11 Secrets to a Great Photo Website

11 Secrets to a Great Photo Website

11 secrets

How is your portfolio website like a car door? Give up? At PhotoShelter, we like to use this analogy to explain how people perceive the experience of interacting with a website in ways that you may not realize or expect.

It is common for car shoppers to slam a car door and make judgments about the car based on the sound the door makes. In many cases, they have no idea that they are making a judgment when they hear that sound, but they are.

Similarly, people are judging you based on your portfolio website. Although you may expect to be judged on your images, you may not be expecting to be judged on the experience of using the website itself. Not paying attention to a few commonly overlooked details could result in fewer jobs for you.

We’ve made a list of the 11 most important considerations for any photography portfolio website. This comes from lessons learned while working with photographers and photo buyers over the past decade.

1) Clean and simple wins. Always.

Website by Travel Photographer Gavin Gough

Website by Travel Photographer Gavin Gough

If people are constantly praising the design of your portfolio website, then you are probably doing something wrong. Your photos are supposed to be the star of the show, so don’t clutter it up with useless design elements. If people notice the design of a site over the photography it contains, that’s a problem. The design of a website should fade into the background and not be noticed.

There is a growing trend among photographers who want to show their images at full screen. This is a departure from the past, where photographers were worried about image theft, so they intentionally made their images small. Today, it’s all about impact and getting the assignment. Larger images, they feel, make a bigger impact.

A clean website also takes things out of the way when they aren’t being used. For example, next and previous buttons can fade away until the user wants to move to the next image. They would do this by moving their mouse pointer to the left or right edges of the photo.

Another way to decrease clutter on your website is to be careful about how you watermark your images. Protecting your images from being stolen is important for many photographers, but it’s important to realize the implications of going too far. If a watermark is so large that it obscures the image, destroying the experience of viewing it, the photographer may be doing more damage than they think.

Photo by Chris Owyoung

Photo by Chris Owyoung

Keep in mind that there are people out there who want to buy or license your images, and you should make it as easy as possible for them to do it. An aggressive watermarking strategy could backfire on a photographer because it could result in the image not being selected for consideration based entirely on the watermark.

2) Navigation, links, gallery titles must be easy to understand

Don’t turn your portfolio into a game of mystery. Make sure that categories, sections, labels, and navigation makes sense to everyone. Getting clever with these things might seem like a fun idea, and a way to be different, but it creates a frustrating experience for your users.

Instead, choose a word that tells a person exactly what’s on the other side of that link without even clicking on it. You should stick to terminology and wording that is familiar to the industry you are targeting.

This, of course, means that you need to know your target audience. For example, if you specialize in shooting images of insects, you should include the scientific names and classifications of them because the audience most interested in them expects to see this level of detail.

If you are a wedding photographer, for example, stick to the terms and structure that brides are familiar with. “Ceremony” and “Reception” are better choices for a collection of images than “Commitment” and “Joy.” What you think of as “clever” may end up being vague or puzzling to your users.

3) Be responsive


These days, there is more to life than a web browser. It’s important that your portfolio website functions properly across all modern devices — desktop computers; very small laptops; tablets; and mobile phones. To do this, your website should be responsive. This is a term that refers to a design approach where a website can adapt to the device being used to view it.

In other words, your website should look one way on a desktop computer, and entirely different on a mobile device. This is important because what works on a desktop computer, where there is plenty of space, will not necessarily work well on a mobile phone, where space is very limited.

A person who is visiting your website on a mobile device may have a different set of needs and expectations than a person using a desktop computer. They won’t be expecting to see your images really large because this isn’t possible. Instead, they may be looking for your contact information. Or, they may want to quickly scan your images from the comfort of their couch at home, with the intention of looking at your portfolio on a larger size screen using their computer at work the next day.

4) Edit tightly, and consider having someone else do it for you

Photographers are their own worst editors. We bring all sorts of emotional baggage to the editing process that we simply cannot be objective about our own images. How difficult it was to create an image doesn’t matter. The end result is what matters. That’s why we encourage photographers to have someone else, preferably a client instead of another photographer, edit their portfolio. An objective perspective is valuable information. And remember,  “Your portfolio is only as good as your worst picture.”

In most cases, less is more. Edit tightly and remove anything that’s not your best work.

5) Contact information should be everywhere

If the goal of your portfolio is to land you assignments, then make sure a client knows how to contact you so you can actually get one. The easiest way is to include your contact details on every page of your website — including your portfolio.

Contrary to common belief, most visitors of your website don’t start their visit with your front page. Most visitors find you through search engines and end up on some inside page deep within the site.

We’re not suggesting that you make this big and bold so that it distracts viewers from your images. Include something small and subtle at the bottom of the screen that doesn’t take attention away from the images, but is there when a client decides to pick up the phone.

6) Don’t just show pictures; show that you love what you shoot

Image by Jonathan Gayman

Photo by commercial photographer Jonathan Gayman

Have you ever noticed that people with passion, energy, and drive are people that everyone else wants to work with? They tend to be more optimistic and fun. Your portfolio should convey this. If you’re not 100% into what you’re shooting, then start shooting something else that is near and dear to your heart.

The general photographer population is growing larger and larger and competition is fierce. Many photographers are able to succeed in this environment because they concentrate on a niche, and carve out their own segment of the industry where there is very little competition.

Photographers often feel like they should be as general as possible with their portfolio website because they want any assignment that comes their way. They worry that someone will be scared away thinking that they aren’t capable of a particular assignment. In this situation, I suggest creating multiple portfolio websites based on a single theme or niche. If you have multiple specialties, then create multiple portfolios.

Your portfolio and your website should be able to show that you are a motivated expert in your chosen niche. You should be 100% authentic about your interest in the subject, have passion, energy, drive, and focus. Do what you love, and let that shine through in your work. People CAN see this.

If the subject doesn’t motivate you, you shouldn’t expect your viewers to be either.

7) Make sure the portfolio works on your audience’s terms

Who should be looking at your work, and what are they like? What monitor size is most common? Are they using mobile devices? What software are they using all day long, and what does their workflow process look like? Find this out, and then incorporate these things into your website design.

For example, many photo editors use software that allows them to edit images at a very quick pace using the keyboard. They are comfortable with this process. Therefore, it would be wise to make sure that they are able to advance through your portfolio by using the left and right arrow keys on a keyboard.

Photo editors and art directors have often told us that they don’t like being forced to send an email through a web form in order to contact the photographer. Instead, they want to use their own company email system to send the email because they want to be able to keep track of what they sent you, and when.

Putting your email address on a website may increase the amount of spam you receive, but ask yourself what’s more important – fighting spam, or landing an assignment.

They already have a system in place so you should fit into it instead of expecting them to fit into yours.

8) Use Captions! Text is your friend 

graphic2_magnified_edited-1 (1)

Website by Johan Peijnenburg of NiO Photography

Don’t be afraid to put text next to your images. If you are a bad writer, ask someone for help – but do not avoid captions for your images.For starters, text is critical for search engine optimization (SEO). Text is the foundation of all search engines. Without it, you cannot be found.

Captions can also give important factual information about an image and can be used to underscore the importance of the subject matter. If you can color in the facts for the viewer, they’re more likely to understand and relate to the image.

A good caption can also contain useful information about how you work. If you’ve overcome obstacles, or were able to perform beyond expectations for a client, you can indicate this in your captions. From a client’s perspective, photographers are either problem solvers, or problem creators. Indicate that you solve problems and you’re likely to attract more clients. Captions are the perfect place for this.

9) People are impatient – don’t make them wait

In a recent photo buyer survey we conducted, What Buyers Want from Photographers, we learned that nobody likes to wait around for images to load. There is a general expectation that your website will be fast enough to keep up with whatever pace they normally maintain.

If they are forced to slow down and wait, even for 1 second, this is noticeable and it will count against you.

Test things for yourself. How long does it take for images to load?

Images should be snappy, and show up immediately without delay. Consider pre-loading the next image in a sequence while the person is looking at an image. When they hit that “next” button, the new image loads instantly. That’s a much better user experience.

10) Let people know where they are

People like to know where they are in any process or sequence. When they have this information, they feel more comfortable with the overall experience. That’s why it is important to let them know where they are in your website, and in your portfolio galleries.

Your website navigation should contain ‘breadcrumbs’, which allow them to link directly back to the start of the portfolio gallery, or back several levels to a gallery index, or even the front page of your website.

Likewise, they should know where they are in a sequence of images. If you have a portfolio gallery with 26 images, then you should let them know where they are in that sequence as they advance through it. (Example: Image 6 of 26; Image 7 of 26; Image 8 of 26; etc.)

11) Let people know where YOU are!

Don’t fall into the trap of not mentioning where you are based out of fear that you’ll never get a sweet location travel assignment. Make your home base plainly obvious, and indicate to which places you commonly travel.

Your clients want to know this information because they need to be able to manage their budget. Sometimes a photographer who is local is required and you risk being not considered for a job simply because you didn’t disclose your location.

Now take a look at your website with a fresh pair of eyes. Open and slam the door, and truly experience it. Figuring out what it’s saying about you could make a difference in your bottom line.

Want more tips to amp up your website? Check out our guide, 11 Secrets to a Great Photo Website.



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