If you have ever imagined your very own photography coffee table book, this review will probably get you designing it straightaway. Saal Digital, a German photo printing company offers the High-End Photobook, which, at least on paper, has all the bells and whistles you would like to see in a book containing your finest work. I’ve put the book to the test to see if the quality lives up to the claims made on their website and the Instagram advertisement that led me to them.
Before we start, I would like to tell something about the pretense of this book. This particular one serves as a prototype for a coffee table book that I’m in the process of producing. Therefore, the quality and price are very important to me. Because I don’t think just any consumer will spend 200 dollars on another photobook, I’ve looked into vendors that could mass produce a book. Saal Digital offers 10-40% off on the total order of professional photographers, depending on the order volume. That made me think to at least prototype this book for future purposes.
The images in this book are generally more dark than bright. My main body of work is actually darker and moody, so it’s important to me that the images retain their character in the book. If they recede in the background, the impact fails to reach the viewer. So do these photos come to life in the book? Let’s find out.
There’s dedicated software available to help you create your album. It’s a straightforward installation on both Windows and Mac OS and the interface is relatively easy to comprehend. Although I did have to adjust for a moment to the Saal Design Software. This is in part because it resembles Adobe InDesign so much, that I was looking for its functionalities. Some, like the undo and redo keyboard shortcuts are nicely implemented, which saves you time when fine-tuning the position of that photo.
Centering an image on a page is unfortunately not that straightforward in this app. Don’t get me wrong: There are tons of preset layouts to choose from and you can even create your own from a single spread. I think I was asking for a little more control without having to create my album in professional software like InDesign. Speaking of which; Saal Digital offers InDesign and Photoshop plugins that will automatically adjust margins and bleeds for you. With either of those plugins, you’ll have all the control you could ask for.
Creating an Album
From within Saal’s Design software though, you’ll notice every customization option also available on the website. There are 15 possible covers to choose from, ranging from faux-leather to a high-gloss photo print. The cover that tickled my fancy though, has a slate-colored wood grain.
I thought it looked rather classy when combining that with a minimal title. I did worry a bit about the legibility of text on this cover, because the software seems to render this particular cover a little different. If the contrast of your chosen text color is sufficient, let’s say white, then there’s nothing to worry about legibility in physical form. Now that we’re on the subject of legibility and contrast, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when you create a photo album, which I will summarize here.
- I personally increase the exposure 0.3 stops on every image before printing them. This is because ink pigments will make the image feel darker than looking at it on a computer monitor.
- When doing so, make sure the highlights are protected (don’t blow them). Protecting the highlights while soft proofing will also apply a bit of pigment in the brightest parts. This helps to prevent bare spots in your photos.
- If you decide to add white text to a dark page, make those fonts a bit heavier. The ink will always flow the tiniest amount before settling and this will make white letters on black smaller than vice versa.
- Triple check before you order. It goes without saying that you will have to make sure that everything is aligned as you intend. In my instance, I came across the same image that was in there twice. You wouldn’t want to discover this after printing.
Proofing, Monitor, and Print Optimization
A calibrated monitor will go a long way in judging the appearance of photography. But even if your screen isn’t hardware calibrated, there’s always the option to do this in just software. If your eyes are good at discerning color and contrast, this method will go a long way. I worked in quality control in the paint and metal industry for about six years. You would not believe how many shades of white there are.
I digress. Saal offers a test file that can be used to calibrate your own screen. You can then ask for a print of this file, free of charge, to compare the print to your monitor. In order to correctly adjust your image to suit the print medium, Saal Digital also offers ICC-profiles that can be loaded into Lightroom for example.
I have just been handed my book from the courier and it’s well protected from any harm. A tough, cardboard outer box fits snugly over a foam inner. There’s a third layer of packaging in the form of a plastic slip to keep moisture out of your album. When I unbox my work, it’s a nice surprise to see that the cover title is very legible. Your photos will be printed on Fujicolor Crystal Archive Album Paper. The backs of each print are glued together resulting in a page thickness of 0,34 mm. If that isn’t heavy enough, you could always pick the extra thick album at 1,08 mm per page. You have two options of paper finish to pick: Glossy or mat. I’ve opted for the mat finish in this review. While I’m personally not a fan of Crystal Archive because of its sheen (even on the mat version), I must say that these heavy duty pages are a joy to turn.
The book is bound flat, which means that you can print a panoramic image spanning an entire spread without a horrible line cutting right across your beautiful photo. This lay-flat binding makes it even better of a page turning experience.
All in all, the High-End Photobook feels like it justifies its name. Saal Digital offers a high quality book for a competitive price starting at € 19,95 for a 15x21 cm album containing 26 pages. The album reviewed here cost € 93,45 to make and sports 56 pages in a 28x28 cm format.
- The print quality as well as the build quality of the album is very high indeed. You will get your money’s worth here.
- Production, handling, and shipping from Germany to the Netherlands took just six workdays, even though I was advised it would take twice as long. This includes six days of the album being stuck in customs.
- The cover makes your book feel artisan-produced.
- Ink flow is very well controlled, which makes your images tack sharp and your text legible – even white text on a black background.
- You pay € 5 extra to remove the barcode from the back of your album.
- The album creation software could do with center snapping or alignment options to help you build a tighter set of compositions.
- A wider choice of papers would really make things complete, but this is nitpicking, really.