Building a Portfolio Website - Part 2 / by Nigel Rumsey

If you didn't see it in Part 1 of this series it dealt with the options of Bespoke and Hosted Template sites. In part 2 we look at self-hosted sites, this is the option I favour and where you can get the greatest creative bang-for-your-buck. The problem is it can get very techie very quickly. Before we start I need to clarify what I mean by 'self-hosted', in this context I mean that you're paying for the host and uploading the files to the server. You're not setting up a server at home and plugging it into the internet - which is also self-hosting, but a far more ambitious proposal (more later). To give you some context I’m not an IT professional I’m just someone with an interest, so I frequently find myself struggling, but if you have the time you can find your way through the jargon. There are a lot of forums, and resources with genuine, helpful people who will spend time to help you resolve your problems. There are also a few twats who’ll rejoice in belittling you - but as I’m sure you know that’s the same with everything on the web.

Don’t lose heart, if you know there’s no way you’re going to want to rent your own hosting and uploading files to a server (which isn’t as difficult as it sounds) in Part 3 I’ll be covering the Free Hosted Platforms, where someone else does all the work and doesn’t charge you for the pleasure! So let's get down to business:

C. Self-hosted Sites

THE OPTIONS The options are many, but I’ll do my best to keep it simple. Many of the options I’ll mention here will have the alternative of being hosted for you by the company concerned, generally at a cost but not always. This reduces the technical difficulty significantly.

i. Self-coded sites - I include this for completeness sake, this the full-on 100% techie option, but suffice to say if you can code your own site you’re not going to be reading this article.

ii. Content Management Systems (CMS) - a content management system is basically a filing system into which you put your images, blog articles, videos, almost any type of content and it displays it as a website. Probably the most common of which is Wordpress.

iii. Portfolio Sites - similar to a CMS but generally more specific being designed purely to create portfolio sites.

CONTENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS (CMS) As I said above a CMS is basically a fancy online filing system into which you upload all your content, this can include photos, text, video, blog articles, sound files and things I probably haven’t thought of. The CMS then dishes that content up as a website. The clever part is that a couple of months down the road, when you get itchy fingers and decide that the bright blue background, which seemed oh such a great idea, is looking less than appealing you can switch your template in a matter of minutes. This can change not only the colour scheme but the layout, number of columns, font, etc. all without effecting your content, which is still tucked safely in your CMS. Sounding a little more interesting now?

PORTFOLIO SITES The majority of the portfolio packages used are basically CMSs with less functionality - surely that's not a good thing you'll be thinking - well yes and no, it's not a good thing if you want a full blown CMS but it'll generally be easier to set up and be more suited to the particular requirements of formatting a portfolio.

Installation: what’s involved? Whether you're considering a CMS, or Portfolio Site, the installation will generally be very similar. (So for ease I'm referring to them all here as CMSs.) It is beyond the scope of this article to give you blow-by-blow instruction of how to get a CMS site up-and-running, apart from anything else the detail will differ depending on the hosting service you use and the CMS you settle upon.

However generally you will create a database, the CMS provider will give instructions on how to do that. You then upload all your files to a folder on your host's server and tell your domain to look at that folder. If you've not done it before all that sounds incredibly daunting but Wordpress, for example, have 'The famous 5-minute installation'. That's probably a little optimistic for a first time, but you get the idea. If you're like me you then spend the next week getting your text just the right shade of grey, only to change your mind a day later!

Which to choose? This really is one of those questions to which there is no correct answer. Each of the CMS options come with passionate advocates who’ll try to persuade you their favourite is the only true path to CMS enlightenment.  So I’ll try to summarise some of the pro’s and con’s. The good thing is if you choose to go down this route, and you’ve got your hosting, the majority of these options are free to try, so there’s no harm in downloading them and messing about to see if they suit your requirements.

YOUR CHOICES: CMS SITES Drupal & Joomla (cost: both free) The two heavyweight’s of the CMS world, the trouble is they come with steep learning curves. If you can get through that initial pain, and it shouldn’t be underestimated, there really isn’t anything you can’t do with these guys. However, in my opinion they’re not recommended for the new CMS user so we’ll move on.

Wordpress.org (cost: free) The third of the big three CMSs. Originally a CMS blogging platform which over the last few years has been developed to work as a fully fledged CMS. Wordpress has a very active developer community with a huge range of templates and plugins (both free and paid). The learning curve is not nearly as steep as either Drupal or Joomla.

Slightly confusingly Wordpress comes in two varieties. The self-hosted version we’re discussing here, located at Wordpress.org, and a version hosted by Wordpress themselves (which is also free) located at Wordpress.com. (I’ll write more about the Wordpress.com version in part 3.) The benefits of hosting yourself are a much greater variety of themes and plugins than the Worpress.com option, and just that (possibly overrated) knowledge that the whole thing is under your control. I’m a big fan of Wordpress I’ve used it as my blogging platform, on which you’re reading this, for many years and until recently I’ve also used it for my portfolio website.

In part 1 I included a video from Ted Forbes, photographer and one time web designer, where he discussed the options for 'Websites for Non-Techies', in this video Ted focuses on Wordpress alone.

If you like the idea of Wordpress but are undecided whether to go the self-hosted or the Wordpress-hosted routes it’s worth noting that is possible to export your data from Wordpress.com and import it into your own self-hosted site should you want to in the future. I have done this, it was some time ago, and it was reasonably successful. However I did loose some of my formatting along the way, I tidied some of it up and I’m afraid some just stayed as it was.

The slightly easier 'self-hosting' option, which had I not already had a hosting package I would have probably gone for, is to sign-up with one of Wordpress’s partner hosts. They will then install Wordpress for you, set up your database, and do all the back-of-house jiggery-pokery. This also takes away any of the doubt about whether the host you pick supports all the backend features that Wordpress needs. You can read more about the Wordpress partner hosts here.

CushyCMS (cost: free) Another CMS which I’ve heard good things about but haven’t had experience of myself is CushyCMS, they may be worth checking out.

YOUR CHOICES: PORTFOLIO PLATFORMS There are a huge choice in portfolio platforms, here are the few I’ve actually had experience of and a few notable mentions.

Berta (cost: free) - a lightweight platform, easy to install, giving highly customisable portfolio sites. Berta is very popular with artists and designers, it's highly customisable and very quick to set up. You can literally have a site up and running within an hour.

Berta is something of a strange anomaly in as much as it is probably the most flexible of all of the portfolio sites for laying out your images, you literally drag-and-drop your content to exactly where you want it on the page. Hence why it's very popular with very creative art student types. However, if you want to get some text on there it's a nightmare. Basically if you want to include text, beyond cations and brief introductions to your images you can't! Don't let this put you off completely, at least take a look, there is so much you can do with it.

Berta doesn’t have a blog facility, so if you do want a blog to go with your site you’ll need to find a separate solution for that.

There is a paid version of Berta, for €19.99/year (€49.99/year pro-account). For that Berta will host your site, auto-update your site and provide support. If you like what Berta has to offer you can’t say no at that price!

Koken (cost: free) - Koken is relatively new, but never-the-less a very impressive platform. Of the free portfolio platforms it’s the closest I’ve found to giving you the seamless experience of something like Squarespace. Although it’s free at the moment, it’s described as a public-beta, so I can’t imagine it’s going to stay that way forever. How long the beta will last, and what they may charge, I have no idea. Having said that I was so impressed it hasn’t stopped me moving my portfolio site from Wordpress - and as a long time Wordpress fan that’s saying something.

The feature I particularly like is their Lightroom integration, which allows you to publish sites direct from Lightroom to your Koken portfolio. It’s seamlessly done and works very well. Again Koken doesn’t have a blog facility so you’ll have to host your blog elsewhere.

Indexhibit (cost: €25) - Indexhibit has something of a cult following. It was free for a long time and then early in 2013 they started charging new users a one off €25 fee. They also rather sweetly emailed existing users asking if they pay for the copy they already have, and why not, if you like the product what’s wrong with paying a fair price for it.

Indexhibit will give you a very minimalist art school (in a good way) site. Hence it’s very popular with artists, students, documentary photographers etc. Indexhibit also have recommended hosts. One of whom, Dreamhost, is also a Wordpress recommended host, in the confusing minefield that is picking a hosting provider that’s the nearest you’ll get to a gold-plated recommendation.

CargoCollective - has something of a community feel. The portfolio sites are curated, so to get one you need to apply giving information about your work. You can read more on their homepage. I've not been through the application process but it's an interesting concept and there is some very good work featured.

Notable Mentions, I've not had personal experience of these but they may be worth checking out: SecretaryCouchCMS, Carbonmade, and Behance.

HOSTING: Once you've selected your platform, if you're going to host it 'yourself' you will need a web host (this is basically a computer connected to the web which ’hosts’ your files), there are literally thousands to choose from. It's possible to pay from almost nothing to hundreds of Pounds/Dollars a year.

The  more observant amongst you may have said at this point ‘I have a computer that is connected to the internet, why do I need to rent space on someone else’s?’ Well technically you don’t. There are many people who happily host their own websites, but you really do need to know what you’re doing. In order for visitors to ‘come to your site’ what they’re actually doing is accessing the files that will be located on your PC. It doesn’t take Steve Jobs to realise that the security issues of opening your computer to the whole internet are going to be considerable. By getting someone else to host your site you get to offload all that security concern to someone who, hopefully, has expertise in that area.

So back to who to choose. If I were starting from scratch I'd go with one of the hosts recommended by the big CMS providers. Even if you're not using their CMS, you know they've been checked out by folks who know far more about this stuff than you or I. Take a look at the Wordpress list. As I mentioned if you look at a couple of these lists you see the same names come up, as I've been looking I've seen Dreamhost and Bluehost both mentioned more than once.

Each CMS platform will have a list of technical requirements you'll need to ensure your hosting provider supports for the particular CMS to run. These will be very similar, but it's worth checking. For example to host Koken here they list what's required. Don't worry about trying to decipher this techcobabble, just cut and paste into an email to your potential host saying you want to run 'whatever CMS', do you support the following?

THE ALL IMPORTANT USER INSTRUCTIONS Without exception every developer will provide installation instructions. Some are very comprehensive (Wordpress), some less so, but there will be guide to help you. They also all generally either have a support forum and/or a user's forum again where you can get help.

Finally

I know that was a little long winded, it took much longer to put together than I expected. If you've read the above and decided it's just too complicated, or you simply don't have the time (which is not to be underestimated), never fear there is another far simpler option which I'll be exploring in Part 3. If after reading this there's something that just isn't clear or misleading please let me know I'd be happy to hear from you.

Thank you to Urban Hafner, photographer and proper web techie, for proofreading and feedback!