How many times have you heard that photographers don't need the complexity of WordPress and should get something along the lines of Squarespace, Smugmug, or Zenfolio? Those are all very viable options, but if you want to get the best out of your website without spending a fortune, WordPress is the way to go.
I always hear that WordPress is for building a large complex website and photographers only need something like Zenfolio, Smugmug, or Squarespace. This is a myth.
Gone are the days of a WordPress website being only for those who can write code. The current iteration of WordPress, along with the right plugins, can be every bit as simple as any name brand photography hosting website. If you are still in search of an excellent hosting company, then you can head over to my favourite article and see how in this article they compared Hostgator and Godaddy.
What are your goals? Do you simply want to display your work? Ok, then WordPress probably IS more than you need. But so is just about any other paid photography web hosting service. You could get a perfectly acceptable portfolio page on the web for free with a $9.99 Adobe Photography Plan. If that's all you want to do then spending any additional money is just silly.
However, if you are a photographer running a business then you need more than just a display gallery. You need a way to sell your brand to potential clients, interact with existing clients, collect payments, sell prints, set up proofing galleries, build email lists, create landing pages for special events and promotions, blog, and rank on Google searches. Frankly, most of those name brand sites I mentioned earlier are terrible at most of those things and the things they do best (online selling and proofing) come at a pretty hefty cost. I used to have one of them for years and as soon as I started to need the more professional services, it would have cost me over $25 per month. At that price I still had to deal with that fact that they were terrible at most of those other things on the list.
So I switched to a WordPress site and have not regretted it for a minute. If you want to run your small business website effectively then this is the way to go.
What is WordPress?
WordPress is open source software for creating a website. Don't confuse this with WordPress.com which is a website hosting/building service along the lines of Squarespace and Wix. The free open source software and information about it can be found at wordpress.org. In addition to the free software part, you also need a server to host the website.
Once you have these two primary parts, you get yourself a theme which can be free or paid. The theme provides the framework for the website such as its base functions and its general appearance. Once you have the theme in place you will probably want to get some plugins. Many might say that this makes it complicated. I disagree, this makes it both more simple and more customizable at the same time. You only have to install the plugins you want. Don't need e-commerce for example…don't get an e-commerce plugin. Your website can be as complex or as simple as you need it to be based on your personal choices and needs.
Cost is a huge factor for many photographers just starting out as well as seasoned veterans. The best part about WordPress is that it is free. Ok, so WordPress itself is free but you still need a place to host the page.
For the technically inclined, you can self-host right on your own home server. If you aren't really comfortable with your knowledge of running a home web server, then I would advise against this path. Of course if you already know how to set up a home web server, than you certainly don't need me to tell you about it.
There are many wordpress hosts out there to choose from and the prices vary widely based on the level of service that you want. I would suggest looking for a server that specifically has a WordPress hosting plan. They will help you get up and running with WordPress and you rarely have to worry about the behind the scenes stuff. I also suggest getting a “managed host.” This means that the host will assist you with things like backups, updates, and even migrating from another host if you already have a WordPress site. Some managed hosts will even help you transfer your data from sites like Squarespace.
You can find a good managed host plan for under $20/month. I personally use Siteground on two websites that I manage. The first year was under $5.95/month and after that it goes up to $15/month. They even have a “managed” starter plan that begins at $3.95/month. I'm not being compensated for telling you this, I just like them. However, this article is about WordPress and you can find managed WordPress hosting for similar prices all over.
Pop quiz, what happens to all the data and designs and content on your Squarespace, Zenfolio, or Smugmug page when you stop paying? Well, you can download the images, copy and paste the text, but the layout and design elements are typically coded in a format that is proprietary to that site. So if they go out of business or raise their prices to levels you aren't comfortable with, you are starting over.
What happens when your WordPress host does the same? You just upload it to a different server. In most cases this can be done in such a way that your site is identical and your visitors never notice any change or down time. You can even download the whole site onto your home computer, update and develop it there, then re-upload so that massive updates can be done with absolutely zero down time. This requires a little bit of technical knowledge, but if you took my advice and got a managed host, then they can help you with it.
The bottom line is that you own your content, the design, the text, and all the structure of the site can travel with you wherever you want it to go. This many not seem like a big deal for those getting started, but imagine if you had 200 blog posts on your page and your web host goes out of business. Now you can see the importance of owning every part of your webpage content. This is also important when it comes to SEO, as is often stressed by SEO agencies like PWD, but we will get to that later.
I always hear about how beautiful the templates are at Squarespace. That certainly is true. However, you can make those exact same beautifully designed websites with WordPress without being limited to certain templates. Here is where I'll let you in on a secret. Ok, it's not really a secret. Many (most?) web designers don't code sites from scratch. This takes a long time and it much harder for their clients to manage the site day to day. You can use what are called page builder plugins. Some of the most popular page builder plugins are Divi, Beaver Builder, and Elementor.
Page builders are not new but it has been more recently that they have reached the level of ease of functionality and quality of design to where they have matched (and in many ways surpassed) the design capability of those popular website builders. I use a page builder for everything now, including my home page, my inquiry page, my about page, and even to make custom designed headers and footers.
Personally, I use Elementor. I found that it has the best balance of freedom, good aesthetic design, and functionality. In fact, using Elementor has removed the need for me to use a plugin dedicated to contact forms (and simplifying things is always good). I paid $50 for the Pro version but they also have a free version available. That $50 gets me a year's worth of updates but even if I don't want to pay $50 next year, I can still continue using the pro version, I just will not have access to the updates after one year.
This is the way most WordPress plugin licenses work, which is great on two levels. First, you aren't held hostage to where your site will stop working as soon as a year is up if you don't keep paying. You can wait to pay again until they come out with an update that you want or need. Second, it encourages developers to provide new features and updates on a regular basis or else no one will keep paying them for it. It's a great way to handle updates that actually benefits the users. A stark contrast to the online backlash a certain unnamed photo editing software company got when it switched to a subscription system.
There are a number of considerations to make when choosing a page builder that are probably beyond the scope of this article, but check out THIS excellent comparison of the top page builders to help make your choice.
Once you have a page builder in place and know how to use it, you can design your entire site visually from the front end just how you would do on one of those other hosting sites. So at this point you are paying less money and have the same, if not better design capability. You're already ahead of those other sites that everyone says are better for photographers.
Flexibility and Functionality
This is where WordPress really shines. Think about something you would like your website to accomplish for you? Chances are that there is a plugin for that. If there isn't you can still pay someone to write the code for it. Sure that's expensive, but its still possible. With WordPress you have infinite flexibility and scale-ability.
Do you want to start out with a simple portfolio of images? You can do that. Do you want to add an “About Me” page to that portfolio? You can do that. Do you want to create a custom made inquiry form that simultaneously emails you, sends a thank you to the person filling out the form along with a PDF of your prices, and adds them to your Mail Chimp list? Well, you get the idea, and yes, that's what happens when someone fills out my inquiry form on my website. It took me about 5 minutes to set up.
Scalability is important for any small business. You never know where the business may take you or how it will grow. This is why I am suggesting WordPress for even those getting started
This is the big one for photographers. Although WordPress can be a lot better at this than you probably thought, the photography specific sites like SmugMug and Zenfolio have the slight edge here (but that edge comes at a premium cost). Those sites have things like Lightroom integration that just simply work out of the box.
However, you can get really close to that functionality at a fraction of the cost with a good image gallery plugin. The top ones out there now are NextGen Gallery, Envira Gallery, and Foo Gallery. Check out my recent article on the Best Image Gallery Plugins For WordPress where I talk about all of these options. Each one has its own pros and cons.
I am currently using NextGen Gallery Pro so I can tell you about what I can accomplish with that. I run a portrait business and also sell landscape prints on my site. The landscape gallery has a built in “buy” button that opens a quick sidebar with different types of prints and sizes. If someone wants to purchase one, they can pay with credit card right on my site. The card payment is processed through Stripe. I get an email telling me what they ordered, they get a thank you email confirming their order, and the money goes right into my account.
On the portrait side, I do mostly in-person sales, but when a client wants to buy from an online gallery, I can do that too. I just upload to a gallery, assign a pre-made price list, use a client page template I custom designed with Elementor and insert their gallery into it. The page is password protected and one they access it, they can buy prints the same way I described above. Soon they will even have print lab integration, but I like to inspect prints before I hand them over to my clients.
I can do both with NextGen Gallery Pro simply by creating different galleries, unique price lists, and page templates with my page builder that work with a single click. NextGen Gallery Pro is $129/year (although they constantly have 20% off deals) and it run on the same license as Elementor described above. This means that you really don't have to pay every year if you don't need the upgrades. In addition, if you don't need all the e-commerce bells and whistles that I use, you can make a really great image gallery just using one of the page builder plugins that I mentioned above. This is WordPress, so mix and match and do it your way (cue the Sinatra music clip).
But let's say you want to do more than just sell prints. Maybe you want to enable people to pay online for session fees, workshops, or photography lessons. Well now you have really outgrown your Zenfolio or Smugmug website. You need a more complex e-commerce solution. WordPress has that too. Plugins such as Woo Commerce, WP Ecommerce, and Easy Digital Downloads can do just about all that and more.
This is another area, like flexibility, where WordPress absolutely destroys any of those other sites. Even without any plugins, creating a regular blog on a WordPress site will more quickly and easily get you ranking better on Google searches. However, with WordPress you can use plugins such as Yoast SEO (the overwhelming most popular choice) to give you insights about your SEO, help you change the page “snippet” that appears on a Google search page, and even change the preview that pops up on social media sites like Facebook when someone posts your link. While a full discussion of SEO benefits of WordPress could take multiple articles, suffice it to say that there is little comparison to what you can accomplish in this arena with WordPress.
How to Get Started
I highly recommend you read Jim Harmer's full step-by-step tutorial on how to launch a WordPress website on Bluehost if you're ready to get started. It will show you all the details and steps you'll need to get your WordPress website started right.
This is a relatively brief overview of all the things you can do on WordPress as a photographer with minimal expense and minimal technical knowledge. The extent of my coding knowledge consists of occasionally copying and pasting a short piece of code that someone else wrote for a very specific purpose. Is there a learning curve for WordPress? Yes, of course there is. However, the difficulty is not much greater than building a quality website on any of those other services and the rewards are far greater.
Do you use WordPress? Are you thinking of switching over to it? Leave a comment below. I am a photographer, not a web designer, so if I can do it, anyone can. I'll be happy to answer any questions in the comments below and guide you to some of the resources that I have found helpful in building WordPress websites.