Every year photographer Jim Goldstein organizes the “Best of the Year” project, where photographers can submit a set of their best photos. There’s no prize, there’s no competition, the goal is to share your work and explore other photographer’s work to find inspiration and see what everyone else is doing.

I’ve gone through all of the sites submitted for 2018 — 115 this year, and I thought I’d share my thoughts about what I saw. I’ve done this before — you can check out my notes from 2013, 2014 and 2017. Doing this every year or two allows me to evaluate my own photography against others, look for trends, get ideas of images and locations to explore in the future, and generally see what photographers I should be paying attention to as resources to learn from. This year I’ve also decided it’s time to review my online presence and give my sites a new design, so I was specifically looking for ideas of what design ideas caught my eye and what people were doing to display their images in really attractive and innovative ways.

Of those 115 sites, I tagged 37 for more detailed study, and I’ll talk about some of those here. I only found two sites that were broken and wouldn’t load images properly (or at all).

On the good side, there were no sites I looked at where I felt the site design was bad or incompetent. I will note that when sites are compared side by side, there are some designs that clearly look dated and no longer really bring out the best of the images. There are a lot of sites that really caught my eye, and it’s possible to get yourself a really quality design without a lot of customization via many services, including WordPress, WordPress.com, Squarespace, Zenfolio and Adobe Spark. One notable shift from a few years ago is where Photoshelter hosted sites would be on that list, this year, either I didn’t see many submitted, or they just didn’t stick out as interesting to me.

Overall, though, it’s possible to get a really good web site without spending a lot of money via multiple vendors, and give your photos a good and attractive home without months of pain and effort. That said, if you really want to blow folks away, a good custom design is one way to stand out from the crowd — but it’s not really necessary any more.

Site Design notes

In trying to understand how to best show off my images in my next redesign, I spent time looking at how others are doing this. My take is this:

When showing off an individual image, I think showing it at between 800-960px on the long side works best. I saw sites going as wide as about 1400pixels, which may seem like a good idea, but mostly meant parts of image were lost outside of the browser window on both sides.

My current site is about 1000px wide with 250px for the sidebar and 740 pixels for the main content, which gives me room for about a 600 pixel wide image. I think that was fine 3 years ago, but I think I want it wider now. By being more conservative about white space and a narrower 200 or 225 pixel sidebar I can fit in a 750 pixel wide image. I think it’s also time to explore a floating sidebar that can be hidden, allowing full screen images at closer to 950 pixels with a small bit reserved for the control to help people open and close the sidebar.

Of course it has to scale to mobile devices well, so a responsive design is critical these days, to handle everything from 1000 pixels on a computer screen to a person’s tablet or phone. Google has started making search decisions based on a mobile-site first basis, so if your site isn’t mobile-friendly yet, you’ve basically hosed yourself in search results. Which you may or may not care about, of course.

I just want to emphasize this, since I got pushback last time — justified in retrospect — for taking a bit of a “you need to do this or your site sucks” tone in my analysis. Not my intent: I’m trying to sort out what I want to do moving forward. I know from past times I’ve done this others will find it useful. If you do, and it helps you explore ways to improve your online presence, awesome. If you’re happy with what you have, that’s also awesome. Do what’s right for you and what you’re trying to accomplish.

My favorite images

In going through the sites, some of them really blew me away for the quality and innovation of the images. I wanted to list a few of them to call them to your attention. These are, basically, my “man, I wish I was this good” list for 2018:

  • Stefan Baeurle: This was by far my favorite set of black and white images; even more interesting to me is he’s local (and I hadn’t run into him before that I remember) and I know many of those images, and in a couple of instances, the exact tree. So I now have a challenge to try to do justice to some of these the way he did…
  • Sean Bagshaw: Some incredible landscape work here, with really subtle use of light and color. It’s also nice to see someone working with Light and composition to make an image sing rather than simply ratcheting up the saturation hoping to make a boring shot with color.
  • Yackley Photo: Incredible Nature Photography, wonderfully displayed.
  • Holly Davison: Stunning, large photos well displayed on a dark grey background. I have to admit I’m finding myself leaning towards this kind of look in my redesign, but this is some incredible photography with a really nice site design.
  • Jim Stamates: Just incredible bird and wildlife photography, well displayed (again, on a dark grey background). His bird photography was the best I saw this year.

My favorite sites

Finally, here are some sites that ahd images I really liked, with site designs that I loved and had elements I wanted to call out as good ways to take care of the images you show.

  • Dave Wilson Photography: Technically, these images are incredibly well lit and composed and show a really nice diversity of topics and styles. The way he displays them, using a masonry style display, is what I think is the best way to show off multiple images together, and I think his size choice of images (220 pixels wide in a 680 pixel wide grouping) works beautifully for his portrait shots, but feel a bit cramped for his landscape ones. But overall, I love the presentation of some really gorgeous images.
  • Rachel Cohen Photography: Rachel’s site is a beautifully done traditional blog-style design. the images are 640px wide and if you don’t know her work, it’s consistently stunningly beautiful. It’s fine as is, but if she took 75-100 pixels off the sidebar to make the images bigger, I think they’d have even more impact.
  • Jennifer Brehm: Another nice use of a masonry style display with smaller images, but it works for me. Her images are quite impressive nice night work.
  • Martjin Van der nat: Some gorgeous landscape and travel-style photography here; his site shows what you can do to show off your images by doing away with the sidebar and growing them — in this case, 930px. Sometimes I find the sidebar can distract from or compete with the images for my attention on sites. That’s very much not a worry here.
  • Milan Hutera: This was my favorite site in terms of good display and use of images within a blog post style page. Nice, large images that really were allowed to stand out with good backing text and a solid design. I really like that he went with a dark grey color in the site design rather than the more stark (and more common) pure black or white. I think it’s easier on the eyes and allows them to enjoy the images with less fatigue from what’s framing them.
  • Kelly Castro: The only reason this isn’t in my best images section is because I really wanted to talk about the site a bit, too. Her images are stunning, I think some of the best street work in this year’s collection as well as beautiful portrait work. The reason I wanted to call out her site is that it’s built on Adobe Spark, which I think most of us have kind of ignored as an option to build on, and this is a beautiful display of its capabilities. If you’re a Creative Cloud subscriber and thinking about hosting options, I’d definitely take a look at it. The display and design are crisp, clean and gorgeous, and as you scroll through the images, take a look at the subtle animations that are built in. It’s stunning, and I need to take a fresh, serious look at this myself. Just amazing site design for amazing images.

Image fads, um, trends

Going through everyone’s lists, I saw a couple of types of photos I’ll call trends. Two years ago, it seemed every photographer in the universe was showing off the photos they took on their Iceland trip. This year, there were still some, but they weren’t everywhere. Another that was really hot a couple of years ago was night photography and star trails. There were still a nice set of those images in the lists, but they weren’t — everywhere.

Instead, it seems we’re in the early phases of the British Columbia Brown Bears being the next place to go and shoot. I saw 8-9 sites, something like that, with images of the bears from one of the locations. I’m not complaining, I’d like to take that trip myself, but I wouldn’t do that expecting my images to be seen as unique, or at this point, all that original, unless you work to make them so.

Really interesting to me was a second trend I was seeing, which was some really strong work at abstracting and/or intentional motion blurring. I think maybe given our photo nerd obsession with ever sharper lenses and sensors that catch ever more detail this could be the first reaction of people trying to get away from that “hyper sharp focus” type of imagery. I’ve been seeing more and more discussion of this kind of photo in various venues, and it looks like this may be a “next big thing” in photography. Which is nice, because it’s caught my eye, too, and it’s something I want to explore.

Please don’t do this

A couple of things in the “not so good” category stood out for me.

One is site copyrights. Have you updated your site copyright to 2019 yet? Did you ever update it to 2018? Are you sure? If you’re that one person who’s site copyright is still showing 2013, maybe you should give your site a bit of love. Little details like this may seem silly, but to someone coming to your site for the first time, they indicate a lack of attention and give them a hint you don’t really care about what you’re doing online. It hurts a first impression, especially if you’re more than a year out of date.

Similarly, are you still promoting your Google+ page on your site? Why? It’s dead and going away, and you probably stopped posting stuff to it months ago. Why push people to something that’s a ghost town?

More generally, if I start exploring your site, and you promote your blog — last updated in 2016 — and your Instagram — last updated 18 months ago — what message are you sending to people? That you’ve not really there any more. If you’re going to link out to your social sites around the net, only link out to the ones you’re actively using. You’re better off not pointing to the stuff you’re abandoned, and honestly, if you have a blog on your site you stopped using two years ago (or more), maybe you should just take it offline. Or start posting pictures to it again or something. Ghost towns turn off visitors that are curious about you.

The third thing people are doing that — please, just stop — is throwing up annoying “SUBSCRIBE TO THIS” dialog boxes as soon as I arrive. Think about the user experience: First time I’ve ever visited your site, I’m curious about something you posted, and before I can actually see it, you’re blocking me trying to get me to commit to doing something for you.

My general reaction? close the window and move on. It’s a typical reaction for many.

Since all of us — I’ve done it to with my 6FPS newsletter (please subscribe for more great stuff like this!) I’m not saying don’t do it. What I’m suggesting is give people a chance to see your site before asking them to sign up for something. I argued with myself a lot about this when I was setting mine up, and ended up putting the dialog to the site, not putting it up repeatedly, and making it really easy to close, but it doesn’t prevent people from reading or viewing my site. It’s — minimally annoying — in my mind, which is the best compromise I could come up with.

If you use WordPress and your current setup won’t let you customize your call to action dialog, consider something like Elegant Theme’s Bloom plug-in, which I use and like.

But seriously: do you love it when someone calls you on the cell phone just as you sit down at dinner to cold call you for something you have no interest in buying? Those “Sign up now! dialogs being the first thing someone sees when they visit your site, and hiding the content they want to see, is that thing. Don’t be that person, okay?

One final quick suggestion: if you’re going to put up a gallery of images in a carousel or some other display, please make sure it enables arrow keys, and that the controls for making it shift next and previous among the images are obvious. If you set up a slideshow, it would be nice to be able to stop and study an image, but that’s not always possible, but then make it easy to get to the images in some non-automated gallery so we can browse them at our leisure….