What is SmugMug?
Who here has heard of Flickr?
Yes, all of you.
Who hear as heard of SmugMug?
Ah, the amount of hands up drops considerably.
Those who hypothetically lowered their hands might be surprised to hear that SmugMug is in fact two years older than Flickr…as well as its owner!
Yes, Flickr changed hands and became a subsidiary of SmugMug in April 2018.
In some ways, SmugMug is pretty similar to Flickr—it’s essentially an image hosting platform.
However, whereas Flickr is more of a social media site, SmugMug is more of a website builder.
It might be best to think of SmugMug as something of a cross between a paid web hosting service, and a free image hosting site.
Why would anyone use SmugMug when they can use, for example, Flickr or even Instagram?
Well, SmugMug has certainly lasted for a long time, and proven successful enough to purchase Flickr—so maybe that question is more complicated than it seems.
In fact, SmugMug has even been appraised by Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.
SmugMug’s reputation makes a lot of sense: it combines the best of both worlds, using both the popularity of image hosting and of slick website design.
Whereas other builders and web hosts target much wider audiences, SmugMug is very explicit about who it’s built for: photographers.
It’s in a different class of products than its famous subsidiary, Flickr, and Flickr’s rivals.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at one of the more unusual, but highly respected, SaaS solutions on the web.
SmugMug offers a simple service, which leaves it open to certain vulnerabilities—is it too simple?
This is a bit complicated, so let’s dive into SmugMug’s flaws.
Here’s flaw #1: SmugMug’s starting price is about the price of a fully-functional hosting service.
Actually, SmugMug’s price is even more expensive than the norm.
All things considered, this isn’t too bad: after all, SmugMug isn’t just hosting images, it’s hosting a website for your images.
However, because the product is so trimmed down, I can’t help but wonder if SmugMug could price things lower as well.
You also don’t get your own domain name until the second tier, which I can’t see much of an excuse for: again, a fully-functional hosting package with most other companies would cost less and include a free domain name.
Even with Wix, which is primarily a website-building service, you can get a domain for the first tier, at $5 a month.
To host your content without your own domain is free on Wix and Weebly—so I think SmugMug could at least do something closer to that.
If not a free version, then at least a less expensive first-tier.
I also find SmugMug’s simplicity can be a little restricting. Sometimes it feels like you don’t have enough control, enough options.
For example: although you can create your own site, you only have a relatively small number of preset themes to choose from if you want an easier way.
It’s a bit restricting. Wix, Squarespace, and Zenfolio all offer similar features to SmugMug, but a little more leeway in the ability to customize things.
Because SmugMug is so focused on the photography niche, however, I can give them a little bit of a pass.
Additionally, the customer support is much less intensive than I would have expected, especially at SmugMug’s price points.
SmugMug only has email support, not phone support or live chat support: these things are standard and only having 1 out of the 3 is a bit of a bad sign (and of those, the one that is slowest!).
Finally, their security: it’s not bad, but they are pretty hands off if the worst happens and your stuff gets deleted.
It seems like the worst rarely happens, if ever, but some additional regular backups would be appreciated.
Frankly this is a longer list of drawbacks than I expected, but let’s roll with the punches and get to the sunnier side.
After that series of disappointments, let’s get to the good stuff.
Yes, it’s true that SmugMug is a paid service that starts on the pricier side.
However, you at least get a decent set of features for that starting price, including SEO tools.
It’s really only the domain name that is a notably missing (from the first tier).
For what it’s worth, although Wix lets you connect to a domain with their first paid tier at $5 a month, SmugMug’s second tier is $5.99.
In all, that means you’ll only pay about a dollar more for the ability to connect a domain, but the upgrade comes with more power than Wix or
Squarespace offer in their first tiers (though in fairness, Squarespace has a pricey entry point). In that sense, SmugMug can offer better middle-grounds.
Because it goes for a more niche set of consumers that are anything but flippant about having their images online, SmugMug is not too expensive, and while it could be a little more competitively priced and featured, its scope is smaller than the bigger site-builders.
Taking into account its target base and scope, it’s actually pretty well featured if you go beyond the first tier.
Also, although it can get restricting, SmugMug is pretty easy to use.
It’s one of the easiest to use services I’ve encountered, and will make setting up not only easy, but a breeze.
Finally, their approach to security is unique and respect-worthy. SmugMug really likes to focus on rights and preserving the autonomy of the photographer.
They are also very transparent about their security and terms, which is fantastic.
In total, despite being far from perfect, SmugMug has just enough going that a serious photographer, or a serious enthusiast, could still have a great experience.
It certainly combines the best the traditional site-builders have brought—ease of use and good designs—with the world of images that the internet has become.
Pricing is always one of the first things on our minds, but especially so for SmugMug. After all, at first glance its similar enough to its subsidiary, Flickr, that it’s hard not to wonder why it’s free.
Well, let’s dive into that.
Like a traditional hosting service, there are a few tiers to consider, each with different offers.
However, because SmugMug sells site-building more than hosting, there’s only one set of tiers to consider, rather than several sets of tiers for different types of hosting.
And because it’s offering site building specifically for photographers, its prices are more reasonable than they seem initially.
To start us off is Basic, coming in at $3.99 a month if you pay annually, or $5.99 if you pay monthly.
Basic is what it sounds like: you get to put up your photos in the most straight-forward, simple, and inexpensive manner SmugMug allows.
Second is Power, which is $5.99 a month paid annually or $8.99 paid monthly. Power gives you more control over your site/gallery.
The third tier is Portfolio, costing $14.99 a month per annum and $23.99 if paid month-to-month. Portfolio is what it sounds like—it’s oriented towards giving you a portfolio, should you be interested in selling your photos.
Finally, there’s one more: Business. Business starts at $29.99 a month, but rises to $41.99 if you pay month-to-month.
This, as the name implies, is for those who have a full-on business and need a fully-featured suite to handle the load.
Those four tiers just about sum it up! SmugMug also has a 14-day free trial for all plans, so you can test it out and see how it works for you.
These prices aren’t too crazy, but are not exactly ideal. If we can cut SmugMug some slack for being more focused on the photography niche than Wix,
Weebly, or Squarespace, it’s harder to do so when comparing it to Zenfolio. Zenfolio’s first tier is $5 (and has way more features) with the next two tiers at $20 and $30.
It’s built more for eCommerce than SmugMug is, but it’s still surprising—the prices between SmugMug and Zenfolio are pretty close, but Zenfolio offers way more tools at each tier.
I guess SmugMug isn’t too focused on eCommerce, and doesn’t need a lot of those features—a lot on that will come soon—so we don’t need to call SmugMug overpriced…as long as we’re not calling it a great deal either.
Overall, SmugMug has a very straightforward pricing structure without much fine print or too many options.
It’s a nice set up that I appreciate, but let’s find out if it’s worth paying for SmugMug in the first place.
So is SmugMug worth paying for?
First, let’s be clear about what every plan gets: the stuff in the Basic plan, chief among them 24/7 support and unlimited photo uploads.
A Basic plan comes with the following: a customizable website; full-screen galleries; unlimited photo uploads; drag-and-drop photo organization; cloud storage; password-protection for folders, galleries, page, or even the entire site; share buttons; and print-ordering for either yourself or your family/friends.
The second tier, Power, comes with all that, and a few other things: 21+ premade site designs or the ability to create your own (yes, without coding); optional HTML and CSS customization; right-click protection on images; and your own domain name.
Portfolio has all that, as well as Turnkey storefront or other e-commerce-optimized galleries, access to top labs for fulfilling orders, the ability to sell photo/video downloads, and the ability to set site-wide pricing that allows you to keep 85% of the markup.
Our last tier—Business—is for the most serious users, and follows the pattern by offering all of the above. It also gives you the ability to make custom pricelists, coupons, group galleries under events, brand-shipped client orders, and offer gift-wrapped packaging.
For those who are exclusively focused on photography and need something straightforward and simple, this is probably pretty decent.
You get a very easy to use set of tools, so you will spend a minimal amount of time worrying about managing your account or site.
However, some stuff feels a bit limited. For example, 21+ free pre-designed themes is pretty low, and that number never increases with the tiers.
Given the fact that SmugMug markets itself so heavily as a portfolio, gallery, or website-builder…it really should have more predesigned themes.
Of course you can make your own, but you could still have many more pre-set ones for the Portfolio and Business price-points.
Case in point: Wix is targeted towards more general audiences. And even with this being the case, they have about 40+ premade templates for photography websites.
Another issue would be that you don’t get your own domain name until the Power tier, as I’ve mentioned earlier.
You could easily purchase a hosting plan that includes a free domain name for less than the Basic tier, with most major hosting companies and website building companies.
Of course it can be a little complicated—maybe other hosting providers are too generalized, and can’t emphasize photography and gallery features enough.
There’s also the fact that most hosting services increase the price significantly after the first year.
Expecting SmugMug to be as fully-featured as a hosting service is naïve, because it’s not a hosting company…not a traditional one, anyway.
I would definitely say that SmugMug knows how to accommodate photography websites, so in that way is more feature-rich than basic site-building tools, even if technically the amount of features is reduced…it’s a bar to get used to, but worth using.
Ease of Use
Ease of use is everything nowadays, and that makes perfect sense. As I’ve discussed, SmugMug is really use to use.
What did I mean by that?
Well, remember the whole point of SmugMug is image, gallery, and portfolio hosting for people who love photography.
You don’t need to be selling your work, but even if you’re getting a Basic plan, the expectation is you take photography very seriously and you want a thorough hosting
In that sense, the basic amount of services will just plain be lower.
You’re not being offered a full hosting toolkit, just hosting for your gallery, so everything is automatically a little simpler.
However, SmugMug compounds this by making everything an easy click, or drag-and-drop.
It is truly one of the easiest site builders you can use—and that’s an impressive achievement because web-building software services are intended to be the easiest tools in the world of hosting and website creation.
And while I do find that sometimes this easy user-interface can be a little restricting—for example, only 21+ premade sites for each tier—you still have enough power to edit your site/gallery and customize it to the extent you deem fit.
In essence, SmugMug is so easy to use it might be the only service that is too easy to use. Nonetheless, it still allows users enough control to manage their image collections effectively.
A large part of what can make a service easy or difficult to get the hang of is its customer support: the customer’s access to all the information they need to make onboarding and troubleshooting easy.
Frankly, I think SmugMug’s customer support falls short of basic standards for customer support for the industry.
The good part is SmugMug’s help center. This is basically the knowledge base: it contains a bunch of informational articles you can either search or browse through, as well as a small collection of video tutorials.
But it really is a small collection of video tutorials, and there aren’t even that many text articles to begin with.
Maybe we can give them a pass because the services offered are simply smaller in scope than full-on web hosting
But as far as customer support goes, there is no live chat or phone support. The “24/7 real-human support” that SmugMug advertises is really just email support. Email support is important, but lacking those two other options is a severe disappointment.
Their website says representatives will always get back to you within 24 hours.
That’s probably true and I’m glad to hear they can make that promise—but it’s nothing compared to waiting a few minutes on live chat or phone.
Taking all of that into account, SmugMug has a standard knowledge base (which might be a little lacking, but is overall okay) and a limited amount of contact options.
It’s a disappointment, especially because SmugMug could at least compensate its higher paying customers with improved customer support, if not improvements across the board.
Security and Reliability
Something I find remarkable about SmugMug is their approach to security. Check this out, straight from their “About” section:
This, of course, is a reference to the increasingly popular understanding of social media sites as services that sell user data as their product, rather than giving products to their users.
Keenly aware of this, and the other controversies surrounding social media sites—which obviously include image hosting components—SmugMug further emphasizes the rights you have over your own content on the platform.
This all sounds very promising, but does SmugMug actually live up to its slick marketing?
The answer would appear to be yes…with an important caveat. With traditional web hosting, security concerns primarily mean good uptime, and site data.
SmugMug has a focus on this, naturally, but it also focuses heavily on the protection of copyright and photographer credit.
They are very transparent about their terms of service, and what is or is not protected.
I would have said that SmugMug excels at protecting photographers, but then I read this: “We are not responsible if the unthinkable happens and your content is lost.
We cannot guarantee that your content will at all times be available on the SmugMug website or that your photos and videos are secure from unauthorized access, loss or deletion.”
A few paragraphs later they’re apologetic about it, but it doesn’t really cover what I see as a gaping hole in the whole shebang.
Of course the unthinkable can happen, and stuff can get deleted—in that case, offer regular backups.
Aside from that bit of disappointment, it doesn’t seem like SmugMug fails where security is concerned.
It’s very popular, as mentioned, and focuses on secure uploading and storage with a tenacity that’s uncommon.
Maybe SmugMug just hasn’t been truly tested yet, but so far it seems to be doing okay. I wouldn’t say SmugMug has excellent security, but it’s still pretty good.
Do I recommend SmugMug?
To add up everything that’s been said, SmugMug is more of a mixed bag than most products I’ve reviewed.
The main issue isn’t really the quality of their service, but the price: they could stand to lower their prices, or at least offer a lot more for them.
As such, the lack of a domain name with a first-tier account and a limited number of preset themes are made more frustrating given their price points.
The same goes for the absence of live chat or phone support and regular back-ups.
These things are made more frustrating by the fact that competing software products, such as Wix, Weebly, Zenfolio, and Squarespace sometimes offer more features for similar price points.
Nonetheless, SmugMug is a pleasure to use and makes the process of creating a photography website fun, not just easy.
It’s still got a host of features to work with, and even from a Basic account, so you won’t be stranded online.
I would say that I only recommend SmugMug for serious hobbyists and above, and especially those who do not want to take much time into hosting their images.
If you really take your photos seriously but also just want to get straight to the point with the process of putting them up online, SmugMug is probably ideal for you.
However, for those who are more casual hobbyists or are willing to work a little more for an image hosting solution, SmugMug might not be the best—you wouldn’t be totally unhappy, but you could find a more cost-efficient way of getting the job done.
Nonetheless, SmugMug still manages to shine despite a few caveats, so if you’re unsure, just try it out with their free trial!