Review – Beautiful Saal Digital Gallery Print wall art

I’m always looking for great quality and excellent value print products that I can offer to my family and portrait photography clients. The price is important because I aim to make photography affordable for a wide range of people and I see the final print on the wall as being the end point – so it needs to be cost effective in order to keep the price low, cover my costs and make a modest profit. That said, I will not sell people ‘cheap’ nasty products; they need to do justice to the photographs, have longevity and give that wow factor that ensures my clients feel they’ve got something special.

Saal Digital, based in Germany have been my go-to lab since last year when I was sent a free portfolio book in exchange for a review. Since then I’ve had canvases, aluminium prints and paper prints from them and all have been great! The colours are always spot on (against my colour calibrated monitor and soft proofing process) and I’ve been impressed by both their colour and black and white prints. So I was excited when they offered me the chance to try something new in exchange for another review.

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Until now I’ve steered clear of acrylic mounted prints. They tend to be highly reflective and that causes problems with stray window light and ceiling light bouncing off the surface and causing areas of the image to be be obscured by glare. The acrylic also tends to be quite thick and I don’t like the feel of looking through the thick resin to the image below, I like more direct contact with the image such as what you get with an aluminium print or a canvas. However, I do like the modern feel of acrylic prints and they are practical; easy to clean and easy to hang on the wall. So I decided to try the new gallery print from Saal. It combines an aluminium backing and an acrylic front and importantly a matte finish is available. Now, I’ve had matte finish acrylic before and still found it to be disappointingly reflective, so my hopes here were not high!
I am totally thrilled with the product! It looks really special. It has the most amazing velvety finish without glare and doesn’t look at all like cheap plastic. The image is beautifully crisp and the colours are both accurate and gorgeous, soft and rich with a really high class look that is perfect for my studio shot of my boy and his Grandad. There’s a tactile quality to the gallery print that you can’t really appreciate from the pictures but I’ll be interested to see the reactions of those I show it to in the flesh as my personal inclination is to turn it over and over in my hands and not want to let it go!

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subframe hanging system

 

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Gallery print in profile

 

The sub-frame hanging system on the rear is the same as others from Saal and will make hanging it a breeze and even on larger prints (this one is 20x30cm) it will be really secure on a picture nail. As always Saal delivered swiftly and in perfect condition so there’s not much more to say on that front. The gallery print is a combination of an acrylic front panel and an aluminium rear panel so it feels robust without being too heavy and the edges feel a bit less sharp than a straight aluminium print.

All in all I’m much more impressed with this product than I thought I would be.  It is a bit more expensive than my current canvas and aluminium offerings but I think I’m going to try a matte finish straight acrylic now as well and compare that to this to see what difference, if any, that extra aluminium layer is making.  I’m definitely going to add this as a new option for clients in the new few weeks as for the right image I think it looks and feels superb.

 

Sian

http://www.siantphoto.com  @siantphoto

 

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Review – Lighting, posing and retouching with Hannah Couzens

Regular readers will know that I’m a huge fan of Hannah Couzens, portrait photographer extraordinaire.  I went on her Basics of Studio Lighting course earlier in the year and had a great time as well as learning a lot of lighting stuff that I’ve been using ever since.  So this next level course was a great way to follow up on that with some more complex lighting techniques as well as learning more about working with and posing models and some very useful tips on portrait retouching.

Hannah ran two classes on back to back days in November and luckily for me the one I was on was all ladies and one of them was also on the previous course with me, so there was a great feeling of cohortiness (yes I’m making up words now) and the atmosphere was relaxed but the participants were also highly motivated and asking lots of useful questions – just what you want in a small group course like this (there were 4 of us in case you were wondering).

We started the day with corporate headshots of our male model.  This is a really practical thing to have up your sleeve as there’s money to be made with corporate headshots if you’re good at it – so I’ll definitely be looking for some opportunities to practice this.  Hannah builds up all the lighting set ups from one light first and then adding lights in and all the while we talking about the posing, how to get a friendlier looking image and coping with common challenges like double chins, glasses and scowling finance directors.  Probably my top tip from this section was about separating the dark suit from a dark background with a back/hair/rim light.

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Corporate headshot with separation lighting from the back

 

Next up was a more fitness style set up, also with our male model.  This started off simple, building up to 3 lights plus a back light with a gel and a smoke machine.  Great fun and, while this is not a set up I can easily replicate on location or in my tiny studio, the posing in particular will be really helpful.  Again, fitness style portraits are a growth area and posing them right is tricky. You want edgy for fitness shots so the lighting needs to be really precise.

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Fitness style shot set up – lights included!

 

After lunch we met Lucy our professional fashion and beauty model for the afternoon.  We began with a Q&A session during which Lucy talked about her experiences working with different photographers, including a few horror stories about over re-touching, overstepping boundaries and uncomfortable situations.  In particular it was interesting to hear that even professional models like Lucy appreciate some direction and encouragement that they’re giving you what you want in terms of looks and poses.  Given this, I now feel a bit more confident giving direction as I was always worried about coming across as too bossy during shoots, whether with models or regular people – I’m a lot less worried about that now and I think I’m getting better images as a result.

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Shooting Lucy for a soft and pretty look as well as a more classic beauty shot was an absolute pleasure.  We had a lot of fun playing with both the lights and the poses and I particularly enjoyed some shots lit for black and white as this is a big part of my work.  I’m getting myself a second speedlight for Christmas so that I can give some of these a go in the new year!

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My new posing and retouching skills at work here – although it’s pretty easy to make it look awesome with a great model like Lucy!

 

As with the previous course, Hannah really packed in the content so there wasn’t as much time on the retouching section as was intended (I think!) as we were having too much fun shooting.  To be honest I think my brain was both fried and buzzing at this time so any more would probably not have gone in well.  Hannah covered frequency separation retouching for skin, which I’ve since been reading more about and having this basic grounding has been useful in exploring the technique further.  For more on this I went to my Kelby One video training subscription and Kristina Sherk – definitely worth getting the free trial to access her course High End Portrait Retouching for a more detailed look at retouching.  But honestly I wouldn’t have known where to start without Hannah’s introduction.

Once again Hannah hit it out of the park with this course, such a relaxed but energetic atmosphere and jam packed with content and some excellent opportunities to practice and get great images.  I made some friends too so that’s a bonus!  Hannah is genuinely supportive as well and there’s a great sense of being part of a club.  She’s always happy to answer questions both during the course and afterwards and she shares a lot of really useful lighting techniques online for free – she’s just a really nice person which counts for a lot in my book.  It’s not a cheap course but it’s a full-on day and a very small group so you get a lot for your money and I think if you’re looking to take your portrait photography to the next level, maybe start charging or start charging more, this course is a good investment in your photographic future.

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One of my favourite shots from the day – lots of fun in post processing!

 

 

 

Lighting, posing and retouching with Hannah Couzens – News you can use!

Aspect Star Rating (out of 5*)
Ease of booking *****
Pre-event communications *****
Personalisation and 1:1 attention ****
Information and Learning *****
Approachability *****
Location *****
Cost *** £250
Image review and feedback ***
Post-event feedback and follow-up ***

 

Review – Saal Digital Photobook – part 2

Disclaimer – I received £40 voucher towards a photobook from Saal-Digital on understanding that I would review the product.  Including shipping, the total cost of the book was £49.90

Part 1 of the review – covering the software used to create the book is available here

I’ve now received my photobook from Saal Digital and I have to say I am very impressed!

Quality

The book wasn’t cheap, but you can tell that it’s a high quality product.  I placed the order on 8th July and the book arrived on the 12th – a very impressive turn around time too.  It was well packaged and arrived in great condition, which is important when you’ve spent almost £50 on an item and particularly so for hardbacks which are prone to corner damage in the mail.

The first thing you notice about the book is the quality of the pages, they’re very thick and the design is genuinely ‘lay flat’ allowing images to go over the gutter with no loss – which is very nice.  As you can see with a darker images across the gutter there is a thin white line at the gutter but I don’t see this as a major issue.  The cover too is nice and thick and genuinely hard back.  Unfortunately there’s no dust jacket option I can find but you can get a gift box which I think would be very nice for a client.

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Colours

Firstly the blacks are very good in the book.  I use a lot of black in my images and frequently find that in production they are definitely more grey.  Not the case here though, the blacks are rich and deep which is great!

The colours too are really well rendered. I warmed up my images to align to the icc profile provided for proofing and this may have been a bit too much.  It’s not a massive difference and is quite reassuring really as I think had I not proofed the colours would have still been accurate.  In future I’ll probably not worry about adjusting colours for the paper in most of my images, I’m confident they would be very close to right for the glossy paper.

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Finish

The glossy finish is VERY glossy, so much so it was hard to get a picture of the book without reflections in.  In general I think I’d prefer a slightly less glossy option and I may order a book in the matte finish to see whether that’s preferable.  I suspect it may be too matte and what I’m after is more of a satin finish but we’ll see.  I would have also liked a matte cover but I wanted to use a dark image and the software warned me that matte covers are unsuitable for dark images – which is fair enough, at least I was warned.

There is an option for a leather cover with embossing which I’d also like to try but it costs quite a lot more than a standard cover which I think is a bit off-putting.

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Conclusion

This is an excellent, premium product and I’ll be very proud using this portfolio to show my clients a range of my work.  I would definitely use Saal Digital in future to create albums for my clients, and subject to trying out the other finish options I think they will be my go-to company for books from now on.  You are paying a premium for the quality and you certainly can get books for cheaper than this but the reliable colours and quality are really worth the additional cost in my view.

I’m also pretty confident that if there were any problem, Saal’s customer service would be good.  There are no issues with this book but I did speak to them during my design phase and they responded quickly and with good advice.

Saal also do wall art and I’d be tempted to try them although I prefer a paper print backed on aluminium over direct aluminium printing and I can’t see that option on their website.  However, I’ve ordered a sample set so I can compare them to my currently preferred company for wall art – Whitewall.

Overall I’m really pleased with the book – I give it 9/10 with just 1 point lost because I find the finish a bit over glossy!

You can find Saal-Digital photobooks at http://www.saal-digital.co.uk/photobooks/

 

 

 

Saal Digital Photobooks – review pt1

Review of Saal-Digital’s photobook creation software

I love a good photobook!  There’s something much nicer about having images in your hands than on a screen and making a photobook is a great way to ensure you’ll look back at your images again and again.  So I’m always on the look out for good photobook manufacturers and recently took up an offer from new market entrant Saal Digital to try their new book software and service.

Here I’m reviewing the software and process of creating my photobook and when the book itself arrives I’ll review that separately.

There are 2 types of photobook software, those that are totally online and those where you download the software onto your machine.  Saal has a downloadable software and it’s really nice to use.

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I particularly like the fact that there’s no image uploading as the software connects to your folder structure and you select your images direct from there. I hate uploading my images to an online book provider because I don’t like the idea that they just stay there on someone else’s server when I’m done.  This way I keep control of my images and I don’t create duplicates – perfect!  Plus it’s as simple as dragging and dropping your images out of the folders into the layouts – it’s great, fast and reliable.

Layout wise there are plenty of pre-set options to choose from. I generally stick with simple monochrome backgrounds but there are also a lot of jazzier and themed backgrounds that I think would be great if you were making a holiday album or a gift for granny.  For professionals looking for a classy, timeless look though one very nice feature is that you can use an eyedropper to select a colour from an image and set it as the background colour or as a text colour. I really like this as it enables you to blend your image into the background and to ensure that your text goes perfectly with the image. It’s not a feature I’m found on other book software I’ve tried (whether it was there but not obvious I don’t know).screenshot Saal2

While preset layouts are a good place to start, the software also offers you plenty of options to customise image frames by setting size and location, which is great and as far as I’m concerned an essential part of creating a book.  Guides are provided to help you align images and you can add text, stack images together and set an image as a page background, which works very nicely as shown below.

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One of Saal’s selling points is the ‘lie flat’ nature of their books which allows them to work well with double page spreads and panoramas.  I’m reserving judgment on this for when my book arrives but I have deliberately set some images over the centre gutter to see just how flat they go.

During my trial I did contact Saal customer support as I’d found one bug in the software and had a couple of questions about how to do things – one on page gutters and one on how to lock aspect ratio.  I got a response within 24 hours and the bug was fixed at the next update which is pretty impressive.  So their customer service also gets the thumbs up from me.

One additional features for pros and enthusiasts is that they provide icc profiles for soft proofing which most mainstream services don’t.  Using the icc profile with Adobe Lightroom  to check how the colour on my images will look when printed, I saw that the glossy paper they’re using is slightly on the cool side but the colours otherwise appear pretty true. I’ve slightly warmed my images to compensate so when the book arrives we’ll see if that worked.  Note – I calibrate my monitor using a Datacolour Spyder and I know it’s pretty accurate as I print at home using custom icc profiles for my Canon printer.

I can’t really find anything wrong with this software to be frank.  A Lightroom plugin would be nice, so you can just drag photos in from Lightroom without needing to export them to JPEGs (when they’re shot in RAW) but Photoshop and InDesign plugins are available and the professional zone on the Saal website has everything you need to design your book and then upload the whole thing directly if that’s what you want to do.

So – all in all a big thumbs up!  I’m excited to get my design finished and ordered so I can review the book itself!

 

 

New Sian T. Photo Website

Why I moved my blog to Wordpress from Zenfolio

Hi folks!

So this is my first new blog post on my shiny new WordPress blog – yay! I thought I’d just do a quick post to explain why all the changes, as I think there are a couple of useful nuggets of information here.

Essentially I became pretty frustrated with Zenfolio as a platform for my website.  It started with annoyance at the fact I couldn’t change the gallery pages to get them how I wanted – they have these annoying side bar arrows (see below) and there’s no acceptable way to get rid of them without adding equally ugly thumbnails.  The available layouts just started to feel very dated to me and I couldn’t find a way around it.  Call me fussy but that one fact drove me so nuts that I started looking around for another hosting option.

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Screen shot from my old Zenfolio site

As I was shopping around for other options I started thinking about the blog and realised that there was no way to export or back-up the blog in Zenfolio.  So basically if I wanted to keep my blog content I had to stay put with Zenfolio or copy and paste everything into a Word file as a back-up.  As an information professional this annoyed me no end – it’s a basic tenet of information product selection to ensure you can always get your data out and I was vexed that I’d overlooked the lack of this when selecting my own website platform. I’d been sucked in by the integrated blogging capability and hadn’t given any though to what I’d do if I wanted to move platforms – stupid really!  So I decided it would be better to have my blog and website separate – so that moving the website between hosts wouldn’t screw with the blog.

It’s taken weeks to manually copy and paste and then pre-date all my posts into WordPress!  I decided not to move everything and have a bit of a cull, so I’ve just moved the reviews as this was what people pre-dominantly wanted access to – but even with just that it’s been a total pain!  You can easily copy and paste the text but the formatting goes all squiffy and you can’t do the same with the images which have to be re-uploaded into WordPress and then added to each post in the right place.  However, I think it’s worth it as I can now play the field with website hosts as I want without worrying about the blog.  I’m not convinced that integrated blog functionality is really that big a deal anyway as you can very easily link to a WordPress (or other provider) blog from your website menu and if you style it consistently with your site the user experience remains very good.  Plus by being part of a blog provider you get some gains on search engine visibility.

So – if you’re thinking about moving away from Zenfolio, or about using integrated blogs these are some things to bear in mind!

Also – check out the new website at www.siantphoto.com.  It’s on Smugmug now – more about why I chose it and what else I considered in a future blog post.

Toodles!

 

Workshop review – Introduction to studio lighting with Hannah Couzens

I’ve been looking for a class on portraits for quite a while and was drawing a blank (with the exception of creepy looking ‘glamour’ workshops – ew!) until I came across this workshop.  I think this was the inaugural course which was great for me because it provided an opportunity to talk to Hannah beforehand about what I was looking for and how it all might work.  In essence, I was after something around lighting and the different options in terms of lighting effects and equipment.  This came about following my first real studio style shoot for One Three Seven and the fantastic experience of working with professional stylists and models.  I got the bug really badly but recognised my images were very evenly lit (necessary for the photos showcasing the hair colours and cuts) but not necessarily very interestingly lit (see examples below)

The workshop day started with the five students meeting at Hannah’s studio in St Albans. It’s a beautiful studio, the walls are covered in Hannah’s lovely work, very inspiring.  We spent the morning listening and taking notes (while drinking tea!) as Hannah explained the basics of how light works.  We covered the impact of close and far away light sources, of the size of the light source and of hard and soft light.  There’s a lot of physics involved in all this but Hannah was very careful to keep it to what we really needed to know, with helpful analogies and practical examples to help us. Towards the end of the morning we got into the 5 standard portrait lighting patterns and their impact on the shadows falling on the subject’s face – we were getting to the really interesting bit!

Lunch wasn’t provided but that meant a great opportunity to stretch the legs in St Albans which has no shortage of eateries and after a lovely two course lunch with fellow workshopper Lucy, I was fuelled and ready for the afternoon session.

The afternoon was all practical.  With the aid of lovely model Natasha (patience of a saint and a look I just absolutely loved!) Hannah showed us how to set up a single light for each of the lighting patterns and how to modify the looks by adding light with a reflector.  Each set up was demonstrated and photographed with the images appearing on screen for us all to review.  In between shots Hannah answered our questions about focal length, modifiers, posing and a host of other random things.  It was a really lively and engaged group and, while that did mean running a bit behind schedule, Hannah was always gracious and never hurried.  After the demos we got our own opportunity to set up the light to replicate the patterns (great fun!)  and just that little bit of practical really helped the stuff stick in my brain.  My favourite shots from the afternoon are below.  Not perfect examples of the lighting techniques but definitely an improvement in terms of lighting interest.

It was an unusual workshop in so far as I didn’t come away with that many shots, but that really wasn’t the purpose of the exercise.  If you want to just shoot a model then you’re better off hiring a model and studio and doing it yourself.  However, if you want to learn about studio lighting, watch a pro in action and get a bit of practice setting up the light to get different effects then this is definitely the workshop for you.  One of the great things about the day was that Hannah is really not obsessed with what light you’re using so it’s possible to implement what you’ve learnt regardless of what light you’ve got or want to buy.  Studio flash heads are used for demonstration but as only a single one is used for each demo, it can be replicated with a constant light or a speedlight (albeit with a bit more guess work!). Set-ups with multiple lights were demonstrated and Hannah did cover the different modifiers and their suitability for various light uses; key lights, hair lights, spotlights etc. but this was all non-essential and there was no pressure to have a whole bunch of lights to be successful.

The day ended with a series of videos on using just one studio head and a universal umbrella to light ten different subjects. I must say, by this point my brain was saturated so I was really glad that Hannah provided links to these videos to watch at home later as I don’t think I could take much more in.

All in all this was an extremely useful and enjoyable day and also one of the most inspirational workshops I’ve ever done.  I learnt a surprising amount and am now on a mission to make use of what I’ve learnt in my portrait work. As soon as I got home I was anxious to start trying it all out with my on-site model Isaac and I could instantly see an improvement in the impact of the images (see below).  Following the workshop Hannah kindly answered a couple of questions I had about gear and the follow up materials including the videos were dispatched really quickly.  Hannah is also really active and responsive on social media so it’ll be really easy to stay in touch and follow her work.

 

Introduction to studio lighting – Inspirational stuff!

Aspect Star Rating (out of 5*)
Ease of booking ****
Pre-event communications *****
Personalisation and 1:1 attention ***
Information and Learning *****
Approachability *****
Location *****
Cost *** £250
Image review and feedback ***
Post-event feedback and follow-up ****

 

 

Workshop review – Yorkshire Dales with Lizzie Shepherd and Oliver Wright

Back in October I went on a 1 day photography workshop in the Yorkshire Dales with Lizzie Shepherd and Oliver Wright, and I’m afraid I only just realised that I failed to write a review – apologies for the delay!

The major strength of this workshop was the sheer number and variety of locations we visited.  We covered everything from limestone pavement (see above) to waterfalls, via a salmon run and Bolton Abbey’s woodland.  If anything we ran rather late in order to cover all the locations and by the time we were ready to leave it was almost completely dark.

Lizzie and Ollie make a great team; they are landscape photographers but each with a different style and approach and neither is 100% fixated on the grand vistas, something which I really appreciated as due to a very foggy start and overcast skies those big scenery shots were never really on the cards.

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Bolton Abbey estate on a misty day in Autumn

The workshop was very relaxed, participants had a variety of experience levels, a variety of kits and a variety of photographic interests.  Inevitably there were lots of questions about gear choices and recommendations from the group and our leaders did a great job of answering from personal experience and with an appreciation of limited budgets.  They were also happy to loan lenses and other kit for us to try although I declined a loan of Ollie’s Canon 70-300L lens for fear of falling in love with such a pricey bit of glass!

 

Probably the main learning points for me were from Lizzie on creating abstracts with branches and leaves and in particular how to look for background colours and use cooler white balance for effect (see below) and from Ollie around finding interesting compositions in otherwise ‘chocolate box’ scenes. I found Lizzie in particular to be really great at sharing the images she was making and talking about why she chose that composition and how she’d process it later.  No question was too daft and with only 5 of us on the workshop with 2 tutors there was plenty of opportunity to ask questions and get tips on creating your own images.  Ollie is so positive and excited by photography that even I sometimes felt I’d managed a really worthy image and I certainly came away walking a little taller (photographically speaking – I think it’s a little late to get above 5ft 2 now!

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All participants were given the opportunity to get feedback on a couple of images after the workshop, and we were also sent a full location list afterwards which was really nice.  Ollie and Lizzie obviously care about improving their workshops as there was a pretty comprehensive feedback questionnaire – which I find reassuring!

Pace wise this was a pretty long and busy day and there was quite a lot of walking and a bit of scrambling down some dodgy paths to get to one location, so if you’re less sure on your feet or unable to walk comfortably for up to 30 minutes I would ensure that you let Lizzie and Ollie know in advance. I’m sure they would be able to accommodate you as they were very understanding if reservations were expressed about some activities. You’ll definitely want sturdy boots and waterproofs too, it will only be called off in extremely bad weather.  Also bring water, a flask of tea and plenty of snacks as it’s easy to get carried away and we didn’t stop for lunch until 2pm having started at 6.30am.

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Location wise, Lizzie advised me to base myself at Settle which was perfect as it has good road connections to all the possible start locations. I stayed at Littlebank Country House which I found on Booking.com for £70 per night. It’s a tad tricky to find but once you’re there it’s very nice and homey and the owners were wonderful, they even set me out an early breakfast for my early start!

All in all this was a superb workshop! The Yorkshire Dales is really stunning in the autumn and I’m really glad to have benefitted from Lizzie and Ollie’s local knowledge, next time I’m in the area I’ll have a really good idea of where to go for the best autumn colours.

 

Autumn in the Yorkshire Dales – Highly recommended for autumn colour and exploring

Aspect Star Rating (out of 5*)
Ease of booking ****
Pre-event communications ****
Personalisation and 1:1 attention *****
Information and Learning ****
Approachability *****
Location *****
Cost ***
Image review and feedback **
Post-event feedback and follow-up **