SmugMug vs Zenfolio

December 3, 2011 in Photography by Turlach

I wanted a service that could host and display my photography in a highly customizable way yet, quick and easy to get up and run. A service to act as a backup, allow me to sell my work and perhaps let the hobby pay for itself. A site that would allow me leverage the metadata as a way to quickly build galleries and expose images to search results effectively.

I’ve been a photo fanatic since I was a kid. Graduated film from Emerson College Boston and worked in documentary television for years. Then I started playing with multimedia. In 2004 I found myself at Gotuit Media. Gotuit worked in a really interesting way with metadata associated to points in time within a video. Their approach allowed for feature rich online video viewing experiences with abilities to better expose discreet clips within video, better monitization with contextually accurate search on those metadata points. It also enabled us to build some great end products for broadcaster like Turner, Fox, ESPN and ABC.

At Gotuit I came in as a someone who knew the video end and had some systems abilities. I grew into an increasingly technical role as a sys admin. It was this experience that gave me the ability to look at how sites manage metadata and allow for it to be leveraged. I’ve built websites myself and I’m competent with php but, to build my own would take a lot of time that I could spend shooting. Enough about my background. I mentioned it because it is crucial as to what I know can be done and what I  was in hopes I would find, what level of service I expect and where I am approaching this comparison from.

I should also say that for most coming into SmugMug with the yearning to sell prints, they should have a decent tech knowledge already in hand. Photography is very technical and the learning curve isn’t so steep.

1. Get Going:  Pretty much a tie. No appreciable difference other than UI.

I really should better qualify the “get going” header. In the simplest form both make it easy to get up and running with some base level of customization. There really isn’t a lot of difference between how quick and easy this is between the 2 sites. I think over all for the total non tech newbie zenfolio offers a better interface (UI). Which can really help with the get up and running.

2. Interface: Zenfolio – hands down in my view.

In all honesty this one really goes to Zenfolio. Both sites offer many of the same services. And an efficient UI can really make life easier and can save tons of time. Zenfolio’s approach is a portal page concept. Where on the left hand side nav bar there is a good high level view of features, management tools for various features. At the top is a good top level set of tools for account management and such.

By contrast SmugMug’s management is much more “spread out”, often to accomplish a task utilizing a feature can require a good few clicks in a wizard and until you learn your way around, plan on having moments of “Where the f@#$ was that again?”. However the features and pages do lead into one another fairly well. I don’t want to be misunderstood, it’s a decent enough interface, but could really benefit from an update and revamp.

In the end UI is a personal thing. Part of the reason for the divide between Mac and PC peeps.

3. File and Pic management: This without a doubt goes to Zenfolio as well.

Zenfolio makes it substantially easier to manage your photographs accross gallaries and groupings of photos. I was pleasantly impressed with how they organized it, utilize metadata, have “virtual” photos in various gallaries was much easier to setup and manage manually and automated (smart rules). It was very natural to me and I was able to easily cruise through and create a structure that I was roughly what I wanted to create. To organize by time, purpose (stock vs fine art) and galleries bsaed more on on subject but also some for “events”. The interface is similar in a way to explorer or finder which makes it very easy to visualize the structure.

SmugMug does allow for ability to create virtual copies, have galleries and share groups. But the interface and structure to how they all go together requires a bit or tinkering with. And in the end I’m not really content, but it will suffice.

An example of a structure I wanted to create. It heavily uses the concept of virtual images and galleries. Think of it as a folder structure with a lot of soft links (short cuts).

  1. Whole collection with most recent at the start.
  2. Galleries  * images in galleries are virtual copies from Whole Collection above *
    1. Black and White
    2. Architecture
    3. Seascape
    4. Flowers
    5. Occupy Boston
    6. Acadia National Park
    7. NYC
  3. Fine Art * is able to contain virtual galleries from the above galleries section*.
    1. Landscapes
    2. Seascapes
    3. Industrial *not a virtual copy from galleries but contains virtual images from Whole Collection*.
    4. Acadia National Park
    5. Martha’s Vineyard
  4. Stock Images *same concept as fine art. able to contain virtual but not limited to virtual
    1. textures *unique not part of galleries or fine art but contains virtual images from whole collections*.
    2. NYC

4. Meta Data Management and Search: I really should break this out into 2 seperate headers.

Both offer smart rules use and relatively good use of the metadata. I would call it a tie.

On search however it is a different story. Zenfolio’s search was speedy and accurate. It worked as one would expect it to.

SmugMug is a different story. It was speedy enough when testing but now with just close to a thousand images up there it is slow as the proverbial molasses in January. As for the quality of the search results I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should have. It seems that when I search a keyword in a directory containing only virtual images I don’t get any images returned at all. Nada nothing zippo.

example
Look at the photograph at this link and notice how one of the keywords is “chicago”
http://photos.turlach.net/FineArt/Architecture/19740619_qQnq2z#1578181511_2Qpd8Vx
Now look at this link from the search for “chicago”. Doesn’t return anything Chicago from any gallery.
http://photos.turlach.net/search/?searchWordsShort=chicago+&searchType=InAlbum&AlbumID=19740619&x=10&y=4
I click on the turlach’s photos link at the top of this page and I get a keyword chicago no galleries (both correct) and 66 photos from the gallery I am using for all my photos and the source for the virtual copies. This would leave me to believe smug mug won’t or can’t expose virtual images in searches. That sucks.

I don’t know if Zenfolio handles this in the same manner, but it is annoying if this is the case. I need to shoot SmugMug support an email or do some looking around. I also need to find away to make that search box default to the total collection and not the local one. Call me annoyed.

**Update: as suspected the virtual images don’t return in a search. D’Oh! Also no word back yet as to whether I can specify the a default gallery to query from when searching. ughh**

**Another update I figured out my own solution to have it search the main source gallery. You can find it on the dgrin site here **

5. Price and Labs: I would have to say that while this is close SmugMug is the winner in this one.

First: the price. This is a bit of a trickier issue based on which plan (I’m only looking at the pro level ones).  At Zenfolio there are really 2 “pro-ish” plans. One costs 100$ and the other comes in at $250. The big difference between the 2 is basically less of a fee for sold images and the abililty to use a pro lab for prints. SmugMug on the other hand has 1 pro plan. At 150$ a year it  fits inbetween the 2 Zenfolio plans. Though with the smaller fees on Zenfolio 250$ plan if you do enough volume you can make up the price diff and start making out ahead.

I have yet to re-test the labs again. When I did a quick trial with both a couple years back they were very close in quality. Both arrived quickly, and the couple issues on both were both quick resolved and I was in impressed. I know that Bay Photo (SmugMug’s top lab) has a great rep and they were good, just not any better than the MpixPro, or to my eye anyways. But this was a couple years ago and may be different.

6. Features and Advanced Customization: Tied but edge to SmugMug on the advanced customization. But ease of use goes to Zenfolio.

Features: Zenfolio and SmugMug offer many of the same features. There are a few that offered on one and not the other. But nothing that is a deciding factor for me. Overall I preferred the features that Zenfolio had. Whether they were better exposed in due to the better UIor if I just found them easier to use I don’t know. Both are good, Zenfolio just came in a little bit better for me.

Customization: This is close with all but one giant feature on the SmugMug side, custom html, javascript, css and such. That extra ability allows you to go from generic boiler template to custom niceness in a short time without having to do custom code to interface with the APIs. It was the single deciding factor in my search. I had my style on my personal site and I wanted a header that looked and worked similarly. With the custom css, javascript, html and such I was able to easily do it.

Zenfolio had great customization ability too. One of my favorite things about them is that you could your own directory structure and “custom web pages” in them. It felt like a directory file structure that you would use to plan a site. The other awesome feature Zenfolio had that I liked was their interface to style your pages and the flexability with which they worked. The biggest problem I had with Zenfolio was the inability to adjust the header part of the page. I wanted to have my own custom header that would better match my “main” site. I couldn’t do that unfortunately. One of the other things I loved about Zenfolio was the menu building tool.

7. Reliability/Speed: Zenfolio based on my experience during the trial.

During my trial SmugMug had some serious downtime that was getting really annoying. I did some looking around and found several forums where customers were really pissed off. SmugMug had a user rebellion on their hands. As always people like to bitch when stuff doesn’t work, myself included, and don’t often give kudos when they do. But the number of complaints was enough for cause. I also didn’t see a lot of a response from SmugMug. I made a comment about the downtime and angry customers on their facebook page and it actually solicited a response from Dan MacAskill head geek at SmugMug. I in advertently started a long thread. You can see it at http://www.facebook.com/SmugMug/posts/10150430448314603 . Though I do have to say the last few weeks I haven’t noticed any downtime. Though I’m not on it as much as I was.

I didn’t experience any downtime on Zenfolio while I was working on it.

To qualify this I didn’t do any speed test per se. Just simply how fast does it seem to load. Quick makes me happy and slow makes me notice. Zenfolio without a doubt was always speedier to load than SmugMug. I don’t know what CDNs are being used or if they are using a CDN. SmugMug isn’t overly slowly just not as fast. And yes there is no science basis here for that. Just perception.

Overall and the Decision: Overall both are pretty good services and provide a good level of service reliably. I ended up with SmugMug for a couple reasons. First they are the big one on the block, well respected and are known for their support. But really it was the ability to include my own custom css, html, javascript, etc. That is what made the difference. For me it was the in between DIY interface the APIs and a boiler template feel. That was the killer feature for me. Now lets hope I can get things sorted with the search issues. I am also going to check out Zenfolio in a year before I re-up with SmugMug. If Zenfolio adds the ability to customize with html, css, javascript and such they have a really good shot at getting me to come over.