Read Me: Before You Build Your Photography Website
It took the better part of three months. It taxed my mental energy and tested my patience. But, I enjoyed the process of building my website and brand immensely, and I learned that working with technology is every bit as creative as making photographs (which, when you come right down to it, is working with technology).
What I learned, more than anything else, is that there is a lot to learn. If you're a photographer about to embark on that journey, here's a few things to consider:
Photography Websites are Unique
While all websites need great imagery, photography websites are all about images. Before you even start, look at a lot of photography websites and decide which image display style is right for you. Knowing where you want to end up will allow you to select the right template, and save you from wasting a lot of time trying to customize the wrong template.
You will likely find that some themes emerge, such as whether you gravitate toward screen-wide display of fewer images or grid displays of lots of images side-by-side. In particular, pay attention to white space. Do you like a fully-padded border around images, or do you like edge-to-edge bleed? Margins can be the most nettlesome to customize, and in some templates cannot be customized much at all.
If possible, keep track of which design/host platforms are used by the sites you like best (more on this below).
Content, Content, Content
Have some content ready before you register on any build/host platforms. This is one I wish I had known in advance, for sure. Most platforms offer free trials and most are 14 days. Having content ready to go, including some text for your about and contact pages, etc., will allow you to make the most of your trials. Yes, I said trials. You’ll probably try at least a couple.
And, don’t just pull your favorite images into a single folder. Learn something about proper file formatting for website display. Website load speed has a big role in search engine optimization, and improperly formatted images drag load speed WAY down. By changing out a single improperly formatted image (my logo) on my splash page, I improved my load speed by 30 points on Google’s Pagespeed tool (a 100 point scale). Here's a great tutorial on proper file formatting for website display from
Do You Want To Blog?
Here are some other questions to ponder before you dig into the design/host platforms:
- How tech-savvy are you?
- How much time do you want to devote to your website and blog?
- What’s your budget for monthly cost?
- What kind of photographer are you? Are you looking to meticulously curate fine art images, or are you looking to use your website to proof and deliver a high volume of wedding photos?
I spent, and continue to spend, an inordinate amount of time perusing the various design/host platforms. The reason I did and do this is because each of the platforms presents a gallery of sample websites created by actual photographers, and, naturally, they feature fantastic photographers. I discovered many of my favorite photographers among the marketing portfolios of design/build hosts. In addition, I learned quite a lot about what site designs I found appealing.
What follows here is a brief summary of the platforms I considered seriously for my own site. I have no affiliation with any of them, and I'm sure there are many other contenders that deserve consideration. These, however, were the best I found after considerable digging.
- Completely DIY
build a site entirely on your own using Wordpress. Wordpress is free, open-source software. You can buy a domain, pay about $3 per month to have a website hosted on that domain, and use one of the thousands of free Wordpress templates (themes) as a starting point to build a site from scratch. If any of this information is news to you, don't do it. Unless you are very tech-savvy, and already have a good understanding of what this involves, there are much better options for a photography website. The only exception is for your blog. I used Wordpress to build an extremely minimal blog site, which is integrated into my website navigation. I'm pretty comfortable with technology, and even this took a fair amount of effort.
I came pretty close to usi
ng Squarespace, and I may eventually move to it. I got further into a free trial than with any over platform before I set it aside. Squarespace is intended to be a platform for all types of businesses. Their templates are excellent. However, while all of the templates feature images beautifully, none are designed to feature images almost exclusively. You can customize the templates, but in order to make the design engine super easy to use (which it is), the number of elements that can be modified is limited. Fewer moving parts facilitates simplicity. In my experience, the parts that don't move very easily made it difficult to achieve the curated gallery look that is available with design/host platforms targeted exclusively to photographers. I've certainly seen beautifully curated photography websites built on Squarespace, but I can't figure out how the designers got there.
- Photography-Specific Platforms
You should choose Photofolio if you primarily want an elegant, curated display of your images, and if you're willing to pay a little more for that elegance. Prepare yourself to invest some time learning the design engine. It gives you wide control over many display features. Lots of moving parts. But, if you follow their terrific tutorials in a methodical manner, you will end up with a gorgeous site,
one that truly stands out from the fray of cookie cutter templates.
Photofolio also delivers robust SEO performance. Some sites brag that you can upload any size file in any format. Not Photofolio. One of the first topics covered on their help page is proper file formatting for load speed (an excellent tutorial regardless of what platform you end up using - and the one mentioned above). It’s possible to jam a file into your Photofolio portfolio that is too large, but only over the express pop up warnings that will try to save you from yourself.
While the user interface is a bit unwieldy until you get used to it, it's built on a very sophisticated infrastructure. In reviewing platforms, I ran lots of Google Pagespeed tests on “real customer” sites. The only one I found that scored a perfect 100 on both desktop and mobile load speeds was a Photofolio site.
What's missing? It's possible to incorporate private galleries for client proofing, but it's very rudimentary, and there's virtually no support for file delivery or product sales. I say virtually, because the platform does incorporate those features, but if those issues are of high priority for your business, read on.
What about the blog? Included in your subscription is free hosting of a separate Wordpress blog on Flywheel, with whom Photofolio has an agreement. You then simply link to that blog from the main navigation of your website. Or you can link an existing blog or Tumblr account. I like this approach because it means I can take my blog with me if I leave Photofolio. But, it's more work to set up, maintain, and properly utilize for SEO purposes. UPDATE (March, 2018): Photofolio recently upgraded their platform software to allow for an integrated blog. I don't like it personally because the interface for building pages is clunky, especially when compared to dedicated external blogging platforms like Blogger.
If you want a very respectable display of your images, but really need a place to manage and move a high volume of images for client proofing and file delivery, Photoshelter is pretty much the only platform you should consider. The file management tools of Photoshelter’s back end are
incredible. It's the choice of real working professionals who need to move files on a deadline. It even has an integrated cloud storage service that can replace Dropbox and get all your files in one place.
What's missing? The website templates are pretty stock. Not many moving parts. But, as a result, you can get one up and running in no time, and if you're really moving that many files, that's probably more of a pro than a con.
Photoshelter’s blog approach is similar to Photofolio’s in that you link to an externally hosted blog, but the linkage is a little more elegant, such that the site branding carries through to your blog (or at least it can if you want that).
Format and Clickbooq
Format and Clickbooq are both good alternatives to Photofolio and Photoshelter if you are on a budget, or if you are simply looking to get up and running fast. These two are less expensive, and the design engines are very simple and user-friendly. I found their templates to be a bit too stock and inflexible for my taste, but I also found them quite attractive.
If you've read this far, you know I'm a geek and a perfectionist, so that's pretty high praise from me. Each of these platforms has a slightly different emphasis in their feature set, so compare them carefully. However, both of them offer a lot for their price.
Clickbooq’s blog is fully integrated so that it's just another fully-branded page of your website. Easy, but you leave it behind if you go. Format’s appears to be more like Photoshelter’s approach, but to be honest, I did not explore it very extensively.
I approached my website construction a bit like sprinting through a corn maze. I ran down lots of dead ends, and bent over exhausted at times. But I learned a ton, and I can assure you that you will enjoy it, especially if this brain dump saves you a few missteps.