For the first 5 years this website existed, I used Zenfolio to host it. But after increasing frustration with the service, I decided to build a new site using WordPress. I spent half of last year building it, but after the switch I wasn't happy with the result, so I recently reverted back to my Zenfolio site again.
This post is a brief discussion of the pros and cons of the two respective platforms, which I hope will prove useful to other photographers and developers out there.
I mean I say 'brief'; but you may want to grab a coffee and settle in for a long read...
>> NOTES (as of 2022):
My site is now hosted by Wix, but this post is still relevant if you are considering Zenfolio or Wordpress.
I also have a related post "Advice for a Photographer's Website".
Why I joined Zenfolio in the first place
The main reason behind creating a website was, and still is, to have a place for my portfolio to live online. A little corner of the internet that's mine. Somewhere I can direct people to look if they want to see what I'm doing, or people can stumble across themselves.
I also wanted to offer an integrated print-purchasing option, for anyone who likes what they see, and would like a print up at home. In this respect, Zenfolio was a very attractive option. The photo management behind the scenes is excellent. It's clear that this is a platform designed for photographers from the ground up. The basic print-ordering & selling mechanism is very well integrated into the site, and required little intervention/work from me when orders came in. It was also very easy to customise the look and feel of my site. Without wishing to use a word as dirty as 'branding', I was able to easily create a site that felt like mine, within 2 weeks (the free trial period). And when occasional print orders came in, I'd receive an email notification, and I just needed to log in and approve the order. Then it was sent on to the printers, who fulfilled the order. It really is a great setup and workflow for an easy life. As a beginner, it was all I wanted.
My frustrations with Zenfolio - Why I left
It's fair to say I have a love/hate relationship with Zenfolio. It allowed me to concentrate on my photography, and put my time and attention into learning to take better photos, rather than constructing and maintaining a website. And it gave me an opportunity to sell my work with minimal experience and understanding of the process to begin with. I don't think I would be where I am today without Zenfolio. But it's funny how little issues can become increasingly frustrating over a period of 5 years. My photography improved, my requirements grew, and the rest of the web evolved, meanwhile Zenfolio seemed almost glacial in its reaction speed.
There were so many simple, targeted fixes requested on the forum and UserVoice platform over the years, which could have delivered an improved service for Zenfolio users, but were never addressed. What few updates were delivered were so minor and slow to arrive, it suggests Zenfolio are probably functioning with as few as 1 or 2 developers. It certainly gave the impression of a company top-heavy with marketing to attract new customers, rather than a proactive attitude to serving current users. It was so frustrating to see a good company lack the resources to address key issues, or have those resources directed elsewhere to features which offer little or no value to it's user base.
I'd say the main reasons why Zenfolio were no longer meeting my requirements were...
1. SEO (Search Engine Optimisation)
I'm increasingly looking to make my site discoverable via search engines. I was using Google Web Master Tools, and as much relevant text as possible on my pages, and I'd reached the limit of what I was able to achieve with SEO myself. Yet my site still rated very poorly on SEO analysis due to the underlying code and structure of the Zenfolio platform.
For example, it's maddening that the URL for each photo page is just a series of random characters, such as www.georgewheelhouse.com/galleries/deer/h3a377dde#h3a377dde. This doesn't give Google any idea about the content or subject matter.
2. Shopping Cart & Checkout
This process was so convoluted, it needed serious simplification. In addition to that, I don't want my customers to have access to paper choice, cropping, etc. I can do that myself. I just want a simple way of selecting prints at various sizes. And I don't want generic wedding or portrait photos on the example products. It's not a good look for a nature and wildlife photography site. A related note, and a major reason for looking elsewhere, is the paper and print sizes available for Fine Art Prints are very limited - particularly for One Vision Imaging in the UK. OVI have so many options on their website, but very few through Zenfolio (and they're odd shapes/aspect-ratios). I considered self-fulfilled prints, so I can choose a vendor myself, but it felt like a lot of hard work, and I'd be missing part of what I like about Zen; the ease of the sales workflow. If I'm going to offer self-fulfilled products, I can do that without Zenfolio.
3. Modern Styling & Responsive Design
The look and feel of a Zen site dated since I joined 5 years ago, and other websites have moved on to a more modern long-page, flat UI styling, with a responsive design that works equally well on multiple devices. It would be nice to have a site that looks modern and stylish, as that says a lot about the general approach I want to put across to potential viewers.
The attraction of Wordpress
Ah, the grass was definitely greener on the Wordpress side :-)
WordPress is a much more open platform than Zenfolio. It wasn’t designed for photographers specifically. Initially a blogging platform, WordPress has evolved for developing and hosting all kinds of websites. The attraction of this is that it’s very open and accessible, offering great freedom to customise all elements of a site. Being built around well-established blogging functionality also provides great opportunities for SEO. It has lots of great features for blogs too, like email list sign-up forms, and 'similar posts' links beneath an article. Being open-source, it’s also free software. You just have to pay for a hosting package from one of the many web hosting companies, which costs around $5 a month. After that, the key feature of Wordpress is the wide selection of plug-ins (pre-written software modules) available, which add specific features such as integrated product sales (eg ‘WooCommerce’ plugin), and SEO helpers (eg ‘Yoast’). Like mobile apps, this market is made up of free, paid, and ‘freemium’ solutions, so you can tailor your choice according to your budget and requirements. Most people choose to pay for a theme, which sets the look and feel of your site as well as the layout of many of the screens. These vary in quality, style, and customisation-potential, and I chose “Bridge”, which cost me around $60 up-front. I chose it because it was a modern-looking theme, with a reputation for good support from its developers.
Aside from the website itself, another advantage of sourcing a hosting company myself was that I'd be able to get an email address using my domain name. For example, something @georgewheelhouse.com. This is a much more professional appearance than using gmail, as I was before.
So off I went; customising my site, adding my photos, and installing plug-ins to add the features I wanted. By the time I’d finished I had a site I really liked the look of. It was very responsive to different browser and device resolutions, and it looked noticeably more slick than my old zenfolio site. I was also able to provide prints from my own choice of fine art printers, rather than the limited options available via Zenfolio.
The frustrations with Wordpress - Why I left
SEO and Page Speed
Well, there was one key reason why left Zenfolio; SEO. And yet, after I’d done everything I could to aid the SEO features of my WordPress site, it still achieved roughly the same rating for SEO as my old Zenfolio site! I’ve been over the specific issues so many times, based on different metrics from different analyses (GTMetrix, Pingdom, Varvy, NeilPatel), and it seemed like my WordPress and Zenfolio sites both similar overall ratings, only with differing pros and cons. I'd addressed the issues which Zenfolio hadn't, but wasn't able to address some of the other issues detailed below, which did work in Zenfolio - mainly page speed. So overall, I hadn’t gained an SEO advantage from my move to WordPress.
I looked into the idea of faster website hosting packages, or 'WordPress-optimised' hosting packages, to see if that would speed things up. The wordpress-optimised packages were no faster than the package I had. They just included caching and basic CDN, which I'd already setup on my site with a plugin. I was also able to see that the server response times I was getting weren't slow. The delay was coming from needlessly numerous files, and web application processing time. This lead me to try a plugin called 'P3 - Plugin Performance Profiler', which was fascinating. It showed me where the page load time was going - in pie chart format. WooCommerce was responsible for 75% of the load time, requiring nearly 100 database queries to load the average page! There are two solutions to this;
The first is to upgrade to a dedicated server (which is very expensive - far exceeding the value of my print sales).
The other is to re-organise my site to get it working with fewer products, to reduce the amount of processing required. But this would be a fairly major re-design, costing more of my time on top of what I already put in last year.
Next we have image optimisation. As a photographer, images are a key feature of my website. But it’s important that the image files are compressed efficiently, to reduce the file-size as much as possible, so they download quickly and provide a positive user experience. I used a plug-in called ‘ShortPixel’, for which I paid to solve this problem. Unfortunately, on page analyses many of my images were still being flagged as not optimised. That was frustrating, but on top of that many of them, especially the smaller thumbnails, suffered a huge degradation in quality. When the entire point of your site is to show your photos, it’s just not acceptable to have them looking so ropey, with compression artefacts and gross loss of detail. Since my experience, ShortPixel have released a new Glossy option specifically for photographers, which does exactly what I wanted. Take a look at that if you're looking for a Wordpress image optimisation plugin.
Zenfolio also optimise their images as part of the service. The low-res images they generate for faster loading are very crisp and sharp. They do a great job there. They also use a CDN, for faster download/page speeds.
A quick detour here, to cover theme options. It's very difficult to choose a WordPress theme, as there doesn't seem to be a facility for 'try-before-you-buy'. If you're in the same boat I was, I'd recommend running SEO analysis tools on the various demo sites out there, and checking the html they put out. This will help, but it's still ultimately a leap into the unknown, as you can't get a sense of what the back end configuration will be like until you've paid for and installed the theme. It's also likely that these demo sites are hosted on expensive, fast, dedicated servers, so any speed analysis is unlikely to resemble the results you get on an affordable single-site WordPress hosting option. I did check the html pumped out by Bridge before I bought it, to make sure it tackled the features missing from Zenfolio, however I didn't run any further analysis or look into minification / file requests-per-page. I naively assumed they would be OK.
One option open to photographers is the likes of Photocrati, or Imagely. These are a combination of Wordpress themes, plugins, and configurations which attempt to provide an all-in-one solution. There were two main reasons I didn't go with one of these:
They're expensive. You have the choice of either payment up-front for a solution that will date and not receive ongoing updates, or an annual subscription which ends up far more expensive than the alternatives.
They don't create a unique URL/page for each photo. URL's seem to be gallery based, with each photo in the gallery accessed from that one URL. I want each photo to have it's own page & URL. In addition to this, I want some photos to be in more than one gallery (eg, Nature and Black and White).
I'd consider trying one of these in the future, if they introduced an option for a page-per-photo, though I'm still not convinced they would tackle my other concerns with the underlying WordPress platform. Overall, it does still feel like there's a huge gap in the market for an effective Wordpress photography solution.
The WordPress photo management is frankly awful. The fact that I had 2-3 new photos to add to my website, which I just hadn't bothered to do, was the nail in the coffin for my WordPress experiment; Proof that the method was too convoluted to maintain. Behind the scenes, the media management facility is so basic and dated it's beyond belief. I guess that's OK for many websites, but with images being so key to a photography website, they have to be easy to manage; collate into galleries, groups, etc. I also missed how easy it was to provide password-protected galleries to clients with Zenfolio. I do take on commissions and commercial projects, and Zenfolio's client galleries are excellent for sharing photos privately. Note too that each of my photos (over 100 on my website, plus the many other images used around my site for headers, example prints, blogs, etc) was automatically duplicated in the form of thumbnail images, resized for various different uses. The number of thumbnails required depends on the plug-ins you use, which will generate more for their own use. In my case my site was auto-generating 18 thumbnail versions for each of my images. This is clearly OTT, and while I don't have to get involved with these copies directly, it's a bit of an alarm bell, as it's representative of the kind of scrappy inefficiencies inherent in the WordPress platform.
And this leads into the next problem...
Unless you stick with something very basic, your WordPress site requires quite a few different plugins. I was using around 20 in all, to add features such as...
Slideshows ('sliders' in Wordpress speak)
Page layout design
Improvements to the print selection UI
And my theme
Now, given that each of the many plugins is maintained by a different company, developer, or open-source user-base, and updates are released completely independently for each, it becomes a risky prospect to accept updates in case any changes negatively affect my site, or weren't compatible with a version of another plugin I was using. So the obvious solution is to stick with the versions I have, and not take further updates. However the WordPress platform itself also receives regular updates (let's say once a month?). And the WordPress updates are automatically rolled out and applied. Plus you do need those updates not only to benefit from new features/usability, but also to address any security issues which have been identified since the previous release. So with a basic platform/API that's constantly evolving, you also have to keep your plugins up-to-date, so they work with the version of WordPress that you have. It's a recipe for maintenance nightmare. I feel like I could improve the speed and SEO issues over time, if I ditched Bridge and tried a more lightweight theme, but the constant updates from disparate plugins is a situation that I'm just not happy with. It again highlights the benefit of Zenfolio's all-encompassing platform; having one source for all features and updates. And as slow as they are to release updates, they are obviously rigorously tested, as they very rarely introduce bugs.
One last issue, is with localisation for print prices. My Zenfolio site would detect where the user was, and display print prices for their location. This means that people in the UK would see prices in GBP, and users in the USA would see prices in USD, etc. This was actually quite a big deal to me, as I sell as many prints overseas as I do within the UK. With WordPress, all my prints were priced in GBP, and anyone from outside the UK would have to convert to their local currency themselves. Although the simplicity of this was initially attractive, it soon became apparent (when I stopped getting print orders from outside the UK!) that this was creating a barrier to sales from overseas. It took this experiment for me to realise that the UK is really an insignificant market compared with the rest of the world. Especially so since the continuing collapse of the UK Pound is effectively making my prices more affordable to those outside the UK. In an increasingly global market, there's no point in giving preference to the UK, just because that's where I live. I'm sure this localisation feature could have been addressed using a plugin of some-sort, but I've already discussed my concern with installing more plugins, and the thought of further complicating an already convoluted WooCommerce price-list was enough to put me off that idea.
The grass wasn't greener
Now don't get me wrong. WordPress is brilliant in many ways, and it enables millions of people to run a low-cost blog or website with very little coding required. I also know lots of other photographers who are very happy with it. It's just not what I had hoped for. It didn't address all of the issues I needed to address, and I didn't feel confident in the disparate collection of software I was using. Overall, despite spending many hours developing my WordPress site, my Zenfolio site still had the edge in the majority of respects, and I felt like Zenfolio's stability and reliability would pay off over Wordpress' customisation options. What it basically comes down to is this;
I want to spend my free time taking photos, not maintaining a website, and Zenfolio is easily the most simple and reliable option of the two. I didn't mind putting a lot of time into building a website, but I don't want a site that will require on-going time and attention for maintenance. It has to be reliable enough that I can move on, and get back to taking photos, and I didn't have that confidence in WordPress.
In time, if Zenfolio remain behind the curve with respect to addressing the basics, I may well end up going back to WordPress. But if that does happen, I'll use a lighter-weight theme, and a massively simplified integration of WooCommerce, with a minimal number of products shared by all photos, to reduce the processing required to serve a page. However, I can't be bothered with that right now. I'm going to give Zenfolio another try first.
The one element of my switch to WordPress that I'm keeping is my self-fulfilled prints. It does mean that I don't get to take advantage of Zen's integrated printing platform, but I'm just not happy with the limited options available there, in terms of papers and print sizes. It's nowhere near flexible enough, so I'd rather order my own with my own choice of fine art printers and papers. So far that's worked out fine.
Once I started looking into leaving WordPress, I also had to decide what to do about my lovely new email address using my georgewheelhouse.com domain. Well, thankfully I discovered Zoho mail, which is absolutely brilliant. So now I'm not using my WordPress hosting package, but I'm still able to maintain my email address by using Zoho, and some simple domain settings. If you're looking for custom/company email addresses, and you have a domain, I'd thoroughly recommend Zoho. Their support was also very helpful and responsive during the setup process too.
What you get with a photo-hosting company compared to a generic platform
Thinking more about the two options, this isn't just about Zenfolio vs Wordpress. It's also a question of whether it's worth paying a photo website hosting company (such as Zenfolio, Photoshelter, SmugMug, etc) for their service, rather than a do-it-yourself approach with a generic website (such as Wordpress). Obviously it depends on the pricing of the respective services - but that aside, what do you get for using a service like Zenfolio?
Web hosting - All your files, web design, html, blog posts, and images are stored on their server. Clustered redundancy and backups, so data is never lost.
Fast access - Optimised / minimised files, using a CDN for maximum page load times.
Photo management - Organisation of images, in galleries & groups, etc.
Regular updates - For security and bug-fixes, as well as new features. Automatically rolled out and applied with no further action required.
Integrated sales - Making selling hassle-free.
Localisation - Multi-language / local-currency.
Site security & Image protection - SSL certificate for encrypted checkout and secure payments/orders.
Economies of scale - By hosting the sites of thousands of photographers, servers and webspace are much cheaper per user. I get better quality (reliability/speed) web hosting by being part of Zenfolio's service, than I would if I pay for my own hosting server independently (as you do with Wordpress).
For me, the pros of using a photography-specific service outweigh those of Wordpress and the like. I think the features above are worth paying for, and companies such as Zenfolio are just what's needed to get the web-development & maintenance off the photographer's to-do list.
So I'm back on the Zen site again. Despite it's frustrating flaws, it's currently the best option available to me.
Outstanding Issues with Zenfolio
Zenfolio does all of the above, but it's still well short of achieving everything photographers really need. And I'm not too proud to beg, so begging I am:
- Please Zenfolio: address these simple issues -
Zenfolio is so close to being a really great platform! Resolving these basic issues would add real value, help users immensely, encourage us to stay, and enable us to recommend the service to friends...
Friendly URLs for photo pages. As described above, I should be able to use the URL: www.georgewheelhouse.com/galleries/deer/sika-deer-silhouette rather than www.georgewheelhouse.com/galleries/deer/h3a377dde#h3a377dde There's a request for this on the UserVoice platform, which was accepted and planned as of August 2012, and still hasn't been done! This is important for SEO.
The <title> tag of a photo page should include the title of the photo. How complex is that? Again, there's a request for this on the UserVoice platform, which this time hasn't even been acknowledged by Zenfolio in nearly 6 years! This surely requires a matter of minutes for a developer to implement. It's a staggering oversight. Vote for this feature on Uservoice
The sitemap that Zenfolio generates is very basic. It was clearly a rushed afterthought, which has never been addressed properly. You can see mine here: www.georgewheelhouse.com/sitemap.xml Not only does it not even include the urls for my photo pages, but neither does it include the images on the pages it does list! This one is so simple. How long would this take a developer to fix? A couple of hours maybe? To boost the SEO of every Zenfolio user out there! Vote for this feature on Uservoice
The image files used in a Zenfolio website have unfriendly filenames. Instead of something like www.georgewheelhouse.com/cdn/pub/qq6rnp9sqlsc/0/null/m/v7zyvoathmp4cvszlzob/s11/v32/p123456789-4.jpg I should get www.georgewheelhouse.com/cdn/pub/qq6rnp9sqlsc/0/null/m/v7zyvoathmp4cvszlzob/s11/v32/sika-deer-silhouette-4.jpg This tells Google what the photo is of - which is a big help for SEO in photography. Vote for this feature on Uservoice
Take advantage of HTML5. Use the <header> and <article> tags, to help search engines determine the page content. Vote for this feature on Uservoice
Use the @media feature of CSS3 to adapt layout to whatever device resolution the client is using. Modern websites don't have desktop and mobile versions. They are designed to be responsive. Vote for this feature on Uservoice
Add some kind of feature to enable HTTP 301 redirects. It's annoying that if I remove a gallery, or rename it, all of the links to any of those pages will now route to a 404 error. For example, if I remove my 'deer' gallery, the address www.georgewheelhouse.com/galleries/deer/h3a377dde#h3a377dde would now lead to a 404 Page-Not-Found. I'd like to be able to suggest that any request for this page be (301) redirected to www.georgewheelhouse.com/galleries/nature/h3a377dde#h3a377dde instead, where that same photo also exists. The same goes for renaming blog posts, or custom pages. Once up, they can't ever be renamed or taken down without introducing 404 errors. Vote for this feature on Uservoice
It may seem like a case of wanting to have my cake and eat it; I want to stick with my current service, but I also want them to fix the longstanding problems with their platform. Well as a paying customer, I don't see what's wrong with that. OK, I could just jump ship again and try another alternative (which is probably inevitable if things don't change), but I'd rather see Zen put things right first. I can't tell you how frustrating it is to see a company so nearly nail a concept, yet appear so misguided in their development priorities.
To other Zenfolio users out there
Like me, there are probably many things you love about the service. But whether you were already aware of the issues I've highlighted in this post or not, I'm sure you have your own concerns with the slow pace of progress at Zen compared to increasing competition from the likes of WordPress, SmugMug, Squarespace, Photoshelter, etc. If you haven't already, please vote for some features at https://zenfolio.uservoice.com/forums/75695-feature-suggestions. You never know, there might be someone at Zenfolio who still looks at that site. And I suggest you get in touch with Zenfolio, and ask them to address some of these SEO issues. I certainly have, but it needs more than just one lone voice.
As I've said, the potential for Zenfolio is massive. It's a great concept, and well executed in many respects. It's a solid base for those making their first website, or who want easy-to-maintain private portrait/event galleries. They've got so much right in the foundations of the service, it would be a great shame to keep losing more experienced users due to the lack of attention to SEO and modern web design.