I have been a hard core Smugmug fan every since I did my web hosting series against some well respected photo hosting services and it turned out to be the clear winner for my needs. In May 2009 when that series ended Zenfolio was a nice service that had some basic offerings, but it simply wasn’t in the same league as the services featured in my reviews.
Fast-forward to 2011 and my how times have changed! My big complaint about Zenfolio that ultimately had it dropped from the web hosting series was its lack of support for customization. liveBooks had a wonderful editSuite solution, folioSnap and SiteWelder offered great templates to get you going quick, and Smugmug was the king of advanced customization. However, at that time Zenfolio allowed little more than some basic color and layout changes, so it wasn’t a solution for “real” photographers.
Video Tour of my Zenfolio Site
There’s so much goodness in this site after all of the customization I did, I decided to do a simple walkthrough video so you wouldn’t miss some of the goodies. It helps you to understand very quickly how powerful this product is, and web programmers will be amazed to see that it was done without writing a line of CSS or HTML!
Customization is the Name of the Game
I hold a patent in feature of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and I have more patents pending. I know web technology and until now I’ve never found a visual system that has satisfied my desire to customize without having to resort to writing CSS or HTML code. I also have worked on user-interfaces for most of my last 20 years as a programmer, so I usually have a lot to complain about when I see a cutesy user-interface that tries to solve complex problems.
I’m please to report that Zenfolio has literally blown me away and left me with my jaw wide open. They have done something that I think every web hosting site in the industry should have done ages ago – they’ve encapsulated a lot of complex concepts into a simple to user interface that eliminates the need for custom code to get some wonder designs.
Layouts are okay, but customization here is what the hardcore web programmers
will have on their wish list
All isn’t perfect as there are a variety of places where you are forced to choose a layout template as shown above for galleries or here for the home page. I found something I can use and am very happy overall, but the tinkerer in me wishes I could do more than the template offers. Given all of the customization available everywhere else I can’t help/hope but think that this feature will come one day.
Search Engine Optimizations (SEO)
Unless you are from another planet or a cave, you know that the key to success on the web is via search engine optimizations that help the major search engines find your site so your customers can too. There are some basic things you can do and Zenfolio does a nice job (much like SiteWelder did way back in 2008) of making it very easy to get started.
There’s also great support for helping your clients to find your site as well as your social network pages.
On my iPhone 4 there was no special “mobile” mode (which can be a blessing and a curse) for the normal views, but everything seemed to work well and the performance was good. As you can see from the screen shots above, it seemed to work quite nicely on the iPhone, but I did notice that the slideshows didn’t work very well. I presume the experience on the iPad would be as good as or better.
The iPhone App had a 4.5 star rating in the App Store and was smoking fast, so I loved it. It was pretty no frills, but it was just like viewing the photos in your camera roll. Here’s some screen shots:
The only gripe I had about the app was that I didn’t immediately see a way to let third parties view my site through this app without having an administrator user experience. Beyond that it was pretty cool because you can even take photos, upload pictures, set wallpaper and more.
Comparing Zenfolio to other Web Hosting Services for Photographers
folioSnap sample site is down (Last Reviewed May 2009) – Full Review – This service was decent and pure HTML which I liked, but of the four I reviewed for the series I felt it was the weakest of the bunch. Sadly the folioSnap team didn’t like hearing that too much so they shut the site down and bid me good riddance. From what I see today on their current sites it doesn’t appear that much has changed. It’s a decent service, but in a 1 to 5 stack ranking in this group it still would come in dead last. It’s also super expensive when you compare it to the value you get from Zenfolio.
BlueMelon sample site (Novemeber 2010) – Full Review – This site is like the Zenfolio of old where there are bits and pieces that suggest it will be great one day, but currently it is lagging behind the remainder of the sites in this section that I’ll discuss. There’s actually a pretty powerful shopping cart and Smugmug like customization support, so in the right hands it can be very powerful, but the non-programmer will struggle to get a look that they are happy with. However, of all the other sites mentioned in this article I think it is the only one that has the potential to be the next Zenfolio as the core pieces are in place.
SiteWelder sample site (May 2009) – Full Review – As far as template sites go, SiteWelder was a pretty solid performer so I liked it when I reviewed it. These days it has mostly the same back end look and feel with some improvements made for mobile and minor updates here and there. Overall I think my review is still accurate (bugs have been addressed though) so Zenfolio blows it away in terms of the control you have over the look and feel, and the ease of use of Zenfolio is as good as or better in every way.
liveBooks sample site (May 2009) – Full Review – It’s added support for vimeo video, it’s much less expensive now and apparently there’s much better template options available at a cheaper cost but behind the scenes it looks very similar to my review. I liked the editSuite tool which was quite good when it came out, but compared to Zenfolio it feels very ridged and lacks the flexibility that you get spoiled with in Zenfolio.
Smugmug sample site (My Current Portfolio Site) – Full Review – If you are a HTML/CSS guru there’s little you can’t do to this site, but once you go down that path the Easy Customizer feature becomes less useful. Easy Customizer is great, but it’s like comparing a Tonka toy to a Ferrari when discussing what Zenfolio has to offer now. Unless you are a web programmer, you won’t be able to get the level of customization out of smugmug that is possible with Zenfolio.
I was so excited doing this review that I ended up taking 56 screenshots all of which are posted at http://ronmart.zenfolio.com/screenshots for your enjoyment. I’d love to talk about every one of them in depth, but I simply don’t have the time. I do encourage you to scan through them (slideshow feature is great) to see some of the customizations I did (don’t forget to pause or use the arrow keys to go back if you missed something).
If you do your own order fulfillment (i.e., you are a print master or work directly with a print master) then honestly I can’t say that there is anything else out there that I have seen that can compete with Zenfolio. From great Coupon, PayPal, and custom product support to custom shipping delivery methods it really does have it all!
For those that will rely on the partner labs like MPix.com, you have a much better system for setting your own prices using the pricing formula feature, much needed custom packages, great control over product choices, and brilliant price list design. Really there is so much here for those who sell their work even if you use a third party service that Zenfolio really seems to be the working photographers best solution for ecommerce.
Smugmug, liveBooks and others still have the advantage of doing video which is very important today. Currently Zenfolio doesn’t support video (which actually surprises me quite a bit) so that is going to be a show stopper for some people. If you fall into that camp then Smugmug is back at the top of my recommendation list again. However, if you are just doing photography – especially if you intend to sell your work – Zenfolio is the way to go right now.
I’d like to commend Alex Peyzner, founder of Zenfolio, for hanging in there and giving the customers what they really wanted and need. I urge Zenfolio to get on the video bandwagon and hopefully add custom layout support as those are the only flaws I could find in the service right now. The premium service is a steal for what you get, and the Premium Business account is still a great bargain for the features offered – especially when you consider what you’d have to pay a web programmer to get this level of customization and ecommerce on most other services. Click here to learn more about pricing and be sure to visit my link below to save 10% (as of the time of this article).
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I’ve had a free account on Zenfolio since my original web hosting series in 2009. Alex Peyzner the founder was kind enough to keep it open the entire time so I could stay abreast of their improvements as well as do another comprehensive review now. I may get a commission if you sign up for an account with some of the services listed in this article (currently Smugmug and Zenfolio at the time this article was written).