Templates and website design for photographers: A good thing or the quickest path to ordinary?
Nothing against Wal-Mart frames mind you. I’ve got a couple in the studio even. But your site is perhaps your most important marketing tool. Is “good enough for someone else” good enough to base your business on? Or are you after something bigger – a web presence which matches your personality, style and with features that make navigation easy and boosts sales?
The new SmugMug has a nice selection of pre-designed templates. And you can customize them even further, simply and easily. That’s enough to give your photography website a decisive edge, right?
Pardon me for saying it, but this is a lot like putting on tie dye and thinking you’re suddenly a deadhead. It’s adopting a cliche and believing that will make you unique. A pre-designed template is just like the automatic function on your camera. It can take great shots most of the time. It’s for the critical shots, where conditions are less than perfect, that you need a pro.
Now this is certainly true for referrals, when happy clients tell others or post about your skills on Facebook. Particularly at the lower end of the market, a photographer’s main marketing push might very well be with Facebook, and a bare bones, somewhat generic website won’t hurt you in that. Many photographers only use SmugMug for their print fulfillment anyway, and by that point the job is near completion.
But if you live in a crowded market, or try to compete region-wide or nation-wide, how do you best utilize your site to pull in leads?
Once again, it’s your personality. I’m a photographer, and I’d love to believe that when people look at my photos they realize I’m not just taking standard Olan Mills portraits, but I’m reaching for something more artistic. Unfortunately, I’m also a realist. I know that people look at my portfolio and see photos, and most of them see nothing but photos. If I want them to see them in another way, I have to tell them how.
The first technique goes back to the basics of advertising. About 90% of the people who see your site read nothing but your headline, the same as if they were viewing a print ad. That headline has to telegraph what you want them to know, that your photos don’t show. In short, your photographs sell your photography. Your website sells your personality, and the most important part of that is your headline.
“What headline?’ you say. For most photographers the headline consists of their name, followed by the word Photography. Some add modifiers like portrait, pets or wedding. But c’mon. That’s pretty obvious from your photos. As anybody who has worked in advertising for any length of time can tell you, the best headline is one that offers a benefit. If your work sells because you have a great personality which puts your clients at ease, that’s your main benefit. And it needs to come across in your headline.
It also wouldn’t hurt to have the first photo that clients see on your site reflect that.
The second part of getting your site to reflect your personality is the design of the site, and for that the services of a pro is invaluable. This includes your logo, colors, typefaces, graphics, bio, bio photo and of course the text. How do you cram all of that into a template?
Let’s be honest … it doesn’t matter if your logo is at the top, at the bottom, photos are on black or white – it’s dreadfully hard to completely screw up a website layout. It can be done mind you, but this is one case where a template can actually help, preventing you from taking your wacky-ass idea into realms of inadequacies.
What you don’t get when you pay a customizer to plug your materials into a template is advice. You don’t get someone telling you they don’t understand your headline, that perhaps this photo rather than that one has more impact, that slideshows can be a very ineffectual way of presenting your work or that your choice of music is likely to turn away the very customers you are trying to attract. You don’t get ideas and you don’t get experience.
And you don’t get a site which visually makes you stand apart from the swarm of other photographers out there, competing for customers in a market becoming increasingly crowded. There are those among us who spend our whole lives trying to fit in, to dress, walk and talk just like everybody else. Your website is no place for that. Properly done, your photography website will show your work in a professional manner, and get across to potential customers your personality, your uniqueness. You just can’t buy that in a box.