Disclosure: The links to SmugMug and other sites in this post are ads and we earn commissions if you shop through them.
Have you ever heard of SmugMug before?
If not…ever heard of Flickr?
I thought so. Well, SmugMug actually owns Flickr.
So, it’s a bigger deal than you think. But what’s it for?
Suppose you’re a photographer—whether a hobbyist or the head of a studio—and you want a place to hold your photos online.
Why not use Flickr? Or for that matter, Instagram or Facebook?
Because, you want a professional place for your photos.
And not just image hosting: you want a place where your photos will REACH people. An audience of prospective clients.
This is where SmugMug comes in:
Think of a site-builder just for photographers.
A place that competes with the “easy” and free social media or picture-sharing platforms AND website-builders, to outdo both.
It is. But I know you’re not sure—so I have some good news:
I’ve done some in-depth testing of SmugMug, and I’ve got a lot to say.
Cool. Let’s start with:
Uptime and Performance
This is really essential.
To put it simply: why pay for a place to post your pictures, if it’s often down, and your pictures can’t be seen?
It’s important to remember that paying SmugMug is not ONLY payment for site and portfolio creation, but also for HOSTING.
And SmugMug isn’t just supposed to host your SITE, but the space for A LOT of photos—some of which may be very high quality.
So, it’s ESSENTIAL that SmugMug has good performance and uptime.
The answer is a resounding YES.
This is somewhat to be expected: often, purchasing user-friendly services that combine hosting and site-building involve more reliable uptime than connecting domains, hosts, and site-builders on your own.
But even so, it’s GREAT news.
I’ve never had my SmugMug site go down—AND to make it better, it’s pretty responsive too.
So all things considered, SmugMug checks off the first major factor we need to consider.
But the story’s far from over, my friends:
Ease of Use
Ease of use is really important for a lot of things.
But it’s ESPECIALLY important that SmugMug get it right.
Because their target audience is photographers, not web developers.
It needs to be easy for a SmugMug customer to set up a portfolio or photo website of their own, AND to upload and host their photos.
Not to mention ecommerce.
So SmugMug is OFFERING a lot, which will naturally lead to some complications. Does it make things easy?
YES. As easy as they can be, to be honest.
For example, if you want to make a site or portfolio using SmugMug:
A range of skill levels are accommodated.
Meaning that even if you have NO design experience, you can just pick a template and edit it from there.
And if you DO know programming and more advanced web development, you can do that, too.
And the even better news?
Managing the SECURITY of your photos is really easy:
And so is ecommerce:
Now, you can probably see where this is going…
Just about everything is really easy to use.
So, great, right?
For the most part, this is a great thing. BUT, there is an issue:
It can be a little too easy. Now, I understand that SmugMug is INTENDED to make things easy for customers.
But this sometimes means reducing complexities that give users more control.
So if you’re looking specifically for a shopping cart builder FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, SmugMug STILL isn’t a bad choice.
But the competition is tougher between it and Zenfolio, Wix, or Squarespace.
Nonetheless, OVERALL, SmugMug does a great job of integrating a LOT of different moving parts without overcomplicating things.
And while you do lose a bit of user control and flexibility, you still keep it where it counts.
So overall, SmugMug pulls off a really impressive feat with its user-friendliness.
Of course, those moving parts I mentioned are also REALLY important too:
Pricing and Features
So the previous sections have already alluded to some of the features—don’t worry, I’m gonna get into them in a sec!
But first, there’s something else I want to get out of the way…
You may have heard me mention something earlier:
That you have to PAY for SmugMug.
I know, it sounds unusual in this age of free-everything. Especially where photos are concerned—it’s always free to share content nowadays.
Well, SmugMug is aware of that too (which makes sense, as they own Flickr), and they’ve got a good reply:
And to REALLY hammer home the point:
There ya go. SmugMug isn’t harvesting your data—you’re paying it directly to provide premium services.
So what are the price tags of these services?
See for yourself:
The takeaways: there are four tiers, and they can be paid monthly or yearly.
As you’d expect, you can save a considerable amount by paying yearly—but it’s always good to have an option.
Now, as far as the basic price tags go, this is definitely decent.
If you compare these prices to those of Wix or Zenfolio, SmugMug is clearly NOT ripping you off or going much above the typical prices.
So far we know that SmugMug is very user-friendly, and that it performs superbly.
But something that will REALLY make these prices worth it?
Yep, the features.
So let’s start with the basics:
I know, it’s a lot. Let me give you the run-down:
Basically everything about the website is the SAME across the different plans.
The most important parts here: every plan gets UNLIMITED photo/video uploads, unmetered traffic, high caps on media file sizes, and a fully customizable site.
The site management includes SEO tools, analytics, and some special deals from SmugMug’s partners.
This stuff is pretty common to any site-builder.
But here’s what is NOT so common:
Even the entry-level gets a TON of resources allocated to it. Seriously, with the most affordable account, you can still upload AS MUCH as the highest-paying customer.
You don’t have to worry about SmugMug telling you that you’re burdening a shared sever, and that you have to upgrade, the way some hosts and website builders might.
Which brings up another reason why this is a great advantage:
Although you’ll probably mostly use SmugMug as a site-builder, because your site is customizable, you can actually use SmugMug as a storage place for all your photos/videos.
So if you have stuff you’re not ready to make public yet, but you want it safely hosted in one place—SmugMug is GREAT for that, at any account.
Okay, but why upgrade to a higher-tier, right?
While all plans get good site customization tools, the first tier is a little more limited.
Primarily, the entry-level plan doesn’t get as many templates, and can’t make custom templates or themes.
Plus, you CAN’T use your own domain, or customize using code.
In my book, these are MAJOR factors to consider.
ESPECIALLY because basically every other rival of SmugMug starts you off with your own domain. It’s sort of an industry standard—once you’re paying, you get your own domain.
So that’s just cheap in my book. But:
If you don’t have a ton of stuff riding on your site, and if you’re more a hobbyist or small-time freelancer, then the first tier’s features might still be okay.
But for anyone else, it’s REALLY important to have your own domain—it adds a ton of credibility.
Plus, being able to take full control of your site’s appearance is really important. And if you know how to code or have someone on your team who can, it’s good to let them get into the details of the site.
BUT, this still begs the question: why choose anything other than the SECOND tier, if the last three plans are all the same?
Because of this:
If you’re planning on doing eCommerce, you’ve basically got to choose the latter two plans to get anything serious done.
Keep in mind that ALL the plans can do prints and shipping, plus check outs:
So you CAN do ecommerce on the first two tiers. But what makes the last two tiers stand high, is the ability to FULLY CONTROL the aspects of your ecommerce.
And THIS is what sets the LAST tier apart from the rest:
It’s the marketing and branding that really sets the last tier (and I guess the third tier) apart from the rest.
You can make personalized shopping carts, personalized deliveries, custom printmaking, custom stickers, coupons…etc.
I know, this seems like a lot of information.
But here’s the essential recap:
The first two tiers are pretty affordable, but still come with a TON of features.
I mean, the entry-level alone still basically gives you a fully-featured site. Except, you’re lacking the BIG feature—a domain—and some other stuff that can be useful.
And while ALL the plans can handle basic ecommerce, it’s the latter two that are seriously cut out for it.
But boy oh boy, are they cut out for it—they’re incredibly capable.
Now, I know what you’re wondering:
“This all sounds great. But about those templates…”
Let’s take a quick look:
The truth is, SmugMug DOES have decent templates.
But, I think there could be more.
Now, the fact that you can really go in on customizing these means that the limited number isn’t a HUGE deal.
But the truth is that, although quality is important, the more the better—it reduces the number of look-a-like SmugMug sites.
So design and templates with SmugMug aren’t exceptional overall, but they’re also not really worse than Wix or Squarespace.
And compared to Zenfolio, I think things are about even.
So to put all those features together:
SmugMug offers A LOT. And this is what makes its own flaw so heartbreaking:
The first tier plan WOULD BE one of the best entry level plans ANYWHERE, but because it doesn’t connect to a domain, it’s basically a ton of features sunk into a site that won’t look too professional.
Having your own domain name is pretty basic and it’s the one flaw in an otherwise LOADED plan.
The good news is that every plan after the entry level just comes with more and more features (and domains).
So while the domain thing is really unfortunate…in the scheme of things, SmugMug is REALLY well-featured.
AND, the prices themselves are pretty average—especially compared to Zenfolio, Wix, or even Squarespace—so the amount of features are permitted are even better.
So far, SmugMug is killing it.
But the story’s not over, folks:
So, you’ve clearly got a lot of features to handle. This means what, exactly?
That you need to make sure you can use the platform to its full potential.
And while ease of use goes some of the way, what you REALLY need to cover all your bases is good customer support.
So, let’s take a look at what SmugMug offers in the way of customer support:
First off, you can contact representatives directly for assistance. You might want to do this if you have a unique question, or if you just want a guaranteed, quick answer.
How can you do this?
You have two options. You can either contact a rep through live chat, OR through email:
In my experience, both of these options have been pretty reliable and relatively quick (relatively meaning, of course, emailing is less immediate than the live chat).
BUT that’s of course not all the support SmugMug offers.
There’s also this:
Which is basically the hub of on-site information.
Some would call it a knowledge base, but SmugMug just calls it the Help Center, so we will too.
Anyway, the Help Center covers quite a few categories. Each category has a few subtopics (sometimes not that many):
Which will then provide a list of articles.
Now, I do have some unfortunate news:
I don’t think there are ENOUGH topics covered. Let me give you an example:
In that screencap I just showed you, notice what’s MISSING from the privacy and security topics—there’s nothing about accepting payments, about the cloud security, etc.
Now, maybe you could argue the Help Center is for giving you info on what YOU control on YOUR end.
Maybe so. But I still think it should include some basics about what SmugMug does. PLUS, that information isn’t available on other parts of the site.
And there isn’t much other support aside from the Help Center…
So the truth is, what DOES exist is good, but it’s still not enough to be truly comprehensive.
In sum then, contacting support is great, but the onsite info could be improved.
Figuring out SmugMug’s customer support is NOT the end of the story, of course. We’ve got one last factor to consider:
Although it’s the last factor I’ll talk about, it’s DEFINITELY not the least. In fact, it’s one of the most essential.
Now, why would security be extra important for SmugMug to get right?
Well, first of all, there’s the fact that most of its customers would be uploading their own content—content that’s artistic and needs to be protected.
But there’s also the fact that a LOT of photographers, just by the nature of the web these days, have to post their photos on places that may not really treat them properly.
This isn’t just the reason why SmugMug is a paid service—it’s also a reason to expect SmugMug to have GOOD security standards.
So not only do you expect to NOT have your data or photo rights harvested, you should expect them to be PROTECTED.
So, with that in mind, the question is—does SmugMug really do well with security?
SmugMug says this:
In other words, that you’re safe because SmugMug uses top-tier cloud storage.
Is it secure cloud storage?
Yeah—it’s Amazon Web Services, which is a goliath for a reason.
Now, there is an unfortunate truth:
There are some differences in security between tiers. Which is normal, to be fair.
But here’s the good news:
The majority of the important features are included for all accounts, and even a second-tier account will come with all but one of the security features.
The last two tiers can add custom watermarks to images, which is obviously a big advantage if you’re making a more commercial site.
But even if you just look at the first account, you get a LOT more than you would with some other platforms:
Copyrights, always accessible cloud storage, password protected folders/pages, various measures to protect your content in specific ways…
It’s really the perfect solution for creative types:
Because they have to NOT ONLY worry about their general web security, but their photo rights and the degree to which they want their hard work public.
This also ties back into ease of use of course. The benefit of SmugMug is that security is made easy—you don’t have to download a zillion extensions to protect your stuff.
Now, there IS another component to quickly look at:
Because part of SmugMug’s thing is that you can build a site that also lets you sell.
Even a first-tier account gets near-full shopping cart and checkout functionality.
So it’s REALLY important that SmugMug is trustworthy for processing transactions, and can help you make your site more trustworthy to your customers.
And the honest truth?
Uh…SmugMug doesn’t really have much to say.
Now, is it safe enough? Yeah, because SmugMug uses pretty common payment gateways, which guarantee a certain level of reliability.
BUT, you should be able to know more.
My conclusion for SmugMug’s security?
That it’s OVERALL pretty good—all your basic needs will be met—but SmugMug could STILL take some extra steps.
So clearly, there’s some good and bad—and that’s true for just about everything, right?
So let’s take a look at some of what SmugMug does well and where it needs improvement:
- GREAT uptime and response time. Overall very high-performing.
- Really easy to use, considering the amount of features at hand.
- Speaking of that, there are a LOT of features, and a lot of features for each account plan.
- The unlimited photo storage for everyone in particular is a GREAT deal.
- Normal pricing (as in, not crazy, and pretty good for the prices). They mostly correspond to the range of Wix and Zenfolio, with some smaller differences here and there.
- The lower tiers get a LOT of really important features that make them extremely competitive. For example, unlimited photo/video uploads, basic ecommerce software, decent control over site design, etc.
- Customer support is overall decent, as far as contacting representatives go.
- Overall secure.
- The ease of use can be a little overbearing at times, and reduces some of the complexity that might be ideal for those looking for more advanced uses—such as ecommerce.
- You can’t use your own domain unless you’re paying for the second tier plan or above. This is just stingy to me.
- Unlike Wix and some other competitors, SmugMug does NOT offer a free plan supported by ads or with limited functionality.
- Although contacting representatives is reliable, sometimes the on-site support information SmugMug has…can be scanty.
- In particular, I wish SmugMug would have more to say about its security. Especially for ecommerce and payment processing.
Conclusion: Do I Recommend SmugMug?
So, I think it’s time we put all those pros and cons together—do I recommend SmugMug?
The short answer is YES.
But the longer answer is: yes, but not to everyone.
Basically, for the type of thing SmugMug offers—site and portfolio building specifically for photographers, plus safe photo hosting—it’s FANTASTIC.
But it’s also true that not all photographers or enthusiasts really NEED to go the SmugMug route.
Because they could potentially just use their normal cloud storage services, like Dropbox or Google Drive—or even Flickr—to host their photos (depending on the amount).
And for their sites, they could find an affordable hosting/site-building option that INCLUDES a domain name for a lower price than SmugMug.
BUT, even if you’re okay with doing all that, you’d still only be saving a few bucks at most.
SmugMug rolls together hosting, site building, and advanced functions like ecommerce, all in a really easy to use platform.
And all things considered…the prices are great for all the stuff that you can do, and the high-performance you can expect.
So in conclusion, while a few people in certain niche situations may be better off not using SmugMug, I think most photographers stand to benefit a LOT.
If you’re still not sure whether or not the prices are worth it, don’t worry!
You can try it RISK-FREE for two weeks first:
Simply put, SmugMug is offering both. And both are really important and overlap a lot.
First off, SmugMug is definitely for photo hosting—that’s a major component of its services. Its why every account comes with unlimited photo uploads.
And that’s also why the first tier doesn’t allow for your own domain—because you might just want to use it for photo storage more than anything else.
BUT, HOW do you want to store your photos?
Do you just want cloud storage, or do you also want a place to show your photos?
For most photographers, both are desirable. And SmugMug offers both, with all the nuance that you expect from such an overlap.
Okay, not everyone needs their own domain. It’s true. But most people who want a site to look professional will want their own .com or .org or something similar—not a subdomain (.smugmug).
So if you just want photo storage and a portfolio for some friends and family, then maybe that first tier is fine—because you don’t really need a super professional-sounding site.
But if you’re running a business or hoping to get visitors to buy stuff on your site…chances are, you really just need to get a top-level domain of your own (i.e., get the second tier or above).
While it’s true that SOME platforms and content management systems can reach their full potential when used by programmers…
NOT ALL platforms are like that.
SmugMug in particular is definitely BEST for people who know little to nothing about coding.
In fact, if you know how to code, SmugMug accommodates you…but it doesn’t CATER to you the way it does to the novice.
Ease of use, user-friendliness, and BEGINNER-friendliness are major strengths of SmugMug!