Photobooks: Saal Digital and Zno

It doesn’t seem long ago that the options for a compiling a photo collection into a printed book seemed to be very few and the formatting options really limited. My first foray into the photo book world was around 10 years ago when I created a book of pictures from a holiday in Trinidad & Tobago. I don’t recall much of a choice of paper types (I think there wasn’t a choice) a single font size/style for text and a selection of pretty fixed page layouts. There may have been other companies offering better solutions but I failed to find anything suitable.

Move forward to 2020 and now you are spoilt for choice. A quick visit to Google reveals a wide array of companies offering everything from cheaper thin paper to heavyweight photo paper options, hardback, soft back, photo cover, magazines, booklets and far more. I’ve just trialled a couple of companies to get a feel for usability and quality – Saal Digital and Zno.

The first book to arrive back with me was the one from Saal Digital so I’ll start with this one. The starting point with Saal is to create an account and download the design application. The starting page presents the range of products (which Saal, for some reason, calls ‘articles’). You can choose photos, posters, calendars, gifts, business products and of course photobooks. A separate tab on the main screen takes you to the projects you have already completed or are underway.

Selecting the Photobook professional line option the design software has an instantly familiar feel with a number of panels. The large central panel shows you your current double-page spread with page thumbnails below. To the left is a panel allowing you to select photos to drop into the book from your file hierarchy. It is ideal to gather your pictures for the book into one folder before you start – and this is really good practice anyway – as there is no search option within the tool. The right side of the screen allows you to choose cover designs and page layouts. Above the main panels you will find options to create new object (picture) and text boxes, grid options to support page layouts.

Saal Digital photobook design software.

The design software is easy to use and allows plenty of flexibility to create any combination of picture and text boxes and place them exactly where you want. The book can be saved as a PDF file making it easy to share copies to review either on screen or as a print out.

There are a couple of quirky aspects to the software:

  • For some reason saving work on a project is a two-step process. pressing the save button brings up a window allowing you to either confirm saving the current project (= save) or changing the filename to create a new project (= save as).
  • The software treats a double-page spread as a single page for design purposes. You can rearrange the order of pages in the book but only by double page spread. Other photobook software (such as BookWright used by Blurb) allows individual single pages to be shuffled around. This is far more useful if your book project is not just comprised double page spreads (which is surely how the vast majority of books will be built).
  • The printing starts inside the front cover and ends inside the back cover. This can look really good and gives Saal’s books a different feel. The downside is that for a more traditional layout with blank inside the covers and first page you are forced to pay for several additional (blank) pages.

For this review the photobook produced was a professional line hardback book 30cm x 21cm with 56 pages on matte photo paper. The list price for this option is £102.99 plus (reasonable at under a fiver) postage. The ordered book arrived inside a week which was commendably fast, and well packaged to avoid damage in transit. The book is very high quality, as should be expected for the price. The heavyweight photo paper pages allow for a ‘lay flat’ double page spread. I didn’t take advantage of this but would like to produce a book with some double page landscape photos. the printing quality couldn’t be faulted, with rich true colours and black blacks. I was really very impressed by the quality of the final product and would be a great choice as a high end product for a client where a fast turnaround is important.

I’ve just received my book from Zno so can now comment on this one too. This time the option chosen was their 8″x8″ hard cover Little Black Book which I filled with a selection of my Polar Bear photographs. The Zno offering is less functionally rich than that from Saal Digital but provides a very easy way to quickly create a photobook with a minimum of fuss. Firstly there is no software to download. The book is created in the ‘cloud’ via the Zno website. The layout of the design screen is broadly similar to that of Saal Digital, with the double page spread being edited centre stage, page thumbnails below and photo selection to the left.

Zno photobook project screen layout.

Rather than providing you the option to select pictures direct from your file system the Zno approach requires you to select the pictures you want to use and upload them to the project space via the ‘add photos’ option. This does make it easy to see which pictures you either have or intend using as they are all held in one place. There is a limited set of photo layout options that can be selected and pictures are added to the pages with a simple drag and drop from the uploaded photos (after which a picture’s use is flagged so that you know which have or haven’t been incorporated). By default the option with this book is to add square photos, but individual photo boxes can be added and reshaped. Individual pages can be moved around the book project at well – far better than restricting reorganising to double page spreads as Saal Digital do.

Individual photos can be rotated and reshaped in the Zno project.

I couldn’t find an option to add a text box to pages, which was disappointing, so this literally is a photobook with no narrative. Text is limited to the book title which surprisingly and disappointingly restricts you just 22 characters, so just enough for the far too brief ‘Polar Bears: J Higgott‘.

The regular price for the 24 page 8″x8″ book with a hard cover and photo front cover is US $50 (which drops to $45 if you order more than one) and $7 for standard postage. It would be good to be offered pricing in local currency.

The Zno photobooks are produced in China so the time between ordering and delivery is longer than with Saal Digital at a quoted 10 to 17 days. The order can be tracked on its long journey from Shanghai via the courier website, linked from the confirmation email.

Again the book arrived well packaged to avoid the bumps and bangs that are possible when posting globally. The book itself looks really good and the colour front cover with wrap around printing. Like the Saal Digital offering the printed pages start inside the front cover and end inside the rear cover. Zno use a heavier weight paper to print on than Saal Digital making the pages very thick and unlikely to be inadvertently bent. I actually prefer the weight of the Saal Digital pages, though that is purely personal preference and both books are excellent. The important aspect of the book is the printing. The lustre photo paper pages are, much like Saal Digital, very well printed with true rich colours with absolutely no complaints. Neither the Zno nor the Saal Digital offerings have makers logos within the book, which is commendable.

So in summary these are very well made books produced to a professional standard. Saal Digital offer more options in the design of the book and you can give it the look and feel you need. Zno have a less feature-rich offering, ideal for quickly putting a book of photos together (though this is offset by the delivery time). The restrictions in the use of text in the Zno book are a less than ideal and something I would suggest the manufacturers move to address.