Zenfolio is a website builder specifically targetted at photographers. It comes with certain perks and features only useable for photographers.
About this review
fstop314.com reviews website builders for a photography business. I started this website because I really wanted to make money with my photography. But a lack of knowledge of the business besides photography and lack of tools made me quit. Nevertheless, I decided to make this website to help other succeed. Finding opportunities and the tools to move forward. I use 18 criteria points and 30 sub-criteria to test a website builder. The criteria are Website Builder: Content Blocks, Canvas, Templates, Themes, Custom templates
What is Zenfolio?
Zenfolio is a website builder aimed at photographers. It uses a layout canvas with fixed content blocks. You cannot drag and drop content blocks. It only allows you to change the content "within" the blocks, such as text, menu, and images. Zenfolio does mention "Custom free-form Web pages editor", which is unclear what it means, but it's definitely not a website builder.
Because of the layout canvas, there're no templates. Furthermore, you cannot buy templates or hire an external developer to make you a template. Zenfolio does have themes, meaning you can change the colors and fonts. You can choose between 32 themes.
Zenfolio offers 3 plans, Starter $7, Advanced $28 and Pro $42. The jump between the Starter and Advanced is a whopping $21. The starter package is really for personal usage, as it contains Zenfolio branding. When in pursuit of a photography business, it's important to build your own brand. This also means you should not put up with forced branding. The very first plan suitable for a photography business is the Advanced plan. But not entirely, as we will see later in the review.
Zenfolio has some features other website builders are lacking:
- iOS and Android apps
- Photo Moments app
- Lightroom Plug-in
- Video hosting
Video hosting is a non-issue in general. YouTube and Vimeo are far more superior. Video processing and streaming demand a lot of resources. Zenfolio is not and offers a very simple video solution. The result is often non-loading videos. Zenfolio does allow embedding videos as most website builders and it's highly recommended to upload your video to YouTube/Vimeo and embed it.
- 50 soundtracks (value $3000)
- Order from integrated labs
- Listing Photographer Central Directory (value $100)
50 soundtrack cost a license fee of $60 per soundtrack at triplescoopmusic.com. As of 2018, Triple Scoop Music offers membership plans for $50 a month. If you have a subscription at Zenfolio you can enjoy access to 17000+ songs for your videos for $10 a month extra. You can essentially purchase a Starter plan for $7/month + $10/month for Triple Scoop Music and still save $33 a month on royalty free music.
Ordering from integrated labs means you can order products without leaving the Zenfolio dashboard. You can order at Miller's Professional Imaging labs, Mpix and MpixPro, which essentially are one and the same company. The biggest upside of Miller's is that it's a true fulfillment company for photographers. The downside? You're stuck with their pricing and location. If you really need ordering within the dashboard, you're far better off with photoshelter.com, which has a staggering 195 connected labs.
Discounted listing in Photographers Directory is something of value. Normally a listing will set you back $300/year but with Zenfolio you get $100/year off. Here again, if this is something you really need, you can consider going for a starter plan, saving $16/year. $200 for the listing + $84 for Starter = $284 ($16 less than listing without Zenfolio on Photographers Central Directory).
Zenfolio has serval purposes, of which will be discussed at length. We will discuss portfolio, store (selling digital & physical), client proofing....
The foundation of a photography website is the portfolio. It allows us to showcase our work using gallery grids, text and video. Zenfolio can be used as a portfolio site with limitations. A lack of templates forced to use just 8 layouts, 25 variations of those layouts and 36 themes. You also have no way to hire a developer to make you a custom template. When it comes to gallery grids, you only have 2 to choose from.
While at first site Zenfolio appears limiting, consider the amount of time it takes to make a website on a grid or blank canvas. Zenfolio will just do fine as a portfolio site.
After a portfolio, we need a store in order to be in business. Zenfolio offers 2 plans for selling products. Selling can be done in 2 ways:
- digital sale
- physical sale
Starting with an Advanced plan for $28/month, you can sell digital products with license agreements. The shopping experience is end-to-end. This means a customer never leaves your website, for example, to check out on a page from a bank. Also called white-label integrated shopping cart. At this price point, it's expected to have this standard. In comparison, weebly.com doesn't an offer white label integrated shopping cart, except with a plan starting at $21/month and up.
If you wish to sell digitally, then you need to make a jump from the Starter package to Advanced plan, a $19/month price jump! There're far better alternatives out there, especially when it comes to pricing. Even if you don't need to sell a lot of products.
As mention in The Ultimate Guide to Website Builders for Photographers, a store for selling physical products is far more complex. While it all happens behind the scenes, it's good to know about it. It will reveal what you can actually sell and how the day to day operation works.
Also starting with the Advanced plan for $28/month, you can sell physical products. Over 2000+ products to be exact. These products are offered by the integrated labs, such as Mpix, MpixPro, fotoflot, PictureItPostage, OneVision, Picto, Pikto, NuShots, and NuLab. This allows a worldwide coverage. Besides those external labs, Zenfolio offers fulfillment as well, in the United States and Europe.
Zenfolio allows selling packages of physical products, including products from multiple vendors. When a customer orders a package, the order goes directly to any of fulfillment companies and they process the order. All orders are white-label, so there will be no mention of who produced the product. That way, you can keep your brand consistency.
You can accept major credit cards and PayPal as payment methods. This is also a white-label integrated shopping cart, with an end-to-end shopping experience. Your customer never leaves your website. Your profits payout via Direct Deposit (ACH) or PayPal.
Zenfolio does a great job when it comes to physical sale. It's a complete end-to-end shopping experience for your customers and end-to-end fully automated fulfillment. But the reality of online retails is much harsher and harder to pull off. 75% of shopping carts are abandoned!
A customer can visit your shop, and add products to cart. And then start the check out process. This is the moment, they abandon the cart to never return. There're a number of marketing tactics to get them back. One of the most effective ones is abandoned cart emails. A customer will get an email, mentioning that they still have a cart somewhere. Sometimes you can add a discount code to make a sale.
Zenfolio lacks the abandon cart emails. There's nowhere a mention of this crucial need for online commerce. But that's not all. At some point Zenfolio decided to jump into fulfillment world, powered by the trend in Print on Demand. POD allows for personalized products to be produced at low cost in very small quantities. You see this rise, especially in the T-shirt industry. And it's definitely possible with photographic works as well.
In order to push this opportunity, Zenfolio decided to indulge in dark patterns. Dark patterns are obscure methods of confusing the user oblige to whatever the company wants. If you need to know more, watch this excellent easy to understand video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxkrdLI6e6M
Zenfolio used a dark pattern to push it's new endeavor onto its customer base, essentially stealing orders from people. Here is an example: https://www.reddit.com/r/photography/comments/4v98gr/a_friendly_warning_to_zenfolio_users/
Practicing dark pattern may not matter much on Amazon or Facebook, but when you have a store with a yearly cost of $240, you don't want to lose a single dime.
Zenfolio offers 2 plans for having a store, Advanced and Pro. The difference is:
- Complete control over pending orders
- Add promotional prints or products to pending orders
- Offer free product as part of your package
- Offer Boutique Packaging (Miller's only)
- Ship orders directly to your studio first
- Manage events with mini sites and participant lists
- Define your own shipping method and shipping charge
- Export list of ordered photos to Adobe Lightroom
But there's no real value to be found in any. Complete control over pending orders is difficult since you're not the one who manufactures the product.
Adding promotional material to orders can be done by yourself since you have the customers address, you can send it.
Offering boutique packaging is only when you order is fulfilled by Miller's, which we already stated that you're bound by their pricing.
Shipping orders to your studio can also be done with the Started package of $7.
Minisites and participants list are basically a landing page with an email opt-in. There're entire dedicated platforms which only do landing pages (landinglion.com, mailchimp.com, unbounce.com). MailChimp is even free!
Define your shipping methods and the charge is irrelevant. Unless you're a fine-art photographer whose work needs to be shipped insured, all fulfillment companies are fully aware of shipping damages and will take care of it.
The only real difference between a $28 Advanced and $42 Pro plan is "Set order minimums per price list". In eCommerce, this is called upselling. Upsell is done by various sales tactics, such as offering free shipping when a minimum is reached or suggesting other products when the customer is checking out. Like abandoned cart emails, upselling is vital to the success of a webshop. In the case of Zenfolio, you need to make the jump of $28/month to $42/month, just for this necessity!
Besides the lack of abandoned cart emails, usage of dark patterns, the high cost of having upselling, there's a final consideration. How online shop providers work is that you pay a fixed monthly fee for using the platform + fees for each sale. This is not out of the ordinary. Example:
- Shopify charges $29/month + $0.30 and 2.9%
- Weebly.com charges $33/month + 0%.
- Zenfolio charges $28 + 7% on both physical and digital sale!
Let's say you have a plan for just one month and you make a sale of $100. You then get:
- Shopify: $67.80 formula: ((100 - 0.30) - 2.9%) - $29
- Weebly: $67 ((100 - 0) - $33
- Zenfolio: $65 ((100 - 7%) - $28
Let's say you have a plan for 1 year and you sell for $1000 a month in 5 orders. You then get:
- Shopify: 11286
- Weebly: 11604
- Zenfolio: 10824
That's $500-750/year less with Zenfolio. In the case of Shopify, you also get a discounted shipping of 64%.
In a sense, over an entire year of selling for a $1000/month, you lose 1 month of a nice income. Photography is a hard business without all this technology, let alone with Zenfolio with the lack of crucial features, such as upselling, abandoned cart emails, using dark patterns to divert income from you to them AND 7% fees on orders.
Zenfolio does not offer domain names. Website builders who do, do it purely for convenience. It's not recommended to buy a domain directly from a builder. They tend to have a very limited selection and very expensive. Zenfolio does allow connecting a custom domain you purchase elsewhere. View here a list of domain names for photographers.
Zenfolio does not offer bookings. A client cannot book you using a calendar. They can pay for a session but pay much like how you buy a digital product. After buying a session, the client gets an invoice. See also Invoice below.
Clients can do proofing by getting access to a private gallery from Advanced plan $28/month. You can import there favorite back in Adobe Lightroom for retouching. However, this requires the most expensive Pro plan of $42/month.
Zenfolio has a client delivery system in place. You can give clients access to download their photo. Online Client Delivery is meant to replace the delivery by CD/USB or by mail.
There's no way to produce an invoice. It can happen that you sell something, perhaps a very specific custom package that is not listed on your website. You still need to get paid by sending an invoice. Such an invoice cannot be made within Zenfolio.
Zenfolio also lacks signing contracts. When you work with models, brides or whomever, there's need for signing model releases. Some website builders can do this online. In the case of Zenfolio, you need to do this in-person.
Behind the Scenes
So far we have discussed what Zenfolio has to offer and how this fits within our needs as photographers. There're also aspects which we cannot directly see, but does matter. And that is which technical solution has chosen to build the platform.
Zenfolio offers unlimited storage. This appeals to many whom seeking a secondary online backup for their most valuable assets, photographs. You can upload all image and video files. Video files are limited at 2GB/20 min. Image files are limited at RAW files, which cost $0.85/GB/month! Again, this is also a dark pattern, as on the list of pricing they mention unlimited storage for RAW files, but when you check the Fees and Labs section, the pricing is revealed.
Consider the average size of photo collection in RAW, for sake of this example, 1TB = 1000GB x $0.85 = $850 a month! There're far cheaper alternatives available for online storage. Dropbox.com $3/1TB, SugarSync.com $55/1TB and Box.net $14/Unlimited. Even SugarSync is 15x cheaper!
Builders use a selection of hard and software to archive certain standards for their user base. While we will never see this part, we do notice it in speed. How fast does our website load? Page Speed is measured using 2 criteria, Time to First Byte and Full Load Time. For Zenfolio, the numbers are not promising. Time to the first Byte is 1 sec. and Full Load Time is 6 sec.
In comparison, ideally, a website should load under 1 sec. But we're dealing with a photography website, so maybe 5 sec. is expected. Even then the demo page of Zenfolio loads 1 sec. slower. One thing is to be said about the reason of slow loading times. It can be lowered if the users optimize their images. But, yet again, this is not the user's ability or concern. Zenfolio, a website builder for photographers, should be experts at image optimization.
Page Speed for Zenfolio is Medium at best.
In order for a business to succeed, there's also the aspect of marketing. 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. When it comes to marketing tools, Zenfolio offers SEO, Social, and Email. SEO and Social are done excellently by all website builders. Email, on the other hand, is not.
Often a builder has done half job, or better, allowing integration with a third party. But Zenfolio excels at this! It offers ways to capture your visitor's email, send them newsletters AND email automation! For example, a visitor can get an email when they visit your website again. While it's not as sophisticated as MailChimp or SendInBlue, it's nice to have a simple working email automation.
One perk of some builders is the ability to advertise on Facebook. Zenfolio doesn't offer this. It's definitely a missed opportunity. Furthermore, Zenfolio doesn't offer any advertising vouchers for Google Ads or Bing Ads.
Zenfolio has no integration, at least not in the most obvious understanding. The idea behind integrations is that no platform can be good at everything. Most allow you to integrate 3rd party services. For example, maybe you start using Zenfolio's email automation and you have a lot of conversions. You want to expand this and push it more. A good replacement would be a platform that is dedicated to newsletters, such as MailChimp. Unfortunately, you cannot integrate MailChimp directly on your website. You can link to a sign-up page provided to you by MailChimp, but it will not look as good as your website.
When you don't have enough cash around to go all-in, it's a good option to pay monthly. Not all platforms offer this. Zenfolio luckily does. You can pay monthly or annually. This is as extreme as the jump between plans, from $7 to $28 for example. There's no middle in case of Zenfolio.
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 what mid- and large size businesses use to gain competitive advantages. CRM gathers data from various channels, such as a website, telephone and, email. You can understand your clients’ needs and cater to their needs.
Zenfolio doesn't have a proper CRM. You cannot follow a clients journey from awareness to a sale. But, almost no builder offers this. It's best to seek a third party service for this.
Should I use Zenfolio?
Not as a website builder. It lacks the sophistication of many other builders. Zenfolio is the only builder using a layout canvas. The store also lacks many very crucial features, such as abandon cart emails and upselling. Without these two you will have a hard time succeeding in online commerce. Even if you do, you pay 7% fees on sales. More than any other builder and that without any visible value. Some builders are used for their storage, but also here Zenfolio fails with $0.85/GB/month. Dropbox does it for $0.003/GB/month!
The basics are lacking. When it comes to specific needs, Zenfolio underperforms aswell. Bookings cannot be done with a calendar, but it's more like buying a digital product, which is charged with a 7% fee as well! Proofing lacks the complete cycle of your client proofing, then you importing the pictures in Lightroom for retouching and reuploading it. Unless you opt-in for the Pro plan for $42/month. Client Delivery is in place, but if this is the only feature you want, pixpa.com offers it for $6/month. You also have no option for generating an invoice and there's no online signing of the contract.
Behind the scenes, the page speed is far behind. While most builders have moved on to much faster networks, such as Amazon AWS, Zenfolio is still hosted at a somewhat upscaled posh company (akamai.com). Akamai is underperforming for the type of content Zenfolio userbase needs to show. This is not the fault of Akamai. The more Zenfolio needs to find the right partner for the job in this age.
Why you should use Zenfolio
If you need access to 17000+ royalty free music for your video's, then having the Starter plan for $7 + $10 for access to triplescoopmusic.com is a bargain deal! A normal monthly membership at Triple Scoop Music will cost you $50 a month. With Zenfolio you save $33 a month/$396 a year.
Another perk could be ordering high-quality products at a base price at Miller's lab.
Overall, as you can see, subscribing for Zenfolio is not recommended as a website builder. It is recommended for access to its discounts and benefits from Zenfolio partners.