Most photographers know they should be promoting their work online, but sorting through the vast number of options to f ind the right one is daunting. The idea for writing an article on this came out of my own need to find a good, editable Web site (where you can change photos and content anytime and from any computer). For me that meant finding a Web site vendor that would allow me to showcase the retail side of my wedding and portrait business.
I soon realized I needed to be more specif ic about my objectives and narrowed my list to f ive objectives. I also asked advice from my peers on the social network LinkedIn in its groups Photography Industry Professional and Professional Photography. Some photographers hired Web designers, some designed and wrote their codes, but the majority purchased an editable Web package. This article will address the last option.
My five objectives for finding the right Web site were:
3. Shopping cart
4. Print fulfillment
These objectives were specific to my needs and might not be what you need. You may just want to share your images with family and friends and give them a way to purchase prints. Therefore I will begin by discussing the basic sites you can subscribe to, then progress to the more extensive and expensive editable Web sites. The primary question you want to ask yourself is: “What I am going to use the Web site for?”
• To show and share my images.
• To show, organize, share, and print my images.
• To show, organize, share, print, and promote my images.
• To show, organize, share, print, promote, and sell my images.
Notice that as the list grows, another requirement was added: the “promote” and “sell” requirements transform your consumer Web site into a retail/commercial Web site. By promoting your Web site you are looking to a target audience, whether it is brides or art directors. You want a Web interface that caters to that audience through the use ofdesign,keywords,andtheabilitytofluidlyshowcaseyour work. The ability to sell or license your work with your Web site involves an interface that can perform e-commerce. Whether it is through a shopping cart or the use of drop- down lists of pricing for the rights and usage of the purchase or licensing of your images, this adds a layer of complexity to your Web needs.
The easiest and cheapest way (free, in fact) to promote your photos and business is through social networking. By signing up for Facebook (www.facebook.com, which has more than 150 million subscribers), MySpace (www.myspace.com), or LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) you can reach a large audience (as well as reconnect with high school buddies). I have found Facebook is only effective as a business tool if you deliberately target your audience with updates of work or advertise on the site. Using MySpace is a good strategy if you are trying to target your work to a younger crowd for senior portraits or high school sports.
LinkedIn is a more professional site and is targeted to professionals, such as art buyers and designers. These social networking sites allow you to connect with other friends and professionals and share photos and ideas. It does not replace a marketing plan, but does expediently put your name and photos out onto the Internet.
Blogging is another indirect and initially free way to get your work out there and make contacts. There are paid blog sites you can subscribe to such as interactivewoo (interactivewoo.com). Blogging has become such an effective tool for photographers that they are embedding blogs in their Web sites, social sites, and e-mails, and buying into paid blogging sites such as Siteground (www.siteground.com/blog-hosting.htm).
The key to successful blogging is to write often and with content that triggers search engines to find your business. A free and easy way to start is to sign up with Google’s blog site (www.blogger.com) or WordPress (wordpress.org).
Having your own blog with your business name (tip: using “Joe Photography” rather than “Joe Photographer” will attract more attention) is a more direct way to attract potential clients to your work. If you keep your blog (which stands for Web log) constantly maintained (at least one new entry a week), you are feeding keywords into the tentacles of the search engines. These keywords—and more importantly, phrases—act like metal fragments attracted to a big magnet called a search engine. The more relevant the keyword phrases, the better your chances are for your business to be placed at the top of the search list.
For instance, if a potential client is looking for a wedding photographer in Akron, Ohio, they might search for “wedding photographer + Akron, Ohio.” Being a good blogger for the last year and writing about all your wonderful weddings you photographed in Akron, Ohio using the phrase “wedding, Akron, Ohio, Joe Photographer” a hundred times, the search engines light up and your business name comes up on the f irst page (most people do not look past the f irst page on a Google search). As a result, the potential client clicks on your blog link and reads about your weddings, looks at some of the photos you posted, and hits the hyperlink to your contact info.
That is a very simplistic view of how this all works, but nonetheless describes one of the cornerstones of grabbing the attention of potential clients. Keywording is crucial to grabbing attention on search engines. Using specif ic phrases and words geared to your business gathers more attention. Keywording is a science—and is an article unto itself—but in the meantime, you can go to www.controlledvocabulary. com)/metalogging/keywording.html to get a better idea of how to effectively keyword your blog or Web site.
Organizing, sharing, and purchasing
The following sites are recommend to photographers if your objective is to organize, share, and purchase photos and photo products such as photos on mugs and T-shirts:
Shutterfly (www.shutterfly.com) is a consumer-friendly site where you can place your images and create products. Established in 1999, Shutterf ly’s strategy is to provide free digital storage, f ile sharing, basic photo software, and back- of-the-print messaging (a service that customizes your prints by printing a message on the back such as “Happy Birthday, Joe”) for photographers. In exchange for these free services, photographers order all their prints and products through Shutterfly.
The interface for uploading and organizing images is very simple. It allows you to crop, remove red eye, and use various borders. This is more of a consumer print and product-fulf illment site; it is not a site to promote and sell your images. If your objective is to organize your images, share images, make prints, and create products with your photographs, this is a good site—after all, it’s free.
Flickr (www.f lickr.com) is probably one of the most popular and easy ways to organize and share your photos and videos. It is part of Yahoo, so you need a Yahoo account to join. A basic Flickr account is free, and the interface is very user-friendly. You upload your images via Aperture, iPhoto, or Windows XP to the Flickr Web site, where you can apply simple edits, such as cropping and red-eye removal. If you don’t want to bother, you have the option to go to a third-party (www.pickpic.com) to do all your editing. Once you have uploaded and edited your images/videos, you can organize them into Flickr Sets (a group of images from a shoot), Collections (bigger themes such as people and dates), finally the Oranizr, where you can combine your sets and collections and batch-file them for tagging, change-permissions, and edit timestamps.
Now that your images are ready to be seen, it’s time to share them with the world. You can specifically group your photos—for example, by placing your images in a group such as Dogs, other people can look at your images of dogs and comment. You also have the option to make them private and only have a select group see them.
At this point, you can add a map of where the photos were taken, have friends and strangers use your images for various purposes, and use you images as social-networking tools. As a professional photographer, I am concerned about the part where other people can use your images to print from. They do need your permission to use the image, but my concern is more about the amateur photographer who gets a call from Capitol One credit card, which wants to use one of his images for an advertising campaign— and will pay $100 for the use. There are many services that offer services similar to the two above, such as: Snapfish (www.snapfish.com); Bubbleshare (www.bubbleshare.com); Kodakgallery (www.kodakgallery.com); Picasa (picasa.google.com), SmugMug (smugmug.com), and even a service that helps you organize and share your images through Twitter called Twitpic (twitpic.com). (This last service was used a lot to transmit images out of Iran following their recent election. All the above companies essentially do the same thing; which service is best for you really comes down to your personal preferences.
I have found that more and more printing houses are setting up partnerships with Web designers and developers to broaden and secure their client base. While it’s technically not free, Zenfolio (www.zenfolio.com) charges as little as $25 a year for hosting, with options to present, protect your digital art, and sell your work using Mpix (www.mpix.com), and fotof lot (www.fotof lot.com). The amount of space you need for uploading determines the yearly cost, which ranges up to $100.
A step more expensive, White House Custom Color, (www.whcc.com), has partnered with PicPick (www.pickpic.com) via LicketyPixel to build a dedicated client base for users. PicPick charges a one-time fee of $1,250 to set everything up. This may initially induce sticker shock, but if you think about it, you get great customer support, a custom site with some bells and whistles, and you don’t have to worry about monthly/yearly fees and extra charges such as transaction fees and upgrades.
If your objective is to create a Web site to promote and sell your work, you need to go to the next level—what I call the “pay to play” sites. They come in all types of flavors and price ranges offering various options. I will first start with the Web sites used by retail photographers; not that the others are exclusive, but the following are designed to get the portrait/wedding and photographer off and running.
If you decide you want to purchase a commercial/retail site, consider the following questions you will want to ask the Web vendor:
1. Storagespace: How much storage space do you get to upload images onto their server? The amount of space is usually determined by the package you purchase. In other words, the more you spend, the more storage space you’ll have access to. Once you purchase the package there are no additional charges for uploading images. (It is a good idea to also ask them what sort of backup systems they have if their primary server goes down.)
2. Functionality of the interface: How easy is it to upload images to their server and place your images on your Web site? This is the key function of an editable Web site, and the reason you would pay a premium to have one. You want to be able to upload images to your site with ease, anytime and from any remote computer. (It is up to you to prepare your f iles appropriately to be viewed for your Web site. You need to upload the correct f ile format and approximate resolution size of your images so they can be viewed on your Flash or HTML site.) I know that liveBooks, Pictage, and PhotoShelter have plug-ins for Apple Aperture and Adobe Lightroom that allow you to upload batches of edited images directly to the site. In addition, liveBooks has a function that you check off when uploading that will resize images to correct proportions for the Web.
3. Shopping cart: Does the site come with a way to sell images, e.g., e-commerce? If you are a stock, wedding, or portrait photographer, you need a way to sell your images online, rights-managed and royalty-free. Most of the retail sites offer an e-commerce component, which clients can securely access to view images for their event (via a password), and purchase prints and products. There is usually a transaction fee that you pay and sometimes a monthly or yearly fee for the service.
4. Video: Video is an important marketing tool for photographers, whether it is to promote you at work or promote your videography skills. To maximize your Web presentation, it is important to have the option of placing video clips on your Web site. Many digital cameras now also shoot video that you could use to create a promotional piece.
5. Tracking results: Unless you can track your Webtraffic, it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of your site. Ask your potential Web companies if they have a way for you to access your stats—most do. Some of the sites I researched use Google Analytics, which you can embed into the site. I have found it to be a great tool to monitor who is looking at my site, how long they stay on my site, and what outside links led them to my site. This is a very important tool to have when you are trying to decide where to spend advertising dollars.
6. Other considerations I came across:Do they charge a one-time fee or monthly fee? Do they offer royalty-free music for use on the site (mainly for the wedding and portrait photographer)? What is their service like? Is there someone you can talk with to help you get started and troubleshoot? (In my opinion this is a big one and is often overlooked.)
7. A last bit of advice:As in any big purchase, contact other photographers who use a service and ask them about their experiences. Most Web site vendors are happy to put you in contact with their customers.
Some good examples
I have tested the following Web sites, and feel they represent a good overview of what you would look for in choosing a Web site vendor. Each site developed a good business model that is representative of similar services and applications found in most other sites within their genre. Each site description will help you become more familiar with the options you have when selecting the best site for you.
The first editable photo Web site is Blu Domain (www.bludomain.com), a hosting site that offers a variety of
Web templates. Templates start at $100 and go to $400 (depending on what options you want), which is very reasonable if you consider that it costs from $3,000 to $10,000 to build a custom site with a Web designer. There are too many options to list, but here are few: up to 10 galleries; a calendar that shows clients when you are available; a shopping cart; drop-down text to tell your clients about yourself; a proof ing section for your clients to view their images for purchase; and a limited selection of royalty-free music.
In addition to the initial cost of the template, you can have Blu Domain host your site for $100, add video for $150, and buy a second template for $200 (providing you bought the f irst for $400). These are Flash sites, (not HTML sites) which, for now, means search engines will not be able to read the metadata or keywords that help your site turn up in searches. They do offer Flash indexing to improve search-engine friendliness. Blu Domain does not offer a shopping cart but does offer a proofing area where your clients can go to select the images.
In my research about this site, the biggest complaint I heard from photographers was the lack of technical support on setting up their sites. Those who did set up their sites through Blu Domain seemed pretty happy.
Another site I found that was similar to Blu Domain is big folio (bigfolio.com). It is also template-based, and charges a one-time setup fee of $450 and monthly hosting of $20. Like Blu Domain, it offers multiple e-mail accounts, storage space, and monthly traff ic space. In addition, big folio partners with Next Proof (www.nextproof.com) to help sell your images online via your own shopping cart. You’ll pay a transaction fee, plus a monthly fee determined by how much storage you need. The monthly fees are as low as $9 for 3 gigs, and up to $99 for 250 gigs (or about 60,000 high- res images). The transaction fees average 7%. Transaction fees are a common practice with stand-alone print- fulf illment houses, so be sure to ask what about the transaction fee. Pictage (tiny.cc/pictage), a pretty well- known online proof ing site for wedding photographers, charges monthly fees and a transaction charge for all prints and products sold. As a user of Pictage for my wedding clients, I have to admit they have a slick ordering interface and a customer-friendly shopping cart—but I do cringe when I receive my monthly royalty check and realize how much was taken out in transaction fees.
The last site I want to discuss in this genre is PhotoShelter (pa.photoshelter.com). PhotoShelter is a photography-driven Web site; unlike the above-mentioned sites where you can be pretty passive about your site, PhotoShelter pushes you to be more proactive with plenty of advice along the way.
PhotoShelter is primarily HTML-based and prides itself on search-engine optimization and protecting your images from copyright infringement through watermarks and warnings. They have templates to choose from to create your own Web site, and if you have some knowledge of Web design and coding, you can customize your site. They also have great customer service; I got a person every time I called, and they offer a lot of tutorials and webinars to help you maximize your site. PhotoShelter is a great site for photojournalists, stock photographers, and those who want to sell prints online. I felt it was a little too technical for beginners and that its design wasn’t slick enough for retail photographers; unless you are sufficiently versed in Web design to customize your site.
PhotoShelter uses PayPal (www.paypal.com) for e-commerce (or your own merchant account) and charges 10% across the board for transaction fees. The amount of storage space you want determines your monthly fee—100 GB is $50 a month, for example. (disclaimer: PhotoShelter gave me three months to try out their service).
Moving up the ladder in Web sites and prices, I found liveBooks (www.livebooks.com) to be a good balance; some photographers call it the “Holy Grail” of customizable, editable Web sites. For a one-time fee of $3,200 before any discounts (it runs discounts throughout the year, and, as of this writing, it was $600 off) and a hosting fee of $90 a year, you can have all the bells and whistles and a presence in the world of search engine optimization. There are less expensive packages to choose from. You can work one-on- one with a Web designer to create your customized Web site, where images are shown at 920×562-pixel resolution, unlimited portfolios, unlimited information pages, external links, and FTP options. While the service does not include a way to sell your images online, liveBooks is very effective in their use of keywording and driving traff ic to your site. Even though they are a Flash-based system, they have indexed their coding to read as if it were HTML, resulting in better search engine optimization.
If you are a photo student or photo instructor at an educational institution, take advantage of liveBooks educational discount. It is an inexpensive ($95 a year) way to get started. I have used the educational version of liveBooks, and found it very f luid and intuitive. In addition, I have heard from my peers that, outside of the steep price, they have been very happy with the pro service.
There are a lot of resources to promote and sell your work online. It all depends on the type of photography you practice and your objectives. Most importantly, once you decide on a service, don’t forget to promote your URL through a post-card campaign, advertising, or simply in the Yellow Pages. It’s great to have a slick-looking Web site— but worthless if nobody knows it is there.
In addition to the sites listed above, I have researched others sites that are worth looking into. Take a look at them, and good luck with your decision-making process.