The Essentials of Web Sites for Photographers, Artists and Designers

Having the website is an essential part of life for creative professionals and serious amateurs, but it can be full of traps.
So you have decided that you need a website. What is the best approach and how to do it in an optimal way?

When you enter a web site’s domain name into your web browser, such as www.dimagemaker.com, this domain name is resolved to an actual IP address, or if you like, the exact address of the computer which contains, or hosts, the website. The hosting computer is known as a server and it contains the files that are fed to your web browser as you explore the site. This is how things work with a simple, plain or static html site.

More complex sites, such as DIMi, actually have program code that creates the web pages that you see by accessing a database of content and, on the fly, generating the web page that is sent to your browser. Such sites are called dynamic web sites or may be referred to as using a content management system.

Many people are attracted to existing services, like Flickr, to host their photos. Such services can be free or very inexpensive and have the benefit of getting your images on a website that is already very well visited. The down side is that you have no real, individual web presence and whilst this solution is great for amateurs, generally gives a poor impression for professionals.

To have your own, individual website is a much better solution for professionals, yet it is not as straightforward as it may seem. Many companies advertise inexpensive web hosting with a free domain name and easy to use templates to get your site up quickly. There are many traps in this approach.

A website’s domain name should be thought of as the same as your business or corporate name and is as valuable as a logo, if not more so. Many companies that offer free domains with your web hosting lock up your domain and can make it very hard or impossible to get control of the domain if you wish to move your site elsewhere. Read the small print. It is my belief that you should always either register your domain name yourself with a high level registrant company or get a hosting company to do it for you who will provide you with the full control panel access and password so that you can relocate the website anytime you like. For example, the hosting company run by the same people that bring you DIMi, AIYF Hosting, if we register a domain name we use Network Solutions as the registrant and provide the owner with the details of how to log into the control panel systems on Network Solutions and we provide the domain password so that you can do what you want with the domain. I consider this essential, as otherwise you are at the mercy of someone else. I know of one major site, for example, that was using the free domain that came with the hosting. The hosting company screwed up and did not renew the domain name when it should. Someone in China grabbed it and was demanding US$10,000 to hand it back. Bad things can happen when you entrust someone else with control over something as essential and core to a business as its domain name.

The domain name does several things. It makes your website portable from hosting company to hosting company. By changing the Domain Name Server (DNS) settings you can point your website at any web hosting company you like. This means that moving your website to a different host is a matter of setting up the account, uploading the files (see later) and then changing the DNS settings. Allowing time for this to circulate through the Internet, your site will be visible in the new location in anything from a few hours to a day. Secondly, the domain name also makes your email accounts portable. Rather than using the email address provided by your Internet Service Provider, which can lock you into staying with them, you can use one or more email addresses tied to your domain. This also looks far more professional than a Hotmail or Gmail account. There are many domain name registrants, from the big players to the tiny.

Domain management control panel

Once you have your domain name, the next issue is somewhere to host your web site. You can host it yourself on a local machine, but then the capacity of your web site to handle traffic is limited by the speed of your Internet connection. There are a bewildering array of companies on the web who will host web sites, from the huge firm to the tiny, boutique hosting firm, such as AIYF Hosting, and a whole range in between. You will also find a huge range in the price being asked. As far as I am concerned, these are the key issues that should be looked at in making a choice:

*    Price, let’s be honest, it really does matter
*    Amount of storage space allocated to the hosting account
*    Amount of bandwidth allocated to the hosting account per month
*    Features offered on the server
*    Actual service response to problems, since there will always be some, even if minor
*    Server technology
*    Server and interconnect reliability and backup

The price you pay can vary massively. The most expensive place to host a web site is usually your Internet Service Provider (ISP), which gets your computers at home or the office connected to the Internet. Next will come the major players in a given market. Then come a huge number of smaller players, down to the very tiny firm. Sometimes paying more gets you more reliability, features or capacity, but not always.

The amount of storage space offered in the account limits how much data you can have on your web site. This can vary from the very small 5 or 10MB plans offered by many ISPs to the positively massive. Massive can often be cheaper than small. Whilst a typical photographer’s website will usually fit happily in the 10 to 50MB size range, there can be many features that you may add that can quickly raise the amount of space you need, such as using gallery software systems to display lots of images.

Bandwidth is a measure of how many MB of files are transferred in and out of your website per month. Again what you are offered can vary massively. Since most websites get very little traffic in practice (though we would like to think otherwise), it is usually not that much of an issue. But if you pickup an award or some such and your traffic levels soar, you can have the situation where your website gets blocked once you exceed your bandwidth allocation unless you pay more money. Given that adequate hosting plans are readily available with plenty of bandwidth there is no reason to be caught short.

Server features and their technology is a huge area for discussion. For a start you generally have the choice of Linux or Windows servers. For most creatives, Linux hosting provides all you will want. Windows hosting is more useful for business users who need specific software compatibility, such as Access databases, various Microsoft business features, like meeting appointment synchronization, etc. Linux offers robust, reliable hosting using open source software and access to a huge range of possible add-on software. It is probably true to say that Linux hosts the vast majority of websites, since there are far more very small websites than huge, corporate ones. In fact many of the huge corporate sites are also hosted on Linux, or one of the Unix versions, such as Solaris.

After basic hosting, there are many other features you may need. On Linux, MySQL usually handles database needs and most hosting will provide access to this. You’ll see why this is important later. You will have a control panel that provides control over your hosting and allows you to setup email accounts, mailing lists, database control, etc. There are a number
of different control panel systems around, from the proprietary to the open source. My advic
e is to avoid hosting that does not give you direct, personal control. These control panels are not really complex to get to know and provide you with huge opportunities to configure your web hosting and to add features. It is really worth exploring just what features these offer you. For example, most will be able to provide you with detailed web traffic statistics for your website. This information is invaluable. It will not only tell you how many people are visiting your site each month but also where they come from, how they got to your site, what countries they are from, the browsers they use and how long they stayed, how many went to your site after you sent out that newsletter last week, plus much more.

Website control panel

Most such hosting accounts give you the ability to setup multiple email addresses. Remember, an email address linked to your domain not only publicises your domain name whenever you email but also looks far more professional than a Hotmail or Gmail account, and is less likely to be blocked by spam blocking software (Hotmail and GMail are major sources of spam, so many people tend to block them).

Additional features are many and varied. A system I love that is on many Linux hosts is Fantastico. This is an interface that makes it very easy to install and keep up to date various add-ons to your website, such as photo galleries, forums, newsletters, blogs and wikis, to name just a few. These are open source software systems that can be downloaded and installed manually by anyone, but becomes so much easier through Fantastico. Examples of their use across the DIMi family of sites include the forums and gallery on Experimental Digital Photography, the gallery (different than on EDP) on my personal photography and art gallery site Cosshall.com, the blog on Digital ImageMaker World or the integrated blog and calendar on my photography workshop site The Digital ImageMaker. These can all be customized in various ways (we’ll cover this in future articles) and all can form just part of your site, as they do on these examples. Most of these systems make use of one or more MySQL databases to store the information used to configure the pages as they are being created to be viewed. Such approaches create a dynamic website. All these can be customized or modified fairly readily.

Fantastico

Once you have decided on a host and have the userid and password, you must design your site. You can take the route of using one of the server add-on software systems to provide your entire site, such as using a blog or gallery as your whole website. This is quick and pretty easy. Alternatively, some web hosts will provide templates that you simply ‘fill in’ from a web browser. This can also be quick by can be quite limiting in terms of achieving a unique look. The third approach is to use a program like Frontpage or Dreamweaver (much better) to design the site or at least some of it. This gives you total control but is complex.

You can hire someone else to do the website or do it yourself. Like taking a great photography, everyone seems to think they can design a good website. There is so much to learn to do this effectively that I do not recommend it unless you are serious about wanting to develop such skills. Be prepared that you will need to redesign your first website as soon as your appreciation of website design develops a bit. It is hard to underestimate just how much needs to be learned to do a web design effectively. Should it be static or dynamic? Do I use table or layer (DIV) approaches? Do I design and slice in Photoshop? Frontpage or Dreamweaver? What size browser window do I design for? How do I handle browser variation? What filesize budget should I do my page design to? The list goes on and on. We have all seen examples of websites that should have been designed by someone else. This said, I know many photographers and digital artists who have done a good job of designing their web sites. Even if you get someone else to do the design for you, be sure to take control of the hosting and domain name decisions and keep all the relevant passwords, etc.

My recommendation, if you decide to design the site yourself, is that you bite the bullet from the start and use the industry standard program, Dreamweaver. Whilst it can be more complex to get you head around than some of the others, it has all the power you will ever need, produces good code and there is lots of good support for it. I suppose we should mention Flash. You see a lot of Flash sites that are far from appropriate. They make the site slow and really add nothing at all to the site. I prefer a minimalist approach, whatever you use on the site should only be there if it servers a defined and valuable function.

No matter whether you design the site or someone else, you should always make sure that you have a backup of the entire site on your local computer. The best of web hosting companies will have problems from time to time. Servers fail, software updates have bugs and strange things happen on a full moon. What measures a good hosting company is not how things go when everything is right but how things are handled when they go wrong. What you want is a company that is open and communicative, that will be honest when they are experiencing problems and that has support staff that will go the extra mile to get you a good outcome. I have been using two primary hosting companies, one to host my customers’ sites and one to host DIMi. I had been using the one where I hosted DIMi for many years, and whilst there had been a few periods of issues, it had mostly gone well. Then three weeks ago they decided to migrate those with old hosting accounts across to a new system. Assurances that this would happen with minimal disruption turned out to be false. DIMi was offline for three days, an eternity on the Internet and then had limited functionality for a further two weeks. This was completely unacceptable. So I setup a new hosting account with my other host, uploaded all the files, tested it and then changed the DNS settings to point to the new host. Within a day people where now seeing the DIMi from the new host and everything was working perfectly. My old hosting company only responded to some week old issues on the day I pulled by site and went elsewhere.

Remember that a web site is more than just the files, since it is worthless if no one can see these pages. So the hosting company needs to not only provide reliable servers, but also a reliable and high capacity connection to the Internet. In practice, to do this many hosting companies make use of higher-level, wholesale hosting companies with large data centers to look after the actual servers and provide their connections to the Internet. Look for one that has redundant connections, backup power and air-conditioning systems and more.

This article may make it seem that setting up a website is complex, and in some ways it is. But it is better to be aware of what is involved up front. I’ve ended up rescuing so many small businesses that have failed to understand what was involved before starting out and have wasted money on inappropriate choices. With understanding, the process is not beyond any creative person. As in all things, you need to be completely honest with yourself over issues such as whether you have the time, willingness and dedication to gain the skills to design the site yourself for example. Know th
yself.

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