WordPress Should Be Easier For Photographers
As far as WordPress has come, it is at risk of losing an entire generation of photographers to photo website services such as Photoshelter, SmugMug, Squarespace, and PhotoFolio.
For much of the last decade I’ve had a front row seat to how professional and amateur photographers use WordPress to publish their photography online. I’ve helped and watched many photographers build beautiful WordPress websites, but I’ve also seen my fair share of professionals and amateurs abandon WordPress because it was too difficult, too expensive, or time consuming to make it work for their use cases.
As a professional photographer and long time WordPress developer this has been a painful trend to watch. Before I dive into where I see photographers struggling, it might be helpful to understand a bit about my own journey with WordPress…
I first began using WordPress back in 2004 (v1.2.x). Back then I was mostly interested in blogging but soon began using WordPress to build (and re-build) multiple websites for my own photography business.
I became intimately familiar with how to use WordPress to publish photography portfolios, make searchable stock photo catalogs, run a fine art print shop, and deliver proofs to my clients. Along the way, I created my own set of plugins and hacks to work around feature gaps that I encountered. I trialed and modified a lot of premium “photography” themes in an attempt to find ones that fit the needs of pro photographers. After a while, I became so frustrated with the state of bloated photography themes that I was forced to declared “theme bankruptcy” and create my own from scratch.
By this time I had learned a lot about WordPress that I wanted to share with the photography community. I presented at photography conferences/gatherings and quickly learned that many photographers were interested in using WordPress but didn’t know how or where to start.
That feedback led me to write a book titled “WordPress for Photographers” which was a hands-on guide to using WordPress to build photography websites and workflows. My hope for the book was that it would lessen the learning curve for photographers that wanted to adopt WordPress.
Looking back on it now, a book wasn’t the answer.
The Missing Pieces
To be fair, publishing photography is not the main focus of WordPress. It’s clearly part of the project’s mission to democratize publishing, but publishing images is different enough from publishing words that it requires its own focus and features.
Over the years, WordPress Core developers have done a tremendous job delivering “media” features such as the media library, galleries, and responsive images just to name a few. Yet despite that, there are still many rough edges and missing features that keep WordPress from being the first choice for a photographer that needs to publish a beautiful portfolio of their work, put their image catalog/archive online, or showcase a photo editorial/project.
Without going into too much technical detail, photographers need to do a lot of customization (and work around a number of issues) in order to use WordPress. Here are some of the most significant obstacles that I see photographers face:
- The gallery is missing popular layout/styles (Masonry, Mosaic, etc.) that work better for displaying a mix of horizontal and vertical images. This forces nearly every photographer to use a 3rd party gallery plugin.
- There is no built-in slideshow functionality, again forcing photographers to find another plugin.
- It’s difficult to find photography themes that align well with Gutenberg and WordPress Core (ie. doesn’t use a proprietary page builder or bundle a raft of bloated plugins/features).
- Responsive images don’t work well (or at all) in Gutenberg’s gallery block, making pages load slowly.
- Images are not included in the built-in sitemap.
- There is no built-in support for working with embedded XMP image meta-data
- The Media Library isn’t designed to manage a large image catalog with hundreds or thousands of images
- You can’t search for images by default
- You can’t search for images by meta-data
- The use of static image sizes is confusing in a world of responsive page layouts
- There is no way to easily replace/update image files (this also makes it impossible to use Jetpack’s Site Accelerator/CDN).
Over the years, the WordPress community has tried to step in to resolve many of these issues. So much so that today there are 940 plugins in the official WordPress plugin repository with the tag “image” and 780 with the tag “gallery”. There are also tons of free and premium “photography” themes with 336 for sale on Themeforest alone.
Too Much Choice, Not Enough Time to Make it Work
At this point you might be thinking: “what’s the problem?” The WordPress community is supposed to pick up where WordPress Core leaves off. All that choice is indicative of the ecosystem working properly, no?
While that is true, the sheer number of plugins, theme modifications, and workarounds required to build a photography-centric website has become too much for the average user to do on their own. There are some commercial WordPress offerings that cater to photographers but they almost always come with significant tradeoffs (such as deviating from Core media features) and high price tags.
This puts WordPress beyond the reach of a lot of photographers who increasingly are turning to photo website services (Photoshelter, SmugMug, PhotoFolio, etc.) to build their websites.
The Hidden Costs
Speaking of cost… the cost of WordPress for photographers has been going up. This is another big factor that is limiting adoption. While it’s true that WordPress is free to download, it costs real money to setup and run. Some of the costs are not obvious to photographers who are just getting started with WordPress. They include:
|Item||Single Website||Three Websites||Notes|
|Managed Hosting||$300||$300||A plan with decent storage (GB).|
|Themes||$50||$120||Premium photo theme.|
|Gallery Plugin||$50||$125||Avg. cost of a “Pro” level plugin.|
|Ancillary Plugins||$100||$175||SEO, image optimization, etc.|
|E-commerce Plugin||$75||$75||WooCommerce Photography plugin equivalent.|
Whether it’s because there are very few free themes that work for pro photographers, or that nearly every photographer is forced to pay the “gallery plugin tax”, the cost of WordPress for the average photographer is roughly double the cost of a photo website service like SmugMug or PhotoShelter.
It’s possible to spend less if you know what you are doing and forgo commercial support on plugins and themes, but the fact remains that photographers need to spend a lot more on WordPress than they would with a service for building their website. Said another way, the economics of being a photographer in the WordPress ecosystem are driving them towards specialized services.
|Service/Platform||Single Website||Three Websites|
This doesn’t include the cost of a WordPress consultant or designer to help set things up — something that is often unnecessary (or built-in) if you use one of these services.
NOTE: I didn’t include WordPress.com as it’s own line here because it doesn’t really change the cost of the WordPress line item. A WordPress.com Business plan (which is the lowest one that you can install custom plugins) is basically the same annual cost as a managed hosting plan and you still need to purchase all of the same plugins/themes, etc.
One other important thing to note… this cost analysis looks a lot different when you have more than one website. In that scenario WordPress can be much more cost effective, and let’s face it, by the time you need three websites you are probably also happy to pay for flexibility that WordPress delivers.
PhotoPress: Addressing the Needs of Photographers
WordPress is the world’s most powerful publishing platform but it needs more help if it is going to become a platform for more photographers.
That’s why the time is right for PhotoPress.
The PhotoPress mission is to dramatically lower the barriers to publishing photography by supporting the development and advocacy of WordPress.
Specifically, we will work to eliminate the friction that photographers encounter when using WordPress by closing feature gaps and lowering costs. Here’s our roadmap:
First we’ll create a single PhotoPress plugin (like JetPack) that adds critical photography features that are missing from WordPress Core. Initial features will include:
- Multiple Gallery layout options (Masonry, Mosaic, etc.)
- Fully responsive images for Gutenberg galleries and image blocks
- A very customizable full screen slideshow
- A XMP image meta-data extraction/transformation/loading layer that uses Core’s image taxonomies.
- First class support for image “licensing” and copyright meta-data standards
This plugin will seek to maintain WordPress usability by leveraging Core features, hooks, and architecture as much as possible. That means that unlike other gallery/photo plugins, PhotoPress will be built on Core’s media library, taxonomies, and Gutenberg.
Also, the PhotoPress plugin will be free. Its code will be open source and developed on Github so that we can accept contributions from others and hopefully contribute features back to Core over time. We are currently 80% of the way towards completing this phase.
The second phase will center around creating purpose built photography themes designed to deliver on key use cases that are important to professional and pro-amateur photographers. The first three themes will include:
- Ansel — a theme for making beautiful web portfolios
- Dorthea — a theme for making a searchable stock photo archive
- Gordon — a theme that can be used for photo journalism and exhibits
These themes will all be built using our common theme framework (which is also open source) and have tight integration with the PhotoPress plugin in order to provide a truly integrated and friction-free experience. The themes will ultimately be migrated to block-based themes where that makes sense once that feature lands in Core.
The third phase of the roadmap centers around creating a true PhotoPress website-as-service (WaaS) offering (like WordPress.com) where a photographer can sign up with a credit card and build a beautiful website for their photography in minutes. This offering will be a paid service that competes with other photo website services that cater to photographers.
When a photographer signs up for the PhotoPress WaaS service they will receive WordPress with the PhotoPress plugin and themes pre-installed. Over time, there may also be a very carefully curated list of themes and plugins from the community and 3rd parties.
The fourth phase will focus on providing on-boarding and design help to photographers. This will be an optional paid service that will give busy photographers quick access to PhotoPress experts that can help them get oriented and/or customize the design of their website(s).
We need an effort like PhotoPress now before more photographers exit the community for photo website services. By making WordPress work better for photographers, we’ll ensure that photography remains an important part of the open Web and that image makers help shape the future of WordPress.
If you are passionate about photography and WordPress, please consider getting involved: