One of the joys of photography is sharing it with the world. Once upon a time, a photography portfolio was a collection of prints, but digital photography and the internet have changed everything. Photography portfolios these days come in many forms, and they are almost exclusively online.
So, do you need a portfolio, and how do you decide where to proudly display your photos for the world to see?
Why You Need a Photography Portfolio
You may be asking why you need a portfolio at all. Maybe you’re happy keeping your photos to yourself and never sharing or printing them for anyone else to see? It’s your photography, and you can do what you like with it. But, there are a few benefits that only come from sharing your work, though.
A photography portfolio allows other people to see and enjoy your creations. I’m betting you love not only the process of creating images but also the final product. So why not let others appreciate your artwork too?
You will be driven to stretch yourself and work on improving your photography if you put it out there for others to see. This is often a quiet voice nudging you to try a new technique or take a workshop or develop your post-production skills. A portfolio opens your photography up to critique, which is a little daunting, but I’ve found it to be positive and helpful most of the time.
A portfolio is also necessary if you ever plan to sell your photography. This isn’t for everyone, and I wouldn’t recommend that this be your primary motivation, but it’s worth considering. You may not think you want to make money with your photography, or not yet at least, but if and when that time comes, you will be better prepared if you already have an online presence and portfolio.
Free Versus Paid Photography Portfolio Websites
The options for displaying your photography portfolio online can be a little overwhelming. A quick google search for “photography portfolio website” returns 48 million results. The first question you need to ask is whether a paid or free service is best for you? There are many options within each category, but they each have their pros and cons.
It’s also worth noting that “photography portfolio” doesn’t necessarily look how you expect. In fact, you may already have a portfolio online, you just aren’t thinking about it in that way yet. Let’s look at a few of the options and you’ll see what I mean.
If you’ve ever shared any of your photos online, whether on social media or on a photo-sharing website, then you already have an online portfolio. Although not generally considered portfolio websites, some social networks actually make great free portfolios.
Photo sharing websites are a great place to display your portfolio for free. They’re aimed more towards photographers than most social networks, so often include features that may assist you in using them as your primary portfolio.
Other than being free, the biggest advantage of free services is the volume of traffic. The larger websites are among the biggest on the internet, so the potential for people seeing your photos is far greater. With all these visitors and traffic comes community. The ability to engage with other users is a huge advantage in my opinion. They have become the modern camera club. They are places where you can not only find an audience for your work, but other photographers to inspire you and network with.
Free services are constantly pushing forward with new features and technology, so you get to be on the cutting edge. The regular updates can be frustrating at times, but I think the good far outweighs the bad in this regard.
These are also the places that you are likely to be found by buyers. One of my first magazine features was an image that was found on Flickr by a photo editor searching for a specific image to buy. Again, this isn’t for everyone, but something worth considering if you are wanting to sell your photos.
There are downsides to using a free service, though. The biggest one for me is that you are depending on someone else’s platform to build your portfolio. Their primary interest is profit, not making you rich or famous. They can and will change things whenever they like and you have no say in the matter. If they close down or are sold to a new owner, that can mean a lot of hard work goes down the drain.
You have little or no ability to customize your profile page, meaning you have no options for how your portfolio looks. This may not be something you’re concerned about, but it’s worth considering. Free services make money by either selling ads (social networks) or offering premium features to users (photo sharing sites). This is fine, as it keeps the service free for those who don’t want to pay, but it means you’ll miss out on some of the best features the service has to offer.
You’re probably already using one or more free portfolio services, or are at least aware of them. Let’s take a look at a few of the biggest ones and see if they’re right for you.
The photo-sharing website Flickr has been around forever and was one of the first places I began sharing my photography when I started out. With around 75 million users, it is a giant in the photo-sharing world. Flickr’s biggest strength lies in its communities. I have been involved with many Flickr groups where I have met lots of other photographers and learned a ton.
Flickr’s popularity has declined over the last few years as users have moved on to other things, and the Yahoo-owned website (recently acquired by SmugMug) hasn’t done itself any favors by being incredibly slow to innovate and keep up with the competition.That being said, it still has a thriving photography community and is worth considering.
Like many Flickr users, I abandoned ship when I discovered 500px, a newer photo sharing website that offered many of the same features but with a fresh new user experience. 500px also used an algorithm that meant you were far more likely to see amazing photography on its “popular” page. The standard of photography seemed higher, so it naturally attracted a lot of photographers.
500px has never reached the same volume of users as Flickr, with current numbers sitting around 12 million, but the service has added new features like communities and their “Marketplace”, which is essentially a way to license your images to sell as prints or stock.
500px has made headlines recently in the photography world after it was sold to VCG, the “Getty Images of China”. This has been a hugely controversial issue for 500px users, and there has been a mass exodus of previously loyal users. Don’t let that be the deciding factor for you, as 500px still has a lot to offer as far as free portfolio websites go.
You may think of Instagram as just another social network, but you might be surprised how many photographers are now using it as their primary portfolio.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that Instagram is currently the world’s number one photography app, and for good reason. People want to go where the masses are. With over 800 million users, there is no question as to whether it’s a place to consider sharing your portfolio.
Instagram can be used in many different ways, but if you choose to use it as a portfolio, you must learn to be selective about what you share. Try to resist the temptation to share every photo. Curate your feed well, and you will have a portfolio that will attract people to it. If you must share photos of your cat, try using Instagram’s awesome Stories feature.
Just like Instagram, Pinterest has grown into a social network with a massive number of users, and it has the added advantage of being heavily visual. It’s a great place to be able to share your portfolio with the potential of being seen by a large audience.
Pinterest allows you to create boards and then “pin” your photos to as many boards as you like. You can create a different board for each photography category or location, such as “Weddings” or “Australia”. You can even have a “Portfolio” board where you only pin your best photos.
Pinterest also allows you to pin web pages, so if you have a blog you can pin your posts. The ability for others to re-pin your pins to their own boards means your work can be seen by a lot more people. You can also create inspiration boards for re-pinning other photographers’ pins. With all these features, Pinterest is definitely worth considering as a place to share your photography portfolio for free.
When it comes to paid photography portfolio websites, there aren’t as many options, but the ones that are available give you pretty amazing bang for your buck. Most professional photographers use one of these services these days, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a professional to use one.
They all have a range of options that vary in cost and features, but if you are considering a paid service for your portfolio, I’m sure you can find something that will fit your budget and needs.
Pros and Advantages
As with the free options, these services have their pros and cons. The biggest advantage, in my opinion, is the ability to customize how your portfolio looks and feels. You can change colors, layouts, text, logos, etc., all without needing to know how to code websites.
Most of them include unlimited storage for your photos, meaning you can upload as many high-resolution images as you want. This not only means you never have to delete another photo to make space for new ones, but you also have a copy of your photos backed up in the cloud.
The ability to sell your photos as prints or license them as stock directly from the website is a major attraction for many photographers. Each service’s e-commerce system works differently, but if this is a feature you want, you will find something that works for you. Some paid portfolio websites also allow you to deliver image files directly to clients, which works great if you’re a wedding or portrait photographer, or if you want to deliver files directly to a magazine, etc.
If you have a blog, some of these services will allow you to integrate your domain with your portfolio. For example, you can make your portfolio URL something like “portfolio.yourdomainname.com” rather than “yourname.photoshelter.com”. Visitors to your portfolio won’t even know that they’re on another website.
Cons or Disadvantages
As you’re paying for premium features, there aren’t as many disadvantages of using a paid service. The main one is that they don’t have the social element that you get with photo-sharing sites or social networks. Getting your portfolio in front of eyeballs is a lot harder without the ability for viewers to engage with your work like they can on social media.
Although you have far more options to customize the way your portfolio appears, you’re still at the whim of the website that it is hosted on, and therefore how it functions. If you don’t like the features a website offers, it’s take-it-or-leave-it.
The following paid photography portfolio websites are by no means an exhaustive list, but these are some of the largest and most popular amongst photographers.
This is the first paid portfolio service I used for my own photography. PhotoShelter offers some of the best photography portfolios money can buy. Their websites look and work great, and their e-commerce features are second-to-none.
You can sell and license your photos directly through the website, and they even offer self-fulfilled printing if you want to print and ship images yourself. Although it’s one of the most expensive services, PhotoShelter is a solid option.
I switched from PhotoShelter to SmugMug a few years ago after running an experiment to see how the two big boys compared in terms of Google search traffic. SmugMug won hands-down, so I moved my portfolio over. The two are very comparable in terms of cost and features.
If you want a beautiful portfolio website that works well and offers unlimited storage, I would definitely consider SmugMug. They also offer a solid e-commerce system, although they let themselves down with their refusal to allow self-fulfilled printing, despite users requesting it for years.
I haven’t used Zenfolio personally, but from what I’ve seen and heard from other photographers, it’s a service worth considering. Their websites look great, although aren’t as customizable as the competition. Zenfolio is one of the more affordable services available, especially if you aren’t planning to sell your photos. It’s definitely, worth a look.
Editor’s note: I personally use Zenfolio (screenshot below) and have used their print fulfillment services for clients, as well as for file downloads. It all works seamlessly and you can set your own prices with the Pro or Advanced plans. So, I can add my recommendation for this service.
Zenfolio photography portfolio of Darlene Hildebrandt, dPS Managing Editor.
Self-Hosted Website and Portfolio
The last option sits somewhere between paid and free, and is yet another option to consider. If you want total freedom to customize and run your portfolio website however you want, you need your own self-hosted website.
The easiest way to do this is with an installation of WordPress on your own domain. It’s cheap and easy to set up with a service like BlueHost. Once it’s up and running, the options for your portfolio are endless. There are many free and paid gallery plugins, and if you want to sell your photos you can do it directly from your own website with a plugin like WooCommerce, all without having to pay anyone else a commission, so you get 100% of the profit.
If you have time (and are technology savvy) and you like to have total control over how things look and work, this is a great option. It does require a lot more user input, though, so be careful about rushing into it. If you prefer something that’s easier to set up and does most of the heavy lifting for you, one of the paid services is probably best.
How do you choose?
With so many options, it’s hard to know which is best for you. The good news is that whatever you choose, nothing is permanent. I have used almost all of the services that I’ve mentioned in this article. They all worked for me at the time that I used them, and then I moved on when they no longer served my needs.
Try one or two of the free ones and see if you like them. If you think one of the paid services might be for you, they all offer free trials, so you don’t need to commit until you’re ready.
Whatever you decide, remember to have fun and don’t take it too seriously. Sharing your photos with the world can be one of the most enjoyable parts of photography. I would love to know about your experiences with portfolio websites. Have you used any of the websites mentioned? Are there any others you would recommend? Questions? Let me know in the comments area below.
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