Zenfolio vs. Smugmug…the heavyweight bout of the ages!

Ask 100 photographers their opinion of Zenfolio vs. Smugmug and you’re likely to find half in the Smugmug camp and half in the the Zenfolio camp.  A battle of these two photography portfolio heavyweights almost always ends in a draw.  The better question might then be Zenfolio vs. Smugmug: Which One is Better for Me?  It’s more than just schematics.  Knowing exactly how you’d use the service can help you determine which company will win the title of earning your business

Zenfolio vs. Smugmug Judging Criteria

The questions I felt I needed answered before giving up my credit card information and locking in a price were as follows:

  • What will it cost?
  • How easy is it to set up?
  • Will it fit with my brand?
  • What about a blog? SEO?
  • What options do I have for print fulfillment?
  • What can I expect from customer service?

How important any of these factors are depends on personal preference.  I’ll try to answer these questions, but you’ll need to prioritize their importance.  So let’s begin this matchup, shall we?  As Appollo Creed says at the end of Rocky III…Ding, ding.

Round 1 – The Cost

When I was growing up, anytime I came to my dad with an idea or suggestion; he’d quickly interrupt with ”What’s this gonna cost me, kid?”  I’ve very much assumed this same attitude in my business.  So what will Zenfolio vs. Smugmug cost me?  The pricing below is based on annual billing.  Expect to pay more if paying month-to-month.

Smugmug offers plans starting at $3.99 per month for the unlimited hosting of your images, and plans get more expensive from there.  The more you pay, the more options you have for site designs, customization and sales.  If you want to use Smugmug for print sales, the minimum plan price is $14.99 per month.  Smugmug’s highest priced plan is $29.99 per month.  This is the plan you’ll need if you’d like to create custom pricelists, coupons or custom packaging.

Smugmug also charges a 15% commission on all sales, including digital images.  They don’t come right out and call it a commission, though.  They say you get to set your prices and keep 85% of the markup.

Zenfolio’s cheapest plan starts at $5.00 per month, and the company offers just three levels.  Their pro level is $20.00 a month and is the level you’d need to purchase for print sales.  Zenfolio’s advanced plan is $28 per month and offers online pre-ordering, green screen options, boutique packaging, and some advance features.

Zenfolio’s commission on all sales is 7%, including digital products.  They call this a service fee, and they don’t mention it in their initial pricing pages, which I feel is kind of sneaky.

Pro Tip: Watch for sales, especially in the fall from both Smugmug and Zenfolio.  You can often score a deal for up to 50% off prices if you pay annually, giving your choice in the Zenfolio vs. Smugmug debate a definite advantage! 

Round 2 – The Setup

After choosing your plan, the setup begins.

Smugmug is based on content blocks.  You choose a generic theme (you have 25 to pick from) then customize it by dragging content blocks onto any page on your site.  These content blocks can be repositioned in different places, and you add as many as you would like.  You cannot resize them, but you can move them to different areas of your homepage.

One of the nice features about Smugmug is that they offer optional HTML and CSS customization.  If your site isn’t looking exactly as you’d like it, you can alter the appearance by doing some coding.  Most of us aren’t coders, though, so how does that help you?  Smugmug has such a customer base that it’s often easy to borrow the code you need and insert it.  Most of the time the code is free, and there are plenty of sites where you can seek assistance beyond just the Smugmug help desk.

Zenfolio’s design is based on the user of templates.  Zenfolio offers 12 templates, and you customize the template by checking a box to add or subtract content to a given page.  It’s quite easy to figure out, but the position of these elements are locked in by the template.

I found Zenfolio easier to set up initially.  Check the boxes you want, and bingo, bango, your site is ready to roll.  Smugmug takes some figuring out in that it’s not all that intuitive.  But Smugmug offers more and better customization options ensuring with a little work; you can get your site functioning as you want it.

Want a more in-depth look at Smugmug?

Smugmug or Zenfolio

Round 3 – Aesthetics and Branding

Regarding aesthetics, Zenfolio vs. Smugmug is almost a draw.  Both companies offer a variety of beautiful site designs so you can achieve a look that fits your company branding.

Speaking of branding, here’s one of my sticking points…company branding.  In cheapest packages, Zenfolio and Smugmug both include their branding on your site.  If you want it removed, you have to upgrade your package.  Smugmug, however, still includes a small footer with their branding on your site, no matter how much you pay.  Some clever coders have figured a way around this, whereby Smugmug will block their code, and your site is once again branded with their footer.

This might not be a sticking point for you, but it is for some folks, including me.  I also really dislike the name “Smugmug” to begin with, so this probably irks me more than it should.  But still…

That brings me to another consideration.  Your site on Zenfolio vs. Smugmug would read something like dirtroadwifephotography.smugmug.com or dirtroadwifephotography.zenfolio.com.  You can buy a domain name that will just point to your Zenfolio or Smugmug site, but once clients are in your galleries, the smugmug.com or zenfolio.com tag is automatically added.  I dislike the name Smugmug and don’t want it in my site header.  When I was using Smugmug, I had clients notice it and ask me about it, thinking it was something clever I was adding to my branding.  Uh, no.

And how will your images look online and how that does that tie into your personal business model?  Smugmug offers larger file uploads, and some photographers report that their photos do not look as crisp on a high pixel per inch monitors in Zenfolio.  This may be an important consideration if you sell landscape, wildlife or other non-client specific prints.

And finally, how does your site look on a mobile device?  Smugmug offers a mobile site that closely mimics your actual site design, but does not allow you to customize the mobile site.  Zenfolio’s mobile sites are not as functional or as pretty to look at.

Round 4 – What about a blog?  SEO?

If you are using Zenfolio or Smugmug as simply a place to host client galleries, having a blog feature isn’t going to be a big deal.  But if you want to use Zenfolio vs. Smugmug as your website/gallery hosting all in one, it becomes a major consideration.

Smugmug’s blog feature is pretty poor.  You create a stand-alone page and then link it to your website.  You have to do the work, and it doesn’t offer you the benefits of a true blog.

Zenfolio’s blog tool is slightly better and includes keyword tags and other categorization options.

Both sites all you to integrate a WordPress blog if you want a more robust blogging tool.  Which is a nice option, I guess but defeats the point if you’re looking for an all-in-one solution.

I also couldn’t find any real solid analytics on Zenfolio vs. Smugmug when it came to SEO or search engine optimization.  The consensus among users is that Smugmug is better at SEO.

On the fence about a blog?  Read why you should consider one for your business!

Round 5 – Print Fulfillment

Smugmug users can fulfill print orders through BayPhoto, EZ Prints, WHCC, and Loxely Color.

Zenfolio users can fulfill print orders through MpixPro, Mpix, Miller’s, fotoflōt, Zenfolio Photo Products US and Europe, PictureItPostage, One Vision Imaging, and PICTO, Pikto, NuShots, and Nulab.  Zenfolio also allows you to self-fulfill print orders.  The option to self-fulfill means you choose the products, lab, and price that best fits you.

Round 6 – Customer Service

My experiences with Smugmug and Zenfolio’s customer service was excellent.  I found both to have great online tools and forums to answer questions.  Both got back to my online help request promptly and quickly and resolved my issues.

The Decision

If you haven’t guessed by now, there isn’t a clear winner, at least on paper.  If there were, the other company probably wouldn’t still be in business.  You will need to evaluate each company based on your needs for an all-in-one solution, client proofing, customization, sales, print fulfillment, and blogging/SEO needs.

Where Smugmug Shines:

  • More customization
  • Images look better on more screens
  • Better mobile site
  • Better SEO

Where Zenfolio Shines:

  • Easier setup
  • Cheaper commissions or service fees or whatever you want to call them
  • More lab choices and self-fulfillment
  • Native blog implementation

But here’s the best part…you can decide for yourself Zenfolio vs. Smugmug: Which One is Better.  Both companies offer a free two week trial period.  Create an account, upload some photos, play around with the setup and pricing and see which fits you better.  This article can be a starting point, but nothing beats stepping into the ring to see which company can deliver the knockout punch and get you to reach a decision.