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You’re a photographer looking to build your first website. You’re excited. A quick Google search for “photography website builder” lands you at Zenfolio. You sign up for the free trial and give it a test run.
Upon logging in you are sent to this welcome page:
How does this page make you feel? Does it feel overwhelming? That’s because it is. There’s a lot going on. I count over 50 links! (Plus plenty of superfluous sidebars like “Zenfolio news” and “referral statistics”)
Zenfolio feels jam-packed, but not in a good way. It feels jam-packed in the sense of everything being thrown at you at once. This makes Zenfolio frustrating to navigate and use.
A good website builder should be easy to use. “Easy to use” means that when a user wants to accomplish an action (add a link, change a page), the path to accomplishing the action feels intuitive.
Consider this photo manager:
Imagine that you want to accomplish the most important action on this screen: upload a new photo. Do you see the link to upload a photo? It takes a few seconds to spot. In fact, there are over 5 different menus, which could contain the photo upload button.
Having 5 menus doesn’t seem necessary either. Take another look at the screenshot above and find the “Contact List” button (it’s above the photo). This “Contact List” link takes you directly to the Zenfolios CRM, which makes little sense in the context of a photo manager (especially when it’s right beside the upload photos button). Zenfolio could clean up this screen considerably by getting rid of superfluous links and enhancing the exposure of important links such as photo upload.
Am I making too big deal over tiny links? I don’t think so. It’s things like tiny links that lead to bloated, frustrating website builders. People use website builders because websites are difficult to build. If a website builder doesn’t have a coherent interface it makes building a website that much harder.
At a certain point you’ll want to preview your website. Unfortunately, the button to preview your website is a little tough to find. It’s this tiny button (found by hovering over the oddly named “Show Visitor View” link):
Once you find and click that button, you will be brought to the layout editor:
The layout editor is for making style and structure changes such as changing your template (changing page content is done elsewhere which we’ll cover later in the review).
Unfortunately, you are very limited with template options. All Zenfolio templates use the same basic layout with stylistic variations. Here are two examples:
Notice how they are stylistically different but structurally exactly the same. That’s because all Zenfolio templates are structured the same way. This will be frustrating for users looking for a unique look.
The lack of unique templates wouldn’t be so bad if the default template was good—but it’s not. It’s bland and uninspired, and feels like something designed years ago (which it probably was). It doesn’t help that Zenfolio has no web fonts, so the templates can only utilize 12 system fonts.
The layout editor also allows you to add music to your slideshows, which I would recommend you not do. Most modern websites have done away with background music because it’s an annoyance to visitors (especially when you consider how many visitors are already listening to their own music in the background).
If you think that you need music to get people “in the mood” for looking at your photos, I would urge you to reconsider and trust that your photos will speak for themselves without the aid of music.
There are two different types of pages in Zenfolio: built-in pages and custom pages.
Custom pages are blank canvas pages. They use a WYSIWYG text editor where you can write content and embed videos and photos:
WYSIWYG editors are straightforward but not very powerful. They lack the complexity to add elements such as forms, columns or maps.
If you want something a bit more complex, you’ll want to use a built-in page. Built-in pages offer the ability to add different page types like Contact Page, Blog, and Guestbook. Mostly these built-in pages are underwhelming.
For example, there is no meaningful customization you can do to contact forms. Zenfolio doesn’t allow you to add or remove fields from the form. Zenfolio provides the bare minimum here for a contact form. It’s very unsatisfying.
Overall, working with both page types in Zenfolio is also frustrating because there are a number of design flaws that get in the way.
One design flaw is that page editing is done in bits and pieces throughout Zenfolio rather than in one central place. For example, you organize your page in the built-in pages organizer. You edit the page in the layout organizer. And in order to make changes (such as where your form sends notification emails) you have to change your email address in the Zenfolio settings. So instead of having one place where you can make all the changes necessary for a page, you will spend time jumping between different areas of Zenfolio to figure out how to make changes.
Another design flaw is that editing pages is abstracted away from the website. So once you add content into the WYSIWYG editor, you save the page, jump over to the website preview and see how your page looks. If you don’t like the way the page looks you have to jump back to the editor and make another change. You’ll find yourself constantly jumping back and forth between the editor and the preview. Frustrating!
A photography website builder needs to nail photo galleries. It’s very important. Unfortunately, Zenfolios galleries are bland and boring. Here’s what an example photo gallery looks like:
It feels like a gallery designed a decade ago. The interface is jammed with superfluous content. There are borders automatically added to images (which you can’t remove). Overall, it looks poor and does not showcase your photos well.
Furthermore, you cannot change the actual size of the gallery or placement on the page. You have three options really: large gallery in the centre, slightly smaller gallery off on the side (with room for a logo) or no gallery at all. The option for no gallery is a tricky one, as you are then left with a giant space in the middle.
I was disappointed with Zenfolio. Overall, I found it to be a frustrating, unintuitive website builder with bland, forgettable photo galleries.
There are much better options out there that I would recommend you pursue.