From SmugMug Pro to Zenfolio Premium

September 21, 2011

I used to make my own website for my photography.  This was a few years ago when a) I thought that there was some honor is doing “it all” yourself and b) I had very little traffic to my site.  Thankfully now, on both points, things have changed.  Bringing in an outside 3rd party who’s much more skilled at whatever it is you’re trying to do than you are… is always a good idea.  Okay… maybe not always… but in professional circumstances… yes.

About two years ago, I moved my site to SmugMug Pro (“SM”) – the top-tier pay portion of their offerings and was very happy.  They did all the stuff I didn’t feel like learning how to do.  Interactive galleries, password protection, fancy interface designs.  It was all worth it.  But… after while I felt like the “out of the box” SM experience could be improved upon.  I felt like things looked a little outdated, and seemingly every screen had a million different options that were turned on by defualt.  Some of these items had simple switches that I could turn off to hide them… others did not.  I was directed to a site called Digital Grin where I could learn all the CSS and HTML modifications which would make my site look exactly like I wanted.  It worked.  It worked well.  But… again… I was having to do so much code maintenance that I started to wonder what I was paying for.  So… I began to look for another option.

Not to give away the end of the story… but I will, in order to maintain a certain flow.  I ended up moving my work to Zenfolio (“ZF”)… and I’ll explain why:

I had certain requirements from the site host I was looking for.  And I will be honest… and this is a big point… BOTH SM and ZF actually meet the criteria on all of these areas.  But for each, I’ll explain why I went with ZF over SM — and in the interest of total honesty, I’ll let you know if SM was better than ZF in a given area.  There may be areas where you feel I’m wrong, or have missed a point entirely, but for me, these are the things that I needed out of the site:

Structured Galleries: Allowing me to have galleries within folders to help organize my portfolio as I am constantly shuffling things around and restructuring how things work.

  • SmugMug – Yes… they can do this.  But after two years of working with them, it was still a painful experience of creating catagories and subcatagories and choosing which to display and not display.  Blech… no… this was a total pain in the neck.
  • Zenfolio:  Yes… and its simple tree structure was great.  I could take a gallery, move it, or create a new Category and drop the gallery right into it.  Totally easy.

Plenty more after the jump:

Client Login Section:  An area where clients can come, enter a password and see only their work:

  • SmugMug: This came down to aesthetics for me.  I wanted something neat and clean.  In SM, the user would have to go into a folder with a bunch of galleries which were all locked.  It had all my clients’ names and was a bit more information than I wanted to give away.  I could probably have organized this differently, but again, I was looking to do less thinking with regard to this.
  • Zenfolio: Easy… I create a gallery, give it a code and when the user goes to my one Client Login page, they enter the code and go straight to their gallery.  No need to scroll to find their gallery in and among all the other locked galleries (click image for larger view):

Clean Interface:  I want it to look clean.  I want it to be modern.  I want it to be understated… it’s the images that are supposed to be in the spotlight here.

  • SmugMug:  Out of the box, I felt SM’s options were a little limited.  They all looked like they were about 6 years old.  I can’t describe it better than that.  There are trends with web pages and I felt like they weren’t keeping up.  That said… I COULD have done just about anything with their coding options.  I took a stab at it and liked it better… but ultimately, couldn’t ever get it perfect and ran out of patience trying.  This was the navigation portion of my site in SM:

  • Zenfolio:  I had a bunch of options in ZF as well… Layouts, Color Schemes, everything.  It was all very intuitive and I guess, in all honestly, didn’t offer any more options than SM… but I liked them better.  For the menu, I was just able to go in… create a new link for the home page (and also set it to the page header or footer if I wanted)… really easily.  From there… just tell the link where to go and that was it.  This is what I ended up with in ZF:

Image Protection:  No image on the internet is ever 100% safe from theft… hell if you can see it… you can screenshot it.  But I wanted to do my best to keep people from downloading the original image files unless authorized.

  • SmugMug:  Was actually really good here.  Gave me a lot of options as far as eliminating the “Right Click -> Save Image as… ” option and simply locking down entirely the size of the image that visitors could see anywhere on the page.
  • Zenfolio: Pretty much on par here.  Same options.

Note:  Both companies offer a custom watermarking option.  I don’t love watermarks so I am not using them, but you can if you like.

Shopping Cart:  The last thing I want to do is have to come up with my e-commerce code.  Forget it.  I needed something that could take and process credit cards and that I wouldn’t have to touch.

  • SmugMug:  This is an area where SM excels.  They have endless options as far as how you’re going to sell, what you’re going to sell, and how much you’re going to charge.
  • Zenfolio:  Again… offers the same options as SM… but I feel like the fees are slightly higher.  Plus, SmugMug has a deal with the great BayPhoto.

Customizable “other” pages:  A successful photography site has a number of pages that aren’t about the images themselves.  “Amout me”, “Contact”, “Schedule a session”… just to name a few.

  • SmugMug:  Painfully difficult.  You would have to take a photo gallery, upload no images and basically write HTML code into a gallery description.  It looked chincy, it felt chincy and it was chincy.  Plus, as mentioned above, getting that page to appear on your homepage required moving galleries around (remember… your “About Me” page was actually a gallery) which was not fun.
  • Zenfolio:  I created a page… I typed what I wanted… I added a photo (through a button that said “add photo”… no code required).  Then quickly added a link to that page from my site’s home and I was done.  Super easy.

In Summary:  Both are better than doing it on your own.  But I felt like Zenfolio offered most if not all of the same options as SmugMug, but without having to dive anywhere near the code.  It was all very simple, drag and drop, point and click stuff.  Now, if I was so inclined and I wanted to really get “under the hood” maybe SmugMug would have been the best choice.  But for me… Zenfolio was it.

Customer Support:  I have not had occasion to use the support staff from Zenfolio yet.  I have heard good things, but thankfully, I haven’t needed to reach out.  But I will say this for SmugMug… their support staff is fantastic!  They were quick to respond with good answers and a friendly tone.  They are said to be the best support staff when it comes to photography websites, and I can see why they have such a reputation.

Lightroom Exports:  Both sites have exports available from Lightroom… that was also something that was necessary for me.

Pricing:  First… if you’re asking… “Why should I pay for a site when I can use other sites for free?”  I urge you to rethink your priorites.  This is your professional image.  You should have total control over it, and no limits to what (or how much) you can upload, or how your images are presented.  This is a no-brainer… trust me.

  • SmugMug:  Offers three tiers of pricing and features.  You can see them all HERE.  You should check out the features list and see which one is right for you.  In short, they offer: BASIC ($40/yr), POWER ($60/yr) and PRO ($150/yr).  All the “total customization” options are only available to you at the PRO level.
  • ZenFolio:  Offers four tiers of pricing and features.  You can see them all HERE.  Again… read the list of features, decide what’s right for you.  They offer: BASIC ($25/yr), UNLIMITED ($50/yr), PREMIUM ($100/yr) and PREMIUM BUSINESS ($250/yr).

Note:  For the services I needed, I am paying $50 less per year with Zenfolio.  

Free Trials:  Both sites usually offer a Free Trial of one of the upper tier plans.  Give them a test drive before you decide on either.

The Deal Breaker:  To be totally honest… there was one small straw which ultimately broke the proverbial camel’s back.  And had SmugMug’s answer to this not been so… wait for it… wait for it… “smug”… I may have even stuck around SM for a while longer.  But…

  • SmugMug:  I’ve said throughout this that on SM, you can customize anything if you want to get into the code.  This is actually NOT true.  There is one thing that SM will not allow you to remove no matter what.  It’s at the bottom of every page and I HATE it!  They specifically say on their site that:

“We always display the words ‘Photo hosting by SmugMug’ and ‘Portions © SmugMug, Inc.’ 

You are 100% totally unable to remove this item so basically… deal with it.  But If I’m paying you what I’m paying you… I would like the right to not have your name appear as a copyright holder on my page even though you’re only talking about the pages, and not the images.  Thank you… goodbye.

  • Zenfolio: It actually does not say Zenfolio ANYWHERE on my pages (I use a custom domain name, an option one has with both services).  This is my footer on Zenfolio:




  1. Thanks for this write up. Very interesting. A question though. Did you consider Photoshelter? Just wondering. Thanks!

    • Great question… one which I’ve been asked a few times since publishing this. (You can see the original question here on G+: https://plus.google.com/u/0/116188434288179404722/posts/Ra9hcj79kgX)

      Answer to this pasted here: I should have at least listed the other sites I looked at and why I ended up not going with them. Photoshelter is a wonderful site… but for me… the prices were just off the charts. Their basic plan starts at over $100/year. And that’s with very minimal storage (10G) and not many options beyond that. To get up to the Top plan with basically unlimited storage it was almost $550/year. I just couldn’t justify that. Their feature set is very nice though and their site designs are very cool.

      Hope this helps!

      • It helps a lot! I’ve thought about doing a website for me, but the cost and what i want from a site (basically Photoshelter) is really above what i’m willing to pay. I love your post. and thanks so much!

  2. Glad it helped… cost is an issue for me as well… always. This seemed to have the most features, for the least cost. I just penned a new post with the Zenfolio features they just announced. Also include a coupon code which will save you 10%if you opt to go that route:


    Let me know if you have more questions.

  3. I’m in a trial period of both SM and ZF and about to choose SM. Email from ZF announcing their new features and your article here make me reconsider. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: