I'll come right out with this...I wish every photographer's website started out with the ten pictures (of their own, I mean) they love best. Call it a tenset to give it a name...a set of ten. A core set. A key set. A photographer's ten best, or ten favorite, or ten most characteristic pictures, up front. Even if they recur in later categories.
Is that asking too much?
I look at an awful lot of photography websites. I spent most of a long day yesterday looking at many more. I'm fully convinced of the need to give close and long attention to photographs, individually and collectively, and I do that often, but there are times when I can't, when I need to look and evaluate quickly, or decide quickly whether I'm going to give a particular site more time.
I don't actually care if it's five or twelve or twenty, but I'd like it if the photographer would give me a hand in getting a quick handle on who they are and what they do. Take the following scenario for example. I go to a website. There's an intro page. I look for a menu. Find it. One of the menu items is "Gallery" or "Portfolio" or "Photographs" or "The Work." I click on that. Here's what I find in the subfield:
Valentine's Day 1998
Ted and Alice
...and ten more like that.
What the heck am I going to click on? I have no idea. I want to see quickly what that photographer's all about, what kind of chops he or she has, what his or her way of seeing might be; I want the most characteristic work first. So I end up just clicking on something at random...
...Say, "Ted and Alice." Misfire: the gallery has three shots in it, all bad flash pix of a beaming middle-aged couple at a party. The legend says "Just a few snaps of my favorite auntie at her anniversary party! We had tons of fun."
I've just wasted my time. And still have the same problem...don't know where to go next to get a handle on that photographer. If I'm surfing fast, my next move might be to leave.
Worse, I might find something like this under a "Gallery" menu header:
...and so on.
Well, that's a bad sign, to me. I don't tend to like, and don't much trust, photographs that can readily be sorted into pat categories. I haven't seen a single picture, and I'm already a bit prejudiced against the work. Which, four times out of five, with headers like that, is going to be generic and imitative. (They could usually simply be labeled "Pictures I've taken that look just like other pictures I've seen.")
Granted, people need some way to sort pictures into meaningful piles—you can't lump it all into one immense heap. But can't we exercise a little creativity on the nature and labels of the piles? We're supposed to be creative people, after all.
And give me a tenset at the outset. I'm sorry a practice like that didn't get to be web-conventional early on.
In the "Commentariat" post, a reader named Jenny Rose nominated a site by a photographer named Simon Robinson as being worthy of attention. I hasten to emphasize that I don't mean to criticize Simon's photographs; I agree with Jenny Rose. However, the other overriding impression I'm left with whenever I surf many photographers' sites in one sitting is that maybe half of the sites seem to be actively working against my desire to see the pictures there.
Simon's site is a convenient case in point. It's not the worst I've ever seen (maybe one site in every ten or twenty chases me away with the pure awful badness of its user interface. Especially if the first picture takes an eternity to load, I'm outta there). But it's not good. First of all, the pictures are too small. Secondly, the pictures are defaced by a copyright notice. It's not for me to say people shouldn't put their copyright notices in the image area, although I don't like the practice: anything in the way of the picture is bad in my book. Worse, on Simon's site the navigation features crowd not only all around the pictures, but into them as well. Mouse over a picture, and the caption drops into the picture area; convenient in terms of access, admittedly—but why put it on top of the image? Couldn't it just as easily pop out just above the image? I don't understand why this is so common on the web: it's like looking at a picture in a museum and having someone step right in front of you to tell you something about it.
I suspect the underlying problem is that the UI designers see pictures as unimportant. It's their design they like and want to emphasize, not the stupid picture, which is merely a design element to them. Of course, what we want to see are the pictures first and foremost. Uncluttered and unimpeded, please.
Egregiously needless in the case of Simon's site is that when you put the mouse on one of the thumbnails, a slightly larger thumbnail sprouts up into the picture area. Now you're just annoyin' me. (The popup in this screen-grab says "PAIN," which I thought was apropos.)
And, before the site is fully loaded, the progress wheel for the loading of the next image appears in the middle of the image. That is, important information is being obscured by trivial information. Which should never happen, although it, too, is commonplace. Why? Another common problem I find is that the space goes blank while the next picture loads. Again, why? The site's just wasting my time, and not being subtle about it, either. I don't understand why all websites don't just let us continue to look at the picture that's already up while the next picture loads, and then switch quickly, without fuss.
The sites that navigate by clicking on the picture itself to change to the next one are probably easiest and best. Failing that, the arrow or index for the next picture should at least stay in the same place so you can simply rest your mouse there and click whenever you're ready to change. Navigation arrows that jump around from here to there are just pitiful. In the case of Simon's site, you have to divert your attention away from the picture to navigate the thumbnails to get to the next picture, but you can't rest your mouse on the next thumbnail because it initiates that irritating little popup. So you have to divert your attention away from the picture twice just to change from one picture to the next. Arragh.
We all deal with presentation issues. TOP's far from perfect, god knows (I'm not a programmer). We all make do, and do the best we can. I like Simon's black and white. To echo Louis Armstrong's highest compliment of another musician, "he has good tone."
So, does anyone know of a site meant for looking at photographs that they consider ideal in terms of the UI?
MikeP.S. In Simon's bio, he actually asks for feedback on his site. Guess he just got mine!
Featured Comment by Jeremy Epstein: "So, as a UI person...
"It seems folks so enthusiastically wish to show everything that they fail to edit. Most people want to share the full breadth of their work, and the software lets them share lots more, so much more that more becomes the problem.
"In UI there is no free lunch. Human beings posses finite capacities for attention, memory, dexterity etc...there is no free lunch and more stuff to show is, well, more. More controls, more navigation, more titles, more confusion, more things that zig and zag and spin and distract from the photographs.
"As far as the experience of viewing goes, speed is the primary aphrodisiac. Make those images smaller, compress them carefully, and remove page elements that don't support your work. Designers use spinners, transitions, and progress bars to make up for the fact their sites are slow.
"Imagine setting up your website the way galleries set up shows: Show nothing but the single edit that represents one facet of something you are involved in. Don't show the rest. Nothing else save perhaps an artist statement. Essentially no navigation, or limited navigation.
"Then do what all good websites do and 'rotate' your exhibit every week or every month to show a new facet. 8–12 photos are all that most folks can absorb at a time anyway.
"Basically the biggest failing comes from trying to do too much, not trying to do to little. Let your art speak, not the gee-whiz s**t or the flash. (And photos are not the first part of my website, or what I do, so there goes the practice vs. preach....)
Mike replies: Good advice, Jeremy, although I'm not sure about the "rotate" part. I think most photographers specifically don't want to have to rotate...they want to "set and forget." After all, the point is to sell their work, not create more work for themselves by having to revise their website presentation on an ongoing basis. Instead of rotation, it seems to me that many photographers are now going for a dual approach: a static formal site to present their portfolio and serve as a primary means of access for potential clients, and a blog to show samples of current projects and new work in passing.
For one thing, most current projects and new work will never make it into the formal portfolio. The purpose of this site is not to show my work, but over time I've shown sets of "current work" of my own a few times, for instance here, here, and here, and not one picture from any of those particular three sets has made it into my main portfolio (although this one is still under consideration).
Featured Comment by Ben Mathis: "We go through this a lot in the 3D videogame industry also, but the website is even more important to us, because it is THE way to get work. We don't have flatbooks and physical folios—we send potential clients to the website, and get hired or passed over solely on that.
"The basic rule set we use:
• No flash, ever.
• No splash page, go right into the content.
• Only one level deep of navigation, none of this "people > candids > wedding 2009" malarky
• Design for 1024x768 or larger
• UI needs to be simple, easy to use, email link should be accessible from every page
• Large thumbnails no smaller than 75 pixels in any dimension, and they should be cropped to format and not be tiny details of the larger image (though we photographers tend not to do that—we understand the importance of the whole image).
"Someone mentioned earlier a basic page with just name, and scrolling images, nothing to click at all (other than email). And I can't help but wonder if they meant mine."
Featured Comment by Simon Robinson: "Well, I wasn't expecting this when I logged on this morning! My first thought was 'Great, Mike's mentioned my website!', then I read on....
"I have to agree with pretty much everything you say and I appreciate the comments (this is the first feedback I've had). I'll take it on board and see what I can do with my limited knowledge of building websites.
"One of the main problems I came across when building the site was trying to get it to display properly on the majority of browsers. I use a Windows PC and consequently Internet Explorer. I'd get it right on IE and then look at it on a Mac and all sorts of things would be wrong—different parts of the screen that were the same colour in IE were different shades on a Mac. The issue you raise about the screen going blank when the image loads doesn't happen in IE. I'm not saying this as an excuse for a poorly designed website (Ithought it was well designed when I built it!), it's just that it can be difficult to get it to cater for all browsers.
"As I said above, I'll see what I can do to improve the UI. Mike, would it be ok for me to email you directly to get feedback on my progress? Would you also be able to tell me what browser you use and what your screen resolution is set to?
"Look like I'm going to be very busy for the next week or so!"
Mike replies: Thanks Simon, and thanks for being a good sport, too. I use Firefox 3.5.5. with a screen res of 1680x1050. I have Safari to do spot checks for compatibility, but I don't have IE. When you get your site redone, shoot me a note and I'll post another link to it. Also, whatever camera/lens/film you're using for your square B&W, don't ever change. Perfect.
By the way, I'm surprised by how few of my readers have gone to see your site for themselves. Maybe most people aren't interested in this post?Featured Comment by Mark Roberts: "All right.... After teaching web design in college for a few years (and being a photographer even longer) I can offer some advice here!
2. Never test your design on Internet Explorer. Use Firefox first and tweak for other browsers and operating systems later if necessary. It usually won't be necessary (especially if you followed rule 1) and if it is, it'll be much easier than if you started with IE and then tried to correct for other browsers.
3. Pay attention to size; both pixel dimensions and file size. Make your thumbnails big enough (in pixel dimensions) that they're intelligible, and make your big images small enough (in file size) that they download quickly.
"If you're really interested in web usability, you should read Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox page regularly.
"If you're a non-geek who just wants to make your web site better, then Vincent Flanders' Web Pages That Suck is both informative and hilarious. (Particularly read his two 'Bad Web Design Checklists.')"
Featured Comment by Keith Trumbo: "Let me put it bluntly. If the photographs are original it's worth wading through their website no matter how badly designed it might be. The packaging is not the problem. Of course better design supports the work but for me it is that so much of what I see has so little soul, originality and creativity. I feel that the digital age has raised mediocrity to a new height. So much attention is on the vehicle i.e. the website, the camera etc. rather than the subject matter. These conversations are almost a smokescreen to hide the sheer boringness of the millions of images that we seem to be drowning in."
Mike replies: Your perspective is, ahh...not invalid, but what I'm talking about is, when dealing quickly with high volumes of sites, how do you know if the photographers are original or not, if it takes you more time to uncover an adequate sampling than you want to waste on a site that doesn't suit? We're all looking for different things, and at different times. What I'm talking about is the ability to get a quick, efficient read on the question, "should I spend more time here or should I move on"? What we're trying to avoid is the tragedy of leaving a photographer behind because the interface is exasperating, thereby missing the rare original work we are in fact seeking....Featured Comment by Mark Tucker [whose website was featured in the "Challenge for the Commentariat" post, below —Ed.]: "Someone sent me a link to this discussion.
"I agree with the TenSet theory. Actually, I have proposed a law that limits the amount of images on any photographer's website to ten images. If you can't say it in ten, you're not specialized enough.
"Sorry about my Slide Show approach the other day. It was an experiment, and it lasted all of about three days, until some guy in Germany wrote to me and bitched me out. Problem is: with FolioLink template, you set the timing of each image, but in the end, it's determined by the connection speed of each viewer, which kills the whole approach.
"I've tried everything from writing my own HTML code, to now Flash/Foliolink, and tempted by Haggart's FotoFolio, but in the end, it's about the (ten) pictures. Also gotta be clear who you're talking to—art buyers' needs are much different than the general public, in how they view your site. Mine is not perfect by any stretch, but honestly, I'm just sick of messing with it. It is what it is.
"Best of luck to everyone. There is no perfect answer."