Strategy and Design:
Developing the Photographer's Website

By Don Luce

As the World Wide Web continues to mature, it has become obvious that the internet is a far better medium for some purposes than it is for others. Where photographers are concerned, the advantages of broad, affordable promotional exposure and extensive search access are proving extremely beneficial for many who have seized upon the web's potential.

Nashville photographer Bob Schatz ( is a good example. In 2001 he wrote: "Last year and so far this year have been the best in the over 21 years I've been shooting. The link from ASMP to my web page has been more effective for me than any of the over 14 years of advertising consistently in Workbook, Black Book, Klick and others that I used to do." He notes that this year, his web-generated business is going strong.

Other ASMP members have reported similar results. And yet, if the Find a Photographer section of the ASMP national site is any indication, a great many members still do not have websites. A surprising number of the currently listed links are dead. The time has come for all of us to exploit the internet as a marketing tool. But how does a photographer choose the right strategy for the web? And just what is it that distinguishes a good photography website from a bad one?

Identify the Purpose

There are two obvious roles for a photographer's site. One is to show a range of work conveying the artist's vision and capabilities. The second is to show specific images available for sale. "Look at what you want the site to accomplish before you begin the design process." says Selina Oppenheim, marketing consultant to many creatives and President of Port Authority ( "How do you want the site to be used?" she asks, "think about the client's needs and buying habits."

Is your site intended to show your portfolio? Highlight a specialty? Sell stock? Market posters or prints? Consider how many roles are appropriate. In some cases, a division of the site into separate sections will effectively segment capabilities. If the functions or content are too extensive, consider an additional site. Cleveland ASMP member Bruce Zake ( uses three separate web domains to market his commercial, portrait and scenic work. His strategy could also be employed where isolating one clientele from another makes sense, such as keeping commercial assignment customers segregated from wedding or fine art clients.

Keep It Simple

Having settled on the website's purpose, the next objective is to keep its design and construction on track. Here, there is no substitute for careful planning. If you have someone else build the site, thorough communication is, of course, crucial. A good flow chart software program such as Inspiration can help you visualize structure and links (, free trial available). Look at as many photographer's websites as possible to learn what appeals to you and what works for others.

Interestingly, the most elaborate and expensive looking photography sites are sometimes the most unattractive and least user-friendly. The temptation to overcomplicate a site can be hard to resist. "It's easy for designers to lose focus." says Oppenheim, referring to the many flashy animations and gizmos available to liven up a website. "People get a little carried away." Simple bells and whistles like rollovers, actions and slide shows are fine, as long as they don't dominate the site or create unacceptable load times. A site that isn't seen because of excessive complexity is worse than no site at all.

Design concerns The most successful photographer sites are designed with a specific sensitivity to their content. Overdesign, the most common problem in photo sites, occurs when the graphic design of the site eclipses the importance of the pictures. "The site has to project the vision of the photographer." says Oppenheim "If the design vision overwhelms, the effect is lost." A graphic designer might feel the need to place an individual stamp on a project, but in most cases, showcasing graphic design is not the photographer's website's objective.

Most effective portfolio sites function as art galleries. A simple background, basic graphical shapes, one classic typeface and a muted color palette keep the web page itself from fighting with its photographic components. Placed in a favorable setting, average photographs can look impressive. Even superb photography will suffer when presented badly. Remember this when considering your work's viewing environment: Simplicity and elegance never go out of style.

"Photographers need to look at all of their marketing tools in terms of visual branding and design branding" says Selina Oppenheim. "The portfolio, website, mailers and visual e-mails should form a consistent visual identity, and be utilized in an integrated marketing program." Think carefully about how the website will supplement your existing materials, or make it the impetus to begin a coordinated marketing strategy.

The organization of your work on the site is important, but there are no fixed rules for achieving it. Examine other photographer's sites for ideas and look for logical, easy-to-understand categories. Think about quality and balance. A viewer should be able to get a good idea of your style and range of abilities from looking at your site. Keep your editing standards high.

Writing for the Web Text used on the web should be shorter and more concise than that normally used in a printed piece. If you publish textual material like a newsletter, separate it from galleries or other content to avoid viewer confusion. In writing about the photographer, consider which tense or voice to use. First person (I, me) gives a personal feel to a bio or description of capabilities. A third person voice (she, they) can imply the sense of a more impressive organization. Avoid ambiguous, redundant or lengthly picture captions. Use correct English and punctuation.

Navigation One of the hallmarks of any well designed site is an easy and obvious capacity to maneuver its pages, which must include a self-evident route from any one point in the site to any other. It is important to keep users aware of their location within the site, and helpful to provide contact information on each page.

What to avoid:
We'll begin by invoking the axiom that anything that works, justifies itself. Having made that statement, there are some things you should watch out for.

Bad design layout A viewer's eye moves very differently across a monitor screen than it does on a printed page. Placement of the logo, navigation devices and other elements should reflect an appreciation of this fact, and be arranged accordingly.

Excessive scrolling Since text is likely to be minimal on a photographer's site, all, or at least the most important part of each page's content should be kept "above the fold." That is, contained on a single fully visible screen. Additional content belongs on successive pages. Pages should be designed to fit on all monitor sizes without running off the screen, so careful testing with different monitors is important.

Platform shift Most websites are designed on Macintosh computers. PC computers comprise 96% of personal computers worldwide, so the web is most often viewed on them. PCs render web colors in muddier tones and photographs slightly darker than Macs. It is important to test on both platforms.

Browser type
While it is not necessary to completely avoid them, type characters generated by internet browser programs offer an extremely limited (and frequently substituted) selection of fonts. Browser text can be set by individual users to display at different sizes, sometimes resulting in web page havoc. Larger monitors and all PC computers display browser type at increased size, so space for expansion and shrinkage must be included in the page design. Most sophisticated web pages are, in effect, pictures of web pages created in Photoshop or similar programs. These allow the use of any type face and maintain a stable character size in all viewing environments.

Philosophical BS Pertinent information about you and your business deserves a prominent place on your site. matter how fascinating you think your observations on art and life may be, think twice before putting them on your home or splash page. An artist's statement or bio has its place, but anyone who is interested in your innermost thoughts, favorite poem or life story should be permitted to make the decision to see them by clicking on at least one button. Show viewers what they came to see. Let the pictures do most of the talking.

Slow loading You may imagine that your audience is equipped with high-speed connections and the most powerful Macs. Don't count on it. If large Flash animations or sound files form a barrier between the viewer and your photos, consider doing without them or provide a simpler alternative version of your site.

Scans from hell The most common scanning fault is an absence of full blacks in photographs, a problem that is easily corrected using the "levels" control in Photoshop.

Do-it-yourself fever
Looking at many sites, it becomes apparent who recently bought Dreamweaver or GoLive and tried to master internet publishing over a weekend. High-end website development has a relatively steep learning curve. A tiny bit of knowledge and a powerful software tool can be a dangerous combination.

Should I, or shouldn't I?
Building your own site has the advantages of low cost and full control. If you really know what you're doing, go right ahead. Consider though, that the people you want to impress are communications professionals. They spot amateur typography, bad writing, improper punctuation and lackluster page layout without even trying. These things reflect on your professional image.

Unfortunately, hiring a pro is no guarantee of success. If you don't believe me, look around on the internet. Websites require special design knowledge, and a photographer's site is a very specialized kind of website. Your best client, the designer, may be a tempting choice, but be sure he or she is someone you can say no to. Otherwise, you might end up with something you didn't bargain for.

Focus on the Obvious
Will a visitor instantly understand what your site is about? Are all of its functions completely self-evident? Is the most important aspect of the site given the greatest prominence? Looking at your website objectively is crucial to its success. Once its primary intent has been identified, nothing on the site should supersede that end. Anything that doesn't add to the site's purpose will detract from it.

Don Luce is a commercial photographer based in Cleveland, Ohio. He has served as a national board member and executive officer of ASMP (

This article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2002 issue of the American Society of Media Photographers Bulletin and is reprinted here with the permission of ASMP ( and of the author. © 2002 Don Luce

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist