Last week on our weekly talk show, The Grid, Scott and I (along with our guest Colby Brown) did an entire show on website portfolio critiques. It was a little bit different from the photo critiques we usually do because we didn’t talk about the photos, but rather the websites that the photos are displayed on. It got some great feedback and people really seemed to dig it. I’ve linked to the show below in case you want to watch it.

During the show, two points came up that I thought made interesting ideas for a post.
1) Should you be using some type of online service (like Squarespace, SmugMug, Zenfolio, etc…) for your website portfolio, rather than a custom-designed template that you, or some one you hired, created?

2) What happens when you do use an online service and you choose the same template that thousands of other photographers use?

Interesting Thing #1: Should You Use An Online Service?
Overall, the first few sites we looked at on the show needed better layouts. They needed to look more professional and most didn’t show off the photography very well. We found ourselves suggesting changes, and then just sending them to Squarespace.com or SmugMug.com. Well, one of the viewers made, for lack of a better word, a rather dick-ish comment. It had to do with us suggesting people use these services because they’re sponsors of the show, and not because we truly thought that their websites would be made better them.

Put the crappy tone of his comment aside, I actually do get a lot of questions at my Lightroom seminars from people about which website portfolios to use (in a much nicer way than this person said it). Plus, SmugMug has a booth at most of my seminars. A lot of people often come up and ask if using their service (or one similar) is worth it, or should they get a custom design.

My thought is that you should absolutely use one of those online services for your portfolio. Regardless of whether they sponsor my seminar, or our show. I
I mean, should we instead recommend that people hire a web designer to create a custom website and pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for their web portfolio? Or should they go to Squarespace and pay around $8/month? Especially when many of the people asking don’t have a full-time job as a photographer. Rather, they’re just looking for a simple, easy, high-quality, and professional way to show off their photography to friends, family, and maybe even the occasional client.

Another benefit, for me at least, is that most of the online services have large teams of people creating them, as well as multiple templates. So you get the advantage of a large team testing, optimizing, and fine-tuning your website. Even more so for me, you also get the option to change your theme as your tastes or needs change (without calling your custom designers and paying even more money).

Personally, I love Squarespace. But there’s lots of others out there too. SmugMug, Zenfolio, Photo Shelter, Viewbook, FolioHD to name a few.

Interesting Thing #2: What Happens When All Photographers Websites Look The Same?
As we got in to the show a little more, we started coming across some really nice web designs. You know what? Most of them were from Smugmug or Squarespace. Once that started happening our topics shifted more toward how many photos to include on your site, and other details about what or what not to include on the site, rather than the website design itself.

Well, that led to another interesting and really relevant question. If people start using these services, won’t all photographer’s websites start to look the same? I mean, if thousands upon thousands of photographers sign up for Squarespace.com, you’re bound to see some overlap in the templates they choose. Just looking through the submissions that day, I noticed many of them used the same template I use. And yes, I know that all of these services have customization options built in to their admin systems, so you can customize the colors, fonts and layouts. But lets face it. It’s easier to just go with the default options, and I think most of us will never customize the site that much (plus the defaults usually look the best).

So what happens when all of our websites look the same? Nothing! I believe that the website design should be secondary to your photography. If your photography doesn’t capture the viewer’s attention immediately, and they start hunting around critiquing your website design, then you’ve got a problem with your photography. I promise you, the design isn’t holding you back.

To help illustrate this, we went to Colby Brown’s website in the beginning of the show. My first thought when I saw his photos was “Wow!”. I later realized that his site is through SmugMug. Since then, I’ve seen no less than 20 other sites with nearly his same design. Who cares?! I just went to look at his website again and the only word that comes to mind (again) is Wow.

The way I see it is this. The only people that care about the fact that your website may look like some one else’s is another photographer. It’s kinda like noise in your photos or catch-lights in some one’s eye. The only people that look that closely at a photo to see those things are other photographers. Well, most people aren’t trying to convince other photographers to look/like/buy at their work. They’re trying to show it off to family, friends and potential clients. If your photography is great, those people will never even notice your website layout, and whether or not it looks like some one else’s.

Anyway, I’ve embedded the show below. It was a great show and I think there’s a lot of really valuable info in there (Colby was awesome as usual). So if you get the chance, take a look. Have a good one!