Build a photography (business) website, without coding or design skills! But how do you choose the one that works for you?
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Most resources on creating a website need you to be somewhat tech-savvy. This guide is the opposite. We have tested more than 55 website builders and categorize it by "purpose". We tested each of them based on features, perks, cost, and speed.
Each section will give you an introduction and has a link to list of builders with that specific function. Without further a due,
Welcome to a huge resource on website builders for photographers.
What is a Website Builder?
Site builders use a drag & drop interface that allows us to drag a content block onto a canvas. That way we build up a website online. Without code or design skills. The 2 main components of a website builder are:
- Content blocks
Text, photos, videos, and forms are a few of the available. All content blocks are listed in a toolbar. You drag a content block and drop it on a canvas. Each content block has its own settings. For example, a text content block allows you to set the font, size, color, and other text related options. A video content block is less sophisticated, without any settings.
Canvas is the area where we drop our chosen content blocks. That way we "build" up our website. There're three types of canvas:
- Layout canvas
- Grid canvas
- Blank canvas
A layout offers the least amount of customization. It is pre-defined as in where the menu appears and how the pages are built. You can change the "theme" meaning the colors and perhaps font. But the layout remains the same.
A grid canvas consists of invisible grids that a block of content "sticks" too. Weebly.com is grid canvas website builder. You can drop content blocks WITHIN the grid.
A blank canvas is virtually limitless. You can drag & drop anything anywhere. Wix.com is a blank canvas website builder.
Layout, Grid or Blank?
If you really want to be limitless, you can go for blank. Some of the most innovative award-winning photography websites are build using blank canvas website builders. But it takes hours of work and getting used to the website builder. A layout grid is far more focused on the content. And in the middle is the grid canvas.
Graphic and front-end designers are the architects of the internet. All the decisions a designer has made come together in a "template". There's a culture of expectation in regards to design. The way a certain type of website looks like may be too deeply entrenched in the minds of users.
You'll need to use them to quickly associate your site with the right concepts in the user's minds. Beauty is cultural and in the eye of the beholder. In general, this is not something you should waste too much time on.
A template can have multiple themes, meaning same layout but different colors and fonts. Whether you choose a grid or a blank canvas website builder, you don't need to start from scratch. Templates are finished layouts you can adjust to your liking.
Some platforms allow you to customize the layout beyond what they provide themselves. First, you need to purchase the theme. Then there're 4 ways to use them:
- Install from a built-in marketplace.
- Hire a developer who will log in and make what you envision. Access to the code is required.
- Purchase a template in a 3rd-party store and it will be transferred to you on the platform by the designer.
- Purchase a template and with some DIY work, you can make it work on your website. This often comes with a manual, explaining all the steps.
Ease of Use
A lot of reviews, articles, and user comments online mention how "easy" a website builder is to use. This is highly subjective. There's a reason why many services have trial periods from 7 days to unlimited. Once you find what works for you, you will use it for years.
Website builders are best judged on what you try to archive and where you want the focus of your business to be. For example, if you're a fine-art photographer, then you may need a builder that allows you to design freely. In case of a school photographer, you may appreciate the green screen feature a builder offers. As a wedding photographer, the delivery or proofing is far more important than the portfolio.
No builder will ever be good at everything at the same time. The amount of knowledge required to archive a specific purpose and the systems needed to run such a builder, exceeds the market, therefore not feasible.
It is worth mentioning that you don't necessarily need to have everything in one place. In a sense, you can have your portfolio at one platform, your store maintained by another, client delivery yet another. It may sound expensive to maintain various "plans", but this is not always the case. In fact, it can actually be cheaper in the long run, while having the best of the best.
The benefit is that you can choose as you grow and only replace the builder that requires replacing because it cannot keep up anymore. And your visitors will never notice anything.
Website Builders are best judged by four criteria.
A website builder is Software as a Service (SaaS). You need to purchase a "plan" to gain certain privileges. Plans come in 5 stages:
- Trial: Time-limited from 7 to 30 days
- Free plan: an unlimited trial with builders branding
- Basic plan: builders branding, but you get access to perks.
- Personal Plan: no builder branding
- Professional plan: access to more perks
- Business or Store plan: perks no longer matter, but the features more.
Not all builders follow the same 5 stages, often it's just 3 or even one. But it will give you an idea how much time you can spend before settling. Plans with branding are never a good idea from a marketing and branding perspective. When succeeding in photography it's very important to start building your brand as soon as possible.
Another thing to consider is that when you upgrade from a portfolio plan (personal) to having a store (business) sometimes requires a big jump. The differences in store pricing between builders often come down to the number of products you can sell, the type of products, fulfillment, payment gateways and fees you pay per sale.
Features are the foundation of what's necessary in order to have a working website. The difference between features and perks is that Features are needed, while perks are a nice one-time addition. Without perks, a website builder can work just fine.
Most website builders have perks to stand out among the fierce competition. Perks can be advertising vouchers, access to eLearning platforms, and free domain.
Specific purpose websites targetted at us, photographers, have perks that appeal to us. For example, a discounted listing in a photography directory and ordering photographic products at a base price.
Ranging from $25 to $100 for Google Ads, Bing/Yahoo Ads, and Facebook Ads. You need to be a new customer to the mention advertising platform to get the voucher. This is a well worth perk because just to learn how display advertising works, you will need to spend money. No advertising platform offers trials.
Running a business is more than making beautiful photographic works of art. While we're good at photography we are not necessarily good at advertising, marketing, branding, selling and financial sides of the business. To learn everything you often need to follow courses or buy books. A builder helping you with more than a website can be very valuable. This perk is often valued around $500.
While we don't recommend purchasing a domain name via the builders' website, you can get one for free. Often, this is only the first year as an introduction. A builder is not a registrar or a hosting company. Offering domains are done for convenience, but you do pay the price for this convenience.
You can get listed in a photographers directory. The discount, $100 per year could be valuable to you. But only if you're based in the United States.
Order products at a base price
Some builders offer you ordering photographic products at a base price. You can order prints, wall decor, albums, keepsakes, and other products. In order to resell the same products, you need a store which requires a business plan.
A website needs to archive a certain purpose. Based on this purpose we can choose the most effective builder to get the job done. Purpose can be divided into general and specific.
Portfolio and lead generation websites are among general purpose. All builders can do this. Next step is a store. Most people, besides photographers, want to have an online store, so website builders can do this as well.
Proofing, client delivery, and bookings are among specific purpose a website needs to serve. Here the difference starts between general and purpose builder. While booking is offered by most website builders, they are not as sophisticated as purpose build for wedding photographers.
The foundation of a photography website is the portfolio. It allows us to showcase our work using gallery grids, text and video. Portfolio site builders are the most common.
The number of templates a builder offers is the most obvious. Not so obvious is the technical infrastructure these platforms have chosen to serve our websites. Some are super fast, while others are slow. Speed is the most significant factor for search engine optimization. Even without SEO, nobody likes a slow loading website.
Other differences are whether the builders are a grid or blank canvas based. There's no difference in the type of content blocks. The ones that are lacking a certain content block, do have an app store where you can get add-ons for free or purchase one.
When it comes to portfolio website builders, it's a matter of value for money. The pricing is for the majority made up of added perks. Sometimes, even the lack of perks! Lack of perks is often a cause of brand recognition and market dominance.
Common perks are advertising vouchers, discounted listings, buying products at base prices, eLearning, and more.
Storage for photos and videos are a non-issue. Ranging from 2GB to Unlimited storage is more than sufficient to run a website. An average website is around 1.88 MB and it's recommended to keep it under 500KB.
This is quite the opposite of the average RAW file we'all familiar with. But keep in mind, you're building a website, not an online archive. Keeping your website small will improve both user experience and SEO.
Videos are also a non-issue. Not all platforms allow uploading video, but all of them allow embedding. Video processing and streaming demand a lot of resources. YouTube and Vimeo are technically far more superior. Your platform is not and offers a very simple video solution.
YouTube generates at least 6 version of your video, generates a thumbnail and depending on visitors speed streams one of the versions. A video that plays regardless of the platform a visitor watching is always better than a video that never seems to load.
Page Speed is part of branding in our case. How your visitors experience your website is important when it comes to brand building. Speed is a very technical subject and beyond our sphere of influence as photographers. It requires knowledge of software, hardware, and geolocation. But without getting tech-savvy, there's something to be said about what the builders choose to use.
A combination of very sophisticated specialized hardware and software. Often, this is a one-of-a-kind project. Much like a fighter jet, its build for one specific purpose. You cannot expect a commercial airplane to act as a fighter jet. This is not something you see often. In fact, for photography, there's just one service available (22slides.com).
A combination of generic hardware and software strategically placed to be fast. Also known as CDN, or Content Delivery Network. A few of the fast companies are Amazon AWS, Cloudflare, Fastly, and Dyn. Most platforms have migrated to fast networks.
Usually located in one country. Often they do use CDN but just in one country. This isn't necessarily a bad thing! If your customer base is located in just one country, then a Medium is just fine.
It's increasingly rare to find a slow platform, but they do exist.
The most complex part of a website is e-commerce. On top of the portfolio, we need products, shopping cart, check out, payment gateways, and fulfillment. In case of physical sale also shipping, and customer care. E-commerce comes in 2 flavors:
- Digital sale
- Physical sale
Selling digital products is very easy. A client visits your website, adds an image to cart, checks out and can download the image. Not all builders
Selling physical products are far more complex behind the scenes. Most builders will take care of this. While you don't need to worry about it, it's good to know how it works.
Wall Decor, photo albums, mugs, phone cases, keepsake boxes, and 1000+ other products can be manufactured when ordered by the customer. This is called Print on Demand or POD.
A possibility for customers to add items to a cart. While it's arbitrary, we need to take into consideration that 75% of items added to a cart is abandoned. There're many reasons why someone leaves their cart behind. One thing you can definitely keep in mind is that buying hurts. People just don't like to spend money. The process of selling has to be as smooth as possible. Think about Amazon's 1-click buy. It's a reason why it's effective.
Filling out personal and shipping information just before the actual payment is done. This process, as with the shopping cart has to be very smooth. At this point, it's vital that the customer doesn't get distracted in any way, by links/banners/anything that hasn't to do anything with the sale. During checkout, you can choose to do upsell. Upselling is giving the customer the option to buy more, in exchange for free shipping.
Payment Gateways are software and servers that transmit Transaction information to Acquiring Banks and responses from Issuing Banks (such as whether a transaction is approved or declined). Essentially, Payment Gateways facilitate communication within banks. A few examples of payment gateways are PayPal, Stripe, Square, Venmo, Payoneer, and Skill.
Some payment gateways offer white label services, which allow e-commerce platforms, to fully brand the payment gateway’s technology as their own. The platform then offers an end-to-end user experience.
The platform then charges you a commission for each sale. They also hold your funds until they are absolutely sure no chargebacks happen. Usually, this means you have to wait between 30-60 days before getting paid.
In which currency people can pay is taken care of by the payment gateway. While your customers can pay with various currencies, an exchange rate will apply when customers want to pay in their own currency. Payment gateways often decide to let you pay for the exchange.
When a product is bought and paid for, the order needs to be processed. You can choose to do this in-house:
- Customer places an order on your website.
- You place an identical order with your supplier.
- The supplier ships the product directly to the customer.
- You take care of customer care
You can also outsource the process to a Fulfillment Company:
- Customer places an order on your website.
- Supplier receives the order.
- The supplier ships the product directly to the customer.
The only difference in processing the order is who gets the order. Platforms offering physical sale have selected labs connected that can produce the usual photographic products such as wall decor and photo albums. You can even do a mix of fulfillment companies and in-house processing.
It may sound obvious that manufactured products need to be shipped as well. But there are still some things to consider. Shipping happens from the location of production to the location of the customer. Shipping consist of a package, tracking code, insurance, and shipment cost. Most of this is taken care of by labs or fulfillment companies that take care of your order. But the location needs consideration.
If the fulfillment company is in the same region or country where your customers are, then it's pretty easy. Bay Photo, for example, serves the USA, while Loxley Colour serves Europe. Others can be far bigger, consisting of a network of labs, serving worldwide.
If your customers are in the Middle-East, then you need to consider a shipping company that can do Cash on Delivery. 80% of commerce is done COD in the middle east. It's best to have a decent list of Fulfillment Companies that will act as a back-up.
Many builders offer domains in one or more flavors: a subdomain, free domains, paid domains, and custom domains.
Subdomains are part of the platform. Bookmark.com offers yourbrand.bookmark.com. You have options to get a free domain or connect a domain name you already own.
When you opt-in for an upgrade and pay annually, you get a first-year free domain. The selection is very limited. The second year is more expensive. Registering a domain is not the core business of a platform. It's purely done for convenience.
Paid domains are much like free domains, but are not included in an upgraded plan. The selection is limited and they tend to be expensive as well. Behind the scenes, they resell domains from a registrar. For example, SmugMug.com resells GoDaddy domains. This is not a bad thing but done purely for convenience.
All platforms offer ways to connect a domain name you purchase elsewhere. This is called custom domain. There're many benefits to custom domains:
- cheaper to own
- multiple domains
- easy to move from one service to another
As you grow, you might run multiple brands and having your domains separated regardless of the platform allow you great flexibility in growing and total control over your digital assets. View here a list of domain names for photographers
Custom Domain registration
A domain name is your address on the internet. In technical terms, it's called a URL and it consists of two parts: yourbrand.extension. For example, Google (name) .com (extension). In technical terms, a domain extension is called a TLD. There're over 1000+ TLD's available.
3 types of TLD
There're three types of TLD's: Classic, Country and Vanity.
.com, .net, and .org. Most registrars offer them as do platforms. Longer in existence makes these harder to come by. The prices have also risen because of this shortage. Often labeled as "premium" by registrars paying high first-year registrations starting at $750.
Country-specific, such as .us, .uk, .aus, and .de. Some extensions are only offered at registrars in the country of origin.
.studio, .photo, .photos, gallery, .pic, .pics, .pictures, and .photographer are among them.
Vanity TLD's are much more interesting. The beauty of vanity extensions is that a client can see what your business is about. For example, yourbrand.photography or yourbrand.pictures
All platform offers the possibility to connect your domain to their platform. This is what the platforms call custom domain.
Each registered domain contains your information publicly. It’s recommended to hide your identity. Hiding your identity done by Domain Privacy. This service is free at most registrars. Others may charge you. It protects you from you from spam and unsolicited offers. Furthermore, your domain is also protected against domain hijacking.
SSL secures the communication between your website and a visitor’s browser. Google will warn users about the insecurity of a website.
You can recognize SSL by the lock sign in the address bar. Sometimes it's colored green when it's an e-commerce store.
SSL certificate is taken care of by the website builders. When purchasing a domain name you don't need an SSL certificate. Most registrars try to upsell you one, but it's unnecessary. If you buy a certificate by accident, it doesn't affect your domain or your platform.
Often needed by event and wedding photographers, bookings modules can be very simple to very complex and efficient. Some can connect to an external calendar, such as Google Calendar. Some can even send a confirmation email plus an attached contract to be signed online!
Instead of using email or a USB-stick, a client gets access to a private gallery. It consists of a workflow as follows: After the job, you work your magic and upload the images to a private secure gallery. The client then gets an email with the link and download pin. Consist of four main parts: Management, Layout, Download, Access and a Store.
You manage client delivery with collections and galleries.
When you make a portfolio, you add a gallery and that's visible on your homepage. In case of a client delivery, collections come first. You upload a collection of pictures, for example from a wedding event. A collection is hidden and only visible to you. From this collection, you make an unlimited number of galleries. These galleries each have their own settings.
A collection doesn't have many settings. A gallery, on the other hand, has an extensive list of settings.
General: Name, Custom URL and Display on Homepage
The cover is to beautify your client's gallery.
The layout of the gallery is another option. You can choose between horizontal and vertical. The second option in layouts is the picture padding, the amount of distance between the pictures. Sometimes you can set it very precise using a slider, other times it's preset. Last option is the color theme, light or dark.
Your clients can download their images in various resolutions for social media, print etc. The resolutions are present, but sometimes a platform allows you to choose the max image size. Besides that, there's also the option to watermark your images. Clients can download the entire gallery in one go, or you can allow them to download one by one.
How to client access the gallery can also be set. An auto expiry, on which date the gallery cannot be accessed anymore. You can also set a password for extra security. Another neat feature you can come across is Email capture. A visitor needs to provide an email in order to access the gallery. This is a great way to tap into a potential client list, by offering your services.
The uploaded files can both be sold digitally or as physical products. Much like having a stand-alone store.
The client gets private secure access to a gallery. They choose the images they like, pay and download it. Others allow a photo to be marked for retouch. Some builders also allow your client to order prints and a connected lab will do the fulfillment. All on autopilot.
As a business, you need to keep track of expenses and payments. An invoicing system allows you to generate invoices and getting paid online. Having an organized system allows for smooth filling of your taxes.
During shoots, a model needs to sign a release form. Perhaps one needs a couple to waive the copyright on their wedding pictures. Signing contracts is a specific feature a few platforms offer.
The term, 'marketing', comes from the Latin, 'Mercatus', meaning a marketplace. In very simple wording, it's how we put our product 'on the market'. For this, we need marketing tools.
Search Engine Optimization is making sure search engines understand your webpage. This is done by using certain keywords and description for pages and ALT tags for images. That way, we tell a search engine how it should index our content. If this information is missing, it will try to guess. All builders are aware of this important factor and have taken care of it.
Social marketing is everything that is 'social', such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. By no means, is that all there's! Every continent or region has its own social channels. Certain builders allow automatic posting to your social media channel. Most of them allow visitors (or you) to share your content on various social media channels.
You can capture your visitor's emails via your website and build up a mailing list. There's one huge advantage for spending more time on email marketing than social marketing and that is ownership. You end up owning your list. Any platform can disappear or lock you out. But your email list is yours. Unlike SEO and Social, email is sometimes not built in and you need to connect a third-party service.
The Facebook Ad Manager can be confusing and difficult to master. Some platforms make it possible to advertise on Facebook using a much more simple approach. Others offer Facebook Ads credits.
No builder can advertise on Google.com directly. This is because Google doesn't offer such possibilities. If you want to advertise on Google.com, you need to do so via Google Ads dashboard. However, some builders offer Google Ads vouchers up to $100 for new users.
Much like Google Ads, there's no way builders can offer this within. You need to use Bing/Yahoo Ads dashboard. But, to ease the pain, some offer Bing/Yahoo Ads voucher up to $100 for new users.
Depending on a platform, you can expand the functionality of your website. The idea behind this is that no platform can be good at everything at the same time. Connecting to a third-party is making two platforms work together.
Most common integrations are email-list management, payment gateways, Google services, cloud storage, and other services
When settling for a service, you need to pay to keep using it. You can pay monthly, annual, bi-annual, tri-annual and in rare cases for 5 years. You can get a lot of discounts if you pay for longer periods. The problem starts when you don't have enough cash to go around. Some services only take annual payment. That can be hard if you only can do monthly payments.
Beyond the website
While a website is the first and last touchpoint of your brand, it doesn't stop there. Behind the scenes, you also need to use tools to complete the experience a user started on your website.
Customer Relations Management is vital when dealing with clients. CRM is a special type of platform. Its focus is on customer retention and driving sales (growth). This is often the missing piece in archiving a successful business.
Used by large corporations for decades and often cost millions to develop, thanks to new technology the barrier of using one has been significantly lowered.
A CRM for your photography business can save you up to 20 hours a week. What does a CRM do?
Booking or selling a service is a process. It has a starting point and an end point. The process is known as AIDA.
Awareness is the first time a potential client gets to know. The client sends you an email or perhaps calls you. You help them out, for example presenting your services.
The client now moves to Interest stage. They need more information and let you know that they also want a special service, which you don't offer by default.
Now the client knows what they want, what to expect and emotion takes over. They're in the Desire stage. They're still hesitating for whatever reason. Your job to convince them.
Your clients are convinced and went from a potential client to a booked client. This was the Action state.
By no means does AIDA do any justice to the often complex human interaction. Nevertheless, a CRM can help you keep track of a large number of potential clients and archive a higher number of conversions.
Lead management uses capture forms and automated responses to get as many qualified leads as possible.
A CRM can make your clients easy to get paid, using (recurring) invoice, subscriptions, tips, and automated payment reminders.
Allow your clients to sign documents online! These are called e-signature. Legally binding contracts for example. Furthermore, you can create proposals, quotes, questionnaires and signing off proofs.
A CRM can also help you sort your accounting. Keeping track of your transactions, view outstanding invoices and generate detailed reports.
Client & Project management
Keep track of your bookings, use a time tracker to bill clients, give returning clients a portal and managing tasks are a few client and project management.
This is where a CRM shines. You can automate workflows. All you do is make a custom workflow and forget it.
Just as a website builder, you can integrate many services, if the CRM allows to.