The Trouble with Online Photography Portfolios

I’ve spent some time over the past couple of weeks looking at photographers’ portfolios in search of new talent for upcoming projects. I started my search online; then, once I had a short list of photographers whose work I liked, I arranged individual meetings to discuss their work in more detail and review their print portfolios.

Through this process, I was struck by a basic difference between print and online portfolios. Print portfolios, on the whole, are similar in format and presentation. Usually, the portfolio is either book-style with some elegant Helvetica on the cover indicating the photographer’s name, or the print-box-style contained within an outer case. Both styles include prints that vary in technique and size, as one would expect from individual tastes and preferences — but overall, a consistent approach.

The same can’t be said for online portfolios. And this can present challenges in fairly judging the talent and experience of different photographers.

Getting to the Point

I am not suggesting that there should be a single template for photographers’ Web sites, or that they should simply mimic the functionality of a print portfolio. On the contrary, Web sites enable photographers to communicate in a much fuller way with their audiences — showing not only their work, but also something about themselves as individuals. This is invaluable to anyone considering commissioning the photographer.

However, if the Web site makes viewing a portfolio difficult — and a surprising percentage of the sites I looked at did — then the photographer is missing the forest for the trees.

Yes, your Web site’s design says something about you as a creative professional. But ultimately, I’m not hiring a Web designer; I’m hiring a photographer. So more than anything else, your site needs to be coherently organized and easily navigated.

Value in Consistency

Guess what? I don’t have time to chase a small, spherical, lime-green object around the screen with my cursor to access your next photograph. I’m sure your designer told you it was cool and edgy — but it just cost you a potential client. And you can bet I’m not the only one.

First and foremost, commissioners want to review your work — quickly and efficiently. Some of the better sites I saw used inexpensive, off-the-peg templates such as Apple’s iWeb, which allowed me to easily view the photographer’s images.

If you choose a custom-built site, I’d encourage you to consider your site’s design in relationship to the other marketing materials you produce, including your print portfolio. Having a clean, consistent look that communicates your brand is far more effective than throwing in the kitchen sink simply because you can.

13 Responses to “The Trouble with Online Photography Portfolios”

  1. Great points Wayne and I agree with all of them. I visit competitor's websites often, and like the post says, they definitely have some cool designs, but it is really hard to actually see the images.

    The line "But ultimately, I’m not hiring a Web designer; I’m hiring a photographer," really struck me. I've had colleagues (and former partners) say a super fancy website is needed. I disagreed and felt simple was the way to go.

    I use a basic Squarespace template. I have no nested menus. I do not describe my photography services (for the most part).

    Wayne, how do you feel about having music on your portfolio pages? Me, I can't stand sites that do that.

    Thanks for the great post.

  2. Thanks, Wayne, for this great, encouraging post! Some time before I've been working on my website relaunch, I discussed it with colleagues. "You'll need some great, exclusive webdesign, flash, animations, blah ...". I refused: "I'm not a web designer, I'm photographer!"

    I can't stand that fancy, blinking, flashing, colourful stuff on photography sites anymore - including music! - because it's just getting on my nerves. I want to see on a photographer's site, what's important: His or her work. Presented in a pure, simple and elegant style. Let's call it some kind of Zen: Reduced to the essential, which is photography.

    Concerning the print portfolio: I can't stand Helvetica! Sorry for that, but it's "McDonalds of typography". Typography offers much more chances for design and branding of a photographer's print portfolio in a characteristic and impressive style!

    Best regards!

  3. Hi Jason,

    Visiting competitors websites is a very smart idea!

    I'm not opposed to music, some of the sites I visited had audio and it added another dimension to the site and on others the audio was annoying!

    I think if you feel audio adds to the site, great, but give the user a very clear and visible option to turn this off, bare in mind the user may be viewing your site in an open plan office or coffee shop and the sound may be unwelcome.

  4. Not being a professional photographer I can't add any authority to this, but from a screen design prospective I can add that many people on the multimedia industry are airing similar gripes.

    Unfortunately it seems quality in design and quality of content are often assumed to be the same thing. (If you fail to understand the difference, go spend some time on myspace)

    We (and I include the reader here also, not just the web designers) all encounter site after useless site that, while very expressive, highly imaginative and creative and quite technically astounding, are also:
    highly difficult to navigate to important data efficiently,
    have layouts that while impressive detracts severely from the product (something I imagine that would be all to easy for photography)
    or, in the truly drastic cases, are entirely and completely irrelevant.

    And I don't think it is to much to ask to have it all. I'm sure Ford would be perfectly pleased to face a fancy overdone site, if it had say, a small but easily found link to a simple (but of course stylistically consistent) Professional portfolio. I've already stated that I'm no photography expert, but surely in fine photography also, the ability to express an idea must go hand in hand with technical skill?

    Art may be a matter of taste, but a website is a matter of communication, and communication should always be as clear and concise as it is eloquent.

    by all means express yourself, but for your own sake do it clearly.

  5. Big images, dead-easy navigation, no useless info.

    Web presence for photographers by digitaltechparis:

  6. Wayne,

    Thanks for the article. When I was re-designing my website, I labored for months over its new look. I studied tons of other websites and while many were very edgy and cool, most lost the basic concept of showcasing the images.

    When I finally decided on my new look I often thought it may have been too "simple", but in the months following the launch I've received nothing but positive comments about its ease of navigation, simplicity and "user friendly" content.

    The website, my new business identity collateral and physical portfolio all reflect the same brand and that is something that was previously inconsistent.

  7. @Wayne,

    Thanks, yeah no music on my site. I know some sites use it effectively, but I decided not to since I am not focused on weddings.

    @Ken Hamlett

    I think you made good choices on your site design. It's simple, but the slideshow is fancy still. It all loaded fast enough for my short attention span too. I followed you on Twitter.

  8. @Jason Collin

    Thanks Jason. It's a simple java script gallery, no flash. I struggled with the music issue, but opted out because I know how annoyed I get sometimes with it on sites I visit.

    Thanks for the follow on Twitter, will do the same.

  9. Hi Wayne,

    You certainly hit it right on the nail when you emphasized the importance of "ease of navigation" when viewing online portfolios. As an amateur web designer/photographer, "ease of use" is one aspect that I constantly had in mind when I designed and developed my website.

    So yeah, if you can balance aesthetics with site usability then you have it made. I'm still learning though.

  10. Wayne-

    Definitely agree with your points. The fact that well-designed, easily navigable sites exist now and are becoming more prominent makes older, less user-friendly sites stand out, instead of the old expected norm.

    When I started a redesign of my online portfolio site a few months ago, I wanted to get rid of any of these kinds of obstacles and make it as clean-yet-functional as possible. My new website ( features

    - no vertical scrolling (images are resized to fill the viewer's screen
    - the content is immediately visible and the most prominent visual element
    - navigation requires almost no brain power or hand-eye coordination (simply uses the scroll wheel on the mouse or the arrow keys on the keyboard)
    - no music (how do you ever know if your users will agree with your musical taste?)

    Anyhow, I haven't announced this new site yet to clients or prospects, so I'd love any critically constructive feedback any of you guys are willing to offer.

  11. Wayne,
    Would you be willing to provide some links to websites that were most appealing (in format)? I think examples always give a clearer idea to what you are talking about.
    I think my website is easy to navigate, but I could be wrong...

  12. To keep my post short & sweet and as not to TIVO too much that has aready been said:

    Great post
    I Agree
    I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks this way.

    Thank you,


  13. Hi Wayne,
    I do agree, have been in this business 10+ years I've gone back to simple java from flash and now looking to revamp even further to take a simple html approach to my online portfolio to have a more iphone friendly site. It is important to show your work in print as true as impressive online, pertaining to color reproduction and such. Anyways, good article. cheers

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