Reviewing a new online photobook provider

November 21, 2016

I recently came across a company called Saal Digital - www.saal-digital.co.uk - which produces ‘create your own’ photobooks, much like Photobox, Snapfish, Vistaprint and so on. It wasn’t a name that I had heard of before, but I saw they were doing a special offer where you could get a free photobook up to the value of £40 if you wrote them a review afterwards – which seemed like a great marketing idea to me, so here we are!

They asked that the review should be ‘honest’ – which makes sense, so this blog post covers all of my thoughts about the company, both positive and negative. As someone who works in marketing and photography, this type of approach to their brand awareness in the UK really appealed to me.

The first thing you have to do is to download their software, which was slightly unnerving to start with, as with Photobox, which I’ve used previously, it’s all done online. But the file was fairly small and downloaded quickly, and the user interface was very easy to find your way around, so I soon got over any concerns. I’ve always found the Photobox software very annoying to use, so was genuinely interested in looking at alternatives.

Without going into minute detail about every single aspect of the software and the user experience, in general I would say that it works very well - and although some of the control panels can seem a little complicated at first, you very quickly get the hang of it. I didn’t have to look at any user guides or ‘help’ files once, and I managed to do pretty much everything I wanted to – although I get the impression that there are probably far more bells and whistles to it than I discovered.

I found it very easy to bring my images into the book I was creating, as you can see them all in a ‘file manager’ style panel on the left – so you don’t have to try to guess which ones you think you might want and upload them all beforehand, you just have full access to everything on your hard drive – and then when you’ve finalised the book it uploads them all afterwards – which is so much easier than Photobox. The only thing I would say is that the image panel is a little small and in an ideal world I’d like to have had a way to make it wider, or fill the whole depth of the screen. It involved a lot of scrolling up and down to find the images I wanted. But not a major issue.

One of the things I loved most about this software, from a creative perspective, was the ability to select a background colour by using an eye dropper tool to pick a complementary colour from one of  the actual images you were using on that page. This really appealed to me and I felt that each spread looked much better, and more professional, as a result.

The thing I found most annoying was the tool for moving an image within the picture box, to size and position it exactly as you wanted it. To my mind, this should be activated as soon as you drop an image in, and almost always you need to move it a little, but the default was a control for moving the whole picture box on the page, so many times I found myself intuitively just trying to click on the image and move it left and right within the box, but instead the whole box moved.

What you have to do is select a different control from the panel next to the box, which then allows you to move the picture within the frame. Another small gripe there, the ‘cross’ icon that it brings up, to show you what mode you are in, is huge and covers the whole image, so sometimes on lighter images it can be hard to see exactly where you are positioning the pic within the frame. Not a huge issue but one which could be easily improved I’d think – if anyone from Saal reads this!

At all stages of the creation of the photobook, little messages kept me informed about the quality of the images I was using and also flashed up useful messages about image bleed and so on, in a way which was helpful and not at all intrusive.

Getting the book finalised once I’d designed it was painless – though it did strike me that you’d save some time at the end if the software started automatically uploading selected images in the background while you’re still working on it – rather than waiting until the book was finished. Checkout was also painless, and follow-up emails were quick and gave me peace of mind that everything had gone to plan.

The book arrived within a few days and was delivered by Parcelforce. It was well packaged in a clear plastic sleeve, then a thin polystyrene sheet outer wrap, and finally a heavy cardboard envelope. As a result, it was undamaged, and I would feel confident buying from them again for this aspect.

The book itself is very nice. Good quality printing and looks just like the on-screen version in terms of layout. I did think though that the images, especially darker ones, looked a little ‘duller’ than I expected but this may just be the limitations of printed images vs being used to seeing them on a backlit screen. Certainly nothing that made me feel like I wasn’t happy with the result. I did like the 'lie flat' pages, but the downside was that it makes each leaf very thick, more like card than paper, which could make a book with alot more pages feel very bulky.

One comment I do have is that the first image page is actually the inside cover, whereas it would be nice if the books included a plain inside cover and the images started on the ‘real’ pages. Looking back at the software I see it does say this, but I’m not sure that’s clear enough. On Photobox books I’ve had in the past they have a plain sheet first and a plain inside cover, before the pictures start, which looks more professional and allows for a proper ‘title page’. I guess you could add one in manually, but then you have to pay for the extra pages.

I chose a glossy cover as a warning message told me that darker cover colours were not suitable for matt covers, something about the matt laminate cracking on the spine over time and being more noticeable on a dark background. In an ideal world I would have preferred a matt cover and a darker background – but again not a major issue.

Overall I would say that Saal are definitely worth trying out - as the software is easy to use and the production is good - but if they were able to iron out some of the issues I’ve mentioned above, they would be even better!