First impressions are lasting impressions with web sites

I look at a lot of photographer’s websites. Most times I am looking to learn who they are and what kind of photography they do. In some cases, I may be checking them out in case they are under consideration for a position as a reviewer in our on-line photo-critiquing system, Photo Synesi http://photosynesi.com/ Other times, they may simply be professional peers (or competitors.) In still other cases, I am looking because I am told they are the latest “hot” photographer and I am looking at their site to figure out why they are defined as so “hot” (and I am especially curious how they got where they did in their careers.) In all cases, I use roughly the same strategy in looking at photographer’s sites. A photographer recently asked me to look at his site, and I decided to review his site using the same system I use in looking at every photographer’s site.

Normally, I do not review sites for free. Simply put, my time is money and that is in a limited supply. I have to make my living and I do that by using that limited amount of time most efficiently. On the other hand, my first glance at the site in question got me thinking that there was a blog entry somewhere in the process of looking at the site. The reviewing strategy I used (and will now explain,) is something I learned from two different photo editors. A few years back, about a year apart, each one of the two editors reviewed earlier incarnations of my web site and they said roughly the same thing. The first time, when they delivered what I heard as plain “bad news,” I felt burned and largely ignored the wise counsel. The second time I heard the same advice, I broke down and revised my site.

I have blogged in the past about design and websites, including one blog entry called “An impromptu course in design of web-sites for photographers” http://thewellspoint.com/2009/11/09/an-impromptu-course-in-design-of-web-sites-for-photographers/ and “Thoughts on web sites for photographers” http://thewellspoint.com/2009/03/30/thoughts-on-web-sites-for-photographers/

The site in question is http://patrickshanahan.co.uk/home.html. One page really caught my eye. Before I talk about that, I want to talk about the home page, because that is what the viewer sees first and that is what makes the first (and usually the most lasting) impression.

The buttons at the top of the page starts with “Portfolios.” When I was having my own site reviewed, I was told (and I now agree) that such a label tells the user almost nothing. Better to title that section something like, “Commercial” or “Documentary,“ or even “Fine-Art” which tells the viewer what the photographer does and what that viewer is about to see. In this site’s case, the fact that there is a single portfolio “Rupture,” in the section for the plural sets of “Portfolios,” is a bit confusing. The page titled “Archive” leads to some interesting older work but there are far too many pictures on that page. It is always better to leave the visitor wanting for more images rather than losing them amidst too many photos. The grid system I use on my site is build on the idea that viewers do NOT scroll up and down on pages so they should see a contact sheet / thumbnail set of twenty or fewer images along with one larger image.

The section labeled “News” is a good idea but it needs more news. (I actually do not have that kind of a page on my site on purpose, since it is a regular, time-consuming process to keep that updated.) On the “Contact” page, this photographer has the dreaded “LEAVE A MESSAGE” box. Thankfully, he also has his e-mail so I can control when and how I might contact him.

This site has a button for Facebook, which links me to a rather unprofessional looking page on Facebook. Facebook can be good for personal uses but it tends to look amateurish to the photo professionals that I know (who may in fact be “old school” like me.) The site also has a LinkedIn button, which is not a bad idea. I wonder if one button linking to a page for Social Media might do the job better by consolidating those links in a visually more appealing way. That button, Social Media, tells the site visitor that the photographer behind the site is serious about their marketing.

The last button is for Curriculum Vitae, which when clicked upon, takes me to a PDF download. Two things are problematic about this. First, I worry about what I am downloading (in terms of viruses, etc.) so I am unlikely to actually download the PDF. Also, usually all I want some simple background on the photographer whose site I am visiting, not their entire CV. Finally, the navigation and other text in the lower right hand corner of each individual image page is a bit hard to find and equally hard to follow.

Having said a lot of critical things about the site, let me tell you what works and why. I have, as they say you should always do, saved the best for last. In a moment I will suggest you click through to my favorite page which is at: http://patrickshanahan.co.uk/section/217949_RUPTURE.html Before you do that, close your eyes, clear your thoughts and then click through on that link. Pay attention to your first reaction. That is the reaction that matters! Because even after you start intellectually analyzing the site, your internalized, visceral reaction to your first encounter with that page is what you take away,is what sticks in your psyche.

My first reaction upon looking at that page, which is NOT the home page, was “wow, this work is distinctive, this photographer has appoint of view and I want to look at this stuff some more.” That reaction is the kind of thing a good website should prompt in the viewer. Frankly, too many sites I see are so generic that I was a little surprised at how strongly I reacted when I saw this particular page but react I did (in a very positive way.)

A couple small things about that site that bothered me. The text on the opening page is a bit long and requires me to scroll down to read all of it. Not a good thing. More importantly, there are so many photos that I am required to scroll down to see them all. Asking viewers to scroll down is the kiss of death, so I would cut the number of images in that grid down because that grid works so well. Normally, the convention is not to open a web site with a grid of images but the grid is so strong that I might suggest doing just that, to move the grid to the home page.

All of this feedback is not directly aimed at the photographer whose site I am dissecting, though I hope it helps him. It really is aimed at anyone who is building (or thinking of building) a website. Such sites are the singular way that photographers present themselves to the world these days so they have to be direct and to the point.

To really learn from this and apply it your self, look at a lot of sites. Keep track of your first, visceral reaction. Do not over-intellectualize your reaction. Then look at your own site through the same “eyes.” Look at what works right away, without the need for patience on the viewer’s part. Admit what does not work and start to change it. It wasn’t easy for me but I eventually did it and my site is better because of the changes I made.

Extensive research on web site viewing tells us how little time most viewers spend on a site before deciding to go into it (or move on.) A site that prompts a viewer to think to themselves something like ““wow, this work is distinctive, this photographer has a point of view and I want to look at this stuff some more” is a great site. Badly labeled buttons can distract the viewer, like the ones on the site that I discussed earlier.

But in the end, what matters is the first impression that the viewer takes away from a site. When any photographer is putting together their site, that is the prize to keep your eyes on.

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