- Beautifully-designed, mobile-responsive portfolio templates
- Quick and easy to get started – get your site live in under an hour
- Wide range of ecommerce options for selling your photos
- Fewer templates than rival website builders
- Customization tools aren’t intuitive
- No free SmugMug plan
“Ask any photographer the secret of their success and they’ll say ‘a good eye’. Sure, photography is an art. But you won’t get very far in this game without the right kit – and that includes an online portfolio.”
Web designers don’t come cheap, though. That’s one reason so many snappers (presumably broke after spending all their money on camera gear) rely on social sites like Flickr, Tumblr and even Instagram to display their wares. It’s an easy solution, but it’s not exactly pro.
That’s where SmugMug comes in. This code-free website builder lets you create a web portfolio every bit as professional as a custom-made site, for a fraction of the price. And with SmugMug, you’re in control.
But is SmugMug the right tool for you, and for your photography – whether your pics are for fun, or profit, or a bit of both?
“SmugMug may have a silly name, but it’s serious about making your photos look fantastic.”
Unlike market-leading website builders Wix and Weebly, SmugMug only offers portfolio templates. Their layouts vary, but they all use optimal settings to ensure your images load quickly and display beautifully.
That makes SmugMug a great choice of website builder for anyone who wants to show and even sell their visual work online – including artists and designers as well as photographers.
You don’t have to be a seller to use SmugMug, though. Many of my pro photographer friends use online portfolios as shop windows rather than shops, using their websites to tout for business and share client galleries. SmugMug would suit them very well.
In fact, you don’t even have to think of yourself as a photographer. It’s so quick and easy to get started, you can publish a SmugMug gallery of smartphone photos in minutes if you want.
However there’s no free SmugMug plan after the free two-week trial, so there’s not much point in using this website builder unless you’re at least fairly serious about your photography.
How popular is SmugMug?
SmugMug is a private company (unlike its rival website builder, Wix), so it doesn’t make its user numbers public. “We don’t get very explicit with this,” SmugMug CEO Don MacAskill said. “But we’re pretty upfront that we have ‘Millions of passionate customers, billions of happy photos’.”
We’d bet our entire photo collection that SmugMug can’t touch Wix’s user numbers, but that’s because it’s a specialist service. Compared with other portfolio builders, SmugMug is doing fine.
Here’s how SmugMug’s daily stats compare with other photo hosting sites, according to data-gathering site HypeStat:
- Flickr: 997,500 daily unique visitors, 4 million daily page views
- 500px: 183k visitors, 896.7k views
- SmugMug: 99.5k visitors, 591k views
- Zenfolio: 55.5k visitors, 275.5k views
- IM Creator: 30.1k visitors, 88.1k views
We’ve included Flickr as a point of reference, but SmugMug vs Flickr isn’t really a fair comparison. SmugMug is a portfolio builder, while Flickr is a community photo feed. Don’t choose between them – use both. We’ll show you how in a moment.
“Creating a SmugMug account is a breeze, and building your first gallery is almost as quick and easy – but the ‘content blocks’ can soon turn into roadblocks.”
The speed and ease of SmugMug’s setup process filled me with confidence right off the bat.
You don’t have to choose a template, upload photos, or hand over payment details when creating your SmugMug account. It’s quicker than waiting for a high-street coffee.
You’re invited to choose a SmugMug URL (the text that goes before ‘.smugmug.com’ in your web address) and say whether you plan to sell photos, but you can skip both decisions for now if you want.
Once you’ve created your account, it’s then almost as quick to create your first gallery. If you’ve got a batch of photos you need to get online right now – whether it’s a pro wedding shoot or phone snaps from last night’s party – then SmugMug lets you do it in a… snap.
First, you need to get those photos into your new SmugMug account. We’re so impressed by the range and efficiency of SmugMug’s import options that we’ve devoted a whole section to them (stay tuned, it’s coming next).
Once your photos are uploaded, all you need to do is publish. You don’t have to hang around choosing a template if you’re in a hurry.
Unlike the market-leading website builder Wix, SmugMug has a default template that you can use to create a gallery almost instantly.
Now, the default template isn’t perfect. Its profile/cover photo combo looks just like Facebook, and you may not appreciate that if you want to create a professional-looking gallery. But some of your visitors may like its familiarity.
My main problem with the default template is that you have to fill the profile and cover photo boxes with photos that are the right shape, and that can take some trial and error.
SmugMug, you see, uses a system of ‘content blocks’ that you can’t resize by dragging their edges. You can’t reposition photos inside the blocks, either – which is why I couldn’t move my cat’s nose away from my name in the screenshot above.
If you’re accustomed to the drag-and-zoom freedom of photo-editing software, you may find SmugMug’s fixed blocks infuriating.
I’ll have more on blocks in the section on customization, where I’ll reveal how to bend them to your will (sort of). They’re not completely inflexible, but they’re not intuitive, either.
If you strike it lucky when choosing photos to fit the default template, and it all looks great first time, then you can have your first gallery published in minutes.
“You’ve probably got photos online already. You may have spent years posting your best shots on Flickr, and sharing them in Dropbox – so it’s great that SmugMug lets you copy your pics straight from those accounts.”
If you already store and display your photos on the web (and we’re happy to bet you do), then SmugMug’s online import option can save you a lot of time and hassle.
This is the first of several ways you can add photos to your SmugMug account. By letting you import straight from online photo-hosting services, it bypasses the need to sort through photos on your computer first – or even store photos on your computer at all.
Supported photo-hosting services currently include Flickr, Dropbox, and Amazon Drive.
The tool works beautifully. With one click, you link your SmugMug account with your existing photo-hosting account. Then click to select the photos you want to import, and wait a minute or two while they’re copied into SmugMug. It’s secure, efficient, and easy.
Once your photos are added to your account, you can then use SmugMug’s built-in file manager to organize them into galleries and folders, and even apply basic crops and edits.
Flickr import is my favorite way to add photos to SmugMug, probably because I’ve already got so many photo albums on the web. If you haven’t, you might prefer one of SmugMug’s other methods of adding pics.
As well as letting you upload photos while you’re out and about, SmugMug’s mobile apps let you create and share galleries on the go – and they’re completely free.
Alternatively, you could just upload your photos to SmugMug from your computer. I say “just” as though it’s an afterthought, but this method is easy and fast. A photo uploaded at about 1MB/second on my mediocre Wi-Fi connection.
However to upload photos from your computer, your photos need to be on your computer to begin with.
These days, you’re probably more likely to have pics on your phone or online than on your desktop. By offering so many innovative import options, SmugMug shows it’s keeping up with the way you store your snaps.
Add photos like a pro with the SmugMug Lightroom Plug-in
Do you love photography enough to use Adobe’s premium software, Lightroom? Then check out the SmugMug Lightroom Plug-in.
The free plug-in is a tiny piece of software that you “plug into” your installed software to add functions – much like a browser extension. Once added to Lightroom, it lets you create and manage your SmugMug galleries in Lightroom itself, even while you’re offline.
Tiny it may be, but the plug-in is powerful enough to let you build and publish a wedding website before your clients have even left the venue. For pros, it’s a must-have – and it makes SmugMug a must-have, too.
“SmugMug’s template gallery is small but perfectly formed. It simply has no need to cover a ton of template categories and industry types.”
SmugMug currently offers 26 portfolio templates (‘designs’) – a miserly number compared with the 510-plus templates offered by market-leading website builder Wix. (Here’s our Wix templates review.)
And if you upgrade to SmugMug’s cheapest $3.99/month plan after the free two-week trial, your choice of layouts drops to six. For the full 26, you have to pay $5.99 a month or more.
Terrible, eh? Actually, we think SmugMug is wise to limit its template numbers.
Instead of churning out template after template, it focuses on choosing templates that are great at their job – which is to make your photos look as good as possible.
What’s more, fewer templates are easier to browse than a vast library. No need to go digging through page after page of previews to find your favorite.
As you’d hope, every SmugMug template is designed to show off your photos at their best. They all feel modern, smart and minimalist.
But different templates suit different types of photographer.
Some templates, such as Sierra, display each photo full-screen. That’s ideal if you have a small portfolio of amazing high-res shots that you want to sell as prints. Other templates, such as Vida, offer a more informal, photo-blog way to show off your work.
Most SmugMug templates, however, strike a happy medium between these two extremes.
Octavia (below) is a particularly effective gallery design. It showcases several of your photos at once and lets your visitors quickly scroll through many more. It’s ideal for wedding and event clients.
How customizable are SmugMug’s templates?
“Imagine you’re building a house. Your website is the house, and SmugMug’s content blocks are the bricks. You can put the bricks where you want, within reason – but you can’t reshape them.”
As we’ve already seen, SmugMug’s templates look great but they’re pretty inflexible. You can move the blocks around, but you can’t drag their edges or reposition your photos inside them.
You’d be forgiven for assuming the only way to tweak your site’s layout is to choose a different template. It’s the quickest way, for sure. But if you really want to craft your own unique SmugMug site, you can.
To do this, simply delete blocks you don’t want, then replace them with blocks that show your photos to their full potential.
Once you realize you can do that, the template suddenly feels a lot less rigid.
There’s even an HTML and CSS editor if you fancy using code, but you’ll need to be on the $5.99 plan or higher to use it. We’ll have more on SmugMug’s price plans here.
Will your SmugMug site look great on mobile screens?
“SmugMug automatically optimizes your site for whatever screen it’s viewed on, so you don’t have to create a special mobile-friendly version.”
SmugMug automatically ensures your site looks good and works well on phone and tablet screens, as well as computer screens. This mobile-friendliness puts it in line with other website builders such as design-focused Squarespace, super-easy Weebly, and all-rounder Wix.
However all those website builders have a mobile preview mode, and SmugMug doesn’t. Wix even lets you edit a separate mobile version.
All SmugMug will say is “We do our very best” (right at the bottom of the page) to ensure your site looks great, whatever size and type of screen it’s viewed on.
Is that a problem? Not at all, in my opinion.
To find out how your site looks and behaves on mobile, simply reach for your phone then tap in the unique URL SmugMug gave you during setup.
By default you won’t be logged in, so you’ll see exactly what your visitors will see.
You can then interact with it using your touchscreen, explore by scrolling and swiping, and see how it looks in landscape and portrait mode. I reckon that’s much more reliable than a ‘mobile preview’ on your computer screen.
I was delighted with my SmugMug site’s mobile-friendly version – and I didn’t have to do any extra work to create it.
“SmugMug delivers huge value for money with its $5.99 Power plan, which lets you customize your portfolio as much as you like – and sell prints of your photos.”
Our biggest gripe about SmugMug’s pricing is there’s no free plan. Wix and Weebly both let you create and publish as many portfolio sites as you want for free, for as long as you like – but with SmugMug, you’ve only got a two-week trial before you have to upgrade.
But when you do upgrade, you get a lot of bang for your buck.
Here’s what you get on every SmugMug plan, $3.99/month and up:
- Upload unlimited numbers of photos and videos – and have them all backed up with Amazon Web Services
- Sell photo prints, photo books and photo gifts, fulfilled by SmugMug’s printing partners
- Track your visitors and sales using built-in analytics tools
- Get unlimited bandwidth – so you can attract as many visitors as you want
- SEO (search engine optimization) tools to help push your site up Google’s rankings
- 24/7 email support
So the $3.99 Basic plan is a pretty sweet deal – but only if you don’t mind having a SmugMug-branded URL. Unlike Wix, SmugMug doesn’t even let you link your own domain name on the cheapest plan.
If you want to give your portfolio site a really professional look with your own URL, ignore the cheapest plan and go for the next one up.
The $5.99 SmugMug Power plan lets you sell prints and photo gifts, create private client galleries, get the full choice of templates, customize them using HTML and CSS – and use your own domain name. All for the price of a burger a month.
For most of us, the Power plan offers the best value for money. But if you’ve got a big portfolio and commercial ambitions, you may want to move a up the upgrade ladder.
To sell digital downloads and framed prints, you’ll need the SmugMug Portfolio plan ($12.50). The priciest plan, SmugMug Business ($25), also lets you offer gift-wrapping with SmugMug Boutique Packaging.
The prices we’ve quoted are monthly fees when you pay for a year upfront. If you choose to pay month by month instead, the plans work out a little more expensive.
“SmugMug’s support team will reply to your emails 24/7, and the articles are great. But to be world class, SmugMug support needs to be more interactive – a live chat tool would be a welcome addition.”
My first impressions of SmugMug’s Support Center were excellent.
And if you need one-on-one help, you can email a “real human” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 364 days a year. (Even SmugMug elves need Christmas off.)
I did hit a couple of blocks, however.
First, I wanted to find a simple, easy-to-understand guide to ecommerce options at each subscription level. I wanted to know who handles your printing, and exactly how much commission you pay. The information is there, but it’s confusing and, at time, inconsistent.
Then I remembered when I used to build client galleries. “When”, as in: what time. It’d always be in the middle of the night, after a tough day of shooting and photo editing. I knew my clients would be hassling me for the URL by breakfast.
What if I had technical problems at 5am? What if my photos refused to display properly? I’d want to pick up the phone to the SmugMug support team, or fire up an instant messaging tool like Squarespace live chat.
I wouldn’t want to write an email, then wait for a reply to it, then write another email clarifying what I meant, and then wait for a reply to that.
Perhaps it’s unfair of me to question the efficiency of SmugMug’s email support. I’ve heard good things about it from other users, and I haven’t yet tested it myself (I will – watch this space). But this is 2017. Email is too clunky to feel like a helpful conversation.
SmugMug’s knowledgebase is beautifully presented and generally very helpful. But I’d love to see a more interactive one-to-one support tool, along the lines of Squarespace live chat. Sometimes you can’t wait for an email reply – you want to talk to a SmugMug expert right now.
“SmugMug is an excellent choice of portfolio website builder, whether you’re starting out in digital photography or ready to launch a scaleable online business.”
SmugMug can’t match Wix for versatility or broad appeal, but it doesn’t try to. It’s only interested in one thing (well, two things): to make your photos look incredible, and to help you sell them.
Its curated range of portfolio templates is small but perfectly formed, and its ecommerce options are superb. You can sell your photos as prints or digital downloads, and even have them gift-wrapped – depending on the price plan you choose.
Then there are clever ideas like custom right-click messages, digital watermarks, and the Adobe Lightroom plug-in. They all seem to suggest that SmugMug is a service created by and for photographers.
But not all its features are so snapper-friendly. We rate Wix as the best website builder for creating a photography portfolio, because its template editor is much more versatile and intuitive than SmugMug’s.
What’s more, Wix lets you create and publish as many portfolios as you want for free, while SmugMug doesn’t have a free plan at all.
We’d also love to see live chat or phone support. SmugMug’s email support and knowledgebase are great, but sometimes you need instant one-to-one help – especially if you’ve got clients waiting on a gallery.
When SmugMug is good, it’s very very good. You’ll need patience and (a little) cash to get the very best out of it, but you’ll be rewarded with a site that makes your photos shine. This is one of the web’s best tools for turning your hobby into your livelihood.
Get over to SmugMug’s homepage and scroll down to the Stories section for the latest selection of real-life sites made by satisfied SmugMug customers.
We’ll leave you with our favorites, all created using SmugMug templates…
- Gilmore Gang – Cool, modern family portraits by Austin, TX photographer Brent Gilmore (below)
- ShooTokyo – The urban streets of Japan, as seen through the lens of photographer Dave Powell
- VonWong – Special effects photography from Toronto-based Benjamin Von Wong, who says: “SmugMug has become an essential tool, like Lightroom or Photoshop, in my workflow”