After suffering from a complete server meltdown in my self-hosted environment, where my gallery website once lived, I started to think pretty seriously about hosting my photographs somewhere else. I wanted to know that all of my images were being backed up, that I wouldn’t lose precious metadata, and as long as someone else was writing the software, I wanted a more robust e-commerce system.

I decided to research photo hosting services. Because my co-instructor and friend Chris had been using Photoshelter for some time and had nothing but good things to say about it, it started at the top of my list.

This is a story about my experiences with Photoshelter and why you should probably stop reading right now and sign up.

A Brief Preface

It’s worth mentioning that during the daytime, when I’m not fighting crime and teaching photography workshops I’m a web application developer. I’ve been building websites professionally for more than ten years now, and I certainly know a good web app when I see one.

My previous gallery was based on the ubiquitous Gallery 2 script with very heavy customizations. I think their architecture and codebase is a solid one. You can purchase hosted galleries from them, and although I have no experience with their hosted service, it’s probably worth it. They have a very smart developer community.

Nevertheless, what I was looking for here was something more serious, a little bit less hobbyist. It turned out that Photoshelter, in spite of its few weaknesses, fit the bill.

Photoshelter’s Weaknesses

As a developer and as a perfectionist, I have my qualms about Photoshelter. Before I enumerate what I think are Photoshelter’s weakest points, let me say that I gave a very serious look at what seems to be their major competitor, Zenfolio, and decided that Photoshelter is miles better for my needs.

Still, Photoshelter has its issues:

  • When you upload photos, they go into the “archive,” which is basically a storage area for your images. From there, they can be copied into galleries, sold to customers, etc.

    • Though the archive allows you to create nested folder structures, drag and drop items, and generally acts like a Windows or OS X interface, it’s only for your use. Which brings me to the real issue here, and that is…
    • Galleries can’t be nested. You can create “collections” of galleries, but that’s it. Collections also can’t be nested. On top of all of that,
    • The gallery organization screen is totally different from the archive. “Action” links are moved to a different spot, the way you move items and operate on them is different. It’s a UI oversight and a nightmare for your learning curve.
  • There is no real templating.

    • Though you can choose among a few pre-created themes, which are OK, the ability to create a custom “theme” is limited to pasting in the top portion and bottom portion of the layout. You can never change the location or wording of any of the contents of the site, other than through stylesheets.
    • This is more of a minor gripe from a guy who more or less wrote his site from scratch, but it’s still something I would like to see more support for.

Photoshelter’s Strengths

All that aside, Photoshelter is responsive to customer requests. I have submitted my qualms about these things to the company, and they have told me that collections within collections is currently under development. So hopefully I’ll be able to remove that from this post in the near future.

The other things that Photoshelter seems to be really good at are:

  • Adding new features: They have added support for TinEye and PicScout recently, among other things. Each month brings some enhancements, which are reported in their newsletter.

  • SEO (Search Engine Optimization): As much as I believe SEO to be a mythical black box that only the anointed can see within, Photoshelter has configured their themes and designs to accommodate best practices, and that counts for a lot.

  • E-commerce: There are several options available to those who wish to sell their images, such as:

    • Licensing (using an externally maintained and constantly updated pricing model based on circulation and business use, e.g. “for royalty-free use in a magazine in the northeast of the U.S. with a circulation of 100,000.”)
    • Sell electronic copies in a few fixed dimensions to individuals for personal use,
    • Sell actual prints, either fulfilled by Mpix, or self-fulfilled (by you).

With the e-commerce options you can just use PayPal, which is easy and free (free to set up an account, but they do take a percentage of each transaction as their fee), or you can use a merchant account if you have one. Those can be costly to maintain, but is a better way for a higher volume licensing business to broaden its margins.

Why Use Photoshelter?

Okay, so why should you want to pay a company 30 or more dollars per month to host your image gallery and go through the process of re-uploading all of your images to a new location, organizing them, and so forth?

  • What do you gain by it?

  • Is it worth the trouble of re-uploading everything?

  • How many numbered lists can one blog post have?

Well, at least I can tell you what I have gained by it:

  • Peace of mind that full-resolution, developed versions of my images are hosted and backed up by a reputable third party (meaning that my sales can continue regardless of the state of my own computer, my own website, and so on),

  • The ability to expand my copyright enforcement (with PicScout), to reach a larger community of eyes (through Photoshelter’s publicly searchable site), and to expand my photography business as Photoshelter expands its features,

  • The knowledge that people are working 40-hour weeks to keep my photos online, and to make them more searchable and easier to buy, and

  • More things to write lists of.

What more could you ask for?