Your Complete Guide to Capturing Wedding Details

News & Insight

The Future Of SmugMug – Major Changes Coming Soon?

By Matthew Saville on July 25th 2013

Smugmug has just announced that next Tuesday, July 30th they will be unveiling “the new Smugmug“.  These changes will be the biggest since Smugmug was first created in 2002.

Click HERE to tune in live at 10:30 AM Pacific Time, 7-30-2013!

You can infer a glimpse into at least one aspect of the new Smugmug design, by looking at the background wallpaper in the email blast that subscribers received yesterday:

the-new-smugmug-is-coming-2

Hopefully, the new design will be similar to (or better than!)  the recent collage-style trend in full-screen, mobile-friendly web designs, which other sites such as 500px and Flickr have unveiled within the past few months.  Knowing Smugmug, there will also be plenty of other new changes, hopefully improving both front-end and back-end functionality and style.  Either way, we’ll know in just 6 days!

History

As a Smugmug member since 2004, I have watched the photo hosting company grow from a tiny little startup during the infancy of DSLR photography, to the relatively huge name / company that it is today. As one of the very first companies to ever offer unlimited online photo storage, they pioneered the business model long be fore the likes of Pictage and Zenfolio…

Rising Overhead Costs

In 2002-2004 when Smugmug was just getting started, there were barely any DSLRs on the market for under $3,000 and most of them were in the 4-6 megapixel range.  Many people still had dial-up internet, or low-budget DSL internet.  In short, a hosting company back then was more worried about striking the perfect balance between good image quality and fast pageload times.  Which, in my opinion, is a nail that Smugmug has always hit squarely on the head.  On the other hand “Unlimited storage”, back then, probably only meant a few GB for 75-90% of users…

However in the past couple years we have seen 24-36 megapixel DSLRs that cost less than $3,000.  Many are in the amateur markets costing less than $2,000, or even less than $1,000 in some cases.  Combine that with the growing popularity of fiber-optic internet connections and the generally universal adoption of very decent DSL / Cable internet speeds, and people have been exponentially more liberal with their uploads.  Surely, every hosting company’s bills have risen quite significantly in the past few years. Of course the price of hard disks and bandwidth in general have gone down, but have they dropped fast enough?  A lot of hosting sites have crashed and burned over the years, but probably for innumerable different reasons.

Either way the image hosting industry (and definitely the unlimited business model) has really evolved over the past 10 years.

Patent Lawsuit Trolls

Another significant hurdle for all online hosting companies, and entrepreneurial startups in general, has been the army of patent lawsuit trolls that sue for millions of dollars over patents for things as simple as the concept of selling digital images online.  Sounds like something so simple it ought not to be patent-able, right?  Think again.  (Click HERE…)  Numerous similar lawsuits have definitely hindered progress for all of the large players, including Smugmug, Pictage, and Zenfolio.

Price Hike and Promises

The costs of hosting, and the legal drain, were passionately discussed earlier last year when in August Smugmug announced a significant price hike for their pro-level account, which rose from $150 per year to $300 per year.  Many people speculated about Smugmug‘s actual cost-per-customer, and some calculations put the average per-subscriber hosting cost at under $20 per person per year.  Other “guestimates” show how it is likely that many customers have terabytes of images just sitting there in “cold storage”, and Smugmug pays thousands of dollars per customer per year, even though those customers might only pay $40 per year.

(Based on the most recent information that Smugmug hosts about 7 picobytes of data, has hundreds of thousands of subscribers, (maybe 1 million?) …and uses Amazon’s S3 hosting service.)

Price hikes are all fine and dandy if a company is rolling out industry-leading new features left and right, but this one was painfully timed, when new developments had seemed to slow.  Naturally, tempers flared.  Months passed, and Smugmug remained frustratingly secretive about new developments.  Eventually they did re-arrange their new business model a little bit, adding a $150 Pro account that offers both unlimited hosting and print sales.  The topmost $300 account is now only necessary if you’re a heavy-duty professional.

With hosting plans starting at just $40 per year, (and all plans including unlimited high-res hosting!) Smugmug does have options for everyone.  For just $60 per year, even an aspiring pro can at least fully customize their interface to suit their branding needs.  The customization is by far the most powerful in the industry, but figuring everything out is pretty complicated and the interfaces could, well, use a facelift.

Is The Competition Any Better?

Of course the grass always seems greener on the other side, so let’s have a look at some of the most popular online hosts out there.  Since I am primarily a wedding photographer and most of the people discussing the subject seem to be either full-time or part-time professional photographers, I will assume an example professional workload of ~30 weddings / events / galleries per year.  (say, 50-250 GB per year of full-res uploads) Of course all serious photographers will be growing their archives cumulatively and permanently over the years, whether they’re professional or hobbyist.

Smugmug

$150-$300 per year, unlimited hosting, full customization, extensive print sales options with multiple labs, professional sales tools, minus a 15% fee.

Long-term: Great for high-volume, permanent archival of all your high-res photos, great for residual income from print sales.

PASS

$30 per year, per event, ($900 per year for ~30 events) full social media integration, stylish new interface, negligible print sales options.

Long-Term: Not Ideal. $1800 for year #2 assuming 60 events, $2700 for year #3, etc.  PASS may have one of the sexiest interfaces out there, but it’s really only useful as a low-volume, year-to-year option for photographers who want branding and social media for a short amount of time on a per-client basis.

Zenfolio

$120-$250 per year, unlimited hosting, extensive customization, print sales minus a 12% fee, or 0% for self-fulfilled orders.

Long-Term: Great for high-volume, permanent archival of high-res JPG photos, great for residual income from print sales.

Pictage

$360, $600, $1200 per year, unlimited hosting, extensive professional sales tools, back-end support including post-production & album design, minimal / non-existent branding customization, complex client interface, 12-20% sales fee.

Long-Term: Great for high-volume, permanent archival of high-res JPG photos, great for residual income from print sales.

Flickr

$50, or $500 per year for 1-2 TB of hosting, stylish new interface, no customization, no print sales.

Long-Term: Flickr (and others, such as 500px) may have been able to release new designs recently, but their professional resale options are limited or non-existent.

Photoshelter

$360-$600 per year, 60-1,000 GB limit, extensive customization, print sales options minus a 8-9% fee.

Long-Term: Okay for small-time businesses that may never need more than 1 TB of online archives.

We may publish a more comprehensive guide to online photo hosting in the future, but this list suffices to prove the point-  Smugmug offers a good value in all of their different pricing models, and it is difficult to directly compare them to any other hosting company due to the incredible variety of different features offered by all.  Clearly $150-$300 per year is a drop in the bucket compared to some of the more advanced professional solutions.  Therefore deciding on a professional photo host is going to be largely based on personal preference, ease-of-use, and very specific feature needs.

The question is, will Smugmug deliver the goods ?

My Wishlist

The ultimate photo hosting site, for me, may never exist.  It would of course boast a cutting-edge interface and intuitive, effortless customizability so I can display my images beautifully and brand my pages completely.  But I think it’s safe to say that “gorgeous” and “cutting edge” are both a given with the next big release.  Call me an optimist!

But I also have a few other features on my wishlist.  I would love to see some significant back-end changes for easier organization, smoother client interface, and maybe this is just a dream but I think every high-end pro would love a more versatile shopping cart tool that allows them to collect payments for their own self-fulfilled products, and maybe even as a processing portal to accept payments for services.  Not And while I’m really dreaming, having access to some sort of back-end services like post-production or album design would be incredible.

At the same time, however, I think that trying to please everyone is usually a bad idea.  Like any mid-sized business, Smugmug ought to continually refine their target clientele, and focus on developments that please its core customer base. I’m fine with using Paypal or other credit card processing services, for collecting general business payments.  So Smugmug, don’t bite off more than you can chew!  “SmugStock” never really happened, and that’s probably a good thing.

In some ways Smugmug could be likened to the Apple product of the image hosting industry.  Perfect for some, though not all….an odd combination of passion for rapid innovation, and “slow and steady wins the race”.

Disclaimer

We at SLR Lounge are not affiliated with Smugmug in any way, and we are only guessing (like you) about what new features will be revealed on July 30th, or even when these features will become available.  The opinions expressed here are only the ramblings of a long-time Smugmug user.

Of course we would be happy to conduct an interview with Smugmug, to gain more insight into their plans and goals for the next few months and years…

Take care and happy clicking,
=Matthew Saville=

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

12 Comments

Please or register to post a comment.

  1. Ed head

    I too was a long time user of Smug Mug. I dumped it yesterday and I am looking at other options. Whenever they do a ” upgrade” in this fashion I have never found them good for the end user. So far Phanfare looks promising.

    | |
  2. Lori

    Nice highlight of the options – one new one that should be added to the list is http://www.pixieset.com

    Love the interface – sleek, modern, easy to use and competitively priced.

    | |
    • Eddie Felix

      I just tried them and so far, I like it. They are way new and still building, but, I like their clean approach.

      | |
  3. Anthony

    I hate renting software or sites if you can do it yourself. Granted, I do web site design for companies as well so it became easy for me. I was trying out places and went with a 1-time purchase of PhotoCart:
    http://www.picturespro.com/photo-cart/
    It’s $329 now, not sure if it was when I got it, but when you host it yourself, you’re unlimited whatever you want and in year 2, you don’t need to worry about renewing something. If you’re not up for self-fulfillment or dealing with it, then it’s probably not for you. I want to package things myself and deal with everything so it’s best for someone who would be ok doing it.

    I do in-home client projections so the online thing is mostly moot except for when I need to do some random project or event or my own artwork. Hope that helps.

    | |
  4. Otis

    Aaaand cue the “shoot & share” kool-aid crew that begin by dodging the excessive fee reality via a “pass” the buck to the client manoeuvre.

    | |
    • Anthony T.

      yeah. A “Call to Action” was even posted on the PASS FB group. lol give me a break. There is nothing incorrect about what he said regarding PASS. Just the remaining PASS users that refuse to see the light. haha

      | |
  5. Jeff Lynch

    I used to use SmugMug. I bailed a couple of months after the price hike. While I don’t sell a lot of pictures it was nice to have them available on SM. It wasn’t the price hike that bothered me as much as the way they handled it. I had a hard time trusting them after they promised all kinds of new stuff and improvements but wouldn’t elaborate at all on the what and when part of their promise. It was like listening to a politician. It just bothered me so I found another service called ShootProof. Not fancy, but very functional. And no false promises.

    | |
    • Anthony T.

      I use ShootProof as well, great service. Still sort of a new kid on the block though and not many people have heard of them.

      | |
  6. Joel

    PASS is indeed $30(Actually $29) per year per event. However, after the first year, you can “pass” the cost to each client if they wish to extend the event for viewing. The “$900 per year for 30 events” that you quoted, as I mentioned above, that doesn’t necessarily have to come out of the photographer’s pocket. Further more, expired galleries are NEVER deleted, and in fact, it is backed up on Amazon S3 servers for 10 years. You and the client will receive a courtesy notification 7 days prior to expiration that the gallery will expire. You can even choose to pay for the 2nd year for your client and look like a superhero. PASS has the most gorgeous gallery available that can be viewed on ANY device (iOS, Android, MAC and or PC) No special apps needed. Plus with less than 3 minutes to create a PASS gallery, PASS is one of the best galleries available for the “Shoot and Share Photographer”

    | |
    • M. Saville

      Joel, there is no way I’m letting a hosting company profit directly from my client. The PASS business model is downright absurd after about 2-3 years of business. The bottom line is that PASS is just marginally sexier than a fully customized SmugMug site, and I’m betting that with SmugMug’s new design PASS will make no sense at all. Maybe you can pass on that $900 per year to your clients, or “look like a superhero” and shell out another $900, $1800, $2700… As a middle-budget wedding photographer who was in business for himself for 7+ years, I have no desire whatsoever to spend that kind of cash, or let a hosting company make that kind of cash directly off my own clients.

      =Matt=

      | |
  7. JC Ruiz

    I’m one of those people who haven’t found a service where I can sell photos and brand it completely to the way I want it to look and feel. I have Zenfolio and while it is good I always feel something is missing. I’ll wait to see what Smug Mug is offering next week and compare. I just don’t have the time to build out my own e-commerce website functionality so I’m always looking for something to integrate my site into.

    | |
    • Anthony

      JC, I ended up with PhotoCart a few years ago, though I think there are other, more slicker options out there. The cost was a factor at the time and it didn’t take much to integrate. I didn’t really modify the themes either but it worked for what I needed it to. It’s not perfect, but I hated the idea of hosting something I could host myself when I’m already paying a hosting fee for my site.

      I think RedCart was another option, but cost more. You may want to check those out and their demos

      | |