I’ve been using various forms of portfolio website for my photography since I caught the bug over ten years ago. Initially, I experimented with having a simple portfolio site built by a web designer friend. I quickly got frustrated with having to rely on someone else to update my site or portfolio, though. Fortunately, I discovered WordPress and its ability to operate as a blog and a powerful portfolio site complete with galleries and e-commerce.
My self-hosted WordPress website served me well as my main site for a while, but when I discovered PhotoShelter, I realised what I was missing out on. The ability to upload full-resolution images to a portfolio website that doubles as a backup archive was a no-brainer for me. Instead of replacing my main site, I used my PhotoShelter and WordPress sites together, which has a number of advantages, including the ability to maintain this blog.
PhotoShelter is only one of a number of companies offering website and portfolio services for photographers. Although they have their similarities, they vary in terms of features and cost. This comparison will help you decide which of the biggest three is best for your needs: PhotoShelter, SmugMug, or Zenfolio.
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.
There are nine portfolio templates to choose from. Depending on your 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.
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SmugMug is a family-owned business based in California. Their membership options are very similar – Basic, Power, Portfolio, and Business.
There are over 20 customizable 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 customizable pricing schedules, branded packaging, coupons, and a choice of print labs. The service also boasts 24/7 customer support via their ‘SmugMug Heroes’.
Zenfolio started with four friends with a love for photography and a background in tech. The service offers three plans – Starter, Pro, and Advanced.
Zenfolio serves over 100,000 photographers across the world in every genre from weddings, events, portraiture, family, babies, and pets to senior portraits, school & sports, landscape, travel, wildlife, and more.
PhotoShelter vs SmugMug vs Zenfolio: Comparison
- PhotoShelter – Basic: $12.99/month, Standard $29.99/month, Pro $49.99/month.
- SmugMug – Basic $7/month, Power $11/month, Portfolio $27/month, Pro $41.99/month.
- Zenfolio – Starter $7/month , Pro $28/month , Advanced $42/month.
- Photoshelter – Custom print and digital sales profiles, worldwide print vendor network, allows self-fulfilled printing, image licensing available.
- SmugMug – Custom print and digital sales profiles for Portfolio and Pro only, four print vendors in US and UK, does not allow self-fulfilled printing, image licensing available.
- Zenfolio – Custom print and digital sales profiles for Pro and Advanced only, nine print vendors in North America, UK, and Australia, allows self-fulfilled printing, image licensing available.
- Photoshelter – 9 customizable, responsive, mobile-friendly templates.
- SmugMug – 21+ customizable, responsive, mobile-friendly templates.
- Zenfolio – 13 customizable, responsive, mobile-friendly templates.
- PhotoShelter – Basic: 4GB, Standard: 100GB, Pro: Unlimited. Support for JPG and TIFF files. No support for video files.
- SmugMug – Unlimited storage. Photo files limited to 150MB. Video files limited to 3GB/20min. JPEG, GIF, PNG, and HEIC files supported.
- Zenfolio – Unlimited storage. Photo files limited to 36MB for Starter and 64MB for Pro and Advanced plans. JPEG, TIFF, GIF, and PNG file types supported. Video files limited to 2GB/20min.
- PhotoShelter – Upload from web, desktop, FTP, Lightroom, Photo Mechanic.
- SmugMug – Upload from web, mobile app, desktop, Lightroom, Luminar, Aperture, Dropbox, Flickr, and more.
- Zenfolio – Upload from web, Windows desktop, mobile app, Lightroom, Photo Mechanic.
- PhotoShelter – Browse, search, share, and download images. Deliver to clients and upload from mobile.
- SmugMug – Display and share portfolio, manage galleries, upload images, view offline.
- Zenfolio – Display and share portfolio, upload images, deliver digital downloads.
- PhotoShelter – Basic 10%, Standard 9%, Pro 8% of total sale.
- SmugMug – 15% of profit on sale.
- Zenfolio – 9.9% of total sale.
Digital File Delivery/Download
- Photoshelter – Simple to share file or gallery download link directly to email with password option. Can choose visibility, image size/format, and duration.
- SmugMug – Gallery download available as .zip file. Link only valid for two weeks. No option to choose individual images or size/format. Original image files only.
- Zenfolio – Galleries and files can be viewed and downloaded via mobile app. File sizes can be enabled or disabled as needed.
- Photoshelter – Mon-Fri 9am-7pm EST email and phone support.
- SmugMug – 24/7 email support. No phone support.
- Zenfolio – 24/7 email support, Pro and Advanced plans: live chat, Advanced plan: phone support Mon-Thurs 10am-3pm PT.
I used PhotoShelter for my archiving, portfolio, print sales, and delivery of files for a few years. I was pretty happy with the service for the most part, but always felt it fell short in a few areas. My frustrations were:
- Limited data storage. I used a Standard membership, which allowed 100GB of storage. With the larger megapixel count of modern cameras and a growing portfolio, I don’t want to have to think about how much of my storage limit I’ve used.
- PhotoShelter allows the use of custom domain names which can be used with self-hosted domains or subdomains (portfolio.yourdomain.com instead of yourdomain.photoshelter.com for example). This is a great option for those who use their own domain for their blog, etc. My issue is that PhotoShelter only uses a custom domain for your front page instead of your whole archive.
- PhotoShelter makes a lot of noise about their search engine optimization (SEO), but I experienced very little benefit from it. There are many things that contribute to search rankings, but given the age of my site, and the effort I put into SEO, my search traffic was disappointing.
PhotoShelter vs SmugMug
I decided to make the most of SmugMug’s free 14-day trial and see how it compared to PhotoShelter. I went with a Portfolio plan, which is the closest option to PhotoShelter’s Standard plan. This is what I liked:
- It’s cheaper. $27 per month instead of $30.
- There are a lot more templates to choose from, and they are far more customizable.
- I can use my custom domain and my entire SmugMug site will use that domain.
- Unlimited storage.
- Better SEO. After having both portfolio sites running simultaneously for a few months, SmugMug won the search engine battle by a mile.
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 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.
SmugMug vs Zenfolio
I’m now in the process of testing out Zenfolio to see how the service compares in the real world. So far I’m impressed, but I want to give it a few months to know for sure whether it’s worth moving my whole portfolio over from SmugMug. It’s a lot of hassle, but could be worth it for self-fulfilled printing alone.
I can’t help but Zenfolio they must be doing something right with over 100 thousand photographers using the service. Time will tell.
The truth is, the needs of photographers vary 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 compare the options and illustrate my own experience. 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, SmugMug, and Zenfolio.
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 all three companies offer. Try one or try them all and see what works for you. I would be surprised if one of their membership levels doesn’t serve your needs.
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