Stop looking for the perfect online portfolio and build your own

We photographers are fickle bastards. We endlessly obsess over the kit that we use, whether photography is a hobby or a livelihood and we rarely stay satisfied for long. We obsess over edge distortion, chromatic aberations, linear motor autofocus systems and aspherical lenses. We stress about the design of the zippers on camera bags and the elasticity of the drink bottle holder. We fixate on the friction levels in tripod ball-heads, the grinding process used on the glass in ND filters, and the sustained read/write rates on SD cards. We are obsessive motherfuckers and we wouldn't have it any other way.

That obsessiveness, as it pertains to photography, also extends to our online presence. You only have to look at the sheer number of photo-focused online communities and portfolio sites to realise that every photographer is searching for the perfect showcase for their images and there is a long line of companies willing to take our money in attempting to provide it. Inevitably therefore, photographers shuffle remorsely between online systems, trying them out, dipping a toe in the water, exploring the feature-set and then abandoning them.

I've been showcasing my photographs online for nearly as long as the worldwide web has existed and there aren't many photographic hubs or online portfolio services that I haven't used. Like all of us, I was looking for somewhere to showcase my shots, to connect with like-minded photographers and to perhaps make a bit of money selling prints or other merchandise. I've been on DeviantArt for over 20 years, Flickr for 18 years and I first signed up for 500px in 2010. In between I've tried YouPic, EyeEm, Webshots, Zenfolio, Pixoto, Behance, Instagram, Picassa, Vero, FineArtAmerica, Photobucket, Facebook, 1x, Irista, Pinterest, SmugMug, Unsplash and Tumblr. And there's probably the same again in long-forgotten services that I had brief bursts of enthusiasm for, but which failed to survive in the cut-and-thrust photo-sharing sector. And while I will always sign up for the latest shiny photo-sharing service, I realised a decade ago that the only way to get a portfolio that worked the way I wanted was to build my own.

I launched my first portfolio website in 2001, hand-coded in HTML with more than a little help from my wife who's been developing websites since 1997. In 2003 I launched my first database driven site, built on an ancestor of WordPress called PHP Nuke and in 2006, I built my very first WordPress site. Over the years my site has changed as technology developed and trends ebbed and flowed, but I have made my WordPress site the heart of my online presence for over 15 years now. I am of the firm belief that building your own site, on a platform like WordPress, is far and away the best option for photographers and I would like to explain why.

Roll Your Own

There are many compelling reasons why a WordPress site is the best option for a photographer and they all have merit, but for me the single best reason is control over design. If you sign up for an account with 500px or Flickr then your photographs get displayed in exactly the same way as the tens of thousands of other photographers on the site. If you choose a middle-ground and create a site on Squarespace, Zenfolio or Wix, then you're still stuck with the themes that they supply and have limited customisation options using a rigid toolset of their own design. But if you build a WordPress site then the options are limited only by your imagination.

WordPress is famous for its theme engine and rightly so. Themes meant that people with no design chops could create and manage great looking websites and if they wanted to mix things up, freshen up the place and switch out the theme then they could do so in a couple of clicks. Pretty soon a vibrant theme marketplace sprung up and it was possible to buy an endless array of specialised themes that looked the way you wanted. And while themes are still popular, and a great starting point for anyone that's new to WordPress, they are really yesterday's technology. These days you are far better off using a page-builder system to roll-your-own design and create exactly the look you're after. This is referred to as Full Site Editing (FSE) and it makes themes redundant.

There are several popular pagebuilders on the market, including Brizy, Beaver Builder, SiteOrigin, Visual Builder, Divi but the most popular by some margin is Elementor. All of these pagebuilders have advantages and disadvantages, but the one I have the most experience with is Elementor. In fact I used Elementor to create the entire design, structure and back-end build of my site before its most recent update. But, before you rush off and download Elementor and start building your own site, I have a few words of caution.

The first big problem with Elementor is bloated code. Yes, you can create great looking sites with it and the interface is brilliant, but your site will probably index poorly in Google's search engine rankings because it will be full of extraneous code. It's easy to go crazy with Elementor designs and to embelish the build with additional plugins, but you will regret it once the implications of your decisions become apparent. The other big problem with Elementor is content portability. I speak from bitter experience here, because I had to manually extract the text and photographs from over 500 blog posts in order to put them into a standard WordPress format on my new site design. If you keep things simple, then Elementor is still a decent choice, but it's far too easy to step outside WordPress standards and create pages and blog posts with heaps of embedded formating code. So what's the alternative to Elementor, Divi and the rest of them? I'll get to that in a bit.

Taking Back Control

Having your own WordPress site means that you are in full control of every single facet of the site, from the permalink naming structure of your articles, all the way through to the fonts you use for your captions. With that website housed on your own domain and living on your own server space, nobody can interfere with it, take it down, mess with the layout or even pull the site offline completely. If you opt for a free portfolio on Flickr, a feed on social media or even a paid subscriber service like Squarespace, then you categorically do not have the last word in what happens to your site. If Squarespace goes bust, there goes your website. If Flickr decide to limit galleries to five images of either African or European swallows, you have to go with it. If Facebook pulls the pin and takes your page offline (as recently happend to me), then there is absolutely fuck all that you can do about it.

If you buy your own domain, rent yourself some server space (it is no more expensive than a subscription to a portfolio site) and build out your own site then you will always have total and complete control over the site and everything that comes along with that - email, databases, analytics, logs, comments, advertising and content. I have long argued that putting your own website at the centre of your brand is the single best way of protecting yourself from the whims of corporations. There is nothing stopping you from also having an Instagram feed or a Facebook page, but if you build a website and keep it up to date then you can weather any of the storms.

I have long argued that putting your own website at the centre of your brand is the single best way of protecting yourself from the pedantic whims of corporations. There is nothing stopping you from also having an Instagram feed or a Facebook page, but if you build a website and keep it up to date then you can weather any storm.

The Search

I was never too concerned about my search engine rankings because my website was a blog first and foremost and photography was not how I earned my living, but you might not have the luxury of such indifference. If your intention behind having an online portofolio is that as many people as possible find it, then how a site performs in the search engines is important. If you have an online portfolio for professional purposes and you work in a competitive marketplace such as wedding photography, then search engine optimisation (SEO) and your subsequent ranking in Google (the only search that counts) is crucial. Being on the first page of Google for search terms, rather than any subsequent pages, can make a huge difference to your profits. Not convinced? Ask yourself how often you click over to the second page of search results.

The problem is that portfolios on subscriber host systems such as Squarespace or Zenfolio usually do not index as well as sites on their own server space. The cold hard fact is that with the right design and SEO know-how it's possible to make a WordPress website out-perform any comporable Squarespace, Zenfolio, Wix, Weebly or Shopify site in Google search engine rankings. If you Google this subject you will find lots of advice about optimising a Squarespace site for SEO but do you really want to be forced to use a specific Squarespace theme such as Brine to get there?

Companies like Squarespace have upped their game in terms of search engine optimisation tools, but it's much easier to get right in WordPress using a free SEO plug-in like Yoast and a free cache plug-in like Litespeed or a commercial one like Rocket.

Look and Feel

Getting your site working the way you want is half the battle, but getting it looking the way you want is the other half and these two aspects do not always get along harmoniously. Website design inevitably involves compromises, but you should never sacrifice usability for design. This is a lesson I learned the hard way and it cost me a lot of grief when I came to unravel my website. On the previous iteration of my site I used Elementor and Smart Slider 3 extensively throughout the site. I stupidly used Smart Slider to create the photo blogs I posted every few days on my site and extracting those images and the accompanying content for all of those posts was problematic. So my advice is to keep it simple - use standard WordPress posts and standard WordPress image uploads.

When it comes to design, you have a vast number of options on a WordPress site, as opposed to the limited range of themes available on any subscriber hosted platforms. My advice is to sit down with a pen and paper and plan it all out before you start building. Work out what you want to give the most prominence to, what sections you want, how you want it all to flow and then sitting down and constructing the site is easy. Since I include a variety of content on my site (not just photographs), I created a series of templates for each type of post - reviews, editorial, guides, photoblogs and portfolio sections. These templates were pieced together quite simply using Oxygen and mean that I can now just plug in my content whenever I want and a get consistent design and speedy page-load times. Here's what my reviews template looks like behind the scenes.

Apatability

One of the best things about WordPress is how incredibly adaptable it is. Nearly 40% of the websites on the planet use WordPress and that means that there is an incredible range of plug-ins and other tools available for the platform. No matter what you have in mind for your website, there is undoubtedly an add-on that will let you achieve that. So if you want to add an online store to your site, that's no problem. Big deal you might say, I can do that with any of the other subscription services. Sure - but they offer a strictly limited number of options for things like layout, cart functionality, customer tracking, payment gateways, invoicing and everything else related to ecommerce. I can add 'forgotten cart' functions to my store, automatically enroll customers in an email database with all legal opt-in specifications, invite customers into special community forums running on my site, sell virtual products, add up-sell and cross-sell options - the list is endless.

If you're a photographer then one of the things you're always going to be coming up against is online storage space. High quality photos and videos (if you also shoot films) take up a lot of space and this is far cheaper to buy through a hosting service. If I wanted I could even buy some extremely cheap Amazon cloud space and store photos and videos there for a tiny fee.

Theme, Pagebuilder or Blocks

Search engine listings are not governed purely by keywords and alt tags. It is equally important that your site loads quickly - particularly on mobile devices. This is because several years ago, Google instituted a 'mobile-first' edict that said that performance on mobile would be ranked higher than performance on desktop because mobile was where the majority of web page views were taking place. There are consequences for this when it comes to WordPress sites, just as it does with subscriber hosted sites and I have some solid advice on that front.

Do not buy a specialist theme, particular not the 'mega themes' like Avada, Flatsome, Enfold or Salient - they are slow and lock you into a build that it is extremely difficult to extract your website from should you wish to change it. Unless you use them sparingly and keep the use of plug-ins to a minimum, pagebuilders like Elementor and Divi should also be avoided - they can make your site slow due to code bloat. Don't believe me? I went to Elementor's homepage and ran the sites they list in their most recent showcase through Google's PageSpeed Insights tool. You can see some screenshots below. And remember these are the cream-of-the-cream Elementor sites. Sure, the sites look nice but they will be heavily penalised by Google.

There are two approaches I suggest for building your WordPress website in 2021. If you are not at home with code and want a simple drag-and-drop system, then use the default Blocks (also referred to as Gutenberg) system in WordPress. Get a simple Gutenberg-friendly theme such as the latest default WordPress theme or buy a simple commercial theme like Potter or Zugan and your site will be fast, compliant and good-looking. If you are at home with code and not afraid to dig around in the nuts and bolts of a website, then Oxygen Builder is the way to go. I created this new site using Oxygen and I took my mobile pagespeed score from 11(!) to 96 and desktop from 24, to 97.

Oxygen is a hybrid design system (more of a theme builder than a pagebuilder) but it is probably not the best option for beginners. Using Oxygen I was able to create precisely the kind of design I wanted, without sacrificing speed or usability. If you're happy tweaking designs with a bit of custom PHP, CSS or Javascript then you'll be fine. I'm no coder incidentally, I just followed tutorials on YouTube and got help from the official Oxygen support group on Facebook when I ran into difficulties.

Where Does it Live?

These days there are myriad companies offering competitive rates on hosting for WordPress sites. Bluehost, Siteground, Dreamhost and WPEngine all offer hosting packages that cost a few bucks a month. For the same monthly fee charged by Squarespace, Bluehost will host your own Virtual Private Server with 30Gb of SSD space a 1Tb of bandwidth. Here in Australia I can highly recommend Digital Pacific, who I've been with for five years now and offer a first-rate service, excellent support and all the bandwidth you need.

Hosting for WordPress sites is a mature marketplace and a competitive one, so you can get excellent deals on your very own server space. For many of these hosting packages you don't even have to worry about setting the site up in the first place - most of them will do it for you or supply you with tools that make it as simple as clicking through a few simple question-and-answer pages.

Where We're Going We Don't Need Roads

I am occasionally asked by fellow photographers what I think the best option for setting up and managing an online portfolio. And sometimes, once I understand what they want from that portfolio and what they want to do with it - I advise them to go to Squarespace because it is the path of least resistance and a decent option for people who have no experience building websites or who do not want to spend any time creating or managing their online presence.

But if you have a basic understanding of content management systems and are happy to put in the hours, then a self-hosted website built on WordPress is far and away the best option. Using the blocks system that comes with WordPress, you'll quickly realise it's just as easy to use as subscriber hosted services and much more powerful. Once you're all set up, you can graduate to a builder system such as Oxygen and then the sky's the limit for what you can achieve.

So consider kicking your 500px account to the kerb, give Squarespace the push, untie the apron strings on Flickr and jetison Facebook. Take control of your website for once and for all and reap the benefits. Yes, it will be harder than making a cookie-cutter portfolio on the big-brand subscriber services, but the end product will be much better and nobody will ever be able to take it away from you.

For the last 16 years I’ve been photographing, blogging (and more recently vlogging) about everything I find, see and enjoy here in South Coast, New South Wales. This is my blogging site focused on my hobby (and part-time job) of photography. Please enjoy my little writing and my photography and I’d love to hear your feedback.
© 2021 Andy Hutchinson
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