Make An Impression

How is your portfolio website like a car door? Give up? At PhotoShelter, we like to use this analogy to explain how people perceive the experience of interacting with a website in ways that you may not realize or expect. It’s common for car shoppers to slam a car door and make judgments about the car based on the sound the door makes. In many cases, they have no idea that they’re making a judgment when they hear that sound, but they are. Similarly, people are judging you based on your portfolio website. Although you may expect to be judged on your images, you may not be expecting to be judged on the experience of using the website itself. Not paying attention to a few commonly overlooked details could result in fewer jobs for you.

I’ve made a list of the 11 most important considerations for any photography portfolio website. This comes from lessons learned while working with photographers and photo buyers during the past 10 years.

NIO Photography

1) Clean and simple wins. Always.

If people are constantly praising the design of your portfolio website, you’re probably doing something wrong. Your photos are supposed to be the star of the show, so don’t clutter it up with useless design elements. If people notice the design of a site over the photography it contains, that’s a problem. The design of a website should fade into the background and not be noticed.

There’s a growing trend among photographers who want to show their images at full screen. This is a departure from the past, where photographers were worried about image theft, so they intentionally made their images small. Today, it’s all about impact and getting the assignment. Larger images, they feel, make a bigger impact.

A clean website also takes things out of the way when they aren’t being used. For example, next and previous buttons can fade away until the user wants to move to the next image. They would do this by moving their mouse pointer to the left or right edges of the photo.

Another way to decrease clutter on your website is to be careful about how you watermark your images. Protecting your images from being stolen is important for many photographers, but it’s important to realize the implications of going too far. If a watermark is so large that it obscures the image, destroying the experience of viewing it, the photographer may be doing more damage than they think.

Keep in mind that there are people out there who want to buy or license your images, and you should make it as easy as possible for them to do it. An aggressive watermarking strategy could backfire on a photographer because it could result in the image not being selected for consideration based entirely on the watermark.

2) Navigation, links, gallery titles must be easy to understand.

Don’t turn your portfolio into a game of mystery. Make sure that categories, sections, labels and navigation make sense to everyone. Getting clever with these things may seem like a fun idea, and a way to be different, but it creates a frustrating experience for your users. Instead, choose a word that tells a person exactly what’s on the other side of that link without even clicking on it. You should stick to terminology and wording that are familiar to the industry you’re targeting.

This, of course, means that you need to know your target audience. For example, if you specialize in shooting images of insects, you should include the scientific names and classifications of them because the audience most interested in them expects to see this level of detail.

If you’re a wedding photographer, for example, stick to the terms and structure that brides are familiar with. “Ceremony” and “Reception” are better choices for a collection of images than “Commitment” and “Joy.” What you think of as “clever” may end up being vague or puzzling to your users.

Chris Owyoung

3) Be “responsive.”
These days, there’s more to life than a web browser. It’s important that your portfolio website functions properly across all modern devices—desktop computers, very small laptops, tablets and mobile phones. To do this, your website should be “responsive.” This term refers to a design approach where a website can adapt to the device being used to view it.

In other words, your website should look one way on a desktop computer and entirely different on a mobile device. This is important because what works on a desktop computer, where there’s plenty of space, won’t necessarily work well on a mobile phone, where space is very limited.

A person who’s visiting your website on a mobile device may have a different set of needs and expectations than a person using a desktop computer. They won’t be expecting to see your images really large because this isn’t possible. Instead, they may be looking for your contact information. Or, they may want to quickly scan your images from the comfort of their couch at home, with the intention of looking at your portfolio on a larger-size screen using their computer at work the next day. This trend toward responsive design will soon become a standard for all websites.

4) Edit tightly, and consider having someone else do it for you.

Photographers are their own worst editors. We bring all sorts of emotional baggage to the editing process, and we simply can’t be objective about our own images. I remember one photographer who insisted to me that a very mediocre image remain in his portfolio and was offended that I told him it should be removed. “But you have no idea how hard it was for me to make this image,” he said. “I nearly died making this picture!”

How difficult it was to create an image doesn’t matter. The end result is what matters. That’s why I encourage photographers to have someone else, preferably a client instead of another photographer, edit their portfolio. An objective perspective is valuable information.

When I was a college photo student, there was one line that was constantly drilled in my head, and it’s as true today as it was back then: Your portfolio is only as good as your worst picture.

In most cases, less is more. Edit tightly, and remove anything that’s not your best work.

5) Your contact information should be everywhere.
If the goal of your portfolio is to land you assignments, make sure a client knows how to contact you so you actually can get one. The easiest way is to include your contact details on every page of your website, including your portfolio.

Contrary to common belief, most visitors of your website don’t start their visit with your front page. Most visitors find you through search engines and end up on some inside page deep within the site. I’m not suggesting that you make this big and bold so it distracts viewers from your images. Include something small and subtle at the bottom of the screen that doesn’t take attention away from the images, but is there when a client decides to pick up the phone.

6) Don’t just show pictures; show that you love what you shoot.
Have you ever noticed that people with passion, energy and drive are people that everyone else wants to work with? They tend to be more optimistic and fun. Your portfolio should convey this. If you’re not 100% into what you’re shooting, start shooting something else that’s near and dea
r to your heart.

The general photographer population is growing larger and larger, and competition is fierce. Many photographers are able to succeed in this environment because they concentrate on a niche and carve out their own segment of the industry where there’s very little competition.

Photographers often feel like they should be as general as possible with their portfolio website because they want any assignment that comes their way. They worry that someone will be scared away thinking that they aren’t capable of a particular assignment. In this situation, I suggest creating multiple portfolio websites based on a single theme or niche. If you have multiple specialties, create multiple portfolios.

Your portfolio and your website should be able to show that you’re a motivated expert in your chosen niche. You should be 100% authentic about your interest in the subject, and have passion, energy, drive and focus. Do what you love, and let that shine through in your work. People can see this.

If the subject doesn’t motivate you, you shouldn’t expect your viewers to be, either.

The website for Stacy Bass Photography is easy to navigate, thanks to thoughtful organization and good use of clear gallery titles.

7) Make sure the portfolio works on your audience’s terms.
Who should be looking at your work, and what are they like? What monitor size is most common? Are they using mobile devices? What software are they using all day long, and what does their workflow process look like? Find this out, and incorporate these things into your website design.

For example, many photo editors use software that allows them to edit images at a very quick pace using the keyboard. They’re comfortable with this process. Therefore, it would be wise to make sure they’re able to advance through your portfolio by using the left and right arrow keys on a keyboard.

Photo editors and art directors have often told us that they don’t like being forced to send an email through a web form in order to contact the photographer. Instead, they want to use their own company email system to send the email because they want to be able to keep track of what they sent you and when.

Putting your email address on a website may increase the amount of spam you receive, but ask yourself what’s more important, fighting spam or landing an assignment?

They already have a system in place, so you should fit into it instead of expecting them to fit into yours.

8) Use captions! Text is your friend.
Don’t be afraid to put text next to your images. If you’re a bad writer, ask someone for help—but don’t avoid captions for your images.
For starters, text is critical for search engine optimization (SEO). Text is the foundation of all search engines. Without it, you can’t be found.

Captions also can give important factual information about an image and can be used to underscore the importance of the subject matter. If you can color in the facts for the viewer, they’re more likely to understand and relate to the image.

A good caption also can contain useful information about how you work. If you’ve overcome obstacles or were able to perform beyond expectations for a client, you can indicate this in your captions. From a client’s perspective, photographers are either problem solvers or problem creators. Indicate that you solve problems, and you’re likely to attract more clients. Captions are the perfect place for this.

9) People are impatient; don’t make them wait.

In a recent photo buyer survey that PhotoShelter conducted (“What Buyers Want From Photographers: 2012 Survey”), we learned that nobody likes to wait around for images to load. There’s a general expectation that your website will be fast enough to keep up with whatever pace they normally maintain. If they’re forced to slow down and wait, even for one second, this is noticeable and it will count against you. Test things for yourself. How long does it take for images to load?

Images should be snappy and show up immediately without delay. Consider preloading the next image in a sequence while the person is looking at an image. When they hit that “next” button, the new image loads instantly. That’s a much better user experience.

10) Let people know where they are.

People like to know where they are in any process or sequence. When they have this information, they feel more comfortable with the overall experience. That’s why it’s important to let them know where they are in your website and in your portfolio galleries.

Your website navigation should contain “breadcrumbs,” which allow them to link directly back to the start of the portfolio gallery, or back several levels to a gallery index, or even the front page of your website.

Likewise, they should know where they are in a sequence of images. If you have a portfolio gallery with 26 images, you should let them know where they are in that sequence as they advance through it (example: Image 6 of 26; Image 7 of 26; Image 8 of 26; etc.).

11) Let people know where you are!

Don’t fall into the trap of not mentioning where you’re based out of fear that you’ll never get a sweet location travel assignment. Make your home base plainly obvious, and indicate to which places you commonly travel.

Your clients want to know this information because they need to be able to manage their budget. Sometimes a photographer who’s local is required and you risk not being considered for a job simply because you didn’t disclose your location.

Now take a look at your website with a fresh pair of eyes. Open and slam the door, and truly experience it. Figuring out what it’s saying about you could make a difference in your bottom line.

Grover Sanschagrin is cofounder of PhotoShelter, an online archive, distribution and marketing tool for professional photographers. You can see more of his articles and blog posts at

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