Perhaps the best-known hosting website for photographers is SmugMug, a platform that has been around since 2002. SmugMug acts as an online gallery space, letting you display your photos easily and – relatively – inexpensively. I have been using SmugMug exclusively for several years, and I have grown very familiar with its range of tools and capabilities. In general, I have been very impressed by SmugMug; for this review (updated February 2018), I will cover some of its main uses and features, as well as the positives and negatives of using SmugMug to host your online gallery.
Please note that this comparison is from the perspective of a landscape photographer. If you shoot weddings or events, you may care more about client access; this is not a problem for me, since I don’t shoot for clients. Still, even if you have different priorities, everything in the review below should remain relevant.
I strongly prefer to host my photos on a website that has minimal branding; in fact, obtrusive branding is enough to lose my business. When people visit my website, I don’t want them to see the word SmugMug across the screen; I want them to see my name and my photographs (not to mention that “Smug Mug” is not a very good name.)
By default, SmugMug includes their brand name in your URL – for instance, yourname.smugmug.com – but this can be easily changed. If you already have a custom domain name, you have to change your DNS settings on the hosting website to match your SmugMug site; this can take a few days to work properly, and the process can be confusing if you haven’t done it before. If you don’t yet have a custom name, your life is much easier. All you need to do is use SmugMug’s built-in “Custom Domain” option, which automatically syncs your site to a GoDaddy address. This costs me $12 a year, but it’s worth the money.
As far as other branding goes, SmugMug isn’t perfect. By default, SmugMug adds a header and footer logo to your website. You can eliminate the header and shrink the size of the footer, but the footer can only be removed by custom CSS (which works, but is not appreciated by SmugMug for obvious reasons).
For the rest of the website, branding is very minimal. The only place where it remains – and one where it is impossible to remove – is the checkout page after the shopping cart. Here is a screenshot showing the problem:
Not only does the SmugMug logo show up on this page, but the entire color scheme changes. My website has a white and blue palette; the checkout page is black and green. This annoys me, and it is surely off-putting for customers. I don’t mind the logo at this point, but I wish that they made the color scheme more similar to my original.
So, in summary, SmugMug’s branding is not perfect, but it could be worse. Nearly every SmugMug reference is removable, but it takes some effort before your site truly looks like your own.
2) Ease of Use
SmugMug, and any other website that includes so many options, takes some time to understand. Not all of the features are completely intuitive, and you may spend more time learning it than you want.
For example, it took me a few months of using SmugMug before I realized that my galleries – for example, my Iceland gallery – followed the file path “Home Page > Iceland,” rather than “Home Page > Galleries > Iceland.” This seems like a minor issue, but it was making it more difficult for viewers to navigate the website. Changing this took quite a bit of effort.
However, for the most basic edits, SmugMug is about as simple as it could be. Loading photos to your galleries – and even creating new galleries – is an intuitive process, and you should be able to have a half-working site within a few hours of purchasing an account. This isn’t to say that you can make a high-quality website without much effort, but simply that you can set the basics fairly quickly.
The SmugMug customer service team is great, too, and they have been extremely helpful when I run into a problem. If you want to create something in SmugMug, they will know how to get it done; I always have been impressed by their breadth of knowledge. SmugMug is not easier or harder to learn than any other website builder; if you want a custom gallery, you have to spend some time learning about your tools.
3) Photo Quality
One thing that has always impressed me about SmugMug is the high quality of your photos when they appear on your site. In particular, the sharpness of my SmugMug photos is great – even on high-pixel monitors. This might seem like a small point, but it isn’t something you should take for granted. Zenfolio, one of SmugMug’s main competitors, loses quality on screens more than 1920 pixels wide. Most viewers don’t have such high-res monitors, but more and more are coming to market each day. I want my photos to look good on any viewing platform, and SmugMug delivers.
It also seems that SmugMug’s down-sampling algorithm creates impressively sharp photos. If you upload photos at their full resolution, they need to be down-sampled for your viewers; in other words, their dimensions need to shrink significantly. If I upload a 4900×7350 pixel photograph, most people will see it no larger than 1000×1500 pixels wide. In the midst of this down-sampling, it is easy for details to get lost and fine lines to become blurry. SmugMug’s sharpening algorithm seems to be better than its competitors, even for low-resolution monitors.
4) Customization Options
The main reason that I use SmugMug is simple: it offers a tremendous range of customization options. Some website builders, including Zenfolio, force you to use built-in templates with little leeway for your customization. SmugMug also has templates, but they can be morphed and twisted to the point that they no longer resemble their original appearance at all.
The main method of customizing a SmugMug site is to use content blocks to arrange your material. These blocks can be found by clicking “Customize > Content and Design” in the main editing view. Here, you can add almost anything to a page on your website, from a Facebook icon to a box of text. Then, you can place the content blocks almost any way you want. See the screenshot below:
This isn’t the only way to customize your website, though. Another valuable feature – and one that Zenfolio does not offer – is the use of custom CSS and HTML to format your website. These two features let you format the general design of your website (CSS), as well as any text that you add (HTML). Essentially, HTML and CSS blocks allow for unlimited customization. Do you want to change the shape of the thumbnails in your gallery? Simple – just add a CSS block.
To use HTML and CSS, you don’t necessarily need prior knowledge. It helps, of course, but you can find almost any code that you need just by searching online; if you want to customize your SmugMug site, someone else almost certainly has made the same changes already. I knew nothing about HTML or CSS before SmugMug, but I still made all the changes that I needed (including some that were fairly significant).
For one example, I didn’t like the full-screen size of my photos when I clicked them; a bar appeared along the bottom of the photo, blocking a small portion of the image. Using the custom CSS in the screenshot below, I was able to shrink the photo just small enough that the bar appeared below my image rather than on it:
Although it can take some time to find the right HTML or CSS code, it is worth the effort. I recommend checking out SmugMug’s Digital Grin Forum if you have specific questions about your CSS or HTML; chances are good that you will find what you want.
5) Selling Prints
For many photographers, the main purpose of SmugMug is to sell photographs. Personally, this is what inspired me to keep a website in the first place. Here, SmugMug does not disappoint.
To start, SmugMug allows your customers to purchase prints from the following four labs:
- Bay Photo (ships worldwide)
- WHCC (worldwide)
- EZ Prints (worldwide)
- Loxley Colour (Europe)
I prefer Bay Photo, but I also like EZ prints. I haven’t tried WHCC or Loxley, but each one has good reviews. You get to choose which labs to sell from – not your customers. Still, none of the options are bad choices, and you really can’t go wrong here.
The only issue with SmugMug’s prints is that you cannot self-fulfill products. In other words, if you want to sell a custom style of print, there is no way to add one to the native SmugMug shopping cart. This isn’t a huge deal for most photographers, especially since SmugMug’s partner companies are continually adding new printing options (such s Bay Photo, which just recently added the ability to do acrylic prints through SmugMug). Still, it can matter if you want to offer especially unusual products.
There are other ways to sell custom products, though. You can create a “Custom Printing” option in your website’s menu, for example, where you describe all the items you sell. Then, tell customers to use the “Contact” form if they want any specialty products. It isn’t as elegant as the standard shopping cart, but it gets the job done.
SmugMug’s shopping cart, for what it’s worth, is extremely well done; it looks and feels like very high-end. Details like this may seem extraneous, but the small qualities add up for your viewers and customers. If it is easy for someone to navigate through your products, they certainly will be more likely to purchase something that they want.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that SmugMug takes 15% of the profits from every sale you make. This is slightly more than Zenfolio, which ranges from 10% to 12% for different products, but it isn’t a huge difference. Unless you sell hundreds or thousands of products every year, you probably won’t notice much of a difference.
6) Other Features
There are a few other features of SmugMug worth noting, including its mobile website implementation. For me, the main issue here is that you cannot customize the mobile website independently of your desktop site; you are left with SmugMug’s default appearance. The good news is that you probably wouldn’t want to change anything! SmugMug does a very impressive job of creating a mobile website out of your desktop layout, even though it doesn’t give you any particular input. Personally, I think it is so successful because it tries to emulate the look of your desktop website as much as possible; this is very different from other hosting platforms, many of which have a default mobile site that is nothing like the original.
Alongside the mobile site, another feature worth mentioning is the contact form. Here, I think that SmugMug loses out to its competition. Whereas most websites have a separate URL for their contact page, SmugMug’s only option is a pop-up window. This doesn’t sound bad – and, generally, it isn’t – but it means that I can’t link directly to the contact form. Instead, I need to tell visitors to scroll up to the top of the page if they want to email me. It’s not a terrible problem, but I don’t see why SmugMug avoided a separate URL.
Finally, it is worth covering the use of an external blog with your SmugMug account. If you do want a blogging platform integrated into your website, SmugMug is not the most robust option. Although it allows linking to an external WordPress blog, there is no built-in SmugMug blog. However, you can create custom pages, then link to them in your menu. If all you want is to write a few articles, SmugMug is more than enough – and if you are willing to work with an external blogging platform, there are no real negatives to be found.
There are countless other SmugMug features, but I don’t want to fill the article with details that few people would need to know. If you have a specific question, please let me know in the comments section.
SmugMug is fairly well-priced, at least when compared to its competitors. The exact prices are below:
- Basic: $40/year or $5 if billed monthly
- Power: $60/year or $8 if billed monthly
- Portfolio: $150/year or $20 if billed monthly
- Business: $300/year or $30 if billed monthly
Personally, I use the $150 Portfolio plan, and it has been more than enough for my needs. The higher-priced plan will help if you have a large number of clients; it allows more personalized branding for your products, as well as several other tools for running a business (per-photo price lists, coupons, print packages, and many more). The complete list of differences is beyond the scope of this article, but you can find it through this link. Although $150 per year isn’t cheap, it is one of the best purchases I ever made. An online gallery is crucial for today’s photographers, and SmugMug is worth the price.
SmugMug’s main competition, as I have mentioned throughout the article, is the company Zenfolio. I tried Zenfolio for more than a year before switching to SmugMug, so I have a detailed understanding of both platforms. The primary differences are below:
- SmugMug Looks sharper on high-PPI monitors
- SmugMug has vastly better customization, including HTML and CSS implementation
- SmugMug’s mobile site is better
- Zenfolio has a native blog implementation
- Zenfolio allows for custom products in the shopping cart
- Zenfolio’s branding is slightly less intrusive
There are more SmugMug competitors, as well – Squarespace being the primary one – but I have not tried any others, so I cannot offer my opinions. Personally, I have found that SmugMug holds up well against Zenfolio; that’s why I switched almost a year ago.
9) Free Trial
SmugMug offers a free trial period (two weeks, but you can actually extend it to four), so I highly recommend testing it out. Everything that I have written above can be helpful, but the real test of SmugMug’s capabilities is to use it yourself.
Use the link below to get a trial version of SmugMug, as well as a 15% discount from any SmugMug account. This discount applies automatically, even if you wait four weeks to purchase your subscription – I will get a credit as well, for giving you the link:
- SmugMug Free Trial (Click “Try it Now”)
Let me know if you have any questions or comments, and I would be happy to address them below.