I have been using various forms of website for my photography since I caught the bug around 2008. Initially, I experimented with having a simple portfolio site built by a web designer friend, but I quickly got frustrated with having to rely on someone else any time I wanted to update my site or portfolio. I soon discovered WordPress and its ability to operate not only as a blog, but also a powerful portfolio site complete with galleries and even e-commerce via plugins. My self-hosted WordPress website served me well as my main site for awhile, but when I discovered PhotoShelter, I realised what I was missing out on. The ability to upload full-resolution images to a powerful portfolio website that doubles as a backup archive was a no-brainer for me. Instead of replacing my main site, I use my PhotoShelter archive and WordPress site simultaneously, which has a number of advantages, including the ability to maintain this blog.
PhotoShelter is only one of a number of companies offering a range of website and portfolio services for photographers. There is also Squarespace, Livebooks, Zenfolio, and SmugMug, just to name a few. As I only have experience with PhotoShelter and SmugMug, and they seem to be the most popular portfolio website providers, they are the two I will be comparing. After being a PhotoShelter customer for a number of years, I recently decided to give SmugMug a try. This was for a number of reasons, which I will get to. Firstly, a summary of the two photography portfolio website heavyweights:
PhotoShelter is based in New York, USA, and has over 80,000 photographers using the service. They offer three levels of membership – Basic, Standard, and Pro. Their Beam sites were launched in 2013, which finally offered responsive HTML5 websites that adapt to various screen sizes, including mobile devices. There are five Beam templates and ten classic templates to choose from. Depending on membership level, e-commerce can be set up via one of many print vendors, self-fulfilled printing, or stock licensing. PhotoShelter also offers huge value to photographers in the form of market research, interviews, and free photography business guides.
SmugMug is a family-owned business based in California, USA. Their membership options are very similar – Basic, Power, Portfolio, and Business. They also launched fully responsive HTML5 sites in 2013, known simply as ‘New SmugMug’. There are 70 customisable templates available to choose from. SmugMug’s e-commerce options depend on your membership level, offering print sales with few options right through to fully customisable pricing schedules, branded packaging, coupons, and a choice of print labs. The service also boasts 24/7 customer support via their ‘SmugMug Heroes’.
- PhotoShelter – Basic: $9.99/month, Standard $29.99/month, Pro $49.99/month.
- SmugMug – Basic $5/month, Power $8/month, Portfolio $20/month, Business $35/month
- Photoshelter – Custom sales profiles, worldwide print vendor network, allows self-fulfilled printing, image licensing available.
- SmugMug – Custom sales profiles for Portfolio and Business only, limited to four print vendors in US and UK, does not allow self-fulfilled printing, image licensing available.
- Photoshelter – 10 classic templates, 5 responsive ‘Beam’ templates.
- SmugMug – 70 responsive templates.
- PhotoShelter – Basic 10GB, Standard 60GB, Pro 1000GB
- SmugMug – Unlimited
- PhotoShelter – Basic 10%, Standard 9%, Pro 8% of total sale.
- SmugMug – 15% of profit on sale.
Digital File Delivery/Download
- Photoshelter – Simple to share file or gallery download link directly to email with password option. Can choose image size/format.
- SmugMug – No option to send download link via site, but can have gallery download link sent to your own email and share that link with others. Link only valid for two weeks. No option to choose image size/format. Original image files only.
- Photoshelter – 9am-6pm EST, email and phone support
- SmugMug – 24/7 email support
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been using PhotoShelter for my archiving, portfolio, print sales, and delivery of files for a few years. I’ve been pretty happy with the service for the most part, but have always felt it has fallen short in a few areas. When PhotoShelter introduced their responsive Beam websites in 2013, the resounding response seemed to be “finally!” C’mon, 2013? And to launch with only four templates to choose from is too little too late in my opinion. Since launching Beam a year ago, they have added another template, bringing the grand total to choose from up to five!
I also do not understand PhotoShelter’s decision to stick with limited data storage. I have a Standard membership, which offers me 60GB of storage. Admittedly, using that all up hasn’t become an issue yet, but as my image files and collection continue to grow, this will quickly become one. Why should I then have to pay extra to use more storage?
PhotoShelter allows the use of custom domain names which can be used with self-hosted domains or subdomains (portfolio.rowansims.com instead of rowansims.photoshelter.com for example). This is a great option for those who use their own domain for a blog, etc. My beef is that PhotoShelter only uses a custom domain for the front page instead of the whole archive. When you visit portfolio.rowansims.com, you will stay there until you click on an image or gallery and find you’ve been redirected to rowansims.photoshelter.com. Some might argue this is not a big deal, but it’s important for me to have consistency between my main WordPress site and my portfolio site.
The final straw for me, though was when I recently visited Google Analytics to check my site stats to see once again, despite significant personal effort in the SEO department, that my PhotoShelter site’s search engine visits were dismal. PhotoShelter makes a lot of noise about their SEO, but I have experienced very little benefit from it. I know that there are many things that contribute to search rankings, but given the age of my site, and the effort I’ve put into SEO, this is unacceptable in my opinion.
So, I decided to make the most of SmugMug’s free 14-day trial and see how it compared to PhotoShelter. After setting up my site, importing my archive from PhotoShelter using Smugglr, and setting up my print profiles, I decided to sign up with a Portfolio membership. Here’s what I like:
- It’s cheaper. $20 per month instead of $30.
- There are a lot more templates to choose from, and they are far more customisable without coding with HTML or CSS.
- I can use my portfolio.rowansims.com subdomain and my entire SmugMug site will use that subdomain.
- Unlimited storage.
What could be improved and would make the decision a no-brainer:
- Self-fulfilled printing supported by SmugMug and streamlined through the same shopping cart. This is a big one for me as I am a New Zealand-based landscape photographer, and most of my customers are here in NZ. I sell large framed and canvas prints, and SmugMug’s print labs are all based in the US and UK, meaning shipping large prints is exorbitantly expensive. Self-fulfilled print sales would enable me to use my local print lab and offer free shipping in NZ.
- An option to deliver files or galleries to customers directly from within Smugmug.
In terms of SEO, only time will tell how my search engine stats will compare between my PhotoShelter and SmugMug sites. Initially, they are looking pretty healthy considering how new the domain is. I’ll update this post when I have more info on that front. One of the inconveniences of moving from PhotoShelter to SmugMug, or vice versa, is that I have to go back into my blog posts and update all the image links. Both services allow users to embed images directly into blogs and other sites, but I have developed a practice of uploading 800 px image files directly to my WordPress site and linking to the image on PhotoShelter rather than embedding the images. This is mainly so that in a situation like the one I currently find myself in, my images won’t all suddenly disappear from my blog the second I close down my portfolio website. I’m quietly stoked that I had the foresight to do that now, as it will make the transition a lot easier and less painful. I’ll be leaving my PhotoShelter site up for a little while until I’m satisfied that all the links have been changed and the connection between my main site and my SmugMug site is seamless.
UPDATE: After more than three months with my older PhotoShelter site and my new SmugMug site running simultaneously, my analytics show that my SM site has had over three times the number of search engine hits as my PS site. This confirms my suspicions that all the noise PS makes about their SEO is just that. I don’t know why, but as far as I can see from these stats, SmugMug wins the SEO battle by a mile! CLICK HERE FOR 15% OFF SMUGMUG.
The truth is, the needs of photographers varies as much as our jobs, and therefore what one photographer needs from their website is going to differ significantly from the next. This post serves only to illustrate my own experience of using the two services. My intention is to help guide photographers to make the decision that is best for them by giving them a side-by-side comparison of PhotoShelter and SmugMug. Whether you are a current or past user of one of these services and thinking about jumping ship, or have never used either of them and you’re thinking about joining up, my advice is to make the most of the free trials that both companies offer. Try one or try them both and see what works for you. I would be surprised if one of their membership levels doesn’t serve your needs.
If you have experience with PhotoShelter, SmugMug, or both, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If I’ve missed some valuable info or this review needs updating as they update their services, please also hit me up by commenting below or sending me an email. If you want to sign up for one or both free trials, please support this blog by clicking on the images above.