I’ve finally admitted to myself that my website is too much work to keep up in its current configuration. For years now, pride has gotten the better of me as I have done all the design and set-up myself, using Adobe GoLive at first, then migrating, quite successfully, to iWeb. However, with having to do all the “back end” work, the time needed to maintain the site and upload photos is far greater than I have. Lightroom Web module is also a bit disappointing in that to make one minor edit/additon/deletion, you need to upload the whole page – time consuming and inefficient. As well, I know my Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is poor and the site is beginning to look stale. It needs a refresh!
NOTE: If you are considering using SmugMug, please use the referral link at the end of this post. It will give you 20% off any of the services you choose (and it helps me, too = win-win!)
For the past few months I’ve been scanning the websites of photo portfolio hosting services, examining the myriad options – and there are many. I’ve have them narrowed down to two: ZenFolio and SmugMug, but I looked at many; here’s a summary:
- PhotoBucket and Flickr: I have a Flickr account and use it regularly to upload recent work, but it is more of a depository for images, rather than a “capital G” Gallery; PhotoBucket is similar. While I like the modern look of both services, there isn’t the level of customization I’m looking for and at times, I’ve found Flickr to be a bit clunky in its implementation of slide shows and full screens. At $25 per year, Flickr a good deal, but not ideal. Photobucket, on the other hand, seems “scammy”, like they are trying to pull one over on you. On their homepage there is no mention of pricing, features or options, just a bunch of irrelevant small thumbnails. When you do get to pricing, it says 10GB, but then you read the small print to find it’s only 2GB, but uploading the app gives you 10GB. To me that’s not straightforward; it’s weaselling. No thanks.
- Portfoliobox is perhaps the closest contender to Zenfolio and SmugMug, at least from my perspective. I think it’s the European influence of its styling that attracts me as well as its affinity to artists and creative professionals. Portfoliobox also has a no-nonsense choice of two accounts: free or $7.50/month. The only thing preventing me from heading in their direction is the lack of customization. I guess I’ve been spoiled having complete control for all these years that I still want some control, just not all of it.
- 500px is similar to Flickr in that it is more of a depository of photos, but it has a much stronger “photo community” emphasis. I tried 500px for a while, but couldn’t be on it frequently enough to keep up with the “likes”. While I do some “liking” of photos in Flickr, gaining stature through “likes” as 500px does, is not my thing. Also, when my “Home” page is photos by other people, I can see it’s more about discovering other photos than working with my own. Flickr can be a bit like that, too. I don’t mind seeing other photographers’ work, but my goal with the site is to promote my own work.
- PhotoShelter is a popular option amongst professional photographers. Even with its cheapest option at $10/month, it offers a complete store-front fulfilment option. But I’m not interested in having prints made by an outside company. I want to maintain the quality of my prints by doing my own archival fine art printing.
- SqaureSpace has an excellent set of modern gallery templates that are photography-oriented so it caught my eye. But I also noticed it caters to businesses, restaurants and stores, so it’s not focussed exclusively on photography galleries. That’s not bad, I would just rather have the hosting service more focussed. Also, the plan that I would need is $16/month – rather steep when I don’t want the “Sell up to 20 products” option.
- Now, FolioLink is photography and artist-oriented hosting service that is very modern and has a variety of options. In fact it is perhaps the premier service, but the price starts at $239/year and for your own domain, it’s another $30 – for up to 120 portfolio images. No thanks! My Scottish blood won’t allow it.
- A note about WordPress. I use WordPress quite successfully for my blog. Yet, there are a number of photographers who use it as their gallery and website. Maybe I’m not flexible enough in my thinking or I just don’t know enough about WordPress, but I feel you should use the right tool for the job: a gallery site for galleries and a blog site for blogs. They have their specialities and I would rather work towards each of their strengths. Besides, although WordPress is free, if you want elegant design, you pay for it by purchasing templates. i would rather pay for the hosting and have the flexibility to change designs without having to completely revamp my website.
- I also considered The Turning Gate (TTG). They have a series of options available for galleries and sales that work through the Lightroom Web module. Quite clever, actually, but given the limitations of the LR Web module, I have steered away. I also find the presentation of the Gallery page to be a bit “blocky” – not what I was looking for.
So that brings me to my two finalists: Zenfolio and SmugMug. I must admit to disliking the name SmugMug and preferring the name Zenfolio, but that’s a minor aesthetic point compared to what the two services offer.
But what does my website need? What, specifically am I looking for beyond modern-looking galleries? Here’s a list of “must haves”:
- primarily, my website needs to host Galleries of images that I create/curate;
- the site must also be flexible enough to allow keyword searches so that allow users may search based on their own needs and way fo thinking, not mine;
- the host must offer modern, elegant designs with sizing from large monitors to tablets and phones. To me, “elegant design” means there is very little technology between the user and the website; it must be intuitive.
- additional web pages with text are also necessary, such as an About page, plus pages describing my workshops and fine print sales;
- the service must also allow uploads directly from Lightroom through the Publish Services. This is critical, as LR’s Publish Services provide me with a smooth workflow for managing titles, captions, keywords and galleries all from within Lightroom;
- Most of all, however, the hosting service must be offered at a price reasonable enough to make it all worth it without including a lot of extras I won’t use.
Both ZenFolio and SmugMug offer these options at $60/year – very reasonable. They are actually quite similar, offering significant customization and a variety of pages. Zenfolio comes closer to a ready-made option with a Blog, About and Contact pages in addition to Gallery pages. I also appreciate the tree-style organization of the photos in Zenfolio and the ability to have “Collections” as well as folders. I’ve since learned of the same options in SmugMug, but they are not made as obvious as they are in Zenfolio.
It Takes Time!
This is one of the problems I have found in this investigation – it takes a huge amount of time. If I only went by the posted feature set and price, I could make my decision right away, but that’s what they want you to do, just like buying a car. It’s only when you look under the hood that you discover differences that could either make your efforts worth while or worthless – but yoiu won’t know until you actually work with it in depth for awhile.
For the last two weeks I’ve been hard at work using the free trials available for both services. ZenFolio certainly offers some real functionality and quite in-depth web design options. But I’ve found the interface to be a bit clunky. In particular, to make site changes, you go into a whole different side that is not seamless. SmugMug is similar, however I find the interface for page design more intuitive, once I became oriented to it. It is easy to see when you are making page changes, or site-wide changes. I do prefer ZenFolio’s easy-to-access organizational tree for photo galleries, but SmugMug is a close second.
One area of importance is how good their help is. I’m one to dive in and problem-solve. If I can’t probelm solve, I need to be able to find an answer; if that’s not possible, there needs to be someone available by email to help. I can happily report that I’ve worked with both Help Resources and Help Desks and have had excellent service. This included a rather protracted problem with the SmugMug Lightroom plugin, but it was easily solved and SmugMug extended my trial period.
So, the two services are rather identical except for one thing… The $60/year Zenfolio service is ideal, but I can’t use my own luxBorealis.com logo on Zenfolio unless I opt for the $140/year service. While this service also provides a store front for fulfilling print orders – the major difference to their $60/year service which does not – it’s a service I don’t need nor want. A logo is important, but it’s not worth $80 more.
SmugMug, on the other hand, for the same $60/year gives me exactly what I need. It has a lovely full-screen interface for my homepage that seems to work better than the Zenfolio equivalent. I also find navigation set-up and website customization much more straightforward. Another advantage to SmugMug is the limitless pages I can create with surprisingly flexible designs. It seems like a frivolous feature, but I particularly like SmugMug’s implementation of a keyword cloud – you will see it on any page on my site by scrolling down. Very interactive; very cool!
So, the decision has been made. I invite you to visit my SmugMug website and take it for a spin. Then, feel free to add your comments, either there at the SmugMug site or back here.
AND, in case you missed the note at the top, if you choose to use SmugMug, here is a referral code that gives you 20% off the service you choose – just click this link.