In 1996 I decided to create a web site for my underwater photographs. I registered kasson.com with the InterNIC, installed Internet Information Services on an NT 4 server that was connected to my ISP over Basic Rate ISDN, and started to create html using Notepad. That got old real fast, so I switched to FrontPage. That site is still around, although in a much-expanded form. It’s been hosted on several Unix machines and a progression of Windows ones. I’m now using Superb for hosting, and Expression to maintain the site.
For the last year or so, I’ve been thinking of getting a web site for my serious photography. I know what I want. All the images should reside in a database. Which images appear in which galleries will be determined by entries in the database. Image captions will be extracted from the image metadata. All the images will be tagged with keywords, and the user will be able to search by keywords. The esthetics of the presentation will be handled entirely separately from the data, text, and images, and will be easy to change. It will be easy to upload new images and bind then into the database. The whole thing will be created using standard tools, and will run on a wide variety of web hosting services.
I’d be happy to maintain and enhance the look and feel of the site, but I don’t want to design the database, construct the presentation engine, or write the interface code. I don’t even want to find the pieces. I’d like to hire someone to do that. Even better, I’d like to find a package that already works the way I want.
I’ve spent the last year or so asking around about getting this job done. I’ve met several photographers who want what I want (Some want a shopping cart in addition). I’ve even had a few offers to help fund the development effort. But I’ve hung up on finding someone to actually do the work. I’ve spent a little time looking for a product that already works the way I want. I haven’t found anything. I’ve put out a few feelers to find a developer. I haven’t looked that hard, mostly out of fear. I don’t know any developers that I really trust, and there are so many examples of custom web programming exercises that went way over budget, didn’t work when they were done, or, most depressingly, both.
A couple of months ago, I started looking at forgetting the database-driven part of my ideal web site, and buying a Flash template. There are a zillion of them out there. The template designers don’t make it crystal clear what your web hosting service needs to have to handle their templates, so there is some uncertainty there, but I’m sure it’s solvable with some fiddling.
Then there’s finding reliable web hosting. Go ahead and open a new tab in your browser and do a search on web hosting. I’ll bet you see a lot of reviews and ratings. Click on a few. What you’ll see is a bunch of web hosting companies that you never heard of with great ratings, and GoDaddy and Yahoo down at the bottom of the list to add credibility; my suspicion is that web-hosting companies can , ahem, influence their place on those lists. You’ll also see incredibly low pricing. In fact the pricing is so low that nobody could possibly make any money charging that little for hosting and offering 99.99% uptime and good customer service. I’ve never gone for the real cheapie prices, and I’ve still yet to find hosting that worked almost all the time and provided decent help when it didn’t. I’m sure there are reliable hosting companies out there. I just don’t know how to find them.
So, with PhotoLucida fast approaching and providing motivation (more about that in my next post), I cast about looking for another way. There are several companies that provide both the software to set up a web gallery and the services to host it. Their charges are not outrageous, but they’re high enough for me to believe that they can make a buck and still provide respectable service.
I decided to explore.
The first one I tried is the Shutterbug site. (http://www.shutterbugstorefront.com ) It’s new. I first read about it when they made an announcement in their mag a couple of weeks ago. Their prices are fair. They offer a lot of services. There was one huge hurdle: try as I might to get used to it, and try as I might to configure my way out of it, I couldn’t stomach the visual impression that any visitor to my web site would have.
I subscribe to an underwater photography list server, and, a couple of weeks ago, at the moment when I was most acutely aware of my web needs, two members posted about their good experiences with hosted web galleries. The companies were PhotoShelter and PhotoBiz. I checked them out. It was a close decision, but I went with PhotoBiz.
It took two mornings to set up my web site using their web-based tools. At first I tried to do it with Firefox, but the Java applet wouldn’t work right. I switched to Internet Explorer 7, for which PhotoBiz uses an Active-X plugin, and it worked fine. The configuration tool lets you upload files into galleries, drag and drop website elements, add new ones, and configure their properties. Since it’s database-driven, you can control the presentation independent of everything else just by picking from a list of templates that they have designed. If you don’t like the color scheme of any of the templates, you can create your own. In fact, it’s possible to dramatically alter the look of the templates by picking the same colors for adjacent elements, which makes the boundary between them disappear. You can preview your design before publishing it. You can register a domain through them or use any domain that you have lying around.
Pricing is interesting. You first pick a plan, the cost of which is based on the number of photographs you have displayed on your site. I went for 600 images, putting my recurring cost at $25/month. The plans scale up to 12,000 photos for $100/month. There’s a setup fee of $250 for a Flash website, marked down to half currently. There are also many features for which you pay one-time fees. I spent $100 to have the PhotoBiz logo removed, and $125 for five text pages at $25 each. Total getting started cost: $350.
It’s all pretty well thought out, but there are some restrictions under which I chafed a bit:
- One of the elements that you can use is a dropdown menu. Users of your website can use that menu to select galleries or text pages. Unfortunately, you can’t cascade dropdown menus. This constraint means that the only way to have collections of galleries is to group them at the top level.
- The only way to have a text page in a gallery is to make it an image. The only image types accepted in galleries is JPEG, which means that your text will be fuzzy. I wanted to have an artist’s statement associated with each gallery. I ended up accomplishing this by have a dropdown menu labeled “Artist’s Statements” at the top level. I populated this menu with the titles of the galleries in the same order as the dropdown menu that accessed those galleries, and used it to select text pages with the statements. It works, but it’s not very elegant.
- You can only use the fonts they have installed. You can’t control the leading of these fonts. This was uncomfortable for me because I couldn’t get the site title looking the way I wanted it to. I solved the problem by creating an image in Photoshop using my favorite sans-serif font, Optima, expanding the leading, and tucking an abbreviated copyright notice into a corner. I saved it as a PNG file, and uploaded it as a logo. PhotoBiz will take PNG or JPEG logos, but only JPEG images in galleries.
- There is no way to caption images in galleries. This detracts from the user experience in that the title of an image often provides useful information as to how to interpret it. It also could be a problem for accepting orders, since the only way a customer can identify an image is as “number x in gallery y”, and x will change if you add photographs to a gallery or rearrange the images. This limitation is bad enough in a gallery for art, but it is an absolute show-stopper if I want to use PhotoBiz to create a gallery for my underwater pictures. I can’t figure out any way around this one.
- There’s no way I can back up my website configuration. I’m sure PhotoBiz does backups, but I’ve had web hosting services lose data before, and it was very comforting knowing that I could restore it from what’s stored on my computers at home.
When I got the web site pretty well blocked out, I sent links to a few people. My son gave me some suggestions that caused me to go for a minimalist look, with the few visible graphic elements floating on the Zone IV background. All in all, I think it came out well. You can check it out at http://www.kasson.org
Now that I have a web site for my art, I haven’t completely given up on my ideal web site as described at the beginning of this post, but I’m less interested in spending time chasing my dream. I’d still like to find a really reliable web hosting service.
I’ll end this post with a rare positive comment on customer service and tech support. An hour or so after I subscribed to PhotoBiz’s service, I got a phone call from them. The guy explained that they offered one-on-one setup help to all their customers, and asked if now would be a good time to start. It wasn’t, but I got his email address, and the next day I sent him a list of questions and a suggested time to call. Right on time, the phone rang and we went over my list. He was very knowledgeable and helpful. The next day, I emailed him a couple of additional questions, and he answered right away. I can’t remember when I’ve felt better taken care of by a technology company.