Photobooks review: Blurb vs. Saal Digital

I used to be a digital guy: I have captured, processed, stored, shared and presented all my photographs only digitally. When I wanted to show my pics to somebody, I put them on my website or took the iPad when going to visit friends of family and talk photos. Only very recently I tried to create photobooks – and completely fell for them. I tested out two services and here’s my experience so far…

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Photobooks in the digital era?

Definitely yes. The old true of photography teaches us that whatever photo you print out, it will look just better. Some kind of psychology. Or magic perhaps. We seem to admire the printed photos more, as if the physical nature added some importance and perceived value. Try it out..

But it’s not just the freud-like psychology what makes photobooks great. Here are five advantages I found in the photobooks:

  1. When sharing the photos with your visitors or at parties, you can show more photos than using iPad or TV. Experience taught me than scrolling through more than approx. 50 travel photos one-by-one becomes quickly very boring. In books, you can use two or four photos on one page and not overkill your audience.
  2. Sometimes it’s great to create collages of multiple photos on one page. Here I often utilize pictures that won’t be stunning enough for standalone presentation.
  3. When you bring a photobook along when visiting friends or family, it’s like bringing something precious. And the interaction is somehow different, compared to swiping on an iPad.
  4. At home, I don’t have to bother with switching on the TV, Apple TV and shuffling with an iPad or Mac to make it all work. I just grab the photobook off the shelf.
  5. The colour calibration of TV screen is tricky. And when not right, the carefully edited photos do not show as you want on that flat screen. The guys who make photobooks know better.

Considering to create your own? There are plenty of companies offering this service. I tested two: Blurb and Saal Digital.

Blurb

Blurb comes integrated in Adobe Lightroom or as a designer app. The selection of papers is not stunningly wide, but reasonable. The delivery times are quite fast and they ship worldwide.

Pro’s

  • Integrated in Lightroom: If you are Adobe subscriber, this is a fantastic advantage. When you just experiment which photos to choose for final layout, you can use unedited photos and then process just those that qualify. Or when you place photo on the book page and find out you need to tweak exposure, it’s just simple move of the slider in the same app.
  • User friendly layouts: Blurb offers many different page layouts you may choose from. No need to care about borders, centering on the page, etc.
  • Easy payment and reasonably fast delivery.

Con`s

  • The predefined layouts may not suit everybody. If you need to organize the photos on the page differently, you are stuck.
  • Integration with Lightroom sometimes sucks: Even though you may choose tons of fonts in Lightroom for adding text, when exporting to Blurb you may find out you used the non-compatible one. Even better: right now I am trying to export one book for printing, but getting “unknown error” message nobody knows why.
  • Layflat design is only available with basic quality paper. I mean – really?!

 

Blurb books may need some time to flatten down nicely. Better do not use two-page spreads at the very beginning and end of the book.

Blurb books may need some time to flatten down nicely. Better do not use two-page spreads at the very beginning and end of the book.

Saal Digital

Operating in Europe, they provide complex photo services with the touch of being close. You may read my review of their fantastic large scale prints in my previous blog. To create the photobook with them, you have to download and install special software. On the other hand, they offer more options – and their service is superb.

Saal Digital: because of fantastic photo paper quality, I choose them over Blurb for portraits and portfolios.

Saal Digital: because of fantastic photo paper quality, I choose them over Blurb for portraits and portfolios.

Pro’s

  • Layout customization: besides predefined page layouts, you may create your own in their designer app. More freedom, more creativity!
  • Better quality of the papers, as far as I can judge.
  • Layflat design is normal here! So great choice for panoramas and two-page spreads – well done, guys!
  • I experienced faster production and delivery time, compared to Blurb. But note that it may be affected by seasonal peaks.

Con’s

  • The designer app is just something to get used to. For the first time, I spend one hour just to find out how the basics work. Practice makes the master here and then it goes quite fast…
  • To play with the pages and layouts, you have to prepare your photos first – e.g. in Lightroom - and then import them to the app. So if you realized some changes are needed, you need to tweak that particular photo back in Lightroom and export/import again. Awh…
  • Maybe it’s just my sample, but I realized that the thick layflat pages are not completely flat, but just a little bit curly along the edges. You do not see that when looking on the photos, it’s visible only from the side. I guess it may be because they glue the pages together…? I checked after two weeks now – and the pages seem to be fine now. Perhaps laying in the bookshelf straightened them up?
Saal Digital offers truly flat two page spreads, if you don't mind more thick paper. But looks really luxurious then...

Saal Digital offers truly flat two page spreads, if you don't mind more thick paper. But looks really luxurious then...

Saal Digital: detail of the layflat.

Saal Digital: detail of the layflat.

Conclusion

Both Blurb and Saal Digital produce very nice photobooks. I like the comfort of Lightroom integration on Blurb, but appreciate the more premium touch and feel of Saal Digital. I thus decided to choose based on my projects:

Blurb I use for my travel books. They have many pages, so thinner paper seems better choice. And while playing with hundreds of photographs, I like the advantage to operate in Lightroom A to Z.

Saal Digital I find better for portraits and portfolios. These photos just look amazingly better on the lustre high density paper. And as these photobooks typically contain reasonable number of photos that are all already carefully edited, using a dedicated app ain’t that much hassle.