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|| News Item: Posted 2009-10-04

The Changing Face of Photographer Websites
Three examples of an emerging trend

By Grover Sanschagrin

Photo by

Ami Vitale's new website.
When Ami Vitale's original Flash-based portfolio website launched almost nine years ago, it marked the beginning of the age of the 100% Flash sites. It worked really well for her as an online portfolio, and the concept was replicated by thousands of photographers.

Vitale is a contract photographer with National Geographic and Adventure and is the current Knight Center Professional in Residence at the University of Miami where she is getting her graduate degree. The National Press Photographers Association has named her Magazine Photographer of the Year, and Photo District News recognized her as one of 30 image-makers of the future. Her stories have been awarded grants including The Canon female photojournalist award for her work in Kashmir, and the Alexia Foundation for World Peace award.

But, a lot has happened in the past nine years.

In my role at PhotoShelter I have seen a new trend emerging due to how the economy is affecting photographers and what they are doing in response. The current climate is forcing old pros and new freelancers alike to become their own tech-savvy marketing and branding agencies, and they have to take website changes seriously.

The rise of Google and the huge role that search engines play has become a major consideration in web design. Search engine optimization (SEO) has turned into an industry all to itself, and people are doing whatever they can to show up on the first page or results for their specific category.

This has affected photographers of all types, and especially those like Ami, who rely on their website to attract assignments and sell images.

The first websites to benefit from SEO were the ones that were mostly text: blogs. The search engines can easily index the text within a blog and make sense of it all. They can even tell which blogs are the most important based on the number of links pointing to it. But search engines still aren't smart enough to be able to understand the importance or subject matter of an image, so they rely on text surrounding the image to figure it out.

Photo websites designed entirely in Flash are the biggest casualty of the rise of the search engine because search engines simply cannot properly index the contents. Google has been able to index the text-based content it finds inside of a Flash website, but it still cannot bring the user directly to an image inside of a time-based presentation (which is essentially what Flash is.)

In order to get around this limitation, some Flash-based online portfolio companies like liveBooks have taken extensive steps to build HTML "shadow" sites -- a version of the site that hides in the background that only search engines can see. Because of this, Google successfully indexes liveBooks' websites. However, the Flash environment still brings limitations when it comes to integration with other services, such as blogs, social media sites, and ecommerce.

Search engines play a big role in acquiring new clients, but these days even a photographer's existing clients are expecting more from a website.

Photographers are finding that their customers are growing increasingly comfortable with a Web-centric business model. They fully expect to be able to search, purchase, and download images directly from a photographer's website whenever they want-day or night.

What was once a very effective way to display a portfolio of images is no longer acceptable on its own. A photographer's website simply must do more than just display a collection of images.

Vitale, and a host of other photographers, have recently taken steps in a vastly different direction -- away from Flash, and into more of a blog-style format run completely in HTML, fully integrated with, and connected to, a host of formerly disconnected portals.

The theory: present images and text together for maximum SEO potential, and provide a rich, oftentimes personal, story-telling environment that is capable of producing revenue via print sales and/or image use licenses while integrating with social media tools - all in one unified HTML site. Think of a very smart and efficient blog, loaded up with inspiring visuals designed to make a sale, or garner an assignment.

Photo by

Jack Gruber's new website.
"One of the main considerations was to design it in HTML, a language that allows search engines to find sites more easily," Vitale said. "The challenge was to design it elegantly without the slick capabilities of Flash."

These photographers are taking a dramatic step towards integration. They are bringing the power of photography, multimedia, social networking, ecommerce, and image distribution together within in a single website.

Vitale's new site is a beautiful tribute to her photography as well as her personal viewpoint on her world. She no longer puts images on her website without some text supporting it. She writes about her images with blog posts, she uses Twitter and Facebook to call attention to her latest updates, and she sees the benefit of having everything under one seamlessly integrated roof.

Vitale commissioned the talents of web designer/producer Mike Schmidt, of He installed free blogging software called Wordpress for her site. He built a custom Wordpress theme that changed the look of the site to her liking, which comes complete with a publishing back-end to run it all.

Her images are remarkable, her style is distinctly her own, and her work is inspiring -- and if you see anything you like, you can even buy a print -- or license an image -- right then and there.

A More Accessible Portfolio

Jack Gruber doesn't sell prints. He doesn't even sell stock. As a full-time staff photographer for USA Today, the newspaper technically owns his work.

But Gruber loves to share his images, and tell a good story. He has also recently re-designed his website in the same direction as Vitale -- part blog, part portfolio. His new site also uses Wordpress, which makes updating the website much quicker, and allows him to place text right next to images -- just the way the search engines like it.

Gruber is also using Wordpress, installed a special "theme" he purchased from Graph Paper Press, a company that specializes in the design of Wordpress themes for photographers. Fellow photographer Thad Allender started Graph Paper Press in 2004 by creating attractive Wordpress themes for non-profit organizations, small businesses, and individuals.

This new format makes it easier for Gruber to update his site, and that means he can update it more often. It also makes it easier for search engines to index his content, which brings him more traffic, and this means there's more of a reason for people to link to his pictures and stories from other blogs, as well as Facebook, and Twitter.

In a recent example, Gruber shares his story on the making of a group portrait of all the United States Supreme Court Justices. Within a day of shooting this assignment, he was able to post a different view from the scene and add his own personal commentary. This would have been impossible with his previous website.

For Gruber, who shoots everything from war in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Olympic Games, to portraits of local business owners, this website is his portfolio. He has assembled galleries of images based on themes, and even integrated full image search so that anyone interested could dig deeper into his archive for a closer look.

Photo by

Brad Mangin's new website.
Catching Sales & Assignments

Sports photographer Brad Mangin has a slightly different agenda for his website, and it centers on his archive of baseball images. With more than 34,000 images spanning 20 years, his archive contains a wealth of images exclusive to him. He wants editorial photo editors to find, and use, his archive.

Search engines are absolutely critical to his success, and he is doing everything possible to put his images in front of people looking for them.

Mangin doesn't rely on his archive alone to make a living; he maintains a healthy mix of stock sales and assignment work. He has a liveBooks website that is used as a portfolio -- where assignment editors can browse through a collection of his best work. His liveBooks website and his archive/blog are connected through links in the site's navigation.

"The integration of my portfolio website and my archive is important to me," Mangin said. "For marketing and presentation purposes, maintaining a consistent branding experiences is something I have been intentionally cultivating throughout the years. The tools are getting better and better, and the ability to seamlessly integrate them all is getting easier and easier."

To integrate professional-grade image search and ecommerce components into their sites, Vitale, Gruber, and Mangin have all chosen to use the tools built into their PhotoShelter image archives. This adds capabilities, like full caption and keyword image search, image distribution and marketing tools, and e-commerce shopping carts capable of selling prints, or licensing images.

The emerging trend in photographer websites is clear - SEO friendly, with revenue generation built throughout. This creates an integrated, open, flexible environment that places functionality, usefulness and utility first.

Links Mentioned in the story:
Ami Vitale's website:
Designer, Mike Schmidt:
Jack Gruber's website:
Brad Mangin's archive website:
Graph Paper Press:

(Grover Sanschagrin is one of the original founders of PhotoShelter, and is presently the company's Vice President of Business Development. He is also the Executive Producer of Follow him on Twitter: @heygrover)

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