Putting your photos on the web seems simple at first. Just upload them to a cool-looking site and promote the URL, right? To make your photos really work for you online, put a little more thought to the online home you choose because the suitability of a photo sharing site for your work goes deeper than its appearance. Your photo website should not just be about publishing and sharing, but about supporting the goals of your creative career.
The range of photo hosting sites is as broad as the types of photo businesses out there. Some photo websites are better for fine art, others for selling stock photography or attracting clients to a portrait or event photography business. Some site designs are easy to customize, while others make you edit web page code. Finding the best photo hosting website for your work comes down to understanding the purpose of your photography, your budget, and your requirements for design and workflow.
In the interest of disclosure, I do not specifically endorse any of the websites I’ll mention. I do pay for accounts at Smugmug.com and 500px.com, and I have been a past employee and contractor at Adobe Systems Inc.
Why Are You Showing Your Images Online?
What is the mission of your photography? Your answer helps you focus your search for a photo website. Are you learning photography and need feedback from the photo community? Are you expanding your presence in art galleries or wanting to tell photographic stories? Are you focused on providing the best service to clients who license your photos or buy your photo products? Once you clearly understand the mission of your photography, that clarifies the mission of your photo website, and in turn, the kind of photo website you’re looking for.
Check Out My Pics: Simple Sharing and Feedback
If you simply want to share photos online in a community that will give you feedback, you’ve got lots of choices. Facebook and Google+ are general social media websites, but they have strong photography communities just because of their sheer size and scope. Flickr, DeviantArt, 500px, and Behance are more precisely targeted to photographers and other artists.
Figure 1: 500px provides photographers with community feedback in an attractive layout.
It’s tempting to just jump in and join one of these sites, but keep your ultimate mission in mind. While you might make a lot of friends, many social media web pages are surrounded by distracting ads or website branding that isn’t yours, with limited design options, limited potential for sales, and little to no customer support.
If building your own brand is important, you’ll want to focus on a customized website. It can still make sense to join a social media website as well; however, in that case the purpose of the social media website is not to be your online home base, but to gather attention that drives traffic to your own website.
Hire Me: Slick Portfolios
When you want to create a distraction-free showcase of your work, you’ll want a portfolio site with a clean design, free of user votes and comment threads, and with no ads, such as Portfoliobox, 4ormat, liveBooks, and Behance ProSite. These sites provide attractive, customizable templates so that you can quickly build a portfolio without having to code or hire a programmer. Naturally, without ads most of these sites require a monthly or annual fee.
The design options are usually limited, but customizable enough that your site doesn’t have to look generic. For example, the way most of these sites work is that after you choose a template, you can customize colors and add your logo.
Figure 2: liveBooks provides well-designed portfolios for creative professionals.
Before you spend money on a dedicated portfolio website, check to see if a service you already pay for has a portfolio feature. For example, if you subscribe to 500px.com at the Awesome level, a Portfolio is included. And while a Behance ProSite portfolio normally requires a subscription fee, if you’re an Adobe Creative Cloud subscriber a ProSite portfolio is included. The quality of the 500px and ProSite portfolio features is comparable to standalone portfolio sites.
A noteworthy type of portfolio is the story, patterned after the famous Big Picture web galleries from Boston.com. Story portfolios are a narrative covering a single subject, and are typically one long scrolling page of photos with a caption under each photo. If you’re a photojournalist or documentary photographer, you may want your website to have this feature. Smugmug.com provides a Journal theme for this, and 500px.com has a nicely designed Stories feature.
These services generally have a free trial period so that you can find out if you can build what you want with their tools. If you find that none of them do what you want, you can look into websites that are mostly or fully customizable.
Keep in Touch: Blog-based Sites
Many photographers have built websites using services that started out as blogging engines, such as WordPress or Squarespace. While building a photo website on a blogging engine may not make sense at first, advancements in web standards such as HTML5 and CSS3 have allowed blogging platforms to support a wide range of flexible layouts that are attractive enough to satisfy photographers and other artists with high visual standards. For example, there is an unbelievably long list of portfolio templates available for WordPress, and you can customize them so thoroughly that it may be hard for someone to guess which template you used. On top of all this, blog-based platforms tend to have a mature set of administrative tools for managing your content, and the cost of entry for a WordPress site is low.
Figure 3: Flexible templates are one reason WordPress has become popular for building photo websites.
With all of those advantages, why isn’t everyone making a photo website on WordPress? The power and flexibility has its own price. Like professional desktop software, WordPress has a definite learning curve—easy to learn, but can take time to master. Customization flexibility can vary with the template; to customize further you need to dig into CSS or HTML or pay someone to do it for you. If you just want to put a portfolio online without waiting and you don’t really need to push the envelope with your website design, you might prefer one of the turnkey portfolio websites I talked about earlier instead of trying to bend a blogging engine to your will.
Squarespace has emerged as an interesting alternative to WordPress. You might think of it as WordPress simplified, with gorgeous built-in templates and visually oriented, drag-and-drop page building. This does raise the cost of entry for Squarespace, but it may be worth it if you
aren’t technically oriented.
While I have called this category “blog-based,” do keep in mind that if you go this route there is no requirement to use these platforms for blogging. It’s just that these platforms have become useful for building general web sites. Also consider that being blog-based can be to your advantage, since maintaining a current, relevant blog linked to your portfolio can help your website’s ranking on search engines.
Do It Yourself: Sites From the Ground Up
Maybe you’re a free spirit who can’t be satisfied with any template. The advances in web standards that I mentioned earlier actually do make it easier to build a compelling web site from scratch. You can build or download code for slide shows, lightboxes (where clicking an image opens full screen), and other presentation widgets. Of course, this option is at the far end of the spectrum of ease-of-use vs. power: You have no limits, but you or someone you hire is going to have to develop, test, and maintain it so it will take a bit of time and expense.
An interesting option is the combination of Adobe Muse and Adobe Business Catalyst. Adobe Muse is highly visual, easy-to-use website building software with a user interface based on design-oriented (not web-coding oriented) Adobe software, and it integrates with Adobe Business Catalyst, a feature-rich web hosting platform. I’m only mentioning this one for the same reason I mentioned Behance ProSite: Many photographers and designers are now Creative Cloud subscribers, and Muse and Business Catalyst are already included with that subscription.
When you build your own site or host a WordPress site on your own server space, you take responsibility for keeping the site running 24/7. You must also keep the site backed up, ensure its security and defend it against hackers. When you subscribe to a photo website that includes hosting on their servers, someone else worries about all that.
License My Images: Commerce-Oriented Sites
If you make a living from volume sales of event photography such as weddings and sporting events, or from licensing your images as stock photography, you’ll want sales and client fulfillment features to be an important part of your photo website. While some photo websites such as Flickr and 500px offer print sales, there are others that go much further. Sites such as Smugmug, Zenfolio, PhotoShelter, and ExposureManager may provide features such as password-protected galleries for your clients, ways for your clients to make selections from their shoots, price lists you can set, coupons and gift certificates, a choice of professional print labs, the ability to replace their website branding with yours, and partnerships with other vendors who can provide services such as image editing or animated photo presentations. Some may provide ways for you to charge for licensed downloads of your photos.
Figure 4: PhotoShelter is one of the websites providing extensive tools for selling your photos online.
Yes, You Do Get What You Pay For
There’s a big price jump from free photo websites to very full-featured websites such as PhotoShelter, liveBooks, and SmugMug. When you pay more you generally get more options; easier design, administration, and maintenance; and the ability to make higher amounts of money from your photos. The more expensive sites often impress with browser-based gallery editing controls that look and work more like desktop software, and more accessible customer support. When pricing subscription websites, do check to see if you can save money by paying annually instead of monthly. Because your online presence should be a long-term commitment, you’ll probably want to pay annually anyway.
Kicking The Tires: A Checklist
Photo websites are constantly evolving. As I was writing this article, at least two of the websites I mentioned were about to release major upgrades, and others had already updated their feature sets since the last time I looked at them. And because the sites I’ve mentioned do not represent a comprehensive list, you’ll find even more as you do your own research and use the free trial periods that most photo websites offer. To help you navigate your way through this constantly changing online landscape, here’s a checklist of questions you can ask as you look over the latest photo website everyone’s tweeting about.
Workflow, Design, and Maintenance
You’re going to spend a lot of time on your photo website, both setting it up and maintaining it. Make sure it doesn’t drive you crazy.
- How easy is it to create, arrange, and edit a gallery and organize multiple galleries?
- How easy is it to change the layout of a page?
- Can you upload directly from your favorite editing software? (Some sites have plug-ins that integrate their website with software such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Apple Aperture)
- Can you do things in bulk, such as bulk upload, bulk download, bulk watermarking, or editing many keywords and captions at once?
- Is it easy to replace an image with an updated version? (You’d be surprised how many sites make image replacement difficult or impossible.)
- Are there limits on the number of images you can upload, the server space you use, or the data throughput (bandwidth) your viewers use?
- (For advanced users) Can the site design be modified using custom CSS code?
Web browsing on mobile devices is rising so quickly that your site must work well on tablets and smartphones. But a surprising number of sites still do not scale to mobile devices and do not support touch gestures, so be careful.
- How does the site look on desktop and notebook computers, tablet devices and smartphones?
- Does a viewer on a mobile device have to frequently zoom in and out to read text and see photos, or is the site optimized for readable viewing on any size screen?
- Can someone using a tablet or smartphone navigate your site easily with touch gestures such as swiping and pinching?
- Can you easily use your smartphone or tablet to manage your photo website?
In this digital era, a photo isn’t just the image, but also the identifying and descriptive data that travels with it: its metadata.
- If you upload a photo with metadata, such as EXIF shot data, captions and keywords, your copyright statement, or the GPS location, is it preserved on both upload and download?
- Is metadata displayed next to the photo on the page? Is that optional?
- Can you edit photo metadata on the website, such as adding or editing captions, keywords, and location?
- How does the website use location data?
- Can photos be easily located on a map?
Photographer Rights and Deterring Theft
Let’s be realistic: If an image appears on the web, it can be downloaded or screen-captured, so there is no such thing as theft prevention. But some websites give you features that can deter image copying.
- Can you upload large images to archive them, while limiting the actual pixel dimensions that the images display on the website?
- Can you easily add watermarks to images?
- Does the site provide ways to discourage image downloading, such as popping up a message when someone right-clicks an image to download it?
- If an image contains copyright metadata, does the site preserve it at all times, including when downloaded?
- Is there a place on the web
site to display your copyright or licensing notice?
- How do the terms of service of the website describe what the website can do with your photos?
If your photo website is your showcase, the focus should be on your art and your brand, not anyone else’s.
- Can you replace the site’s logo, background, fonts, colors, and other elements with your own?
- Can you use a custom URL, such as using your own domain name?
- If there’s a shopping cart, does it display your company’s name or the name of the e-commerce provider?
Selling photos from your website requires a robust and trustworthy set of features for handling transactions and keeping customers happy.
- What’s the range of print products that customers can order? Do you want to sell just prints on paper? Or do you want to offer framed prints, metal prints, posters, or other products such as mugs and T-shirts?
- If you want to sell licensed downloads of your photos, does the website offer that option?
- Can you set your own prices and profit margins?
- Can your clients easily mark favorites from their shoots?
- How does the site handle payments to you, state taxes, and tax reporting?
- Can your clients order in international currencies?
Social Media and Discoverability
A website doesn’t exist as an island. It exists to be connected, because that’s how people find out about your work.
- What does the site do to optimize your content for SEO (Search Engine Optimization), or search engine ranking?
- How good is the statistics reporting on the site? Can you tell who your visitors are and where they come from?
- Can the website be integrated with Google Analytics?
- Does the site include icons that link to social media sites, such as a Facebook “Like”?
- Does the site include icons that link to your pages on social media sites, such as your Facebook business page?
A photo website can be the hub of your online presence. Don’t just upload your photos to the first trendy, slick-looking website you hear about. Choose a photo website by doing your research and finding one that can grow with your photography.Tags