The more pictures I take, the more I learn what makes for my favorite photos—which tend to be, coincidentally, the most important. While I’m proud of a lot of the technically challenging photographs in my portfolio, what means the most to me, the pictures I’m most concerned with preserving for the future, are the photos of my family. They are a deeply personal document of our shared lives.
So when you look around my house, sure you’ll find some travel and landscape photos, but more than anything you’ll see pictures of my wife and kids and a lot of snapshots of moments both important and banal.
Between my home, office and studio I’ve got more than my share of blank walls in need of decor. A perfect opportunity to print some favorite family photos for the wall in a unique and graphically compelling way.
I love groups of photos—collages and grids, diptychs and triptychs—because I like the context of several photographs displayed together. They become something new, and the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. I once tried to hang a grid of small square pictures, but ultimately found it to be more trouble than it was worth. I’d purchased inexpensive mats and frames and made small prints, then measured and leveled and nailed holes in the wall and in the end after all that effort I had a gallery of crooked photos. Well, they weren’t crooked to start, but after a week of living with them they had all shifted and were from that point on constantly crooked. The challenge was partially in the framing, but mostly a function of trying to hang a dozen different pictures from their own individual nails. I grudgingly lived with the setup until I had the opportunity to fill those nail holes and repaint—and the wall has remained black ever since.
But what if someone were to build a better mousetrap? Could there be a way to make prints that are already “finished” and ready to hang on the wall? Even better, is there a mounting system that requires no nailing and makes it easy to hang the pictures and adjust them so they can hang straight and true?
The printing experts at Saal Digital have done just that. Their Wall Squares are an ideal all-in-one solution for printing finished, ready to hang square photographic prints. They’re available in two sizes—7.9 inches and 11.9 inches—and a couple of thicknesses (2mm and 4mm). They use a magnetic mounting system and a strong (but removable) adhesive to allow for hanging without nails or damage to the wall of any kind. Plus this makes it easy to hang the prints on a wall that can’t accept nails—like concrete or brick. The mounting system also makes measuring and leveling much easier so in the end you won’t have to live with a collection of crooked pictures as I once did. Here’s how I ordered my grid online from saal-digital.com.
The first step, of course, is determining which pictures you’d like to print. In my case—and I’m sure this is true for many parents out there—family photos are an ideal option. But you could also choose a series of travel images, or abstract colorful photos, or even divide up one image into several individual parts and construct a grid of images to recreate the original. I chose a series of snapshots and portraits of my kids from toddlerhood into adolescence.
How many pictures you choose to print, of course, depends on the space you’d like to cover—and your budget. I knew I wanted to make a square grid to cover an area about 3 feet by 3 feet square. To determine the ideal size for your space, I suggest using a tape measure and masking tape to mark the potential layout on the wall. You could also use the modern method of photographing the wall and then using Photoshop to mock up the prints. Since I wanted to cover a 3×3-foot square, you might be wondering, why did I not choose 12-inch prints? Because we need to allow for some space between the images and, in my case, I wanted to err on the side of a smaller group rather than a larger one. Choosing the not-quite-8-inch wall squares meant that I could allow for about 4 inches between the prints and wind up with a grid measuring 32×32 inches overall. Perfect.
With the image files selected, I first size them and get them ready to print. Generally converting an image file to the sRGB color profile is good practice for printing, and Saal Digital suggests sRGB as well—although any RGB color space such as ProPhoto RGB or Adobe RGB 1998 will work for most printed products. (Some custom printed products specifically require sRGB, though, so I tend to convert to sRGB color space by default.)
Saal Digital can handle files in JPEG or PNG format, but JPEGs will upload faster. And while you really only need to size an image to 300dpi at the size of the print, the lab can handle larger file sizes if necessary. If you’ve got a slow internet connection larger image files may prove cumbersome to upload. Some products only require 200dpi, but for the most part 300dpi is a safe baseline for print quality. That means for an 8×8-inch print, you’d want a file that is 2400 x 2400 pixels in size, or a little larger.
To resize images in Photoshop, go to the Image menu and look for Image Size. Click it and the Image Size window opens up. Here, you’ll see the size of the image measured in pixels or centimeters or inches, along with the resolution. If you choose inches, you’ll want the image size to be at least 8×8 inches at 300dpi resolution. Alternatively, the way I prefer takes out any guesswork and looks at the number of pixels making up the image. It’s just a different way of looking at the same information, but I find it easier to know for certain this way whether my file is the size I want it to be. And that is, in this case anyway, 2400 x 2400 pixels. If you’re having trouble resizing correctly, make sure the Resample checkbox is checked. When you’re happy with the image size, click OK to render the change.
To check the images’ color space and convert it if necessary, click on Convert to Profile under Photoshop’s Edit menu. The top of the window will show the current color space—the source space. In the case of my images, they are already sRGB so I don’t need to do anything. But if there were another color space shown as the Source Space, I would change the Destination Space by clicking on the dropdown menu and choosing the sRGB profile I’m looking for. With the files now sized appropriately and converted to sRGB, save them as JPEGs and get ready to upload them to Saal Digital’s website.
If you’re going to make lots of prints with a lab, it makes sense to download its dedicated software. But for most casual users the website’s ordering system works just fine. Go to saal-digital and find one of the green Order Now buttons, or just scroll to the bottom of the page and choose Order Online. This opens the online store where you will choose Wall Decor and then Squares.
The next window that pops up is the Add Images window. You can drag and drop your image files here to upload them, or click Add Images and navigate to the folder with your print-ready image files. Once the files have uploaded, click Next.
From this page you’ll dial in the specifications for your square prints. The first choice is size—either 7.9×7.9 or 11.8×11.8. (I appreciate their attention to detail. A lot of labs might have simply called these 8×8 and 12×12, but Saal Digital is accurate and reports the actual finished size of the prints.)
The other thing I really appreciate about Saal Digital’s approach to online ordering is the transparent pricing. At the bottom of the current page you can see the cost per unit of the currently selected items, and below each option the interface shows the price consequence of making that change. For instance, should I switch from 8×8 to 12×12, the price per unit would increase by about $10 per print.
The next option to choose is the thickness of the board on which the prints are mounted. The standard option is a .2 inch PVC foam board, but for an additional $5.80 per print the PVC thickness can be doubled to .4 inches. I chose this because I wanted the images to have a substantial feel.
The next couple of listed items are explanatory and don’t require modification. The Magnetic Mounting system is standard for Square prints, as is the shape. But for the bleed mode, you can choose Standard Mode to crop the images (i.e. crop a square out of a rectangle image file for a full-bleed print) or Individual Mode to print the full rectangular image file with borders on the prints. I strongly suggest the Standard cropped mode unless you have a very specific reason for wanting odd-shaped white borders on your square prints.
Don’t be confused by the next option, which is Frame. This is not a physical frame per se, but rather a white or black printed border if you don’t want full bleed printing. You can drag the slider immediately below the Frame options to make a thicker or thinner border, from very thin (.04 inches) to very thick (nearly 2 inches).
The final customization option is Image Enhancement, for color correction and “automatic correction of red-eye, the removal of noise and re-sharpening.” Saal Digital recommends this option be disabled if you’ve already done specific color corrections, in particular if the Square prints will be used as a collage. From here, you can choose quantities—if for some reason you wanted to make multiples of each print—and if you order enough you’ll get a substantial per-unit quantity discount. Assuming you want to order just one of each, you’re ready to finalize your order by clicking Next. The last page shows the items in your order, thumbnails of the images as well a description of the products, and their costs. If everything looks good, click Add to Cart and check out.
My square prints arrived well boxed and packed in individual protective foam sleeves. The photos look great, with a lightly textured semi-gloss sheen. They’re beautiful prints as you would expect of traditional C-prints, but these are already conveniently mounted to foam backer boards that attach magnetically to the wall. I was concerned the installation might be challenging, but it’s actually really simple.
Using my taped outline as a guide, I first mounted a corner image and built out from there. You could try to measure and align all of the magnets so they are each exactly centered behind their respective prints, but the beauty of this system is that such measuring is not required. It’s easier and just as accurate to simply remove the adhesive backing strip and gently press the print into place on the wall. My wall’s surface is rough but the tape had no problem adhering quickly. Best practice is to next remove the print, leaving the metal mounting bracket adhered to the wall, then press it more firmly into place and allow it to set for 24 hours before reattaching the prints.
Reattaching those prints is simple: just put them in place and the magnets immediately grab hold. You can then use a straight edge (and a level if you’re really into precision) and move them easily on their magnetic mounts. In this way you should have a gallery grid that is simultaneously straight and true and permanently mounted without damaging the wall.
Another great benefit of these square prints is that I can always come back later and order more to grow the grid as my family grows. They can also be taken off the wall and reattached elsewhere with double-sided adhesive tape—if I ever decide to move them to another room, for instance. Until then I know I can easily keep them level or rearrange them on a whim thanks to the magnetic mounting system. It’s a great way to warm up blank walls with a gallery of meaningful photos.
For more information about Saal Digital and to order your own square prints, visit saal-digital.com.