- Good quality binding in finished product
- Superb image quality
- Very limited software Help information for inexperienced users
- A lot of template options to choose from with little obvious difference between some of them
A fine finished product which is extremely good value for money. Shame about the couple of niggles above, but overall 9 out of 10.