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|| News Item: Posted 2006-03-26

'Do you have a website?'
Having a really good website is becoming more and more important for freelance photographers.

By Thomas E. Witte

Photo by

Thomas E. Witte's revamped website.
"Do you have a website?"

"Is this stuff online anywhere for us to see?"

Those are two of the most common phrases I hear when I'm showing my work around in New York, D.C. and LA - and rightfully so. In the past few years it's become our first line of offense and increasingly what many people are using to gauge their first impressions of us. For example, just last month a photo editor I had never heard of called to hire me for a job in my area. He found me through a Google search, he liked what he saw and decided to hire me based solely on what he saw on my site. This type of exchange is rapidly increasing.

Five years ago when I really started marketing myself I would cold call an editor and give my oral presentation to let them know I exist. At some point in the conversation they would say, "Sounds good, why don't you send in a CD/your book/portfolio." Now-a-days 100% of the requests are for my website URL.

The transition from film to digital sped up image delivery to the point where it seems like everyone in our industry has the patience of Tony Stewart drafting Kyle Busch. Rather than wait for a disk to arrive the next morning, they want to see the images immediately. (There is a benefit to this. Having them online means that we can look at the portfolio together over the phone and talk about things in real time - almost as if I was there in their office with them.)

This slow realization of course led me to become very self-conscious of the poorly designed website I had put together in Adobe PageMill, then later on with Dreamweaver MX. Sure I took classes to know how to make it work but I didn't know how to make it pretty nor learn the psychology of my most important target audience - photo editors.

If you set a pile of Lincoln Logs down in front of a 5-year-old they'll eventually figure out how to make a house out of them. Likewise, two weeks after plopping a $900 design program in to my computer, I eventually created a rudimentary frames based site that while designed so-so, had major flaws in terms of advertising myself.

I needed professional help. At least that's what my therapists said. Upon Executive Producer Grover Sanschagrin’s recommendation I enlisted the help of Heather Stone ( whom several of you West Coasters may recognize. She looked at the underlying code in horror, laughter and marked disbelief asking, "Why did you do that?" in a tone of voice reminiscent of when my parents caught me with an M80 strapped to a GI Joe guy. My reply (both times) was a whimpered, "I don't know." (Heck I just wanted to make the battle seem more realistic, how was I supposed to know it was going to blow a window out.)

We discussed several seemingly minor changes that should be implemented and I turned the 22MB's of content, frames and all, over to Heather. Some of the things we agreed on were obvious to us both.

While yes it looks pretty, kitschy and at times self-aggrandizing it also tanks your search engine results. Search engines can only pick up embedded text. If you put text into in a JPEG image, and the put it in a Flash movie, search engines will not see it. Sure you can put keywords into the code, but if it's referencing a photo that shows up 2 minutes into your movie, it's not going to do you a bit of good.

This was my problem. I originally constructed my site so that a caption would appear over the top of the picture when the user rolled their cursor over the image. To do this, I created an alternate version of the picture (made very dark) with text placed inside the image. This actually wasn't for aesthetics; it was because I was trying to prevent people from being able to illegally download my photos.

"Ha ha, look at me! I'm brilliant!" I thought. "They won't be able to download my photos and it's an artsy fartsy way to show my captions." For the most part it worked but the traffic to my site dropped from over 100 hits per day to the low 30's.

Almost all of those visits had to do with the pages I have for remote cables and the Canon RS-80n3 release cable conversions I have up - which coincidentally is are almost totally text pages. As with the Flash movie, search engines don't pick up text inside of an image file unless it is physically put in the code as well. So if you want search engine traffic, either put the text on the page itself or embed it in the code. There is another reason not to do the movies:

Of course not, nobody does. People like to work at their own pace, in their own order. This is where Flash movies can be your worst enemy.

You must have the humility and realization to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to love every one of your photos the way you do. When you leave the viewer no option but to view every single photo on your site - in the order that you feel best - they are going to occasionally see photos that they are not going to like (or down right wonder why you ever publicly presented it.) We all know the adage "you're portfolio is only as good as your worst photo" and it applies with your website the same as your hard bound printed portfolio.

One option (loophole) around that is to have a thumbnail index giving the viewer the option to pick and choose what they want to see. I've sat and watched editors go through my site and click on maybe four photos in each category. They'll tend to gravitate towards ones they find interesting in thumbnail form and they surreptitiously end up avoiding ones that could possibly hurt my cause. Although it adds more elements to the page, I prefer to allow them the option to do what they please.

Photo by

Some of the code for Thomas E. Witte's revamped website.
Using frames is sort of like blindfolding someone and driving them to another city. They'll arrive there without knowing how they got there or how to come back. That was ANOTHER bad thing I did. I thought it would help speed things up since it didn't have to load the entire page. However, all it did was introduce confusion - especially with search engines.

Have you ever noticed that when you bookmark a framed site, when you come back to it you'll be at the index and you'll have to go back through the process to find the page you want? To avoid this, some people will use a link to the content page itself, which will give them the content, but not your navigation, branding, or any way to contact you.

This is irritating because a lot of people link to my site for some of the content I've written about. I see people linking to it, but I knew they were getting trapped in the site when I'd want them to venture around and eventually hire me.

Search engines have a hard time with sites that use frames for the same reason. They will find the content pages, and send people to them. But, without the navigation frame, once the visitor arrives, its like you've got a one-page website.

The bane of the Internet is that almost no matter what we do, people can get their hands on our photos. By placing my images as a table background, Heather helped by making it less easy to "right-click" my images. Sites like and PhotoShelter takes this concept one step further by placing a transparent GIF file inside of the table, covering over that background image.

To prevent "hotlinking" (someone using your image by linking to the image file on your server, stealing your bandwidth as well as your image) we added a ".htaccess file" to the main directory of the site.

Don't know how to do that? Here's a handy resource:

Now folks can't hotlink my images. The only thing they can do at this point is take a screen grab. I could put a watermark all the way across the photo but I elect not to. That's a risk I'm willing to take to allow people to see my photos clearly.

When you make a .htaccess file, you're creating a "hidden file", literally. On Unix-based operating systems, the period as the first character in the file name makes it invisible, and won't normally show up in your FTP program.

If you're using Transmit for your FTP work, go to select "Show Invisible Files" from the View menu, and you will be able to see any invisible files on the server.

As photographers we love to impress other photographers because they are our competition. This is reflected on a thousand different ways. By uploading our favorite photos to impress each other, or by getting in to verbal wizzing matches to see who thinks they know the most. It's also reflected in our websites.

One photographer makes a Flash-based site. The next person adds music. Then someone beats them all by adding Podcasting. Then some smart person seamlessly integrates PhotoShelter into their site. Fact of the matter is that photographers don't give you work; editors give you work. You need to be more concerned about making a well functioning site that will impress an editor rather than your colleagues.

So how do you impress an editor? Good question. If I knew how I'd be rich, but we all at least know how editors behave. They are very busy people. They look at millions of photos a year and edit them down to a few hundred. They know almost instantly if they like or dislike a photo where we on the other hand typically hem-haw for MONTHS on it. During the recent update I shook my head wondering why the heck I had half the photos up that I did. (Some of you will wonder why I kept half of the remaining stuff up but c'est la vie.)

Look at your website statistics. Rarely will you see the same amount of traffic through all your image pages, they'll begin to taper off which means that people either left the site or went through various other links. You'll want to present your best (or most captivating) images right away, rather than scatter them about. It's a good idea to use the same photos that you show in your portfolio while adding a handful of new/different photos and removing a few of the old. This way when they come to your site, there is something new for them to see while leaving them enough to instantly recognize who you are.


After all the exchanges, it was just a matter of determining what needed to be changed and letting Heather work her magic. It took her a solid business week to get the whole thing done. Most of that was because of the volume of content on the old site and physically re-typing all the captions. She knew I wanted the ability to maintain the site myself, so she decided to do the whole site in PHP.

The glory of PHP is that once you figure it out, it only takes me a few moments to load new content. I size my photo in Photoshop, save it with a new chronological name and make a thumbnail. Then I just cut and paste the caption into the code and upload the photos and page. Because it was done in PHP, everything lives inside of a single file (instead of 30 different HTML files all linking to each other.) With PHP, things are nice, quick and simple.

Whenever I want to change the order of the photos, I just change the file name and the order of the captions and that's it. The most time consuming aspect of a website, as all of us know, is maintaining it. This reduces all of that work to a matter of a few clicks and keystrokes. I don't have to worry about making a new page for every single image, and fixing all the links in and out of that page.

One of the most important reasons for the whole upgrade was integrating PhotoShelter. I originally subscribed to PhotoShelter was so that I could market and move my own photos with greater ease and the integration made the marketing stupefyingly easier.

It has saved me vast amounts of time by just directing buyers to my PhotoShelter account instead of manually digging up the photos to send to them for consideration. PhotoShelter's "Seamless Customization Option" allows people to search my PhotoShelter archive while giving them the look and feel that they are still on my site.

Now that this project is finally done, I can get back to the tasks at hand; uploading more content to PhotoShelter, writing more tutorials for my site and letting folks download and buy photos on their own. Oh, and taking pictures.

(Thomas E. Witte has been a full time freelance photographer based in the Greater Cincinnati area and Midwest for the past ten years. His clients range from Sports Illustrated to Business Week to Getty Images.)

Related Links:
Witte's member gallery
Witte's website

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