Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why I use Smugmug for Displaying Photos Online

This slideshow of animals from Kenya is hosted on my Smugmug account

Nowadays there are many online choices for hosting and sharing your photos online.   No two services are the same so it's not particularly easy to compare all of them.  I've been with Smugmug now for 5+ years and am often asked why I chose or use Smugmug.  Here's a quick article on why I use Smugmug and also some things to think about if you're choosing a photo service.

To start out, I made a mental list of things I wanted in a photo service.  On that list were these:

  • No ads of any kind.  This pretty much rules out the free services (because they use ads to pay for the service), but that is fine with me.
  • Beautiful online presentation of my photos.  This is the point after all.  This should include gallery styles that work optimally on both small screens and large screens since both are prevalent now.  That means that I want it to work pretty well in a small mobile browser and great on both a 14" laptop screen and a 30" screen.
  • Unlimited storage.  Unlimited bandwidth.  I'd rather be able to put up anything I want and leave it up for eternity without worrying about charges for excess storage or bandwidth or having to manage to some limit and I want to be able to upload my high resolution originals without having to downres them or make them smaller.
  • Reasonable annual fee.  I'm willing to pay, but it should be reasonable.
  • Good, reliable uploaders that are convenient to use.  If I'm going to be putting lots of photos up, that process out to be easy and reliable.   I want to upload my originals and have the service automatically create the web display versions from it.
  • Has a decent reputation for online stability and up-time and runs an infrastructure that's built for fault tolerance.  This isn't always the easiest thing to figure out.  You have to either ask someone who's been a customer for awhile or do a bunch of searching through various online discussion forums to find this out.  Fault tolerance can really only be seen by either great uptime or by understanding what kinds of issues they've had.
  • I can share originals for family/friends (if I want to) to download to their own digital albums or make their own prints.  Services that make most of their money by selling prints often don't let you share originals because it lowers print sales.   Services that make their money off subscription fees are fine with letting you share photo originals.
  • Family/friends can order prints at a reasonable price.  Probably not as cheap as prints at Costco, but still fair prices.  They should have some sort of guarantee on the quality of the prints because they can get damaged in shipping or come out too dark or come out with a color cast if something isn't done quite right.
  • Supports public galleries, password protected galleries and private galleries.  I don't want everything I share to be wide open to the internet so I want some access options.
  • Has an option for customizing the look of the site.  This is really up to you.  I like to tinker with the look of my site and make mine look different than the tens of thousands of standard sites.  Some sites don't offer customization.  Some sites offer only pre-built templates.  Others let you also tinker with your own HTML/CSS to really make your own look.
  • The company seems profitable and stable, likely to be around for a long time and not likely to be bought up by a larger company anytime soon.  The last thing you want to do is get everything all set up on a site, get your friends and family familiar with where it is and find out they are going out of business or changing their business model.
  • Good online support.  When you have questions, you need answers.  Lots of web companies claim to have a support organization.  You need to know if the one you're considering really works.
  • Appropriate security for my images.  If I don't want people to be able to get access to my originals or be able to download a large enough version of an image to make an 8x10 print from, then I'd like to be able to protect the larger sizes of my images.   This can be done with watermarking or by limiting the max viewable size.
  • There's a community to help you with customization.  If you're going to be doing customization, you will want help at some point.
  • Allows external linking without attribution.   I regularly post in online forums and want to be able to link to my own photos.  Some services do not allow this (often the ad-supported services).  I wanted to make sure this was allowed.
  • Try it before you buy.  Most online services now have the ability to try before you buy (14-day trial period).  You really ought to upload at least a gallery's worth of images to see what the upload process is like and see what your own images look like online.  Obviously, you won't want to do this with lots of services at once, but if you've narrowed it down to one or two, give them a try before deciding.
  • They support color management.  You may not know what this is, but it is the only way for a viewer with a color-calibrated system to view your images with accurate color in the best and latest browsers.
And, then some other things that might not be universally interesting, but mattered to me:

  • Option to have your own domain.
  • Ability to sell prints of digital downloads for a profit.  I'm not doing this yet, but I'd like to go with a service that would give me that option.
  • Ability to see statistics on what images are being looked at and when.
  • An uploader that lets me upload 1000 images across 30 galleries in one unattended session overnight.  This is what I do when I upload images for a whole soccer or softball season.
  • Service has a public API that I could use if I wanted to do special things with it.

So, Here's How Smugmug Measures Up

  • They never put ads on your pages.
  • They have four main different views for your images and all of them scale to fit your screen automatically.  You really should see them on a 30" screen.  These include the Smugmug view (thumbs and a main image), Thumbnail view (all thumbs that you click to open), Journal view (a scrolling list of large images) and a Slideshow view (images play automatically one after another).
  • Unlimited storage and unlimited bandwidth.  Smugmug has this.  Just to make sure you believe this, I have more than 34,000 photos (88GB) online with Smugmug in two accounts.  I pay nothing extra for that privilege.
  • Smugmug has three account levels (standard: $39.95/yr, power: $59.95/yr, pro: $149.95).  All the differences are described here, but in a nutshell power lets you customize your site with your own CSS/HTML or have your own domain while pro lets you sell photos for a profit.  Currently, you have to use a credit card to pay for service.
  • Smugmug has many different uploader choices.  Because they have a public API, there are many third party choices including uploaders that integrate into Windows or integrate into Picasa or Lightroom.  I personally use an uploader that you have to buy called Star Explorer because it's really robust and lets me upload across many galleries at once in one unattended session (a feature that isn't easy to find elsewhere).  Their standard default uploader works well and is fast.  It doesn't have as many features as some of the others, but you should certainly give it a try in your trial period.
  • Smugmug is architected for fault tolerance.  They store a copy of your image in three different data centers.  This doesn't mean they don't occasionally have downtime.  They do.  Usually, it is planned (in advance) maintenance (often on Thursday nights), but sometimes it's not planned.  I'd probably give Smugmug a "B" on this one.  They were really solid for quite awhile and then I think their subscribers grew a little faster than they planned and it caught them off guard for a couple months until they could beef up the infrastructure.  Even then, it wasn't bad ( an occasional few hours of downtime).  It's been solid again lately.  They seem to have the right people to do this right and aren't afraid to spend money to do it right.
  • When you upload a full resolution original, you get the choice of allowing viewers access to that (so they can download it to make their own prints or add to their own digital album) or you can decide that you don't want to share the originals and viewers can only have access to web-viewable versions of the image.  You can make this setting on a gallery by gallery basis.
  • For the standard and power accounts, Smugmug uses the EzPrints lab for prints and prints are shipped directly to whomever ordered them.  They have a 100% satisfaction guarantee on the prints.   If you don't think they came out right, you just email them on their support line and tell them what isn't right.  They will look at the order, fix whatever needs fixing and ship you off a new set of prints - no questions asked even if the problem was caused by the photographer not by them.  For the pro accounts, they also support another print lab (Bay Photo) that offers the option of hand correcting on each photo before printing.  This is particularly valuable for event photographers (weddings or sports) that shoot and post a lot of images and can't take the time to hand correct every one of them.
  • Smugmug has what you would expect for access options.  You can have public galleries open to all.  You have assign a password either to your whole site or to an individual gallery.  And, you can have what they call "unlisted" galleries.  These are galleries that don't require a password, but they aren't browseable from your homepage so nobody will find them unless you give them the direct link to them.  In addition, Smugmug also offers options to control searching so you can control whether Google (and other search engines) will index any given gallery or not.  There are apparently folks who want their galleries to be public so the family has easy access, but don't want their galleries showing up in Google searches.
  • At the power or pro account level, you can do a lot of customization of your site.  At the simplest level, you can replace the standard Smugmug header and footer with your own.  With more advanced techniques, you can create your own gallery themes or customize just about any colors, fonts, borders, etc...  There's a whole gallery of a bunch of different sites people have done to give you an idea of the level that things can be customized.  Advanced customization requires knowledge of HTML and CSS though there are lots of cookie cutter things on the forums that people can start with.
  • Smugmug was cash-flow positive from their very early days.  They are a privately held company so they don't divulge their financials, but they do say that they are successfully funding the company growth through retained earnings (kind of like profit) which means they are solid financially.  They started as a family run business, though they've grown to have many folks outside the original family.  Many of the principles have made good money in previous startup companies and that's how they funded the starting of Smugmug.
  • It would be hard to find a company that has a better online support staff and better responsiveness.  There's a set of online forums where the community helps answer questions and there's an email hotline for direct help questions that is staffed 24 hrs a day.  People are regularly surprised at the level of support received.  More than half the company's employees work in support and most (or perhaps all) were originally Smugmug customers how are passionate about photography.  The guy who runs the support organization is himself a pro photographer.
  • If I have images that I don't want to share originals, I can control (on a gallery by gallery basis) what the maximum image size is that I allow to be shared on the web.  And, in a pro account you can even put a custom transparent watermark on the image (the best protection available).
  • The same community forums that you can use for general support questions also have a section for people who want help with site customization.  It's an invaluable place to go.  I've never seen any place like it on the web where very sharp people will regularly help you design and customize your site for free.  There are several lists of cut/paste customizations that others have done before too that you can start with.
  • Smugmug allows you to do external linking so you can post images elsewhere on the web that are hosted on Smugmug and referred to by direct links.  This lets me post images on sites like dpreview that don't have their own image hosting.
  • Smugmug has a 14-day free trial.  Give it a whirl yourself before paying.  Last I checked they had something like a 90% retention rate on free trials.  That is nearly unheard of and clearly means most people like what they find when they try it.
  • Smugmug has been following the latest trends in color management.  When Safari and Firefox first started supporting color management on images, Smugmug added support themselves so that the colorspace of the image is now present on all web sizes of the images.  This allows color-aware browsers like Safari and Firefox to display the most accurate image colors on computers that are color calibrated.  If you're a photographer and you go to great pains to get the color right in your image, you want the best chance that those colors are going to show properly on someone else's color calibrated system.

So, that's basically it for Smugmug.  There are lots more features that I don't use much (like support for HD video right in your galleries along with your photos), but these are the ones that I thought were the most important.

I have not done an exhaustive review of all the other choices available, but I will share a few comments on some that I know about.  Flickr is the largest.  It has a free version and a pay version.  What Flickr really has going for it is its social system where people post images and others comment on them.  If that's your main goal for posting images, Flickr might be the best choice.  It also has a really good keywording system for photostreams.  I don't personally like the way the galleries work on Flickr and don't see all the advanced options for customization.

Zenfolio is probably the other option that is the most like Smugmug.  They are a couple years younger than Smugmug, but seem to have found a growing constituency.  They have nice looking galleries (much nicer than Flickr) though I still think Smugmug's work better.  They've generally been a little behind Smugmug in some of the more advanced features, but have been catching up lately.  If you really want to try out another option, it's worth giving them a look.

If you something that's free and fast and don't care all that much about fancy looking galleries, it's worth looking at Picasa by Google.   I know their features that well, but they seem to follow the classic Google style - get the basic features right and keep it clean and relatively simple (and don't try to make it look fancy).  The Picasa web albums are also integrated right into the Picasa photo editor which is actually quite good.  I personally use Adobe Lightroom, but I set my wife up with the Picasa photo manager/editor because it's one of the best for doing simple photo edits.

To learn more about Smugmug, you can see an overview of Smugmug's main features or a list of what's available at each account level.

Oh, one more thing.  Smugmug has a referral system where people signing up for new accounts can get a discount on their first year and people who already have accounts can get credits towards their next annual renewal fee when they refer new customers.  If you want to sign up for Smugmug, you can get a $5 discount by using my referral code.  You can either enter the code 3elo1xh75JSiI into their sign-up screen (paste it in the box when prompted to) or you can just start your sign-up by clicking on this link and it will be added for you automatically.  You can do this on your free trial too.  And then, of course, once you have an account, you can accrue some referral bonuses yourself.  I've referred so many people to Smugmug that I haven't yet paid a renewal fee myself on either one of my accounts so it works.

For a full window slideshow (on my Smugmug site) of our trip to Kenya, just go to my Smugmug homepage and make your browser window as large as you can.  Enjoy.