Zenfolio vs. SmugMug

I recently switched the hosting of my portfolio web site (www.chipjonesphotography.com) from SmugMug to Zenfolio and thought I’d take time to explain the differences I found between both of these popular photography hosting solutions.

[NOTE: This review was published before the release of SmugMug’s new page design tool which was launched on July 30, 2013]

Introduction
I started looking for other hosting solutions after SmugMug announced a 50% increase in subscription rates (100% for new accounts) for a professional level account. I was curious what others were charging and I ended up looking at about a dozen other photography hosting providers.

What I found was a large selection of hosting solutions for photographers. Some are free, others are very expensive with $1000+ setup fees. For my purposes, I found that even the most expensive solutions still didn’t provide me with all of the features I needed, and in the end I just couldn’t justify the more expensive plans.

My business is mostly focused on fine art photography rather than portrait, wedding or event photography. What I was looking for was a solution that provided the ability to sell photographs online as framed/matted pieces, digital downloads, or photo cards. I should note that I also sell custom framed pieces, upon request.

The Final Choices – Zenfolio vs. SmugMug
After a lot of research, I found that Zenfolio was the closest competitor to SmugMug in terms of pricing and features. I also found that Zenfolio was about 25% less expensive for a similar account level on SmugMug and with a discount promotion, Zenfolio was about 35% less expensive for the first year.

One feature I really liked about Zenfolio was that it provided site visitors with the ability to select a photograph, and then view it framed with a variety of different framing or matting options. SmugMug doesn’t provide this capability. You can view different frames or mats, but you can’t see how a selected photograph will look with the selected framing and matting.

Another thing I really liked about Zenfolio was the ability to easily customize the look and feel of my photography web site. SmugMug provides this feature as well, but it requires far more coding than Zenfolio. It’s not that I couldn’t do the required coding on my own, but I wanted to utilize my time more effectively. Personally, I’d rather be out shooting photographs than customizing HTML or CSS.

The ease-of setup with a decent looking site is a big advantage for Zenfolio. That said, limitations come with any easy-to-use solution. One of the biggest limitations I’ve found with Zenfolio is that you’re stuck with the headers and footers they provide. You can add a logo, but that’s about it it. This becomes an issue if you want to place an Newsletter Sign-up form at the top of the page. It is also an issue if you want to add third party banners to the top or bottom of each page.

Another shortcoming I found with Zenfolio was that their selection of photo card designs is much more limited than the SmugMug offering. On the other hand, I find SmugMug’s card creation tool to be too complicated for a typical consumer. It’s really not all that intuitive. Although I’d like to be able to sell folded note cards and special occasion photo cards, this hasn’t been a big part of my photography business and so it’s much less important in my final decision.

Photofinishing is also a really important consideration. SmugMug uses WHCC and Bay Photo for their photo finishing. Zenfolio uses Mpix Lab. While I don’t have the history with MPIX that I do with WHCC, I did find out that Mpix Lab is an online division of Miller’s Professional Imaging which was founded in 1939. This was reassuring enough to me, after all you don’t stay in business this long if there are quality issues.

Finally, in terms of customer support, I’ve found that Zenfolio’s customer support is much slower in responding online than SmugMug. With SmugMug I could get an answer within an hour or so and if their Chat feature was available online, within minutes. Zenfolio’s support can take 6-12 hours before I’ll get a a online response. I haven’t tried their phone response time, but I prefer online communication (I really dislike waiting on the phone).

One large concern I have are the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) differences between both hosts. Both generate a sitemap of updated gallery links, but SmugMug has done a really good job at optimizing their platform so that images can be indexed by the search engines like Google and Yahoo. What’s still uncertain is how well a Zenfolio hosted site will do. It’s going to take months to see the results, and I’ll try to provide an update after I know more.*

Conclusion
Overall both solutions are very good, but for my needs I find Zenfolio to be one step ahead of SmugMug.  I think the design templates that Zenfolio provides are much easier to customize and I’m pleased with the cleaner look.The chart below summarizes my findings:

Chip’s Preference Zenfolio SmugMug
Look and Feel Customization X
Ease of Customization X
Header / Footer Customization X
Hosting Solution Price X
Photo Card Templates X
Photo Card Customization X
Framed Photo Customization X
Customer Service X
SEO (Search Engine Optimization) X*
Photofinishing Quality

I hope you’ll feel the same about my new hosting selection, and will find my new portfolio web site easier to use. Let me know if you have any suggestions or feedback!

*NOTE: For an updated overview of differences, be sure to read my posts Zenfolio vs. SmugMug – 3 Months Later, along with an analysis of SEO capabilities at Zenfolio vs SmugMug – SEO. If you find this information helpful and you’d like to sign-up for a SmugMug account, please use my referral link. You’ll receive a discount on your membership and I’ll get a small referral fee. The link is:
https://secure.smugmug.com/signup?Coupon=JOSPqyLUcJ1Ew

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