Monday, June 15, 2020

Review: Saal photo book

While there’s nothing quite like appreciating a giant print on a museum wall, photography books can have their own charm. A high-quality book can help you get closer to the image than you ever could to a framed print. And advances in digital printing have made it possible for any photographer to their own books — even just a single copy.

I recently printed a single copy of a portfolio. I’m working on a photography exhibit and I need to talk to exhibitors, art patrons and other supporters about the concept. A short book is a great visual aid. I ended up using Saal Digital to produce the bound portfolio and wanted to share my experience.

Full disclosure: Saal provided me with a voucher that covered most of the cost.

There are two types of on-demand photo book printers. There are those that print books at about the quality of those that you find in bookstores. Blurb is among the best known of these. The quality is reasonable, but the images can appear slightly soft due to the digital printing method they use. It’s also impossible to exactly match the colors you see on your screen. But they are relatively low-cost.

Saal is the second type, a fine-art printer. The pages of their books are like true, fine-art photographic prints. You’re more likely to use a printer like this for very special projects, like a wedding album.

Special features
Saal’s photo books feature a lay-flat design. The spines of their books are designed to let the spreads lay perfectly flat so that you can fully appreciate panoramic images. No part of the image is hidden where the pages are bound together in the middle. I printed one of my Mount Rainier panoramas in this portfolio. The image was just as impressive in this book as it is framed on a wall.

Saal also offers a unique option for the cover. You can place the cover image under clear piece of acrylic, which gives the project a distinctive appearance. It’s an unusual presentation makes you want to look inside.

This setup allows you to print inside the cover, however I am glad that I chose not to do that. That page is not perfectly flat. You can see a few raised parts where the page was affixed to the acrylic. It’s not a huge flaw or anything, and you probably wouldn’t even notice it if you used that page for a busy image with a lot of patterns or fine detail. I would avoid using that page for images that feature a lot of bright, solid color near the top or bottom. I left the page blank, but would have been happier with a nice textured end-leaf page instead.

Print quality
You can print your book on either glossy or matte paper. Glossy is the default option and promises to give images “depth.” I was curious about it, especially since I chose to have my pages mounted on stiff one-eighth inch backing. But I only had the budget for one copy and I chose the matte finish instead.

I make my fine-art prints on matte. Saal also says its matte paper prevents fingerprints from showing up on the pages, which was important to me since I’ll be passing my book around. Also, it says its matte is best for faithful color rendition, which is more important to me than almost anything else.

I’m incredibly happy with the quality of the pages. My project included a few images of vibrant sunsets. Intense reds can be tricky to reproduce, but all of the pages are true to the image files. The images are sharp and the quality is phenomenal. I’d be happy to hang any of the pages in a gallery. Here's a detail image of one of the pages where you can see the sharpness and how reflective the matte pages are:

Design process
Saal offers its own layout software. I’m typically reluctant to use special photo book software. I’ve used Adobe InDesign for my mass printed books. Once you’ve used a professional design program, one-off tools can feel crippled. But InDesign is not without its pitfalls. Every printer has their own requirements regarding bleed and trim, color profiles, and whatnot, and if you’re not extremely careful, it can be easy to screw up an expensive book. I decided to try Saal’s software because I was on a tight deadline.

I found Saal’s software surprisingly capable. It did a great job helping me to position photos and align captions. About the only thing that I missed from InDesign was a measuring tool so that I could keep the amount of space between the images and the captions consistent. If you’re a professional photographer who creates wedding or new baby books, there are a number of page templates that you might find useful.

My one major frustration with Saal’s software involved importing photos. I have one folder that contains nearly 4,000 print-ready image files. (We can debate whether that’s a good strategy, but I’m really careful with the file names so it works for me.) When I tried to navigate to that folder in Saal’s software it seemed to crash. I gave the program 15 minutes, but then used the Windows task manager to close it and start over. I then copied 30 project images to a different folder and the software worked just fine, though there still was a slight lag in opening that directory. It appears the software evaluates every image for quality before it lets you do anything.

The photo book that I printed with Saal is, without a doubt, the best I have ever made. While it’s technically a book, every page is honestly its own fine-art print.

That quality comes at a cost. My 30-page 16x12-inch book came to about $340. You can significantly cut the cost by foregoing the acrylic cover, using smaller paper, and not having the pages mounted to a stiffener. You can also spend more. You even have the option of having a custom gift box made.

As I talk with people about my upcoming exhibit, I wanted a portfolio that itself a was conversation piece, and Saal definitely delivered. I may also end up using them for extra special collectors’ editions for some of my books.

(Follow Kevin Ebi's photography on Facebook or Instagram. Prints of his images are available through

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