Expert Advice: Building a Functional Photography Website

Feb 6, 2019
Expert Advice

We at Wonderful Machine spend a lot of time on photographer websites. Between our existing members and the new inquiries contacting us every day, we consider ourselves experts in the current trends and proven practices for online portfolios.

William Geddes' website is clean, easy to navigate, and uses the entire screen to display his portrait and interior photography.

Even as Instagram has largely displaced the photographer blog, the portfolio website is still a vital marketing tool for commercial and editorial photographers. While Instagram is great at spontaneously connecting with an audience, only a website can provide a platform that allows you to curate and display a thoughtful collection of portfolio images. Neglecting any part of your web presence as a professional photographer can spell disaster for all but the household names and full-time staff photographers (and even then, a cross-country move or change in representation can require a major overhaul).

There are a slew of options available, but not all websites are created equal. When you’re looking at web hosts or template providers, there are a few basic features to check for—photographers are visual artists, and clients coming to your website are looking to see your images presented in ways that are easy to view on multiple devices and screen sizes, easy to navigate, and above all look their best. One of the easiest pitfalls to succumb to is a photographer creating a ‘fun, unique’ website at the expense of navigability and simplicity. There are reasons why integrated template/hosting companies like Squarespace and Photofolio exist—they have mastered the art of showcasing online portfolios without distracting site features.

It’s also important to remember that websites are not fine wine—they do not get better with age. Keep your work current (within the last 2-3 years if possible) and try to regularly add new work and remove older work. Your site should feel fresh and current, not like it’s been sitting, collecting dust.

Not sure whether your website is up to snuff? Ask yourself a few basic questions (and some more specific ones):

IS IT CURATED?

Consider an art buyer’s job. How many images do they see on any given day—500, 800, a thousand? Image fatigue is real, and capturing and maintaining the attention of a visitor to your site is paramount. A succinct, tightly curated selection of recent images is a photographer’s strongest weapon. The way you organize work on your site demonstrates where your focus lies, and presenting a jumbled body of work tells a potential client that you don’t know who you are as a shooter. I’ve said that a web edit is usually a good first step for establishing your brand, because it starts at the source—your images.

Do the pictures speak in a consistent and coherent style? Especially for young photographers or those with many areas of specialty, it’s much easier to dump all the portraiture together in a gallery without giving thought to the overall look and flow. When I’m doing an edit, I pay attention to line, color, and form in addition to narrative. Photographers are visual artists, and clicking into a new gallery should represent that. It should feel eye-catching but pleasant, not a cacophony of color and texture.

Are the pictures separated into useful categories? Simply separating by specialty is not always the best course of action. If you’re especially well-versed in brand narrative or looking to attract those clients, it may be better to separate out by project or by client. Sometimes lyrical titles can help give context to less well-defined galleries.

Is the number of images overwhelming? We generally recommend keeping galleries around 25-30 images, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

If there are multiple specialties, do they clash with one another? If you shoot food and automotive photography, that’s great, but should they be showcased side-by-side? Probably not. Different clients come to your site for different reasons, and while it’s nice to show the range of your work, you may need to think about splitting your websites, or placing those galleries far from each other in your navigation.

Are the pictures marketable? Photography is an art form, and many photographers want to showcase their most beautiful or personally beloved images on their website. It’s important to look at an image and ask yourself the question, “What brands or clients does this image apply to?” Chances are, if you can’t think of any, it might be time to let that image go from an edit.

Do any of the pictures look dated? Even if the composition of your work is impeccable and the images beautiful, there are a variety of factors that can reveal the age of an image—outdated fashion or technology, heavy or trendy processing, or in the case of well-known celebrities or figures, the actual age of the subject.

Noah Willman used color to connect what may otherwise have been a wide variety of portraits, leaving him with a harmonious gallery.
IS IT FUNCTIONAL?

This is absolutely key. Most photo editors, art directors, or clients have very little time to casually peruse a photographer’s website (at least the first time). The longer it takes or the harder it is for them to access what they’re looking for, the more likely they are to close your site and move to the next name on their list. This includes big things like an inaccessible site or broken links, but also boils down to typos and grainy images. Attention to detail on your end means giving potential clients the least possible number of reasons to leave your site. Consider the following:

Does your site work for everyone? Try your website in a few different browsers to ensure there are no errors and everything renders as you intended. It’s been our recommendation that photographers move away from Flash sites for several years now, and Flash is no longer supported by all major browsers. If you're still using a flash site, we recommend switching as soon as possible so your visitors get the best possible experience. For example, here’s what a Flash website looks like to my browser:

Are all of your links live? Are their destination pages connecting properly?

Do the pictures take too long to load? Don’t let anyone get the impression your website is broken. It’s the straightest path to a high bounce rate.

Are your thumbnails the right size? They should be small enough to show a general overview of the gallery, but large enough to see the subject of the image.

Are there any spelling or grammar problems? Unfortunately, people get stuck on something out of place, and a typo can distract from the bio, caption, or client list you’d rather they be remembering. Triple check your spelling. Have someone else read over everything. There are also third-party apps like Grammarly, that can help keep your spelling and grammar in check.

Have you linked to your social networking pages? Even if the icon is on your site, it’s possible that it is just connecting to the Facebook or Instagram homepage, rather than your personal profile.

Have you accurately stated your location? You don’t need to have your entire home address listed, but at the very least include your metro area.

Do you feature a bio and portrait of yourself? When someone is looking at hiring you, it's not just your photography that counts. Show clients who you are, both in personality and in person!

Is there sufficient and easily noticeable contact info? Clients don’t want to be shepherded to a form. List an email and a phone number where they can reach out.

Is the current gallery differentiated? It can be confusing for a visitor to not know exactly where they are on your site. Make sure that the current page is highlighted or differentiated on the site's navigation in an obvious but unobtrusive way.

Can I advance to the next image without using a mouse? Essentially, can you move through a gallery without using the arrow keys? Most templates automatically provide this, but boy, do we miss it when they don’t.

Is there music? Let your images do the singing.

Are you using transitions? Are they disruptive to the viewing experience? Having images fade in and fade out can feel less abrupt than a straight cut, but drawn out transitions can seem more like a loading error than a stylistic choice.

IS IT BRANDED?

Are you utilizing a wordmark and logo? Do you have other branding assets integrated? 

Shaina Fishman uses one to two colors from her branding in her landing page slideshow, giving her site a simple but sophisticated look.

Are your gallery titles a good fit for your brand? You can afford to do something whimsical when shooting kids or animals, but less so when you have industrial or corporate clients.

Does it link to your active blog or social media pages? If you have inactive social media accounts (or a blog from three years ago), those links should be deleted. Once again, your website should never be stagnant, but a further extension of your business.

Is the URL consistent with the branding? If your website is kodak4lyfe.com and all the branding inside is John Doe Photography, it’s time to either reevaluate your URL or start hoarding what Kodak film you have left.

Does the email address use the same URL? Squarespace makes it especially easy to create an email that matches your site URL. If you can’t or won’t use an email connected to your site, at least use a Gmail account (which is really the standard today). You may still own an AIM or Hotmail email address, but you should not use it for professional communication. Does it say “[email protected]”? Try “[email protected]” Clients want to feel as if they’re getting directly in contact with you, not jumping through hoops or having their outreach drop into a bottomless pit.

Do you have a copyright date? Does it still say 2006? Keep it up to date every year—you want your site to appear active on all fronts.

Matt Nager's about page has a self-portrait, a biography with a splash of personality, and a list of past clients.

Updating or building a new website is always an undertaking, and evaluating these questions can feel completely overwhelming. There are a lot of resources out there for photographers, from articles to workshops to online tutorials, and it’s up to you whether you want to take up the mantle yourself or bring on a helping hand.  If you’re looking to tackle a project like this on your own, use these questions as a checklist!

If your mind started racing just thinking about all you have to do, don’t fret.  We don’t need to mention the benefits of working with a trained web or graphic designer. And we aren’t just tooting our own horns when we tell photographers that an industry-informed, but personally objective eye is the key to a good edit.

A good online presence is a pivotal part of any photographer’s business, and in today’s world of nimble typing fingers and digital natives, it’s important to present a polished and professional image. For a photographer, a website is like a job interview—and you always dress for the job you want.

Do you have questions about your website, or are you looking for a second set of eyes? Just shoot me an email!