Here at PhotoMedia Central, we look at a lot of photographers’ web sites. We’ve found that there are, indeed, some good, some bad and some … well, you get the picture.
If there is one thing that photographers need to understand about their web sites, it is what my publisher likes to call “impressive simplicity.” Keep it simple and knock their socks off with your images. Don’t waste people’s time with fancy technology or unusual navigation just to be cool.
For most photographers, the primary purpose of their web sites is to promote themselves and their work; they are the web versions of their portfolios. I say “most photographers” because some of the web sites I’ve visited seem to be more focused on how awesome the design is or how much web technology can be crammed onto one page.
Based on my conversations with a number of people in the photography and publishing industry, I’ve found that the four most important web-site qualities to strive for are good content, simplicity, consistency and usability.
To illustrate these points, I’m going to pay homage to Washington state’s own Vincent Flanders, author of the cult-classic book and web site “Web Pages That Suck” (webpagesthatsuck.com). Flanders’ approach — undoubtedly crude, but effective — is to explain good design techniques by showing us the really bad ones.
So with apologies to Flanders (and also to comedian Jeff Foxworthy), here are some “Ways to Tell If Your Web Site Might Suck”: If the best thing about your web site is the glowing, blinking, spinning logo on the splash page …
Content is everything. You want visitors to remember the images, not the nerdy animated graphics. The intro page can be a great way to capture photo editors’ attention quickly, but give them a way to skip it if they so choose — at least if you want them to ever return.
A web site can be edgy, yet still simple, consistent, memorable and bold. It should satisfy your customers’ needs, not your web designer’s whims. Ask yourself, “Who is my audience and what is my message?” Then build your site around that. If the last time your web site content was updated, Kodachrome was still popular …
A web site has two primary purposes: to show off your best work (to serve as a kind of online calling card) and to market your work through e-commerce. If you are using the site just as a portfolio, you may not need to update it very often, but you’ll still want to make sure that it’s showing off your best work and representing your evolution as a photographer.
If you are actively marketing your images through your site, people need a reason to return to it. Fresh, high-quality content is that reason, and it needs to be right up front. If potential clients see the same images on the home page every time they visit your site, they will assume that there is nothing new, move on to someone else’s site and delete your site’s bookmark.
Also be sure to update the copyright statement on your pages. What does it say about your business if the copyright is from the last century? If it is quicker for a photo editor to finish the Sunday New York Times crossword than to navigate to your images …New York Times.
More sites make this mistake than any other. If I have to spend more than 10 seconds figuring out how to get from one page to another, or from one image to another, I’m gone. Navigation has to be simple, quick and intuitive, with no broken links. There is no reason to be putting image files sized for printing on the display pages when they will be viewed only on a screen.
Many sites open up new windows every time you enlarge an image, with no simple way back to the gallery or the home page. Others assume you can figure out how to get to the next image or the next gallery, and provide no clues. The worst ones use icons that are not even related to navigation; a graphic of a fish does not say “next image” to me.
Usability expert Jakob Nielsen (useit.com) suggests creating paper prototypes and testing the design with five potential users. It’s a lot easier, and probably cheaper, to do that with paper mockups than with actual web pages.
If an agent needs a monitor the size of a stadium JumboTron to read the captions or view the thumbnails …
This is probably the number-two most common mistake. For some reason, web designers think it is “artistic” to use small text and even smaller thumbnails. Your potential clients probably spend their entire day looking at images; do you really want to make it harder for them to see your work?
Forrester Research did a study a few years ago and found that, as computer users age, they set their monitors to a lower resolution to make things easier to read. Many excellent sites now offer users the ability to adjust the size of the text. On ESPN’s website, for example, every article has a control that allows users to adjust and save the font size to their preference. Since most photographers’ sites don’t have a lot of text, it may not be necessary to go that far, but at least make sure that the font size is readable to someone over 40 who hasn’t had Lasik eye surgery.
Just as important, of course, is the size of the images once they are selected. Make sure the images can be enlarged enough to be easily viewed.If your site uses more colors than a 96-crayon Crayola box …
This is one case where more is not better. Choose a basic color scheme and stick to it. Use additional color only to enhance and highlight.
Too many sites use font colors that are too similar to the background colors, making them almost impossible to read. Try reading orange text on a red background (a real-life example, unfortunately), and you’ll see what I mean.
Adobe offers a great tool, called Kuler, that helps people create and use color schemes; it can be found at kuler.adobe.com. Kuler includes a complementary color rule, which can help you come up with a good, balanced look.
Also remember that an image will pick up a cast from the color that surrounds it. Try this exercise at home: Open an image in Photoshop and press the letter F to toggle through the various screen modes. Notice how different the image will look just going from gray to black.
If viewing the sections of your website reminds people of a Rube Goldberg contraption …
Many sites have pages that follow the same style as the home page, but then all hell breaks loose in the galleries – the color schemes are different, the navigation is different, and so on. The most likely reason is that the galleries were built using canned software, such as the Web Photo Gallery feature in Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture. While these methods are quick, easy and cheap, they look it.
If you know some Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) or have some equivalent technical assistance, you can likely modify most of the gallery templates to fit the rest of your site. Most galleries are created in HTML, which allows you to modify the pages that are generated before you upload them to your site. Some are created as Flash galleries, however, and the Flash files that are generated cannot be modified easily.
The most important characteristic of a successful web site is its usability for the client, agent, editor or whomever will be visiting it. According to Vincent Flanders, the number—one way to make your site more usable is to “remove unnecessary design elements,” or RUDE. For photographers, this should be a no-brainer.
And, by the way, at this moment, my website does suck. But I’m working on it.