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Tips for Building a Perfect Photo Portfolio Web Site

By January 9, 2012 Instructional 10 Comments

Being hired to shoot a project or expedition requires that you have the whole package– excellent photos, attitude, personality, discipline — but when it comes down to it, the first thing a client will look at when doing their research is something that many photographers neglect: the web site. It needs to be flawless. Why, then, are photographer web sites notorious for being so bad?

If it seems like I spend a lot of time thinking about photography web sites, I have a good reason: along with my work as a photographer, I also work as a web developer for the University of Colorado in Denver.

Web sites have a lot of impact today. Thanks to technology and the Internet, the world feels significantly smaller than before. No longer do you have to be tied down to a specific region to land a job there — or anywhere. In lieu of your paper resume, you can now offer a URL. In the absence of an interview, your web site can speak for you. And just as crucial as a first impression can be, your web site should serve as the equivalent of a professional, well-rounded, and well-dressed introduction. A bad first impression — in person and on the web — is hard to forget and even harder to redo.

Your web site is often the single deciding factor in whether you get a call or an email about a project. Having a beautiful, up-to-date web site shows that you’re serious about your career. As our methods of interaction have shifted, your web site can now act as a firm handshake and a smile. For photographer Colby Brown his web site is just that. “In my world, my website is my base. My foundation. It is the meeting point of all my marketing, both physical and digital. For me having a solid foundation is the most important after having designed a solid business plan.”

So, what goes into creating a great web site?

1. Recognize Your Audience

audience
Before even starting your site design, ask yourself if the design will appeal to your audience. Consider two groups — your current audience, and perhaps more important, your target audience. Once you have a grasp on this, you’ll have better success at marketing your photos. Always keep the customer’s needs in mind. Customers enjoy a familiar, comfortable feel when browsing a site. Use big, readable web-friendly fonts. Consider how your audience will navigate through your site. Is it an older population? Will they have trouble seeing your content? If you are selling stories that accompany your photos, perhaps your blog should be the first page that your user sees. Keep all of this in mind and adjust it accordingly to assure that your audience has a positive experience — and hopefully many more visits in the future.

2. Focus On Your Photos

photo slides
Since you’re maintaining a photography web site, clients are most likely coming to see your photos. Make this a peak experience for them by doing a few important things. First, make sure that your photos are front and center. This must be your main feature and the first thing that the client experiences. Your photos should cover the width of the site container. Any additional content should be placed below the fold, or at least out of the direct viewing experience.

How many photos should I show?

Everything you’ve ever shot does not belong in your portfolio. Establish a clear hierarchy, organization, and flow. Potential clients can get a full understanding about your shooting style in less than a minute. For your portfolio, aim for 15 or fewer images per category and make sure there is a smooth flow from one photo to the next. I would even discourage including several shots from the same shoot. Clients will quickly pick up on this and question your range.

3. No Flash. Period.

No Flash
As an Apple fan, I might be partially biased here, but as a web site user when you use Flash on your site, you’re telling me that 10% of your visitors don’t matter. Flash is awful. Unless you’re looking to be hired by Pixar to create Cars 3, your site has no need for Flash. Flash, the technology, definitely has a place, but it’s not on the web. Much has been written about the downsides of using Flash on your web site, but some of the more important reasons include:

  • Flash is inaccessible. People with functioning eyes are not the only people that browse the Internet. Blind users navigate web sites using screen readers that read aloud text on their screen. Flash essentially writes text on the screen using images that are unreadable by a screen reader. This also means there is no chance to improve readability by increasing the text size using the browser’s built-in features. Flash also breaks the back button, rendering users no way to use the browser for navigation.
  • Flash is difficult for SEO.In most cases, Flash content does not get indexed by search engines because search bots are essentially trying to read content from an image. It’s even been hypothesized that having an entire Flash web site can hurt your rankings as the search engine considers your site to be keywords with no content.
  • Flash is slow.The only time my hefty iMac reaches deep into the depths of the hardware to fire up the fans is when I am running Flash content. Nine times out of ten whenever I have the unfortunate browser crash, it is due to trying to load a huge Flash movie embedded into a web site. Photographer’s images are consistently large enough for the web. Don’t slow down your site even more by serving them up inside of Flash.
  • Flash cannot be viewed by all devices. With the recent popularity surge of smart devices, more or our content is being read via mobile browsers. But, iOS, Blackberry devices, and others don’t read Flash because of increased CPU demands. Some sources even have iOS devices being used by 5% of Internet users. Personally I’m not okay with having 1 out of 20 users not be able to access my photos.
  • Flashblock has been downloaded over 6.5 million times.That’s over 6 million savvy Internet users that have spoken up about Flash and taken action to never see Flash in their browsers again.
  • Flash is difficult to maintain. It requires editing skills that are outside the realm of normal web development skills. Opening a Flash movie to move keyframes is significantly more difficult than essentially editing text in an HTML file.
  • Nothing that can be done with Flash, can not also be done with HTML5. The Web is progressing daily to be friendlier, faster, and easier to program. Not only does Flash cause the problems above, but it is an unnecessary technology. HTML5 has the ability to do everything, if not more, that Flash can provide, and people are introducing new uses for it all the time.

4. Clean and Simple

Good design is invisible. You don’t notice air conditioning when it’s set just right, only when it’s too hot or too cold. We don’t notice good design. – Jared Spool

I am a believer in minimalism in both my life and and my photography work. This quality is recognizable in my web designs. Clean. Simple. Each aspect of your website should serve a purpose and there should be nothing extra. You want a website where where content is king. The goal of your should be to show off your work, inform your audience, and potentially instruct. Pretty, detailed designs are great the first visit, but visitors return for the content.

In today’s world there is so much information available that our attention spans are returning to that of a 3-year-old. Unless users are able to quickly figure out your site, they will leave immediately. Make sure that your photos are maximized for the Web and load within seconds. If you’re presenting your photos in a slideshow, use a preloader and load images that have not yet appeared in the background.

Keep in mind that clean and simple includes no watermarks on your photos.

NO WATERMARKS? BUT WHAT IF SOMEONE STEALS MY PHOTOS!?

I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to place watermarks on photos (I prefer the term advertising over watermark, but one thing that has remained constant with my stance is that on your personal site, watermarks have no place. Watermarks distract from the image and having a watermark makes the viewer believe that you don’t trust them, and thus, the relationship is ruined before it even begins. It’s one thing to place a watermark on a photo that is on a site that doesn’t belong to you. This way the user has a way of finding their way back to your site should they want to see more. But, when all the user has to do is look to the address bar to see the photographer, watermarks serve no purpose. Leave them off of your photos.

Where do I find a designer/developer?

Keep room in your budget for web site customization. If you can, hire a web developer, or at the very least, buy a template online. A good designer/developer doesn’t have to be expensive. You can find good designers on 99 Designs and similar sites, but be leery of sites like Craigslist. When choosing a designer/developer, ask for references and previous designs. And remember, you can often barter or trade your photographs for work. If you’re selling your prints on your site, SmugMug and Photoshelter provide excellent templates that include an online store.

5. Make it Easy to Navigate

Navigation
Within a few seconds, a visitor to your site should be able to find a portfolio, information about you (where you reside, what you like to shoot, social links, etc), and contact you in less than a minute. This is usually accomplished by including in your navigation what I consider the 4 essential pages.

  • Contact
  • About
  • Portfolio
  • Blog

Of course you can get creative in choosing titles for these, to an extent, but make sure that these four items exist on your site. Also, it’s common courtesy on the Web to have your logo link to the home page of the web site. And from any page in the site, you should be able to navigate to any other page in the site. There should be no “black holes.”

I don’t like to write. Why do I need a blog?

For several reasons. Most importantly, a blog is a prime location to provide updated content. When ranking Web sites, Google and other search engines factor in the last time that your site’s content was updated and rank them accordingly. If you’re just thinking that you’re going to put your portfolio up and then ignore your site until the domain is up for renewal, you can expect to be buried into search engine pages that have never been seen. A daily, or even weekly blog post let’s search engines know that you’re keeping your content relevant and up-to-date.

Your blog is the area of your site that you’re allowed to be creative, witty, and outgoing. Let it all out. Photography is a creative field and there’s no reason that your web site shouldn’t be also. Showcase your personality and add a personal touch that makes you seem approachable.

How do I create a blog?

Luckily the Internet makes that simple for even the least Internet-savvy person. Chris Burkard, Tim Kemple, Camp4 Collective, and Morgan Maassen are just a few of the photographers that I follow. WordPress is also a popular blogging platform if you’re comfortable with some minor customization.

Earlier, I mentioned that you should not show every photo you’ve ever taken. Luckily there is a spot for that, and it’s in the blog. The blog is where the rest of your shots belong. It’s where you get a chance to tell a story with your photos. Talk about your travels, give trip reports, provide inspiration, but most importantly provide something of value to your readers. Knowledge is for sharing and we are all here to learn. People live vicariously through photographer’s lifestyle. Although we know it’s not always as glamorous as it may seem, people are envious of traveling and shooting photos. Let people live through you.

6. Provide multiple methods of contact

Contact forms are great and convenient, but they shouldn’t be the end-all method for contacting you. In addition to a form, include your actual business address, links to various social networks, phone number, and business address if you have one. Anything that you can do to make things easier for your users will be appreciated and ultimately benefit you in the long run.

7. Remember accessibility

Toilet in snow
Once again, people with functioning eyes are not the only people that browse your web site. In an effort to reach all users make sure that:

  • Users can navigate without a mouse. The tab key should move the selection around your site in order to allow function for people with limited motor skills.
  • Alt tags are how blind users “see” the Internet. When using a screen reader, the alt tags are read aloud which describes what images is being displayed. It also has the added benefit of providing additional information for SEO.
  • Your pages have page titles. Providing a different page title within the heading of your HTML will not only notify the user where they are within your site, but again, helps with SEO by displaying keywords in the title bar.
  • Your pages only scroll vertical.Horizontal scrolling has not only shown to be annoying and frustrating for users, but for people with poor spatial visualization skills, it’s especially difficult to travel across two axes on a plane.

8. Don’t forget mobile

iPad web site
Luke Wroblewski authorizes a mobile first design strategy, suggesting that you should design your site for mobile before moving to how it will perform on a computer. While I don’t quite go to that extreme, I do believe that mobile web sites are becoming more popular, and thus, you should ensure that your site functions in all mediums. This includes tablets as well as cell phones. I’m partial to creating responsive designed sites that serve the same content when viewed on a mobile device, ut bend to conform to the smaller screen size, but you can serve up two separately designed web sites – one for mobile and one for desktop/laptops.

Great Photographer Sites

Not to call any one particular site out, but we all know a bad site when you see one. Even more-so, you know it when you try to navigate it. I want to wrap up this post with a few examples of what I consider great photographer web sites.

Oskar Enander

Oskar Enander Web site screenshot

Morgan Maassen

Morgan Maassen Web site screenshot

Dan Carr

Dan Carr Web site screenshot

Chase Jarvis Blog

Chase Jarvis Blog Screenshot

Camilla Stoddart

Camilla Stoddart Web Site Screenshot

Further Guidance

Want an honest, constructive opinion of your site? I would be happy to look at it from three viewpoints: a web developer, a photographer, and an everyday user. Contact me or send me a message through any of my social networks.

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