The new year is upon us but it needn’t be filled with broken resolutions, especially if you’ve committed yourself to create a new photography website (or plan on refreshing one you already have). In this guide, I’ll be helping you to:
- Define your objectives.
- Understand the options and make informed choices about your direction.
- Plan your content strategy.
- Understand service providers and platforms.
- Build out your audience.
You’ll need to invest a bit of headspace but it’ll be worth it.
Why listen to me? Aside from being Overlord of this little labour of love (EMULSIVE), I’ve spent the best part of the last 20 plus years in the web industry. Helping people figure out how to make effective technology investments (in terms of both time and money) has been a big part of that. My new year’s resolution is to share what I’ve learned and I’m starting with this article.
At nearly 5000 words, it’s not exactly short, so you might want to bookmark it to come back to specific sections later. I’ll be covering the following specific topics:
Table of contents
Over the coming months, I’ll also be exploring and expanding on each of the topics discussed here in detail – from planning and presentation to hosting platforms, ideas for effective user interface and experience, and additional services that will make your life easier.
If there’s something you’d like me to specifically address ahead of time, drop me a line in the comments below and I’ll do my best to fit it all in.
#1: Is this article for you?
Without knowing anything about you, I’m going to go out on a limb and say yes.
Arrogant, I know.
If you’re just starting to think about creating a dedicated photography website then yes, this article is absolutely for you. Aside from the myriad choices out there for blog/website platforms, there a lot of other things you absolutely need to consider, most important of which being its purpose. I’ll get to that in the next section.
If you’re already some way down the road to creating your own website or if you’ve recently set yourself up then great, this article is going to serve as a sanity check of sorts. As we go through the next few month, I’ll be creating more guides and tips to help you make most of the presence that you have.
If you have a website that you’re 100% happy with, the answer is still probably going to be yes. I’ll be talking quite a bit about your brand and positioning and even if you’re a guru in those areas, it’s still always worth brushing up on the stuff you think you already know – I regularly do so myself.
#2: You’re going to need a checklist
Even if you consider yourself one of those “I get things done by getting things done” people I’d still ask you to give in and get something to write on and write with.
Putting pen to physical paper is the important bit here. Something, something recall. I’d recommend four sheets of your best paper and title each with one of the headings below:
- Purpose and brand
- Technical ability
Got your thinking cap on? Time to make some notes:
List #1: Your purpose and brand
You might just be creating a photography website for a bit of fun – and I totally respect that – however, the minute you put a website up, you will have created and are thus managing a brand, even if that brand is just you as John or Jane Smith Photography.
One of the most powerful things you can do is accept that and move accordingly. This first list is going to form your keystone for the first few months after you go live.
You’ll want to make notes which cover what you want the website to do for you both now and in the future. Outline your desire and needs in blocks marked “short-term”, “medium-term” and “long-term” (relating roughly to 0-3 months, 3-9 months and 9-18 months respectively).
Be blunt, honest and be explicit.
I want a website to sell prints and/or products.
I want a website to build my brand as an X photographer.
I want a website to showcase my work.
I want a website to share my knowledge.
If your website will be supporting a photography business of some sort, your needs will be different to one which is simply there to showcase portfolios and projects. Ask yourself if you’ll need to take bookings and sell prints. Are you more interested in providing a curated collection of your work?
Not all of the things you want the website to do have to be day-one requirements. There’s no problem with writing down a list of achievable goals and what may seem like pipe dreams right now.
There’s also no reason you can’t mix business and pleasure.
Showcasing client work alongside personal projects is a great way for potential customers to understand a bit more about you and other photographic styles you’re capable of expressing.
One last thing to close this section out: ask yourself if you can achieve what you want by simply posting on social media. The allure of following everyone else is a strong one. Is a dedicated website is what you really want or need?
In summary: Thinking about your purpose and brand boils down to what you need to present and how you want to present it. It’s going to be incredibly useful when you get down to settling on a website format, theme/design.
List #2: Your technical ability
My (controversial?) opinion: the web is built by nerds and used by the technically illiterate.
You may be able to consume content faster than anyone else but that doesn’t mean you can code your own website.
I couldn’t tell <tag> from a schoolyard game.
I’m happy working in a word processing app.
I fiddle in HTML and CSS.
I don’t even see the code anymore.
If you’re at the novice end of the scale, don’t let that stop you. There are many mature and reliable website builder options out there which don’t require technical skills to use.
On the other end of the ability scale, you could build a completely handcrafted website. Although, as one of those aforementioned nerds, I would not recommend you do so unless you want something truly unique and have the time/expertise to go with it. A little more on that later.
When listing your ideas be honest about your ability, available time and desire to learn technical skills at the very beginning.
In summary: If you want greater control over your website, you will ultimately need a certain level of technical competence in order to do so. Don’t let a let a lack of technical skills today get sway you from your goal. You can leverage tools and other software without ever seeing a single line of code.
List #3: Your time
With your technical ability laid bare, next up is to think about the time you can invest in this project and how fast you want it out there.
Are you thinking about days, weeks, months? How much time are you able to set aside for tweaking in any given week? Will you be creating blog posts/articles to publish? Do you have a posting frequency in mind?
I barely have time to clothe myself in the morning.
I can sneak in a couple of hours a week.
I can spend a couple of hours a day on it.
I play Candy Crush 8 hours a day…I have time.
If your purpose is just to get a few portfolio sections or projects up, you could probably complete your website in about 4-6 hours using a visual website builder (assuming you have your content lined up).
For a slightly more complex site, which showcases those same portfolios and a few articles, you’ll likely need at 8-12 hours time spent to get something ready for release. Again, that’s time working on the site itself, not getting your content together.
In summary: How much time do you have available today to spend on the site? Are you able to build more time in? Do you want to be a passive website owner or an active one? Does your purpose tell you that you can simply “set and forget”?
List #4: Your budget
You’re probably going to need a bit of money to get started. Probably.
How much money you spend on your website is tied directly into the notes you made for purpose and brand above. What I mean is that if you’re planning on generating an income from the site, you should consider sinking some money into it.
If your aim is to completely own your website and be responsible for its management and upkeep, your minimum annual spend for a “self-hosted” solution will be in the region of $100-150.
That will mostly cover the cost of a reputable and capable web host/email service provider and a domain name.
On the other hand, you could offload the heavy lifting to a third party and opt for a completely managed service. You should expect an annual subscription fee starting at around $85 including a custom website domain name.
Each option (self-hosted or managed) has a trade-off and there are ways you can offset the cost of your web services using display ads and other solutions.
In summary: What is your brand worth to you as a minimum and maximum possible monthly spend. Do you want to monetise your website? What would you define as a breakeven or “cost neutral” point for generating money from the site?
#3: Bring it all together
You have your purpose, a bit about your brand, an understanding of your technical ability, available time and budget.
You should also have an idea of your how your purpose will be presented to the outside world in terms of your content and website design.
Brought together, your proto-website should mainly fall into one of the following groups:
1) A “portfolio-first” website.
2) A “blog-first” website.
3) A “store-first” website.
I say “mainly” because you may find yourself wanting to pull many flavours together to give the website its own voice. This is ok but try not to lose sight of your primary focus.
Consider the three groups above: first means first, as in primary focus. A portfolio-first website can have a blog and a blog-first website can showcase a portfolio. Either type could have a store, etc.
In summary: Define your immediate, short-, mid- and long-term goals. Build your MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and iterate towards your vision with small, meaningful updates and enhancements. With any luck, your vision will always be ahead of your iteration and that’s where the interesting stuff happens.
#4: Be your own architect
With the notes you made above, you can make some quite informed decisions about your new website’s functionality: a blog, photo albums for portfolios, maybe a store of some kind. Consider each those functions as discrete components that you can arrange, build, rearrange and rebuild just like LEGO.
It’s a solid mentality to have right from the get-go and as things develop, it’ll make spinning each block up and out as its own entity much easier.
A great example: a friend of mine started a blog profiling brands and venues for a niche audience in London in the early 2000s. He spent a couple of years building out articles with pictures, reviews, menu details and the like. Later, he began helping out a few engaged readers by organising small events at the venues he had profiled. His readers literally defined his direction and spun the events side of this blog out by itself as a standalone service. Within three years of starting he’d essentially cornered his niche and was running 4-5 events per week, attracting 50-150 paying customers per night. He’s still doing it today.
Back to us and here are what I consider as the four building blocks for any photography website:
The static content block
At the very least, you’ll want two pages: about and contact. If you have a contact form instead of a social media link, you’ll also need a privacy statement.
The portfolio block
If you’re planning on showcasing a portfolio of your work as a specific section on your website, you will need to have a way of presenting your images.
Ask yourself if you want to show a bunch of images on a single page, or if you want to showcase curated groups of photographs – street, landscape, abstract, specific projects, etc. This will help you to decide on the website’s theme in the next step.
The publisher block
You want to share your thoughts, I get that. You have two choices; a block that works like a traditional blog, where you post individual articles as a single stream of thoughts or something more like a publishing platform, where you want to organise and categorise your articles into distinct sections and sub-sections.
Most blogging platforms and content management systems you can use already cater for both approaches out of the box. You don’t have to think too much about the latter if you’re just getting started but I would still advise you think about it the kinds of topics you might write about.
The shop block
This will either be an integral part of your website or a standalone service/platform you can link to. Decide what you have or want to sell and if you want the complexity of managing an inventory, shipping costs, sales tax, etc.
#5: Choosing a web design
Your next step is thinking about design. This is where things get FUN
Unless you’re dead-set on a particular layout, my advice is to consider an agnostic site design that can be modified to serve the purposes of a blog, portfolio or store (they do exist).
Plan for your immediate needs with a nod to the future and try not to plan everything to the nth degree – even if you feel you need to. You’ll a) never catch every little thing b) requirements will change and scope will creep and c) you’ll get much more useful information once your site is out there and handling visitors.
Create and launch that MVP and iterate, iterate, iterate.
The site design you end up with is not final and you’ll always be able to change your theme job lot or make small changes to get closer to your vision.
My advice: Spend some time trying theme demos and researching the options provided by the ones that offer a style you like.
Some examples to get you in the mood…
Blog-first web designs
Portfolio-first web designs
Store-first web designs
#6: Defining a content plan
No matter how simple the website, you will need a content plan of some sort before you get started.
It could be as simple as just figuring out which images to display in your portfolio(s) and even if you’re planning on creating something a little more complex, it doesn’t have to be incredibly formal in the first instance.
Even a simple list of what you want to publish when you first go live is better than nothing.
Think about your buffer
Let’s assume you’ve decided to go for a blog with a couple of portfolio sections to show off your work and want to post a few pictures and thoughts once a week-ish. Without the most basic plan covering the first couple of months, there’s a 50% chance you’ll give up after the fourth post.
The vast majority of new blogs end up down this route and it may just mean blogging isn’t your thing and that’s ok. If a blog-first website is what you’re leaning to right now proper planning will prevent pathetic performance.
Continuing to assume you want a blog of some description, you’ll want to try and make sure you have 1-2 months worth of blog entries/articles in your pipeline before you start. If you think you can post one a week, then those 1-2 months worth of content works out to 4-8 ideas to develop.
Life has a nasty habit of getting in the way of the things we want to do, so complete your first month’s worth of posts before you go live to create that buffer. They will give you the time and space to think about what’s next and help keep levels of motivation high in those first few heady months.
Your posts outside of that buffer don’t have to be finished but you should have them crafted to a reasonable degree (even a decent outline will do). Time in preparation is worth double that spent after you go live. Pushing yourself to prepare before you hit go on the site is going to help you to not overstretch yourself later.
Your buffer also has a handy side effect: it gives you the flexibility to skip a topic or give another more time to gestate.
Have you met my good friend, the fallacy of sunk time?
It’s unnervingly easy to overthink, lose time and find yourself bereft of “good” ideas when you’re staring down the beginning of a long month. However, there is something worse: an overabundance of bad or bloated ones.
Writing an article that balloons way past your intended scope and absorbs too much time and headspace happens more often than you might think (at ~5000 words, you might say this article is already there). The more time you spend on these articles, the harder it is to leave them. You’re left stuck smashing your head on a keyboard, stopping only for the occasional bathroom break and a slice of shame-sodden pizza.
If you find this happening, try to get out. Save, exit and go do something else. I have a couple of dozen articles languishing in my drafts as a testament of poor execution, over execution or just plain bad ideas.
I’ll get to them one day…or just delete them.
#7: Can I just build the bloody thing?
Yep, be my guest. Sorry to have made you wait.
You have defined a purpose, have an understanding of your financial and time investment, you probably already have an idea of what you want your website to look like. It doesn’t matter if certain areas are still grey for the moment. Many of these will come out in the wash as you approach and attack them.
The next step is realising the website – making it real – and for that, you’ll need somewhere for it to live.
If the purpose of your site revolves around showing those portfolio sections, a small blog and a store, get the portfolios up first while you tweak the latter two. Having something that you can see grow and evolve is going to be a great motivator. EMULSIVE didn’t have a store section until 18-ish months after it was launched.
What to build your website on is going to be one of the most important decisions you make. Your choice is going to dictate which additional services you can offer in the future, how easy it will be for you to manage and as and when the time comes, how easy it’s going to be to migrate to another platform.
Don’t worry too much about that last point just yet. Migration can be a pain but moving from one platform to another is well documented if you need to in a pinch.
With the right choice at the beginning, you shouldn’t need to worry about it in the future too much. Speaking of the right choice, get out the list you made above for “purpose and branding”.
What’s out there?
Here’s a quick overview of WordPress, Squarespace, Shopify and Smugmug. All of the below provide “visual builders” or the equivalent, which allow you to create websites without needing to get bogged down in code.
WordPress (.com) – link
Probably the most recognisable name in blogging. So much so that it’s seen by some as a Jack-of-all-trades platform for beginners or nerds. The reality is that many of the destination websites you visit for political, tech, health and science or pop culture news are built on and hosted by WordPress. It’s one of the internet’s biggest kept secrets.
Although the lower-end plans don’t give you access to custom plugins and premium themes out of the box, the platform is built to scale and as you begin to generate revenue from your website or invest more in your brand, you can jump up the feature scale without having to jump through technical hoops.
Plans which give you your own custom domain name start from around $65 a year and you get baked-in security, contact forms, themes and support, alongside with a bunch of features that will help speed up your website.
The self-hosted service is something managed and supported by you – you will need a hosting provider – and is ideal for slightly more tech-savvy individuals with some experience working with websites.
If you already have a domain name with a web host, odds are that they provide some form of “Easy WordPress Installation” service right out of the box. Ask them about it.
If you want access to premium themes and the ability to fully customise your website to your liking and control the hosting environment yourself, a self-hosted WordPress website could be for you.
Squarespace – link
Image and portfolio focused, Squarespace has drawn many photographers with beautifully designed templates, unlimited storage, great support and a wallet-friendly price point (plans start at $12 a month).
Squarespace has long been a “set and forget” offering. The platform makes it easy to build a beautiful website within the confines of the Squarespace builder and can be extended to include an integrated e-commerce presence if needed.
Shopify – link
Store focused but that’s not the end of it. Shopify is almost the defacto standard for small to medium e-commerce websites. Although the entry-level plans are a little more expensive than the others featured here, if you’re planning on building a store that’s fully integrated with your website, Shopify provides an excellent, secure and extendable platform for you to build from.
Smugmug – link
Primarily a photo archive/album sharing system, Smugmug has long provided the basis for portfolio
There are, of course, other blog and website builder services out there. WIX springs to mind, as do Joomla and Drupal but I don’t consider these effective time sinks – tell me if you think I’m wrong.
Choosing your platform
It doesn’t feel right to tell you what to do but if you twist my arm I’d have to tell you to go with WordPress (.com) – no affiliation here. Even if you’re planning a simple portfolio website, WordPress edges out the others in terms of price, flexibility, scale and speed.
That said, you don’t have to listen to me…and nor should you. My choice is based on my specific experience, which won’t necessarily jive with yours.
Any of the four services listed above will help you to deliver a basic blog/portfolio website out of the box. If you want something you can control yourself to a higher degree than anything else, go with WordPress. If you want a store which will give you your most important features out of the box, go with Shopify. If you want to reduce the time you spend crafting your portfolio web design, go with Squarespace.
Each system has its trade-offs as they relate to your specific needs. Many of these will come out once you go live. Sometimes you just need to dive in.
Privacy and other considerations
I spoke about hand-crafting a website from scratch above. If you are in any way shape or form planning to or will inadvertently collect and directly manage or store EU customer/subscriber data on your website, think very, very hard about not building your website from scratch. See GDPR.
You are directly financially liable for misuse of that data and have some very serious security procedures to consider. Better to leverage existing website builders and plugins to protect yourself and your readers. You will still have a requirement to be sensible with how you store
#8: Building an audience, aka getting the word out
The simple takeaway here is (if you have one) to leverage your existing network. If you think you don’t have a network, look deeper, you may well already have an engaged audience waiting for you in the form of an active community participation on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
If you want to share your photography with other photographers, have a think about where you can share your creative output. If you’re looking for customers, have a think about where you and they live (you may want to look at local Facebook groups or smaller communities on Twitter and a Google Local presence).
Consider the four or five people you interact and engage with the most on social media and ask for their help (a sanity check). Be specific, tell them what you’re doing and ask if you can run your ideas by them. Honestly, it’ll be a big help. If you can, try not to ask people who know you personally in the first instance. It might seem like a good idea but if personal politics is almost guaranteed to come into play here and you want a little objectivity to help your clarity of purpose.
Once you have your initial feedback and have released your website, jump straight back into your community(ies) and get more feedback.
Generating engagement and traffic
Leverage your brand.
At the beginning of this article, I noted that your needs from the website will be different depending on if it’s supporting photography business or simply there for photography’s sake.
Regardless of if you’re selling something, selling yourself, or just doing it for fun, I’m going to assume that you want people to come to the website. Having readers who engage with your content is a wonderful motivator and the source of ideas.
So, it makes sense that you’re going to need to give people a reason (ideally, more than one!) to click through to visit you. Have a think about what those reasons may be by putting yourself in the shoes of those potential visitors and thinking about what would motivate them to give you their click(s).
#9: Can I change my mind?
Of course. There will always be choices to make and you will need to pivot your focus and strategy to meet changing demands – yours and the people your website is talking to.
“The first version of my website was perfect and has never changed since”, said no one ever in the history of the internet.
You can pivot any time you want. However, change for the sake of change may have a negative impact on what you’re trying to do.
Consider your direction every time you make a course correction and be aware that bogging yourself down with what-ifs and analysis paralysis is a fast track to uncertainty and demotivation.
Something I say probably a little too often is “start now, worry later”. Starting is nearly always the biggest hurdle to any endeavour and for your website, getting something out there now something will almost always be better than nothing.
You’ve come this far, so the chances are that getting something up and out there is more of a formality than a barrier.
If you do happen to change your mind once you have gone live, it can be changed. You have the option of rolling it all up into a ball and throwing it in the trash to start again. Worst case, you learn a valuable lesson.
You are agile, you are fleet of foot, you’ve got this.
#10: What’s next?
I have an idea of where I want to go next and following my own advice on buffering, I have a handful of ideas ready for the next part in this series: developing your voice, presenting your content, getting your site onto search engines and learning from the behaviour of your visitors to name a few.
That said, this is more about you than me. What’s the most important next step for you? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll follow the general consensus.
It really is over to you,
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