I decided to once again look at all of the submissions to Jim Goldstein’s Best of the Year list to see what I could about trends in the images and in site design for displaying them. I’ve done this two times before, but not for a couple of years. You can take a look at both my 2013 and 2014 studies if you wish.

The quality of the images continues to impress, and for the most part, the site design shown was quite good. There are some definite trends I want to point out that caught my eye, but in general the quality of everything is improved from 2014.

Please note: These are one person’s opinions and should not be considered as anything more than that. If you find the information useful, use it. If not, follow your own judgement on things.

To look at design aspects I took a random sample of 50 of the pages and took a look at a few things:

  • What was used to create it?
  • Were they displaying full images or thumbnails? (Definition: thumbnail < 500px on the wide side)
  • Did they discuss the images or just display them? (Captions don’t count as discussion)

Platform: The overwhelming majority of sites are now on some kind of blogging CMS rather than image galleries or sites like Flickr or 500px. WordPress was the dominant platform by far.

  • Unknown: 18 (of these, at least half are likely WordPress, possible 2/3, but I didn’t dig into the guts to try to make sure; some are likely SquareSpace as well)
  • WordPress: 15
  • Blogger: 3
  • Smugmug: 3
  • Blogspot: 2
  • Web Gallery: 2
  • Wix: 2
  • Zenfolio: 2
  • Photoshelter: 1
  • Flickr: 1
  • 500px: 1
  • Flash: ZERO

Yes, folks, flash as a platform is dead. Finally.

Image Display: When images are displayed, are the displayed in a larger size or as a thumbnail? I decided to use 500px wide on the long edge as the limit between a thumbnail and a larger image. In reality, most thumbnails are < 300px.

  • Images: 41
  • Thumbnails: 8
  • Slideshow: 1

One site displayed the images only as a slideshow, and it didn’t seem to have a way for me to stop the carousel or bring up an image in a larger form to study. It seemed like a curious decision for displaying them to me.

As you can see, as we get used to better network speeds, some of the design decisions we made to handle slower networks are going away. One is the use of small thumbnails, for which I can only say “good riddance”. 700-800px wide on the long edge was common on sites with a more classic blog design, which I take to assume means the designs are a few years old. The other common size seems to be in the 1,000-1,200 px wide range.

I only ran into one site that seemed to be broken, and it displayed an overlay for a newsletter subscription that completely covered the site and had no way I could find to dismiss, so I was unable to see the images at all.

Sites showing off images at 700px wide now feel dated and the images feel less good compared to the ones on sites showing them larger. This is a good trend since the larger size allows image detail that’s lost in smaller images and thumbnails to be seen and appreciated.

Discussion of the images: Did the photographer discuss the image in any way? To qualify as discussion, it couldn’t be the caption and it had to be at least one complete sentence.

  • Yes: 27
  • No: 23

This split down the middle, which surprised me a little. Good arguments can be made images can have a story about them, and that images need to stand alone to tell the story, and I think both are true in different situations, and both views seem evident in these sites.

Site Design Trends

As the displays we use get bigger and better about showing color and detail, the size of a web site is getting wider. Where three or four years ago 960 pixels was common, now most blog templates are between 1200-1300px wide. Responsive sites are now basically a requirement so that they scale to mobile devices cleanly, and for the most part, custom mobile sites are a thing of the past.

On sites that represent current design trends like this wider size, bigger images, more liberal use of white space. Display of multiple images is moving away from grids to what’s called a masonry style, where the images are of different sizes and shuffle together without space between them. This allows for bigger image in the same space on the page and generally looks quite nice.

The classic blog sidebar is disappearing on more and more sites, being replaced with footer content, sometimes with a hidden box that pops out over the site content when requested, or by, well, nothing. When it is in use, it’s getting narrower; older sites often made it 300px or more wide, now 200-225 is more common. If you think about it, a 220px wide sidebar and a 1000px wide image fit side by side nicely on a 1260px wide site, and shouldn’t the emphasis be on the image, not the administrative overhead?

Using Flickr to submit your yearly images is a lot less common than it was in 2014, but to be honest, I really like the design of Flickr and it really made the images look good. 500px continues to be used very rarely, and I continue not to be a fan of them, because I feel their page design is about promoting 500px and not showing off the photographer or their images.

Backgrounds are overwhelmingly neutral, which whites being by far the most common, blacks coming in second and other neutral grey or tinted grey being the third group. A number of sites use photographic images as the background for the site which can work very well when done carefully, but I found on a few sites that background image simply sucked my attention away from the images I was supposed to be looking at. Be careful about what’s drawing the eye on the site just as you are in your compositions.

It feels to me like using a pure white background can be effective, but can also seem like putting a huge specular spotlight behind it; it fatigues the eye and tries to draw attention away from other things. Just like we try to minimize blown out highlights and crushed blacks in our images (except when we consciously choose not to) I think we so be doing the same with our web sites. You don’t need MUCH in those white areas to get away from the pure, featureless white, but a tiny bit of grey (1-2% would work) and/or a bit of texture would stop these backgrounds from overwhelming the image in front of them. Ditto on the dark side: don’t go pure black, but pull back just a bit so the eye doesn’t struggle to find detail where there is none.

I made a choice to go with a bright color as my background, but the reality is that it’s beyond being an outlier compared to the sites on this list. Very few people chose non-neutral colors and very few of those were light and saturated: most were tinted grey. So one of the things I need to think about is whether I was right in my choice or whether I need to rethink it. Majority rule says one thing, but perhaps I’m just ahead of the design curve for once. It’s something I’ll be chewing on for a bit and while I really like how it looks, I may decide I need to re-think that.

This is, of course, a big reason why I do these surveys: I want to see what others are doing and how what I’m doing stacks up to them. And I find myself taking many notes on things others are doing I might borrow and adapt. I’m hoping writing this up helps others in the same way by pointing out some of these things I’m finding as I do it.

If I were looking to redesign my site today, here’s why I’d likely do: 1250ish pixels wide, with a 200-225 pixel wide sidebar (if I used one at all) and main content area wide enough to 1000px wide images. The background would have just a bit of a shift away from pure white; if you’re primary design color is green for instance (as mine is) then an RGB of 245/250/245 is enough to get away from that specular problem (#f5faf5 if you want to try it out).

Images would be 1000 pixels wide. I expect five years from now we may be looking at 1200 pixels wide, perhaps as far as 1500 as our screens get better with higher densities. I wouldn’t display images at less than 900px today unless they are graphic elements supporting the text.

Oh, and please: make sure you have good contrast between background and your text. What may seem fun with 30 year old eyes just makes my aging watering eyes want to go read something else. Please stop doing medium beige text on black backgrounds. Please.

Oh, and if you do use a sidebar, think minimalist. You don’t need your blog archives on it, because honestly, only search engines go there. Put it behind a menu item rather than front and center. Keep the number of things visible to the most important and don’t throw everything at your viewer. Make some decisions for your viewer and guide them to what you want them to find.

Think about what your site is telling people about you, your photography and what your priorities are. What’s the first thing they see when it loads? Your image? Or is it share icons? Or an overlay pleading for you to subscribe to something? How much are you keeping the viewer from what they want (the image) in preference to what you want from them? And how do you feel about sites that do that to you when you’re browsing?

Overall, having said that, there were very few sites on this list I’d put in the “annoying” category. The worst and most aggressive of these tactics seems to have faded in the photographer field. I found three sites that had some kind of breakage (missing images, broken UI, etc) and they all seemed to load fast and reliably, a big improvement over 2014.

Image trends

In 2014 I complained about too many boring sunsets, too heavy a hand on the saturation knob and too much bad HDR, and I got some guff for my opinions. In 2017, it seems like we’ve figured out that great color doesn’t make a great sunset image, great color makes an image of a great location awesome, and I saw a lot fewer sunset images overall, and the ones I saw were good landscapes first and brought the color along for greater impact.

The fad of turning the saturation knob to 11 seems to have faded as well, and I saw very few images I felt were over-saturated (even the sunsets). That doesn’t mean the colors were vibrant and strong, it means they weren’t overdone into ugliness.

Digital photography got pushed in certain directions because of the quality of the tools and the network it lived on. Lower dynamic range sensors encouraged use of HDR and early HDR tools tended to encourage sylistic rendering to cover up what in retrospect was fairly poor quality processing. Fortunately, neither of those are true today, and I’ve found the need for multi-image HDR to be rare on modern sensors, and in all honesty, if photographers on this year’s list were using HDR as a technique I didn’t notice it in the images, which is in my opinion the way it ought to be.

Same with saturation: on slow networks we tended to make compromises to make our sites usable, especially heavy use of thumbnails (300px and smaller). To be effective at that size, you need color and broad patterns and subtlety and detail are completely lost. That led us to start biasing our processing towards that. Today, with faster networks, we’re shifting back to larger images, which allow the quality of the image and more of the subtlety within the image to be seen, and so kowabunga colors aren’t as necessary to grab our attention, and so what I’ve seen since my 2014 look is a huge shift back towards strong realistic colors rather than the blacklight posters we were generating a few years ago. And I really like what I’m seeing.

And lest you think I’m not a fan of strong saturation, I used to shoot a lot of Velvia back in my film days, and today I’m finding I’m processing a lot of images coming off my Fuji X-T2 van their Velvia emulator and loving the results. I just don’t want to see images that look like a unicorn threw up on them.

Another thing I’m seeing in the images is use of slow shutter speeds via ND filters. A lot of really good images. In 2014 I was skeptical about this technique, I’m now a convert and it seems many of those on this list are, too, and are doing some awesome work with it.

I saw fewer star trail/night images than I expected, and those I did see were pretty stupendous. Back in 2014 it seemed like everyone was feeling like they had to do night photography, in part because it was a technique that a person with a phone camera couldn’t touch, and so a lot of pro photographers were pushing into imagery that couldn’t be reproduced by casual photographers. I won’t say night photography was a fad that’s passed, but I think it’s settled in as a really effective style of image that some people are doing extremely well but doesn’t seem to be something everyone feels they have to do.

Similar to that, I was surprised at how few northern lights or aurora images were in this year’s crop. Same with Iceland, which has been a photographer bucket list place for a few years. Perhaps everyone that’s going to do these have and moved on.

I do want to put in a quick reminder here. Don’t fall in love with the light. It can’t save a poor composition or a weak subject. On the flip side, poor light can kill everything else, so I’m not suggesting it doesn’t matter. But as Thomas Heaton has said, a great view doesn’t mean it’s going to be a great photograph.

My favorite sites for design and images

Like I have in the past, I wanted to call out some sites that stood out to me for the quality of the images, the quality of the site design (or, of course, both).

What am I looking for? When I look at images, do I think “oh, yeah, it’s THAT photographer”. Do they look like the other images I’m seeing, or do they stand out as technically outstanding with a unique look? As you might imagine, when you look at 100+ sites you see a lot of really good images that basically look like images you’ve seen on a bunch of the other sites as well. They’re good but not distinctive or different. And if you’re happy with your images, great, but if you want to improve them and learn how to stand out from the crowd, I think that studying those that do can help you understand what you need to learn and how you need to grow as a photographer to start doing so as well. That’s why I’m doing this and sharing it so that you can use that to base your own studies if you choose.

Here are fourteen sites I wanted to call out that you should take a look at if you’re looking for good site design and great photography:

  • The Darkslides (WordPress.com): Run by a group of large-format film photographers including Ben Horne, Alan Brock and others, the photography is stunning, and I love the design and how it uses large image and a really clean layout to really make the images front and center and stand out. This site seems to be hosted on WordPress.com, and it shows what you can do with a good template and without the need for a large amount of custom design for your site.
  • Jason Frye (Flickr): I know many of us consider Flickr to be a relic, but this set of images hosted there shows how good a Flickr gallery can look. These images are quite impressive, too, with some outstanding long-exposure work and some really impressive fog and star/night photography.
  • Tony Wu: One of the top underwater photographers out there and this is a focus of the images. They’re stunning. The site doesn’t seem to be WordPress (Squarespace maybe? Photoshelter?) and has a look of a design from a few years ago with a sidebar and smaller elements. It’s good, but study the design of the Darkslides site and compare it to this one and you’ll get a feel for how design has progressed in the last few years.
  • Latoga Photography (WordPress): Another site taking advantage of full-width images and a nice, clean, open layound and design. Really nice images including some good architectural imagery.
  • Peter Krogh (Spark): Spark is from Adobe and part of Adobe Creative Cloud. The photographers I follow don’t seem to make use of it or talk about it much, but Peter’s page is absolutely stunning and really makes his imagery pop. My only issue is the Loading notice as the page is loading, but the design and display of the page makes a bit of a wait worth it.
  • Jao van de Lagemaat (Smugmug): Jao is showing off his images on Smugmug (which I use for my photo hosting as well) and it’s a great example of what you can do with this site. He is showing us some really incredible landscape work with a wide variety of styles and locations.
  • Todd Henson (Squarespace): This is a Squarespace design and I think it’s a really nice example of how to use a design with a traditional sidebar. The images are being displayed at about 850px wide and that really lets some of the detail show. The images themselves are stunning, a mix of action and macro photography that I really love.
  • Adrian Klein (Zenfolio): Adrian’s site is hosted on Zenfolio and uses a dark (but not black) background so you can see how images look on this style background. He’s displaying his images at almost 1400px wide which shows a lot of detail which his landscapes take great advantage of. A good design with some great imagery.
  • Tom Whelan (WordPress.com): Another dark background site hosted on WordPress.com that uses a masonry-style grid to display the images. The smaller images lose some detail this way, but the images in combination really create a pleasing display and when brought up in the Lightbox they show off quite well. Some really nice macro work on this site.
  • Richard Wong: This is a great example of using an image as the page background in a way that really ties the image to the site without causing the site to overwhelm the images. I find it really effective, and Richard’s landscape work is some of my favorite of the photographers I follow.
  • Deb Snelson (WordPress): Another fine example of a dark background on a site with a sidebar and some really outstanding landscape work. This is my favorite of the sites with dark backgrounds I saw and shows well what’s possible in this design.
  • Daniel Leu (Backlight): This is a site built by Backlight from the Turning Gate folks. If you’re looking for a static self-hosted site and galleries, this is an example of what you can do, with a nice clean layout in a traditional blog format. Leu’s got some really good images here too, including some great night images and some really gorgeous landscapes.
  • Dave Wilson (WordPress): This site is one of the most innovative designs I saw. Hosted on WordPress with a background using images (but nicely darkened so they don’t compete with the content), a really nice sidebar that pops out when you want it (and is findable, unlike some other designs I saw), and a nice gallery showing off the images in a masonry grid style. Some nice dynamic elements to the design really pull the design together and the design shows off the images well when you click into the Lightbox. Really, really like both the site and the images here.
  • Pete Carroll (Wix): Wix is another hosting service I see used much, but Carroll has a really nice here with a dark background, a white display area for images and the images shown on in a masonry grid with larger than typical images. I rather like the design. The images are quite good with most of them being landscapes.

A final word on 2017

If there’s one thing that’s changed since I last did this in 2014, it’s that the ability to put together a stable, low-maintenance and high quality site with good design no longer requires you to be a web design wizard (or hire one!). The wordpress.com sites above are impressive, and if you want to host your own, running WordPress on Dreampress is solidly reliable and at at good price: this has been my hosting setup for about the last year and I love it. If you really want to roll your own, Backlight seems to create a good site you can host anywhere you want. Adobe Spark, Wix, Zenfolio, Squarespace all help you with the administrative details and give you design options that will help you spend your time on your images, not on your web site, and at a fair price.

Since 2014 there have been some significant changes in design: a move to bigger images, dynamic designs with interesting animations, masonry grid displays over traditional fixed grids, smaller, hidden or missing sidebars and more open space with less text and less busy designs that let the images be the main story.

I’m really impressed with the design I’m seeing, and it’s given my a number of ideas I want to think about with my own site. I hope you find this interesting and that it gives you ideas on how you can improve yours as well.

If your site isn’t listed here? I limited the number of sites to call out to those that helped me show trends or what was possible with the hosting platforms I was seeing people use. I could have easily doubled the number of sites listed without dropping quality at all. Lots of sites deserved to make my list (my original set I had to edit down was close to 40!) and figuring out which ones to use was a difficult task.

And now, onward to 2018. Go out and shoot. Hopefully these sites help motivate and inspire you to do even better work this year. I know it has with me.

Have thoughts or questions about this? Drop me a note via email, Facebook or Twitter. Want me to give you feedback on your site design? I’ll be happy to on a time available basis, so please ask. And please consider sharing this with your social networks or sending it along to a fellow photography you think might find it useful.