So you want a website or blog, and you’ve chosen to go with WordPress as your platform. Great! You’ve made a smart choice. Let’s look at the technology used to power your website, and choices you need to make to get solid web hosting for photographers.
If you already know you’re using self-hosted WordPress and just want those hosting recommendations, jump down to that information.
If you have no idea what I said in that previous sentence, read on and I’ll demystify it. We’ll start generic and then get photographer-specific.
A domain name is the readable URL that folks can use to find your website. My photo business can be found at hockleyphoto.com – perhaps yours will be yourname.com or snowflakephotos.com or some other name that makes sense based on you, your name, your business name, or your specialty.
You’ll want to have your own domain name. Domain names are an important topic. If you don’t already own a domain name, head over to understanding and registering a domain name to learn more about it.
Which Flavor of WordPress Web Hosting for Photographers?
Once you have a domain name it’s time to choose your WordPress hosting. Before you make a decision about a specific company, there are choices about what general category of hosting is the best fit for you. There’s not a “right” or “wrong” answer here… it all depends on your comfort level with the web, amount of time you want to spend managing your website, and your budget.
There are three categories for a WordPress website… first a brief description of each, and then a detailed comparison of what each does (and doesn’t) offer in the way of features.
WordPress.com offers free WordPress accounts that are managed entirely by Automattic (a company which, in addition to running WordPress.com, runs a variety of WordPress related services and funds a significant amount of WordPress development). In choosing to host your website with WordPress.com, you’re freeing yourself from any real decisions or management of the servers… they’ll take care of all of the setup, upgrades, and backups. The downside for the cheap price is that you give up a fair amount of control over configuration.
“Self-Hosted” WordPress (aka WordPress.org) on a non-managed host
Another option is to purchase web hosting from any number of companies that sell it on a monthly/yearly basis (recommendations below) and to install and configure your own installation of WordPress. Shared web hosts are fairly inexpensive. You’ll have the ability to install any sort of custom plugins, themes, or other customizations that you choose. The potential downside is that you’re responsible for making these choices, maintaining the site, and if you break it, you need to figure out how to fix it.
“Self-Hosted” on a managed host
A relatively recent trend in the web hosting space are “managed” hosting providers. This is a bit of a hybrid between the two options above. You choose from a managed host, which generally cost a bit more than the unmanaged hosts, but in exchange for that extra monthly fee they’ll manage various aspects of your WordPress website. These services often include backup (and restore) functionality, performance optimizations, and sometimes easily-configured staging areas for sites under development or maintenance. Personally, I run all my websites on a host that offers some management.
There’s no choice that’s perfect for everyone. Here’s a more detailed comparison of features/options.
There are lots of comparisons on the web between options, but let’s talk about photographers. My guess is that your website needs fall into one or more of these groupings because you want a website or blog that:
- shows off your photos, either single images or galleries
- has a pleasing design, perhaps one which is very photo-centric
- allows you to provide information about your photo services such that someone might contact and hire you
- allows visitors to purchase your photos, either as prints or digital downloads
- allows you to sell digital products (ebooks, presets, etc) to web visitors
- stays secure, reliable, fast, and is backed up such that you could recover in the event of a major problem
Let’s look at each of these options with the three web hosting categories discussed above.
The core WordPress software contains basic image display features, including a simple gallery, so that option is available regardless of web host choice. With WordPress.com, this is your only option for photo display.
There are many custom plugins that have been built around photography. A search in the WordPress plugin repository returns over 1,000 results. Some of these are for various gallery features, some are for easier integration with other photo sites such as Flickr or SmugMug, and some are for WordPress-based photo management.
To use any of these plugins, you’ll need to be using the self-hosted (WordPress.org) web hosting options (either managed or not).
A Pleasing Design, Perhaps Photo-Centric
WordPress.com offers nearly 300 themes too choose from, including several that are designed for a nice display of your photographic work.
With a self-hosted site (managed or non-managed) running code from WordPress.org, you can use any of those themes as well as any of the other thousands of WordPress themes that are in the wild. Some are free; some cost money. Quality ranges from excellent to horrible… but the main point is that you can use literally any WordPress theme of your choice.
Creating Blog Posts, Articles, or other Informational Pages
This functionality is built into WordPress and will be available regardless of which web hosting option you choose.
Selling Prints or Digital Downloads of Your Images
WordPress.com does not offer any options designed for selling photo prints or digital downloads.
With a self-hosted site (managed or not), you can use any available WordPress ecommerce system or plugin to sell photos or products. It might be as (relatively) simple as using Easy Digital Downloads to sell electronic images or as complicated as using plugin to create self-fulfilled print orders.
If you’re interested in selling a ebooks or other such digital products on your WordPress site, again this can be done only with the self-hosted WordPress options.
Security, Speed, Reliability, and Backups
None of these four topics is particular exciting to a photographer, but if you’re building a website for your photo business (or your serious photo hobby), you want a site that isn’t going to cause you frustration or lost revenue from potential problems.
With WordPress.com, all of these server management functions are performed by their staff, and you don’t need to worry about any of it. Your site should remain secure, will respond quickly, and will be otherwise managed for these concerns with zero work on your part.
With a non-managed web host running the WordPress.org software, things are all over the board. Some web hosting companies will be more secure than others, so we recommend using a service such as Sucuri to enhance and harden the security of your WordPress site on a non-managed host. Some will take care of backing up your site, but with most hosts you’re on your own. When it comes to performance and reliability, again things will vary but generally these fall into the “you get what you pay for” bucket. If you’re on a hosting plan that’s only $1.99 per month, it shouldn’t surprise you if the quality isn’t that great.
WordPress lead developer Mark Jaquith refers to his “shrimp dinner test” for web hosting. It postulates that if you’d be uneasy eating a shrimp dinner for the price you pay (monthly) for web hosting, you ought to consider upgrading your hosting.
With a managed web host, these server management functions are often where where they really add value. Many managed web hosts have enhanced security features and they often have made performance optimizations designed specifically for WordPress sites. Most managed web hosts include site backup functionality as part of their core offering. When you’re paying a premium for managed hosting, well, this is the management they’re talking about.
For a photographer who doesn’t want to worry or spend time on these “overhead” type activities, it’s usually a great option.
You should also see if a web host offers a staging site, which is basically a test environment where you can make changes to your website without risk of “breaking” your main site that’s visible to the public.
So which is best? Which is right? As you may have deduced, there’s not a single “correct” solution for everyone, but let me tell you what I’d recommend for someone who is serious about having a great internet presence for their photography (either as a business or as a serious hobbyist).
If you’re completely new to web publishing and have never blogged or maintained your own website in any form, I recommend you sign up for a WordPress.com blog to get started. You won’t have to worry about installing or configuring anything, and you can get a feel for how to publish with WordPress.
I do recommend that you buy your own domain name and use that for your WordPress.com site. Down the road once you’re comfortable with things and want to branch out or customize and extend your website, you’ll be able to move your site’s content from WordPress.com to a self-hosted WordPress site elsewhere, and keep using your domain name so that your web address won’t change and all incoming links will still work.
If you’ve had a website before, are already familiar with WordPress, or want to do some of the plugin/theme customizations discussed above then you ought to go with a self-hosted site running the WordPress.org software.
If you’re willing to spend $290 per year on your website (which really ought to be a no-brainer for anyone doing photography as a business), I recommend managed WordPress hosting through WP Engine. I’ve used their service for a few years now; they offer a great product with plenty of advanced management features, reliable and secure systems, and excellent customer support.
If you’re unable (or unwilling) to make that financial commitment at this point, I have used and can recommend the more modest services of SiteGround (look at the “GrowBig” plan). Their services are good, but I found that the user interfaces for managing your site or interacting with their support folks aren’t quite as polished as WP Engine.
There are lots of web hosts and lots of web hosting opinions… while I can’t say that my recommendations are the only good options, I can say that I’m recommending options I have all used and paid for myself and that my recommendations are based on first-hand experiences with these companies.
Some features, such as the ability to use your own domain name or to do advanced theme customization, require a small yearly fee. ↩
Technically with a WordPress.com business account ($299/year), one could manually set up the ecommerce options to sell photo products, but there is nothing photo-centric and there would be no lab integration for prints. If one wants to sell photo products, it’s really best to do so with options designed for selling photo products. ↩
If you want to sell your products somewhere else (Etsy, eBay, etc) and don’t care about integrating it with your WordPress site, then your WordPress choices don’t matter. ↩
Assuming you choose a secure password. ↩