I would recommend Saal-Digital to anyone compiling a photobook for a friend or family member, maybe to remember a birthday or holiday! The paper is durable and the prints look lovely, although with slightly less contrast than expected. If you're like me and would like a small/portable and cheap portfolio of your favourite work, then I'd say that this is a good option, but there are companies which would allow more paper options and I'd consider those companies to really add another level to your photobook. The paper that you choose to print on should be customised to the image/set that you are printing, certain images suit certain papers better than others. The paper options you are given by Saal-Digital are 'glossy and 'matte' but in reality the 'matte' option is 'lustre' paper.
I'd recommend the leatherette feature for hardcover books as it adds a professional feel with none of the cost. Saal-Digital themselves were responsive the questions and made the whole process quick and simple. Delivery from Germany (their printing HQ) cost £4.95 and takes 4-5 days to arrive.
Now let's delve into the details and see whether Saal-Digital can make a product that you'll be proud to show off!
Here is what I'll be covering:
- Services Offered
- Product Design Software
- Product Quality
- Image and Text Print Quality
- Further Thoughts and Recommendations
** For the purpose of full clarity, this Photobook was paid for, in majority, by Saal-Digital; however, this will not affect the outcome of the review.
Now, in terms of the actual photobook they say that they will supply a book with; no logo (barcode removable), lay-flat binding, flexible page count, a quick production time and 'absolute colorfast' (long lasting print quality).
At the time that I am writing these first two sections, I have designed the book and sent it off to print but have not yet received the product. I have chosen to do it this way so that there is no bias toward my review of their product design software - as their would be if the product was really good (or bad).
Now we get to the interesting part, adding elements to the book and everything that that entails. Overall I was happy with the software, it was simple and easy to use with quick results, but there were a few issues which I'll now cover in a little more detail.
There were times when I could have done with more information about the the product; for example, I couldn't find out whether the very first (and last) page of the book were a different paper type than the photographic pages in between - I had to email them to find this out and the answer was yes, the paper on the inside covers is photographic paper. Another was the exact paper type that they were using, you have the option for either 'matte' or 'glossy', but nothing about the paper stock/manufacturer - again, an email sorted this out. I don't expect that there would be a variety of paper options for a cheap(ish) photobook, but I think that they should shed some more information about the paper that is being used. There was no information about how they would print text on the front, which would normally be okay, however I chose a leather cover, so I don't know whether it would have been ink or embossed - either way, I wanted a plain cover so it didn't affect me.
They were quite informative about most other things though, such as the bleed and they also tell you what quality your print will be in regards to its resolution which is handy if you are unaware of the relationship between print quality and resolution.
Once again, I was pleased with Saal-Digital on this front. The UI is slightly clunky/old fashioned looking, but everything seems very natural to use. The program lets you use all the keyboard shortcuts that you usually would in MS Word or some similar program, as well as that you have options for editing your images inside the program (although I wouldn't recommend it). You also have basic layout options (such as alignment) for the text/image boxes down the right-hand side.
The first problem that I found was the grid that you can toggle on/off and change the size between the grid lines. Even though you can customise the grid, I didn't find a way to lock the images to that grid, and the grid was even throughout the page, this meant that I couldn't get the image and equal distance from each edge - you can see this below:
Possibly the biggest reason to use your own design software rather than Saal-Digital's program would be the extremely limited text options. They have a few fonts and alignment options, but other than that, you can't unleash your inner master typographer. For this reason the text that I used was created in Photoshop and put into the photobook as an image.
This stage was fairly simple, the software has the option to add the photobook to your basket. A quick payment process is then required. Once this is done, the file is uploaded and you receive a completion notice. And then you wait (4-5 days), I sent the file off on a Sunday and so imagine that the soonest it'll arrive is next Friday, but Monday or Tuesday would be more likely.
Tracking Production and Shipping
After you order is placed, you have the option to view how far your package is through the production and delivery process, through Saal-Digital's website. You then have the further option for the page to take you to DHL's tracking page, where it will automatically show you the information for your specific package. It is very nice not to have to enter you package's tracking number manually.
Overall Product Quality
A definite strong point of this photobook is the lovely finish of the leatherette hardcover. All the edges/corners are well folded and pressed to provide a professional look, that I wouldn't be worried about showing any client. I chose to leave mine blank, partly because I am a fan of the simplicity, but also because there was no information about how they would print onto the leatherette and I didn't want to risk it looking tacky. The book is also not very heavy, I was definitely expecting it to be heavier (and thicker) before it arrived and was surprised by the packaging that it came in (bubble wrapped inside a large card envelope), but after handling it for a while I am really liking the lightweight and small book size.
My first problem that I noticed as soon as I opened the book was that the paper is 'lustre' and not 'matte' as described. Now, to the average consumer of this form of photobook this would possibly go unnoticed and if it were noticed it would not be a problem. Companies often use lustre as it provides a middle ground with the colour reproduction of glossy and the texture of matte; but I specifically asked for matte. I wanted matte because having a gloss (or semi-gloss) finish will leave you with fingerprints after you've handled the book. I suppose that because the paper has this finish you can clean it easily - which, if you are gifting this book to somebody who has young children, could be a positive.
The paper is quite heavy (368gsm total) because it is two sheets of photographic paper stuck back to back (for obvious reasons). I contacted Saal-Digital and they have told me that they use Fujifilm Crystal Archive Album paper, whether this is a paper you like or dislike is purely down to whether you have experienced it in the past. I would describe it as 'plastic-like' and durable with a grippy feel (due to the mix of a slight gloss a matte texture). As promised by Saal-Digital this paper is guaranteed to hold its colour for 75 years, which I guess can only be a positive.
Impressive! Compared with the other prints of the same images the colours are extremely similar and, in some cases, preferable... However, there is noticeably less depth to the blacks than I was expecting. Again, in some images this is okay and I am not a fan of heavy contrast, however it means that all of the images are not quite as I edited them. The white areas seemed to print fine, with little to no obvious gradation as the hues got brighter.
The pages do exactly what it says on the tin, they lay flat! It may take a little while for the binding to loosen up and allow them to lay flat as soon as you open the book, but at the moment they only need a little time before they settle to being flat. This is an extremely useful thing for a small photobook; this book is about the same height/width as my hand and so having images spread across both pages makes them much easier to see.
This was the downfall of the book for me - and yet it only affected a couple of images (and the text, but I'll cover the images first). I knew that there were a couple of images that I put in to deliberately test the print quality and one of these was a black-and-white image of a Turkey Vulture perched on a tree - see below.
It's hard to convey the actual colours of the print by photographing it and so I'll say that I'm very happy with how the black-and-white printed, it was just the right amount of contrast for what I wanted and the only problem is the artifacts along the edges of the branches. Now, I said it was a couple of images that were affected and so here is another image that had the same problem - albeit less pronounced throughout the whole image, it's quite strong underneath the neck of one of the swans.
Text was also affected by this problem (which I could only describe as a 'dark halo'), but it's much less of a problem because it just looks like the characters have a slight border to them. Still, I have placed an image below to show you the extent of the problem.
Further Thoughts and Recommendations
I would say that I've been quite harsh so far, as overall I rate this product highly for its price-range. The printing is high quality (although watch out for edges of harsh contrast) and the colours are strong, whilst the contrast is slightly lower than prints from other photo-labs.
If this is a present for a family member or friend and you are planning on filling it with old family photographs and iPhone pictures then I'm sure this will suit all your needs and the recipient would be extremely happy! If you are an amateur (or newly professional) photographer who has just done a portrait shoot or covered an event and would like to give the client a photobook to remember the occasion, then I'd would consider a photobook from Saal-Digital. However, please realise that it is far from the only option out there and your business will be judged on the final products that you give to the client, maybe you could look for a company which would allow you to choose the paper type. The option to change the paper type would have changed the pricing but would have drastically changed the overall quality of this book.
My personal reason for buying this book was to use it as a short-but-sweet portfolio of some of my favourite work. If somebody asks to see some of my work, I won't have to send them to my website - where their screen quality will affect the images - I can instead show them a physical version of my portfolio.
Saal-Digital's customer service throughout the process was good, albeit a little slow. It took them 2-3 days on average to reply to an email and 1 day to reply to a Facebook message. Once they did reply to the questions they were very helpful and informative, so 4/5 stars on that front.
Overall, there were certain problems which turned out of be acceptable; the artifacts on the text and the lack of contrast in the images. There were problems which can't be overlooked; the artifacts on the images and the paper being 'lustre' rather than 'matte'. And there were definite positive points to the book; the price, the size and weight, the lovely colour reproduction, the lay-flat pages and the leatherette hardback cover. If I needed to score it out of 10 it'd be a 7!
Thank you for reading my review and I hope that it can be of some help! Feel free to jump into the comments with any questions!