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An in-depth Smugmug review to help you decide if Smugmug is the online gallery service for your photography business

When it comes to hosting galleries of your photographs, you have several online options. If you aren’t sure if online galleries are for you, check out this tutorial on your digital delivery options. One of the more established options is Smugmug. They offer gallery hosting with online ordering for digitals, prints, and products for hobbies and professional photographers. After three years as a Smugmug subscriber, this Smugmug review will reveal what I’ve loved about it and what has really bothered me over the years.

Smugmug Review-The Pros:

Image Quality

My photographs appear much sharper and cleaner on Smugmug than they do in any of the other gallery websites I’ve tested out. Smugmug applies sharpening to your photos that really makes them pop. I’ve never found another website, blog, or gallery hosting system that makes them stand out in quite the same way. For landscape photographers, in particular, this should be a big selling point, and is the biggest pro for Smugmug in this Smugmug review.

As photographers, we want our images to look their best, and Smugmug does a great job of making sure that happens.

Storage

Even with the $5.99 a month Basic plan, you are not limited by data or number of images you can upload with Smugmug. If you have high volume or want a gallery system to host all of your work, Smugmug may be the solution for you.

Even though we recently moved gallery systems, we are keeping smugmug as a backup. At $5.99 a month, it is a nice system to keep as an archive of our galleries. Recently, I had a client ask if I still had her photos from a few years ago because they lost their computer in a home flood. I was so grateful that I had every client gallery since subscribing backed up in Smugmug and was able to deliver it to her right away. I never have to think about setting galleries to expire, and I can easily find all of my own family photos that are also hidden away safely in Smugmug galleries. The base subscription is, in my opinion, worth having even if you only use it as a backup method of storing photos that you want easy, online access to.

Ease of Use

Smugmug review

Client view of ordering options for a specific photo.

Compared to other services I’ve tested out, Smugmug is easy to use. The interface is fairly intuitive. I have even been able to hand assistants the log-in information and a short set of directions, and they’ve been able to figure out what to do without any assistance. My clients have also been able to figure out the ordering process for prints and products easily. Digital files are whole different beast, addressed below in the cons.

Website

Smugmug review

This is a screenshot of the first website I built with Smugmug. I knew nothing about building websites and put it together in about two hours. The website feature may be nice for someone looking for a do-it-all gallery host, but I think most portrait photographers will eventually outgrow this.

You could, theoretically, skip having a separate website and set up Smugmug as your landing page for all things photography. You can even have a custom domain through GoDaddy, which would allow you to completely brand your landing page and use it as your primary website. IT wouldn’t be great for SEO, but it would get the job and integrate your galleries, website, and sales interface into one website.

The website portion is easy to design as well with a full range of templates that can be customized until they no longer look anything at all like the template. I actually preferred the design interface of Smugmug over Squarespace and WordPress.

Smugmug review

You customize the website by adding “content blocks,” shown above. This gives you more design freedom than many of the other services I’ve tested out, without making the design process difficult.

Smugmug Review-The Cons:

Favoriting Photos is Impossible in all but the Most Expensive Plan

There isn’t an easy system to allow clients to favorite their photos. My packages come with 5 or 20 photos, so finding a way to narrow down the gallery to the client picks was difficult, at best.

The best workflow I’ve found, even after extensive searching, is to have clients email me the filenames of each photo and then I “collected” those photos to a separate gallery. I then emailed that new gallery to the client and had them confirm they were the correct photos before opening the gallery up for downloads. It was a lot of work on my end, but also was frustrating for clients. I once had an extended family that took four weeks fine-tuning their selections. Think, “can we swap x for y?” “Wait, no, put y back in.” I can’t imagine how irritated they must have been by the process.

The highest plan, The Business Plan, actually does offer a better client interface, but I subscribed to the Portfolio Plan. In the business plan, you can “create custom pricelists and coupons to accommodate every client” and list galleries as “events” which allows the client to “choose their favorites and share with friends and family” according to the Smugmug website.

Had I decided to stay with SmugMug as my client gallery system, I would have upgraded to this plan. However, at $35 a month, I knew there were gallery systems that offered more versatility for the same price point.

No Contracts or Invoices

Smugmug is great at displaying your photographs the way they should be. It isn’t great at providing tools for your business. Unlike its competitor, ShootProof, Smugmug completely lacks the ability to send and sign contracts electronically and to invoice clients and accept payments for anything other than prints ordered through their shopping cart. Side note: Check out this guide on what you need to do, other than just contract and invoices, to make your business legal.

Labs

Smugmug offers the choice of four labs, and I’ve had good results with all of them. They are Bay Photo, WHCC, EZPrints, and Loxley (UK). However, I really want my client prints coming from Millers because I’ve had the best results using their lab, and this isn’t an option with Smugmug.

I do think Smugmug has the edge when it comes to offering photo gifts and products (mugs, magnets, blankets, etc), but my clients aren’t ordering those items, so it wasn’t a selling point for me.

15% Fee

No Smugmug review would be complete without an analysis of the costs you incur in addition to the monthly fee. In addition to the monthly subscription fee you pay, Smugmug keeps 15% of all sales you make through them. This includes digital images and prints. For example, if I sell a full gallery for $150 as an add on to my packages, Smugmug keeps $22.50.

We simply stopped selling galleries via Smugmug and had clients tell us if they wanted the add on via email and then sent a paypal invoice. More work for us and more frustration for the client. We sold about 33% of galleries through Smugmug. When we moved our client galleries to Shootproof, clients could add the gallery to the cart, and purchase it directly without having to contact us. About 70% of our clients add on the gallery or additional photos now that we use Shootproof. And, we keep the same amount of money as we would if we were invoicing through Paypal.

You have the same profit sharing on prints and products as well through Smugmug. This fee is a big con for me because as I grow my business, I want to keep my cost of doing business lower and my profits higher.

Smugmug Review-The Bottom Line:

I’ve subscribed to Smugmug for three years, but recently defected to Shootproof. For me, and my business model, Smugmug wasn’t working. It didn’t make my client’s experience better and caused me more work than was necessary. I really needed an easier, more pleasant way for my clients to select their favorite photos, and Smugmug just didn’t have a good option for this at the price point of their competitors.

However, if you have another system in place for contracts and invoices and don’t need the favorites feature, Smugmug could be a winner. If you are a landscape photographer and sell prints of your work, Smugmug might just be the gallery that makes your images shine, and the better they look, the more you may sell. Just be sure that the increased sales are enough to offset the 15% that Smugmug takes.

Smugmug review

Just like Smugmug says, my photos really do look better in their galleries compared to other gallery providers. It might be difficult to tell in a screenshot, but it is worth considering if selling individual prints instead of digitals is your business model. 

And, as a final note, I still subscribe to Smugmug. Even after moving my client galleries over, I think the base plan is worth it as a backup with easy, unlimited cloud storage of my galleries. As I was writing this Smugmug review, and went through the pricing and plan options, I reaffirmed my belief that Smugmug is a great deal for photo storage and display; it just isn’t the best business option for me.

Still not sure? You can also check out this article on an alternative to both Smugmug and Shootproof, Pixieset.