An impromptu course in design of web-sites for photographers

These days, all photographers, from commercial/documentary to portrait/fine-art, live and die by their web sites. That should mean that most websites for photographers would be built with the same goal, showing the photographer’s work to its best advantage. You also would think that an equally important goal would be making those same sites easy to navigate and very user friendly. Based on my recent experience reviewing 13 photographer’s web-sites, those assumptions would be largely wrong.

This all started because I have started working with a new intern who graduated from RISD earlier this year. Before rushing on to graduate school or New York City (or who knows what,) she is wisely is trying to figure out her place in the universe of photography. We are both hoping that working with me will help her in that process.

For some of her first “homework,” I suggested she look at the “Find a Photographer” search engine of the ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers.) I encouraged her to look at the directory pages showing the work of various members in order to find photography that interests her. The next step was supposed to be to scour their sites to better understand their career paths, their client base, their revenue streams and of course, their style of photography.

I had encouraged her to start at the web sites of ASMP members rather than just “any” photographer’s sites because ASMP members are considered cream of the crop. They are supposed to make the majority, if not all, of their income from their photography. To become a member of ASMP you need two members as sponsors and you need serious work experience. I have been a member of ASMP for over a decade. When I was first recruited to join, by other ASMP member photographers, I felt like I had “arrived.”

I have to say I was surprised when my intern brought me a list of the web-sites of the thirteen photographers whose work most interested her. When we looked at their actual sites together it quickly became an impromptu lesson in what mostly NOT to do on a photographer’s website. There were a few good things on a few sites, but most sites succeeded best in driving me away.

I can see no upside to listing the names of the errant sites. I will say that this “unplanned” lesson has made me take a new look at my own site. I hope it helps other do the same in terms of improving existing sites (or reconsidering the designs for upcoming sites.)

In no particular order:

One of the weirdest sites was the one that opened with a nice big image and a grid of grey boxes and shapes below the main image. After five minutes wasted playing with the grey buttons, it turns out that the grid of grey boxes and shapes below the main image is an attempt at a visual site map. If you know that, you will eventually figure out how to navigate through the site, as well as up and down the various levels within the site. Again, that system works great if you figure that out. Most end-users will not waste the time to figure it out. They will just move on.

Equally bothersome was the site where the home page instantly opens up a new window, in solid black, occupying the ENTIRE screen. While that was annoying, the real killer was that the actual images I was looking for were no more than four inches square, taking up maybe ten percent of the screen. Small imagery is supposed to draw the viewer in. The work was so small it only drove me away.

Another annoying site opened with one big image against a black background and tiny text at the bottom. My intern pointed out that all her web-site design teachers had repeatedly said middle grey was the preferred background for most photos. White can overwhelm images and black tends to make it hard to find the text/navigation tools. That certainly was the problem with that site.

One site had me going pretty well with simple design, nice text/navigation tools and unobtrusive backgrounds. The work was edited down to small sets so I did not have to go on and on to see the range of the photographer’s skills. The problem was that every set seemed like it was ruined by two or three really badly made images amidst a set of fifteen or twenty good ones.

One of the more successful sites used simple, but clear icons to direct me to portraiture, imagery of industry as well as the photographer’s contact information. Another successful site used a blue background for the images (not my first choice.) Outside the imagery and inside the blue was white, where the text/navigation buttons sat, very easy to find.

Another site showed some very interesting portraiture, but all the colors and skin textures had been obviously ratcheted up in photo shop, to look more “sexy.” As soon as that photo shop filter goes out of style (in a couple months) that site will look rather dated.

Cute studio names impress no one and in many cases turn off serious viewers. One studio with a pathetically cute name, double my ire by opening with nothing but female nudes that looked more like bad glamour shots rather than fine-art. This is an especially bad move when such imagery can easily offend the sensibilities of the growing number of female photo editors as well as liberals like me.

One site reminded me that although I am all for web-sites promoting fine-art photographers, if the work, and the site are so obscure and incomprehensible, no one wins. The photographer does not get their work seen and the viewer cannot find what they are looking for.

It is nice for me to learn how creative you are and how much of a free spirit you can be, by looking at your web-site. Scans of scrapbooks and journal pages can personalize a site, but if you want to do business, then give your web-site enough organization (and tight editing) that a potential client can actually find your best work. A good site shows both your innovation and your organization skills.

Be careful of mouse-overs where an image is instantly enlarged when a cursor passes over that image. These are very useful on stock photo sites for image buyers in a hurry. On the pages of photographer’s web sites, they quickly become annoying. I can keep my mouse and cursor where I want them as well as the next guy, but if I slip up and cross an image, I would rather not be slowed down and forced to look at an image that is not that important to me.

A couple sites were clearly built from prepackaged templates. They looked more like they were selling used cars. I have no doubt that they work well for the photographers who built them, but I wonder about all the work and clientele they are missing because people are turned off by the opening pages of the respective sites.

Another site had one of those laterally scrolling film-strips which are nice to look at but really hard to control. On many sites it was surprising how often designers and programmers seemingly were allowed to run amok. Making pages overly complex and navigation tools hard (or impossible) to find may look stylish but they can hurt the photographer’s promotional efforts.

Though photographers are controlling the design of these sites and showing the same sites to other photographers, that is not the important audience. The real audience consists of people looking to find an image or hire a photographer. Though such people may be web and image savvy, they also may not be that up to date. The smart thing to do is build the site so it works for the most people, not just you and your web designer.

To better appreciate this, read the results of a survey of 581 editorial and commercial photography buyers to find out what they say they love or hate about photographers’ Web sites. You will find that at: http://www.photoshelter.com/mkt/photo-buyer-survey-2009

Frankly, the best way to test a site is to ask a relative who does not work in photography, ideally one who is less web savvy, to navigate the site. Do not dismiss their feedback. They are not web experts. They are real world web users and real world web users are your target audience.

PS: I just found something on line exploring this same topic that is worth looking at: http://www.photobizguru.com/Pages/Web_Design.html

One response to “An impromptu course in design of web-sites for photographers”

  1. A simple but useful way to see how your site looks in terms of scrolling up or down can be seen at: http://browsersize.googlelabs.com/ This is a visualization of browser window sizes for people who visit Google. This is useful for ensuring that important parts of a web-page’s user interface are visible to your audience.

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