Printing Books with Saal Digital

After my review of the Wall Decors from Saal Digital, I did send a copy of my review to them. Their reply was “Would you also like to test our Photobooks and write a review about it?”. I had compiled a bunch of landscape images so I decided to give it a try!

 

Disclaimer: I am a hobby photographer and I am not getting any payment for this review, except a discount on the photo books. So every thing that I write here are my own opinions and experiences. Screen shots are made with the Microsoft screen capture tools.

It all starts with the end result:

The photobooks delivered to me are some of the best quality photobooks I have seen on the market.
I ordered the books with matte paper, and my only minor complaint is, that the colors are not as saturated as on my calibrated AdobeRGB screen, and the shadows tones are somewhat darker and has less details. But overall the print quality and materials are outstanding.

While the end result was excellent, the way to the end result was not as easy and brilliant. The Saal Design Program is a doable design program, but is has it quirks, and sometimes it is dead frustrating to use.

Here is my story:

How would you like your coffee?

You need to know, where you want to go with your photobook, otherwise you can go in any direction Like Alice in Wonderland.

I decided to create some kind of coffee table book, and not the usual photobook from the most recent vacation.

But how do you create a coffe table book? Then all kind of design decisions started to pop up. Should I create some kind of ‘gallary’, where each image was a “masterpiece” on its own page, or should I go for some kind of collage, where crops of images contributed to a hole.

And if I wanted a collage should the images be grouped by theme, color, time, subject or location?

I did not have the right answers and decided to take a look on the possibilities in the Saal Design Program, so I could
get some inspiration.

Getting started with the Saal Digital Design Program

Unlike many other online print shops, Saal Digital provides the ‘Saal Design Program’ as a fat client on your mac/pc.

The company has its print facilities in Germany, but it has localized webshops in most European countries and an international version:

In addition to the online-shop, the sites offers a downloadable editor running on Adobe Air. The application offers to work on your print projects offline and upload the final work product to the webshop.

The Saal Design Program

The Saal Design Program is a feature rich appliaction to create your photobook (wall decors, calendars and much more) and save the projects on your desktop computer. And by rich I mean rich on more or less usefull features. They have added wizards and guides on top, but it seems as they have forgotten to clean up the user interface. More on that during my journey to the land of coffee table books.

Selecting the format for my photobooks

The first decisions are the Type of book and the format of the book. Saal Digital claims to have a ‘lay flat’ design with seamless page assembly. This enables you to have images across two pages.

The flat layout promises a seamless border between pages

Three ways to design a book

Next step was to get used to the Design Program. For a Wall Decor, the setup is fairly easy, but for a book I needed to practise and make some tests. The DesignProgram offers three workflows:

1. A One Minute Photobook
2. Autolayout from templates
3. DIY – the total fredom of “doing it yourself”

The three workflows for designing a book

A One Minute Photobook

This is the workflow for Newbees:

-Select a design template
-Select the images you want in your book from your folders
-Select the number of pages
…Voila!

If your images are in somewhat correct order, the result is actually quite impressive. The wizard is able to group images from timestamps in the exif-info and choose the proper layout templates to group your images. Its not 100% accurate, but does a decent job.

Images grouped logically across pages

After the wizard has setup the layout, it shows warnings on pages with “design issues”. It is up to you to fix them. It is possible to add new photos and swap images around on the page by right clicking and select ‘switch image’. You can choose among different page designs from the template (filtered to the correct number of images on the two pages). If the template has text boxes, you can enter text in them.

Design Warnings

When you are done adjusting your layout, you can finetune the pages by adding backgrounds, text and additional clipart. The background can be set on individual double pages or for all pages at once. You can choose among colors, patterns, gradient color fill or one of your own images.

This mode has some quirks:

  • If you choose another double page layout on a double page, and decides to switch images, the wizard selects another page layout at random. This is rather confusing and annoying. It does not happen if you first switch images and then select another layout…
  • On the left pane in the designer, an image source browser is present. However, in stead of showing the selected images, it shows the contents of the last folder, you selected images from. You have to choose the tab ‘Groups’ and ‘Selected images’.
  • Color or pattern backgrounds are selected in the right panel under ‘Background’. But the ‘image’ section is empty. You have to know, that you can right click on the image in the left panel, and select ‘Set as background’. Maybe a hint in the image subsection in ‘Background’ could guide the user.

The most annoying feature in the ‘One minute Photobook’ is the way, you select your images. First of all, you are able to proceed with no images selected. If you don’t select the photos, you are done in less than a minute, but the result is useless.

The last strange thing is the concept of “Groups”. In the very beginning of the wizard, you select the images, you want in your book. That makes sense. Just above the “Next”-button is a button labled ‘Groups’ without any explanation or guidance. The ‘Groups’ are not very intuitive. If you have selected the photos you want, you can add some of them in a new group. But then the images appears twice on the same page..(?) certainly not grouped. I think the Groups should contain disjoint sets of images, but without any guide or help, this part is a mystery…

Workflow with assisted design – AutoLayout:

The Autolayout is for the lazy designer that can use a drag and drop-approach and leave the design decision to the ‘AutoLayout’-wizard;

  • Select the design line / book layout you want.
  • Select the number of pages you want in your book
  • Start dragging images into your pages from the ‘Image Source’-panel to the left and into the page. Dropzones indicates good places to drop images (add or replace).
  • Setting the ‘Image Source’-panel to show images instead of listing, gives you a small image preview.
  • Spacing between images, frames etc can be set for each page. Adding too thick frames or space between images may result in another double page layout.
  • If you are not happy with the default double page layout, you select one of the other page layouts (that matches the number of images).
  • Switch images on the double page by right clicking and select ‘Switch Image’
  • In this workflow, you can also set the background on individual double pages or for all pages at once. You can choose among colors, patterns, gradient color fill or one of your own images.
Autolayout by drag and drop.

Everything works fine, and you are able to design a photobook fairly easy and fast if you accept the design lines provided by Saal. Used photos get a checkmark, so you can avoid duplicates. If you use a photo more than one time, its number of appearances is shown in the ‘Image source panel’.

The trouble starts, when you want to do the fine tuning. In order to add text or clipart, you have to switch off the Autolayout on every double page you want to alter. If you add text and clipart and afterwards wants to change the double page layout, the text and clipart objects are deleted. Why?

Aside: There is a workaround to avoid deleting text and clipart by locking the objects in the ‘Project’-section in the right panel. But when they are locked, you cannot edit them before you unlock them again. This is simply too cumbersome.

Another strange thing is, that when you navigate through the pages, the chosen page layouts for your design line simply disappears. You have to select the design line again in order to select another double page template.

All in all, the Autolayout is a fast way to create the rough layout of a photobook, provided you like one of the design lines provided by Saal. The provided design lines are not my cup of tea with too simple clipart and templates with very much space.

And especially the fine tuning of the pages is a pain.

Workflow from scratch: The empty template

The Empty Template is the ultimate DIY.

The basic funtions are Add Object (Image), Fillbox and or Text. Or you can simply drag and drop images and resize them afterwards.

In addition to drag and drop, you can A) add objects, B) start AutoLayout, or C) select a template manually and then drag each image to its frame

The editor offers snap grid and adjustment features to align your images easily. When you move your images around, rulers appears to show where and when the image aligns with other objects or the border. A nice feature is a bleed warning. The editor suggests that you either have ‘enough’ spacing or let your image go ‘over the border’ to avoid small glitches on the page. Each image can be croped, zoomed and mirrored. If your image is too boring, you can apply color filters (It has a ‘randomize’ function to let people get inspired …??!!)

If you choose to design your Book by yourself, you are not totally left on your own. Whenever you want to fit several images on a double page, you can apply the page designs from various design lines and afterwards adjust them to your likings. You can speed up your design process using the Basic Design lines available. As for the AutoLayout, there is a glitch in the user interface, so when you shifts to a new page, it does not remember your Layout design line. In addition, the design line from previous page is unselectable, so you have to select another design line and then reselect. This is a pretty annoying bug.

After you have made your basic design, you have a number of options to pimp your page including clipart and backgrounds. You can adjust image-appearance with drop shadows, borders etc.

The clipart images are basically elements from the design lines. The clipart images are ordered in categories, so it is easy to find a proper clipart image. Not all but some of the clipart images can be customized with fill color.

The editor supports functions like pushing objects to the top or button, or simply forwards and backwards, so that text and clipart can be places in fornt of, or behind images.

The text editors offers a lot of Adobe fonts, so most people should be able to find a suitable font.

Plenty of Adobe Fonts are available

Backgrounds can be set for each double page. Again the flexibility kicks in, and the user can select solid fill, gradients, textures and your own images. A very nice feature is that you can add your own color tone to the textures with a colourisation feature with variable opacity. For solid fill, the color picker is very handy; you can find a proper background color with a color from your image with the color picker. The color picker does not show the color when your operate it, so you can use some attempts in a hit and miss approach before you captures the color you want.

The Color Picker is a helpfull tool for finding the just right background color

The ups and downs of the Saal Design Program

The design editor excells with many advanced features and its flexibility. If you are not a Desktop Publisher Expert, you will be more than happy. The many features and buttons may scare newcommers; the user interface look like the navigation board in a space shuttle. But fortunately you are not forced to use all the advanced faetures in order to make your own page designs.

The Saal Design Program even let you define your own design lines and save layouts for later reuse. Again this is advanced stuff, and the help and guidance is sparse. So again, this should be hidden from the normal user.

You are on your own with the Layout Manager

Previewing the images as miniatures in the left panel is ok, but if you need to take a closer look, you have to double click on the image. Here a popup window appears with its own logic and navigation. I would prefer mouse over functionality in stead of this oldfashioned user experience.

You can even rank the images in the popup window, and later sort the images in the Image Source Panel. I don’t think many people will use this feature and it simply adds to the ‘space board’ impression.

My biggest complaint is a feature, that either is buggy or a reminicense from a time before the design lines were introduced; the Autofill feature. You can let the Auto Fill feature fill your page after you have selected a page template (or created one yourself). But for every page, it doesn’t take allready used images into account, and it simply starts filling in the same images from the start of the current folder. You are not able to mark the images, the Auto fill function should use, so I cannot see that this feature should add something helpfull to the user.

Avoid Autofill !!! It simply starts over again on a new page.

The Design Program supports language localization. But sometimes the localization fails. I managed to get three languages in an explanatory popup box:

Three languages on one page

I think Saal Digital would benefit from having a UX expert rework the user interface to hide some of the advanced stuff and improve the workflow. But despite the mostly minor bugs, the Saal Design Program is feature rich and very flexible with a lot of functionality to help you design a good looking photo book.

Designing a Coffee table book

After I got acquainted with the Saal Design Program, it was time for my coffee table book project. The hard part is not the design part, but selecting the images you want to put in the book. I have photographed landscapes for six years, so I had plenty of images to select from. I ended up spending numerous hours browsing, selecting and grouping the images in themes.

I decided to make two coffee table books:

– 21cm wide x 28cm hight – a format of roughly 3:4 , and two pages 42cm x 28 cm gives a 6:4 format

– 28cm wide and 19 cm high / open: 56×19: Roughly 4:3 or 6:4 on one page and 3:1 on two pages.

The ratio 4:6 is the native format of my camera in landscape, so I should be able to test landscape formats on one and two pages within these books.

Saal Digital offers various types of papers from glossy to matte. I prefer matte paper to avoid reflections.

In the design phase I wanted to test three scenarios:

Page type 1: Double page images

Saal Digital claims to be able to make images across the two pages in a so called ‘flat laoyout’. So I found some landscape scenarios to test this out.

Double page image

Page type 2: Multiple images on a background image

Images grouped by a theme can benefit from a background image to make a connection. I also tried to find a double page image, that could be the main image, with complimentary images in small imageboxes.

Generally I avoid borders, drop shadows, clipart etc. So I did not use any of these in my books.

Page type 3: Multiple images with moody background color

For a few pages – and the cover – I used the color picker to find a good solid color for the background. Picking a color in the border of the image works very well, the background color smoothly blends in.

Background color selected with the color picker

Printing on first and last page?

Some print shops don’t let you put images or text on the first and last page (the page after the cover and the apge before the back cover). The Saal Design Program did not show any restictions on these pages, so I put som thumbnail images on the pages.

Ordering the books

Before you order, you can make a preview pdf-file of the entire book. The images are in low resolution, so you cannot ‘cheat’ and send the result to another printshop or your own printer. The watermark ‘PREVIEW’ can be altered or removed in the settings-menu, just as a tip.

Before you order, you can use the ‘Article’-section in the right panel to upgrade your order to a better quality print or better cover. Cheaper options are disabled for some (less obvious) reason.

Options to upgrade your Photo book

When you order your book, the Saal Design Program uploads your book project to the Saal site, where you also make a secure payment.

Payment and receipt in a browser window

My Coffee Table Books

A few days later, I could pick up my parcel at the local post office. The package is made of thick cardboard, and the edges are made shock absorbing. In addition each book was wrapped in plastic foam bags.

As mentioned in the introduction, the quality of the books are outstanding. The thick pages and covers are some of the best I have experienced.

My coffee table books

The saturation and contrast is not quite as good as on my AdobeRGB-calibrated monitor, but very close. It may be due to the matte paper, but it is generally hard for paper to have the same luminance as a screen. But shadow tones are notably darker than on the screen.

Page one and n-1 was printable, so I got my thumbnail images.

And finally the flat layout works. I put a double page image on page 3 and 4 – the first real double page – and in the middle of the book. In both places, the pages does not turn by them selves as in a normal book.

Blurb

I have ordered books from Blurb previously. Blurb offers a better ecosystem with very professional layouts – you can even buy pro layouts to Lightroom. The layouts in the Saal Digital Designer don’t even come close to these layouts. If you are a newcommer, the design templates can be a good starting point. But if you go for your own design, it doesn’t matter. And I’m really impressed with the print quality from Saal Digital, so this really makes up for it!

Conclusion

I promised Saal Digital to give my honest opinion, and here it is: The quality of the books are outstanding, but their Design Program deserves a makeover. I would definitely consider Saal Digital next time, I want a photobook.

Pros:

  • The Saal design app is rich on features and guides
  • Fast production flow
  • Quality mail package
  • The printed books are a quality product
  • Layflat design, with seamless border between the pages

Cons:

  • Useless features and annoying bugs in the Design Program
  • Design app is running on Adobe Air – this requires a two-step installation.
  • Shadow tones are a bit to the dark side in the printed books

If you want to try to design a book on your own. Here is a link

Gordon

As an enthusiastic amateur photographer, I spend most of my spare time finding the next photo opportunity. I favor landscape photography and portraiture, and challenge myself with street.

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