Disclaimer: I'm basing this review on photobooks I have ordered from Blurb and Loxley Colour in the past and a free sample preview that SAAL Digital had kindly offered recently.
It's not uncommon in this budget conscious age for couples to seek to economise on their photography and cut out the traditional album or even photobook. They get their pictures on a disc or USB and are then left to their own devices. While it's not difficult to order up a print or two online it can be a little daunting to pick out a reliable printer to produce a photobook or album.
In this post I'm limiting the discussion to Photo books. These will generally be press printed rather than photographically printed. This means that they use a printing colour space of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. Photographic prints will work in a colour space of Red, Green and Blue (for the most part). Your images from your photographer will generally be configured for RGB to match their own printing / professional labs and this will often render more vivid colours than a press printed CMYK version without some tweaking. Generally though, to the uneducated eye you'd only notice the difference in a side by side comparison or on a particularly colourful image.
Photo books come in many shapes and sizes. Some are designed to match sizes with typical photo ratios (your 6"X4" standard print for example is a 3/2 ratio so can scale up or down to fill a full page at the same ratio without cropping), while others are designed to fit more typical print sizes i.e. A5, A4 etc. You need to bear in mind that if you're looking to print an image in your book right to the edges of the page that this could mean cropping the image (cutting bits off) so that it will fit the page.
As an example a 3:2 ratio image won't fit to fill an A4 page 297 x 210 mm. So you have the choice of shrinking to within the page size and leaving a border around your image or expanding your image to fill the A4 space, but losing a little off the top/bottom or sides.
Cover options are also a thing to bear in mind. An image wrap or similar is my preferred option, though cloth, leather etc can be a nice touch for wedding books. Dust covers may seem like a good option, but if you think about a well handled hard back book, the dust cover is the first thing to show signs of wear and tear as it slips about and gets shoved on shelves etc.
Another thing to bear in mind with printing is that there is a bleed area. Paper shifts a little during printing and there is inevitably a slight cut off at the edges. You need to bear the bleed in mind so that the main part of your image isn't accidentally trimmed during production. Not really an issue in an image with a central subject, but a big deal on an image with details from edge to edge.
Now, where possible I'd recommend getting your photographer to design a full photographic album. Modern albums offer the same storybook styling as photo books but will be photographically printed, pages will be on board so they are heavier and less likely to rip and the range of cover and quality options are much greater. I'd also recommend getting your photographer to design and produce your photo book of course. A trained and experienced eye can make a world of difference in your album.
Many of the printing companies about offer templates to help you with your design. I'd encourage the use of these, but avoid anything too gimmicky or florid as these kinds of styles will often date quite quickly and the quirky piece of clip art that appealed today might not be so cute when you go back to the album in a few years. Simple designs offer the best longevity and are more likely to create a quality result. It is a question of person taste though, so if you're designing your own book, keep it in tune with the look you want. Aim for consistency in the style of the book so that you don't have a different design on every page. Different layouts are fine, but strong design changes from page to page can be a little jarring.
Each year I gather together some of my creative shoots (shoots done for my portfolio, to challenge my skills or play with new ideas) into a photo book and I've been doing this for the last 5 years and up to now I've mostly alternated between Loxley Colour, who I use for my wedding albums and an online service called Blurb. There are others out there as well but I tend to stick with the ones that have provided quality results/service in the past. I would judge the two to be of equivalent quality in terms of their photo books, though with Blurb you pay a little extra to remove their logo or upgrade the paper etc. Blurb does offer a wee extra option to turn your book into a pdf. I find this quite useful for portfolio books and the like, where you might like to share the resulting book with a wider audience than would see the printed book. Plus it saves you designing your book twice, once for printing and once for sharing electronically.
So this year's book for my 2016 portfolio I used Blurb. Their design software allows you to design your own layouts or plop your images into pre existing layouts. Images that are too low a resolution for the size on the page are highlighted and you can check your project for errors before ordering. Loxley offers similar design software and both are fairly intuitive after playing around with them for a little bit. I chose a metallic print this year and was pleased with the extra sheen this gives the images on the printed pages. Colours printed this way appear a little more bright and vivid than with standard press printed ones. Blurb also has integration with my Adobe Lightroom software, which means I can drop images into a collection and then design my pages within lightroom. For me this is quite handy, as I can pop about in my catalog in Lightroom to find images that I decide to include without the need to go looking for the images. Loxley isn't as well integrated in that regard. Both allow you to design in other programs i.e. Photoshop and then load up the designs as full pages into your book.
So the new kid on the block for me is SAAL Digital. They appear to be moving into the UK marker with various offers to professional photographers to encourage them to try the products and review them. I wasn't going to turn my nose up at a free book and a chance to try out a new printing company, so I signed up and eventually got round to producing a book. I chose to use some of my cosplay photography and some other character images that gave a nice range of colourful, black and white and such like to give their printing a full workout. So what follows is my more in depth take on their design software and on the finished book.
Download from the site is straightforward via a link on their home page.
Installation takes you to the initial page where you can select what you're ordering. This trial was for their photobooks. Regular photobooks allow 26-120 pages. Their extra thick pages are 10 to 36. Not sure I'd choose a softcover book (photographic paper)or the spiral bound photo booklets (6 colour printing)
Yet another option page now according to the size you're after, with sizes in cm. 15X21 portrait (A5), 19X19 square, 21X28 (A4), 28X19 (A4 landscape), 28X 28 or if you're feeling "big" a whopping 42X28 cm (A3 landscape). The down side of these sizes is that they don't necessarily correspond directly to standard photo formats so you're unlikely to just fill your pages without some cropping or resizing of the original image. But for the convenience of understanding sizes, A5, A4 and A3 do give you a fairly instant grasp of the approximate size of your book (allowing for spine etc,)
So your base cover is a glossy one with a markup for leather (black or white) or a faux wood look. You can also choose the pad the cover to give it bit more texture on picking up. You pay extra as well if you don't want a barcode on the back and if you want a gift box.
You don't have a free selection of the page count, which can be a little bit of an issue if you have a set number of images you have in mind; 26,48,86,120 pages being the options on the A4 book. Once you're in the design you can add or remove pages though, so all is not lost (and the price does adjust to the pages removed or added)
You are quoted the price including VAT, which means your average consumer won't get to the end and find everything 20% more. Though you do need to wait til later to find out your postage.
For the purposes of the trial I kept the default settings, though I upped to 48 pages. The extra 22 pges cost around an extra pound a page.
So you're then given the choice of designing an empty template, selecting a design with preset layouts, filling your pages with pre designed layouts (if you do your design in photoshop). I selected from the templates and then a folder of images. The software then autofilled everything and while this might save time, the layout wasn't to my tastes and many of the images ended up cropped to suit the design template.
Back to the drawing board then. On selecting the option to fill my article with templates (but not images) I got a message about Missing fonts. One of the template pages obviously had text on it and I just didn't have the font required loaded. The software replaced with another font, but I'm surprised the software templates are set up in such a way. Possibly my own fault for having an eclectic selection of fonts on my pc or possibly the software is looking for older fonts than you might find on a standard Windows 10 install.
I got the same error when opening the design as Empty Templates, but this looks like the software just remembers whatever set of templates you had open if you go back to the selection page and then choose to open the one with no templates loaded. So if you choose blank without having entered anything before you're completely on your own design wise. If you selected one of the templates before then you can choose from that template.
Designing a truly blank template you have a range of backdrops and clip art at your hands, though once again a lot of these might appeal to general consumers rather than professionals as things get a little busy and garish for my tastes. I could add backgrounds to the library though, so I always have the option of creating some more muted options. There doesn't seem to be an option to just set a background colour though, you have to select a background file to fill that gap. The default is of course white.
So once you stick an image onto your blank template you can resize and rotate as needed. You'll be prompted if you drift into the bleed and you get some new options for your image.
You can align your image left, right, up down, though as with some other design software of this type, a horizontal align will centre it across a two page spread in the middle, instead of on the single page itself that you might have wanted to centre on, unless you select the single page option!
There's opacity options so you can fade out a background image in the way you would often do in modern album designs. There' s some simple effects and filters, though once again this is more for consumers that want to play than for professionals who will usually have their images fully as they want them before they get to the book/album design stage.
Possibly of more interest is the Borders/Masks option. I'll personally add a wee border on images that are within a page to give them a little framing within the blank space (or texture) of the page behind. Masks can be an interesting design element too, but I prefer to make any edits to my image before designing the book.
The borders worked simply. You can adjust the width, colour and opacity of the border and have some basic square, rounded corner and circular options. There are also some decorative options, though I noticed that when I applied some of the decorative borders to a portait orientated image it resizes the image for no apparent reason and became unusable. This behaviour didn't happen if my image was a landscape one, so appears to be a little glitch. Nor did it happen with the masks.
And while you can import and save your own layouts, you don't appear to have the option to add your own masks or borders to your designs within the software. This might be a nice to have for future iterations.
So I discussed the page size before, same applies to image boxes on the design templates as they won't always correlate to actual image sizes. Doubly clicking on an image in your layout allows you to move the image about for the best fit and you can crop if needed. This is in line with the functionality I've found on other editors and is fairly intuitive.
Also double clicking on an image in the folder view gives you a larger preview of the image, which is handy to make sure you pick the right one.
The feature I did like was that the price of your project is constantly in front of you, so you know what those extra pages are going to cost if you make your book bigger, or what you might save if you eliminate a picture or two.
Anyway, here's a glance at the design screen. You can see it's a fairly straightforward layout, folder vie on the left, design choices on the right and your design in the middle. Icons for saving and editing at the top.
So now we get to the real meat of the piece. What was the book like when it landed on my doorstep?
I deliberately picked some pictures I'd had printed in both Loxley and Blurb books as well as a few new images with black and white and vivid colours to get a good feel for the results.
I liked the default glossy finish. Your book opens directly on your first layout with no flyleaf. The pages of this book are designed to lay flat so you don't lose as much detail in the crease between pages. I would of course advise leaving important details of an image out of the crease, because it still impacts the image a little and wears over time in any book of this type.
The pages are thick enough to feel substantial as you turn them without the full heft of a photo album page.-
Colours printed well and vivid colours retained good detail. Shadows and highlights also showed detail where they should. The bar code you have to pay extra to remove is tiny and unobtrusive to be honest.
One thing I did notice was that after a couple of flips through there was a certain amount of buckling of the pages and the book no longer closed flat. This may have been present not long after I removed it from the confines of the packaging but I couldn't honestly say as I only noticed this on flicking through just now. It was only noticeable really when viewing the book edge on. I'll try putting it on the shelf between other books to try and straighten it back out I guess.
The book had been kept away from damp since arriving in its cardboard delivery box (in a plastic bag within the box, so unlikely to be damp from transit) so I'm not sure why this would have happened unless it is an artefact from the printing/mounting process.
So that was one long blog post all about photobooks.
SAAL 21X28 Photobook
Software is fairly straightforward and intuitive
Priced as you design your book so you can stay within budget.
Finished printing shows good detail in images and accurate colours
Reasonably priced, cheaper than a pro lab like Loxley Colour and roughly on a par with Blurb.
Even with the slight ripple/buckling it's not noticeable as you look at your pages spread out so doesn't
Nice thick pages that lay flat when opened to a spread. Less likely to rip than standard coffee table pages.
Unexplained page buckling
Couldn't set plain colour backgrounds directly in the tool as far as I can tell.
Gimmicky design elements like clip art galleries are a put off for professional users.
Could do with more professional looking backgrounds to choose from.
Can't load your own designs for borders and masks
Glitch in one of the creative borders that resized images.
I might try them again for a personal project to give them another chance, but the page buckling found in this sample book would preclude me from using it for orders from customers. I found a press printed book from Blurb with an upgrade to their metallic finish wasn't too far off the glossy photographically printed book here. Now I've only had this book a few days and leafed through it a few times, so I can't comment on the quality or durability of the binding, but it looks sturdy enough for this scale of book.