Sunday, February 9, 2014

Choosing a Website Platform: Joomla!, SmugMug and Zenfolio

I've operated a photography website for a many years now, and it has evolved over time from simple html to it's current form as a "responsive" website designed to display on a PC, tablet or smartphone.  Along the way, I've implemented my website in two versions of Joomla! and more recently, with SmugMug and Zenfolio.  I'd like to share some of my experiences.  This isn't a comprehensive review -- I'm just writing about some experiences that helped me decide how to manage a modern website (at least this year's version of "modern").

A number of years ago, I implemented my website using Joomla! 1.5.  It took a while to learn how to configure Joomla! to do what I wanted, but I found a good theme and I ended up with a good website.

Over the last few of years, my site was hacked twice, the latest being last summer.  After the first hack, I was able to recover fairly easily.  I removed the offending files and restore the site without too much difficulty.  On a couple of occasions, I also had to handle errors from the database (which I learned how to fix) which led me to learn how to do MySQL backups.  Occasionally I made backups of my site and even saved some of the backups on my home PC.

Houses in Trinity, Newfoundland

Last summer my site was hacked again while I was  on vacation.  A trojan horse was planted onto my website, and I had to quickly take the site down when I got back home.  I guess I should have bought some virus protection from my web host!

I didn't have a recent backup available, so I decided to modernize my site and move up to Joomla! 3.  I choose a "responsive" theme to handle smartphones, tablets and PCs, and I re-implemented most of my website.  Finally, I decided to buy a virus scanning service from my website host which increased my web hosting cost by 50%.  I wasn't too happy about having to invest a significant amount of time and money into this whole process.

It took a lot of time to get Joomla! 3 working especially with some installation glitches that were difficult to solve.  I also ran into some flaws in the photo management component (RokGallery) as well.  I liked the way RokGallery was set up, but it was difficult and slow to work with a large number of photographs.  Overall though, I was satisfied even though I thought the website was a bit slow.

Later in the year there were some updates available for Joomla!, and I installed the update using Joomla!s handy update system.  Unfortunately, the upgrade failed and left my site hobbled.  The only option that I could see was to re-install Joomla!.

By this time, I was quite frustrated with the whole process, and I decided that I no longer wanted the hassle of dealing with Joomla!, doing database and website backups, and paying for virus checking.   I started looking for a solution that let me create a photograph-centered website that provided all of those functions.

Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, Trinity Newfoundland

I looked at a variety of options, including Flickr, 500px, Pixpa, SmugMug and Zenfolio.  I was looking for a reasonable cost, built-in e-commerce, lots of storage space and flexibility in the design of the website.  I wanted a site that could adapt to different screen sizes, from smart phones to large PC screens and  I wanted to keep my domain name for the new site.

I quickly narrowed the choice down to SmugMug and Zenfolio.  I felt that Flickr and 500px didn't provide enough flexibility in the design of the website.  Their formats were okay, but I wanted to have my own design.  Pixpa seemed more expensive than the rest at $200 per year versus $150 for SmugMug and $120 for Zenfolio, so I didn't evaluate it.  If SmugMug and Zenfolio had not worked out, then I would have looked at Pixpa in more depth.

I started with Zenfolio.  I signed up for a trial and started to build a prototype website.  Over the course of a weekend, I was able to create a working website starting with a template provided by Zenfolio.  I set up a keyword-based slideshow on the front page, and a set of menus for articles and photograph gallery pages. I also set up e-commerce on the site without any difficulty.  I spent a few more evenings adjusting the design and loading enough photographs to find out how much work was involved.

I found Zenfolio quite easy to use, and I really liked their e-commerce system with multiple price lists and their built-in print service.  I was able to specify myself as a print service for the sizes of prints I create myself, and to use the built-in service for larger sizes.  Zenfolio was quite a bit faster than my Joomla! site so I was convinced that this would be a better choice.

I liked the look of the site, but I wanted to try a different page style that Zenfolio does not offer.  Zenfolio provides several layout options of basically the same page style -- a main photograph with small thumbnails on the side, top or bottom of the page.  I was hoping to use a "collage" layout with various photographs mixed on the page.

Maberly, Newfoundland

Next, I signed up for a trial with SmugMug.  It offers the collage style of page layout that I wanted, but is a bit higher in cost from Zenfolio.  I set up the same kind of website as I did in Zenfolio -- a front-page slideshow with various menus to see photograph galleries and articles.  The design system was definitely more complicated than Zenfolio, and it took me a while to understand how it worked.  There is a hierarchical set of layouts, starting with content that will appear on all pages, followed by gallery-specific content, and lastly, page-specific content.  Once I understood the system, it was quite easy to set up the pages the way that I wanted.

I uploaded a number of photographs which went well.  Both Zenfolio and SmugMug handled a large number of photographs quite well.

I also set up e-commerce on SmugMug withoug much difficulty.  There are lots of different print options -- the kind of paper, framing, gallery wrap, etc.  However, there is one big drawback to their e-commerce print service: I could not find a way to include myself as a print provider.  I would rather make my own prints for 12"x18" down to 6"x9".  The only way I could find to do this was to add a note on each gallery page saying that I make prints up to 12"x18".  I could not integrate this into the "Buy Now" system.

Both SmugMug and Zenfolio sites were fast, and could handle tablets and phones.  I occasionally had some trouble with viewing my Zenfolio site on my iPhone though.  However it was the performance on a tablet that made the difference between the two.  When I compared both sites on a Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014), there was a clear difference in image quality.  The SmugMug site was noticably sharper -- I suspect it is due to some sharpening done to the image.  You can control sharpening with SmugMug, and although I didn't apply any extra sharpening, photographs from SmugMug were sharper on my tablet.

Ultimately a photography website is all about images, and image quality on a tablet turned out to be the deciding factor.   Feel free to browse my current website, hosted through SmugMug at:

          . . . Rob Williams