As a photographer, your website is the single most important part of your brand identity. It defines how commercial clients see you and determines whether they contact you for a quote. And while photographers are amazing at creating compelling images, that skill doesn’t necessary translate into web design talent. In working with commercial photographers as a producer and branding consultant, I’ve found that photographers make the same mistakes over and over again and as a young photographer I made many of these same mistakes myself without even realizing it.
You don’t have to make the same mistakes! Here are eight tips for designing an effective, attractive commercial photography website that will help to make you appealing to corporate and ad agency clients.
1. Start with a template
There was once a time when having a beautiful website meant paying a web designer to build a custom site from scratch. Fortunately, those dark (and expensive!) days have passed. Creative website providers like Squarespace, PhotoFolio and Photoshelter offer awesome all-in-one portfolio pages, with hosting, email, powerful page building tools and a rich collection of templates. And if you want to get elbow-deep in code, you can set custom CSS or even monkey around on a deeper level.
Of course, some website builders and templates are better than others. Be sure to use professional tools and avoid badly designed “free” options that suck up too much time and energy.
Some folks don’t like the idea of working with a template, though a lot of the arguments against it are outdated. The cost is reasonable, the sites get great SEO, and clients aren’t judgmental about “look-alike” sites. There’s benefits outside of ease of construction, too. When you use a template, you get a thoroughly-tested, responsive design that looks good on all screen sizes. Good templates are easy for clients to navigate and simple to update with your latest work.
If you want to self-host, you can still follow this tip. Use a WordPress or Basecamp template designed for photography websites, and you’ll find it much easier to end up with something gorgeous. There are literally hundreds of options out there, and you can always just start with a popular choice and then customize the heck out of it.
2. Pick a Focus and stick with it
When a corporate client or art director visits your site, they want to know what you’re good at as quickly as possible. For example, they’re looking for the best portrait photographer for the job, not a generalist who has some portraits thrown in with food, architecture, sport and reportage. Clients should know what you’re best at from the moment they visit your site.
If you don’t already have a specialization, you’re going to to find your niche. This can be hard, and sometimes even emotional. Ideally, you want to find the overlapping portion of the Venn diagram containing what you’re good at, what you find creatively satisfying and what the market desires. Once you determine your specialty, describe it in commonly-understood terms. Genres like portraiture, lifestyle, food, architecture, sports, reportage and product all have well-understood definitions and skillsets associated with them.
A lot of photographers, especially early in their careers, want to be all things to all people. They want any job they can get, and their portfolio reflects that. When I was a hungry, young photographer, I did the same thing, eager to get literally any work I could. However, I didn’t realize that this wasn’t what clients are looking for. If an art director sees a site like that, they’ll often skip on to the next, recognizing the photographer as inexperienced or unfocused.
To get out of this trap, I had to accept that I would not be a good fit for every job. Instead, I had to focus on what I was best at. I might have lost jobs that I could have technically done because I didn’t show that kind of work. However, I got more work that fit into my speciality, and I did higher-quality work than I would have done otherwise. My clients were happier, and so was I.
In order to convey your specialty to clients, show work that showcases your specialty immediately. For example, if you’re a lifestyle photographer, the first image a client sees on your website should be an amazing lifestyle image. If you sub-specialize in corporate lifestyle, make sure that’s conveyed in your galleries as well. Using the phrase “lifestyle photographer” in your page titles and About page is good for SEO and client understanding. Of course, a gallery titled “lifestyle” is a must-have.
3. Use helpful gallery titles
Once you’ve settled on a niche, you need to build galleries that clearly convey your specialty. Part of that process is creating helpful and accurate gallery names to describe your work.
Avoid vague gallery names like “people,” “places” and “things.” Clients aren’t looking for a “things” or “places” photographer; they’re looking for a product or architectural photographer. Make sure you fulfill this expectation. On the best websites, clients can tell your speciality just by looking at your gallery titles.
Create galleries around a single specialty with no more than about 30 images per gallery. Give them names that clearly explain what clients will find inside. Try to avoid vague names like “projects,” “gallery one” or “featured.” These don’t tell the client what to expect and they delay answering the question, “What is this photographer best at?”
4. Show only your best work
This probably seems blindingly obvious on paper, but many photographers talk themselves into showing sub-par work without realizing it. Maybe you have an emotional connection to a portrait, or it took a six-hour hike to get in position for a particular landscape. Unfortunately, if that doesn’t translate into a high-quality image, the client won’t care. There’s no way for them to share the personal connection you have with the image, so make sure that any image can stand on its own as your very best work.
This can become a big problem when people try to be jack-of-all-trades generalists, especially early on in their careers. If that’s the approach you’re taking, it’s tempting to show as much work as possible. After all, you want to convey to clients that you can do whatever it is they’re looking for. If you have strong work in many categories, it just might be possible, but the reality is that few photographers can capture many different specialties really well.
Trying to be all things to all clients is a bad idea for a few reasons. It dilutes your specialty and makes it hard for clients to understand what you’re good at. It can also result in less-than-great images showing up in your portfolio. If you’re not a skilled architectural photographer, do not show architectural work at all. Instead, focus on your specialties, as outlined above. And if you don’t trust yourself to pick your best images, work with a talented friend or consultant to edit your galleries.
5. Create a meaningful “about” page
Your About page should be first and foremost useful to clients. As much as you might want your potential clients to know what you’re like, your About page is not the place for long, personal anecdotes. Clients aren’t interested in knowing the model of your first camera or which landscape photographer speaks to you. They want to find out what you’re good at, how experienced you are and why clients like working with you.
A great About page will quickly summarize your photographic specialty and location, then explain why clients should hire you. The best examples also give a glimpse into your personality without getting wordy or sentimental. Client lists are optional, and I would only include one if it’s impressive. Definitely include a headshot!
6. Provide real contact information
Sharing contact information on your About page is good, but it isn’t enough. Clients should not have to think about where to find your contact information. Make it blindingly obvious: have a page titled Contact in your navigation bar. When clients click on it, they should see your phone number and email address right away. If you have a studio or office, include that address as well.
It’s fine to include a contact form alongside that information. However, a contact form should never be your sole method of contact. It’s true that these forms provide a great deal of information to the website owner, but they’re impersonal and generic, creating friction that can be a barrier to contact. If you’re concerned about spam bots scraping your email address from your Contact page, use SpamSieve or link your email to Google Apps to filter out the junk.
Finally, be sure to have a professional email address that’s attached to your current domain. If your URL is www.davidsmithphotography.com, your email should be email@example.com or similar.
7. Don’t worry about watermarking
Many photographers are rightly worried about having their photographs stolen and used without their permission. To prevent this theft, concerned photographers will often watermark their images. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help avoid theft, and it makes you look bad in the bargain.
Subtle watermarks can be easily cropped out, and full-image watermarks (like iStockPhoto’s watermarks) ruin your images. If you look at the websites of the best-known photographers, few (if any) use watermarks on their images. And the hard truth is that watermarking looks petty and small-minded, damaging a client’s opinion of you as a professional. The same goes for disabling right clicks.
Also, watermarks are not necessary to secure your copyright. If someone uses your image without permission, you only need to prove that you took the image to sue for damages. It is not incumbent upon you to inform thieves that the image is copyrighted.
But what if legitimate clients want to track you down through a photo? It’s a great idea to include your contact information in the IPTC metadata embedded to the image, or even in the filename. This way, legit clients that found your image outside your website (Google Image Search, for example) can contact you to talk about licensing the image for use.
8. Consider the client first
You might notice all these tips have something in common: when designing your site, always consider the client’s needs first. Your website should use large images, be easy to navigate and quickly answer as many of your client’s questions as possible. Clients should know what type of photographer you are, where you’re located and how to contact you as soon as possible.
Clients don’t have a ton of time to review your work, so don’t slow them down. Turn off slow image transitions. Make galleries easy to navigate with on-screen buttons and keyboard navigation, if possible. Make sure images are large enough to show detail (700px on the long edge) but small enough to load quickly. Avoid loading bars, splash pages, fancy animations and cute copy.
You should imagine your potential audience as a stressed-out art director trying to find good photographers at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday. Have some sympathy for them! Make it easy for them to understand if you’re a good fit for the job and then contact you by quickly showing your best and most representative work. If clients don’t see your best photo within two seconds of opening your home page, figure out how to make that happen.
Any time you make a change to your site, ask yourself if the change makes it easier or harder for clients to find what they need. If it makes it easier, then make the change. If not, think twice.
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Alex is a freelance photo producer and tech writer from Philadelphia. He lives with one cat and more USB cables than he could ever use.