Should photographers still design their own websites?

It's not 2005 anymore—the bar for website design is set very high and is increasingly difficult to surpass. A fast, gorgeous, mobile-ready website, designed specifically for photographers can be yours for less than $20/month. Why on earth would you try to do this yourself?

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My first website graced the internet at the end of 2000. Internet Explorer 5 for the Mac, which was the first browser to legitimately support css1, had only been out for a few months, which meant the entire site was plain-old HTML. It was the kind of coding you could learn in an afternoon while sitting in the Borders Books and Music cafe. I was exceedingly proud of it in all its 500-pixel-wide, table-layout glory. Each 400-pixel large image lived in it’s own static HTML page, which made coding simple, but updates very inconvenient. A few months later I learned enough perl and sql to hobble together a database-backed design that was, for 2001, state-of-the-art. There was no Wordpress, no Flickr, really no services at all for photographers seeking an easy and attractive way to put photos online. If you wanted a nice site, you either found a designer or learned how to do it yourself. With quite a bit of effort I was able to mount a website that, for the time, was about as good as one could make.

I have redesigned this website about every 18 months since then and each time the bar set by website services for photographers has become significantly higher. Before each redesign I seriously consider whether I should dive in or just save my time and use the current popular service? The previous design was created when Livebooks was setting the standard. Because at the time they depended on Flash with all its mobile and SEO issues, I decided to continue doing it myself despite the obvious fact that time spent designing a website is not really time well-spent for a photographer.

Today the level of websites for photographers from services such as aPhotoFolio and Squarespace is so impressive, with prices so reasonable, that it is almost impossible for in-house development to compete.

If you are asking yourself whether you should make your own website, or even hire a designer to make you a custom site, the answer is almost certainly no. It’s not even a difficult question. If you are serious about your business, you are very unlikely to create something better and cheaper than what you will get from a $16/month account with Squarespace.

Here’s why

They’re faster than your site. If you are making a modern website, you are probably serving large images. Because you want the images to look their best, there is a limit to how far you are willing to compress them, which means the files are a little tubbier than ideal. 200KB-500KB images are not unusual for a photo website. Your run-of-the-mill shared hosting platform does not serve large images especially quickly. Sites like Squarespace are serving images from a Content Delivery Network (CDN), which caches files on edge servers in strategic locations around the world putting them closer to your users on servers designed to quickly serve static content. A 250KB image took 1.6 seconds to download from my previous host—which has a pretty nice nginx setup for static files. A similar image from Squarespace’s CDN: 287ms. Roughly 5.5x faster. Multiply that by all the images in your gallery and you begin to see the problem. You can use a CND yourself—I used and was very happy with MaxCND on the previous version of this site—but it requires that you learn how to set it up, create DNS records, and it’s not free.

They work seamlessly across devices. Mobile is here in a big way and it’s here to stay. If your site doesn’t perform on an iPad and a phone, your site doesn’t perform. A year or two ago you may have been able to get away with a site that sort of worked on mobile by being a scaled version of the desktop—the kind of site that users pinched and zoomed their way through. But today you are competing with sites designed with a mobile-first approach that look great and feel natural on the phone. Designing and testing across devices is more time consuming than you think and requires rethinking the entire process. It’s easy to underestimate the effort it takes to make a photography site work on a small touchscreen.

They are focused on trends and technology in a way you can’t be. You’re a photographer, right? Do you have the desire and time to understand the interactions between CSS3, HTML5, Javascript, and a host of backend technologies that seem to change every month? Up until a few years ago little of this mattered. You needed to get some HTML to the browser styled in a more-or-less attractive way and you were good. Today, effective websites are much more like applications. They preload images, have backends that resize and cache images on the fly, use subtle animation for a better user experience, resize text for different sized devices, etc. Additionally, all of this technology arrives on the scene and is adopted almost instantly by designers. If you aren’t able to keep up, your online presence becomes dated very quickly.

On top of all of this, many of the challenges of a photography website are specific to the photography industry. Even a professional designer who isn’t tuned into the photography market will have trouble creating a product that competes with these services. This is why Wordpress theme-based portfolio sites are often (but not always) a poor choice for photographers. Photo editors look at a lot of websites; if your designer is not at least as familiar with this space as your average photo editor, the odds are against them from the start. It’s no accident that aPhotoFolio is founded by a photo editor.

And yet…

I just finished the first version of ground-up rewrite of this site despite my better judgement. The reason: mostly stubbornness and strong opinions about small design details, but also because I wanted to develop something on Google’s App Engine and a photo-heavy site seemed like a good fit. I’ll have a post up soon about the process, some of the challenges, and a few of surprises I encountered.