Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Crafting a Photo Web Site

Recently, I've been feeling the need to have my own photo website. Somewhere that I can place images and point people to see them.  Specifically, this has been driven by my Photo Memory Book habit and group trips we have gone on with one of our college alumni groups. I've been making my own photo memory books for years, offering them to my fellow travelers seemed easy and something they might like.  So far it's turned out that they pretty much love them and I receive lots of interest and more photos that I can use when building my books.  All of those images just demand sharing, a photo web site seems a natural solution.

Phase 1: Use Something Free -- Flickr

My first solution was to use my already existing Flickr account to host images being considered for a photo book.  Flickr is free and fast, two really handy assets.  Unfortunately, it's relatively limited in terms of organization options.  In fact, I have created three different Flickr accounts so that I create some organization through separation.  Here are links to the three sites:
  1. J&S Photo: A collection of some of my favorite shots over the year arranged in a number of albums kept in what seems like random order.  Nice for showing to people but difficult for anyone else to use. This turned out to be really something just for personal use.
  2. Joe.Barrett61: Images intended for a tour group that visited the High Plains and Grand Tetons.  This was my first use of a dedicated Flickr account and that worked fairly well to share images and solicit inputs.  Unfortunately, the name isn't helpful and reflects the one-off and temporary nature of this path.
  3. J&S Photo Book: This was my second specialized Flickr account, intended to support my current book in progress.  My thinking was I would use it to house images while working on the book and then I would wipe it and use it for the next book.  This would give me a reusable approach to photo book creation. 
My idea of using an account just for photo book creation ran into two major issues.  

(1) Flickr, which is ad supported, requires visitors to have an account, which requires account creation.  That is fairly easy, but it can be a road block for less technically savvy viewers.  My audience includes a fairly good proportion of people with seniority (older folks) who did not grow up with the Internet.  This was a big enough problem that I felt a need to write a guide to the creation of a Flickr account.  It's also a roadblock to my freely sharing the hosted images.

(2) People like having access to the pictures which makes it difficult to know when I can take them down to reuse the site for the next book.  People, of course, includes me, I expect to want to see/show those images many times down the years.  Deleting all of the images just doesn't make sense. Which implies I'll need a Flickr account for overbook.  This will get totally out of hand quickly.

Those major issues along with other limitations, e.g. having to put up with Flickr's prominent branding and worrying about Yahoo data breaches motivated me to look for a better way.

Phase 2: Build a Custom Web Site

My daughter had a college project course that motivated her to want to craft a web site.  She decided to take on solving my problem and worked on building our own photo web site.  I was involved a bit as her "customer" and learned a fair amount about what a Photo Web site could be and what I might want it to do.  

Approaching this as a roll your own project is a huge amount of work.  My daughter had something working by the end of the term, but it had some significant areas where it needed work and there are significant costs to doing this yourself in terms of hardware and internet access.  

The costs and additional work required made this an unworkable solution long term and I ended up abandoning it, walking away smarter for the the experience. 

Phase 3: Choosing a Hosted Web Photo Service -- SmugMug

My latest photo book experience motivated me to look for a commercial offering that could meet the needs that had been identified in crafting a custom solution.  After some web searching and a lot of reading, I decided to give SmugMug a try.  SmugMug caters to photographers, it is built to host and serve images putting it in good alignment with my goals, it is the industry niche leader and has been around for multiple years.  

One of the first decision points was which account type would fit best, they run from $4 to $25 per month.  That's quite a range.  Each has a number of features, with the more expensive ones being supersets of the lower priced options. Here are my thoughts on the account types as they relate to my needs:
  • Basic $3.99/Month -- Basically a paid Flickr account with less branding and no need to have an account to view images.  Actually, that's pretty great for me.  It addresses most of my immediate pain points at a pretty low cost.
  • Power $5.99/Month -- This adds three things that I really like: (1) Support for custom URL so I can have my site be named BarrettPhoto.us as opposed to BarrettPhoto.SmugMug.com. (2) Custom HTML, so I can craft my own pages that give me more control. (3) Right click protection, so I can block people from easily downloading displayed images giving me better control.
  • Portfolio $12.50/Month -- Storefront options that allow the selling of images from the web site and watermarking displayed images.  That's an interesting option, but my presumed volume would be low making a $60 annual cost hard to justify at least initially.  
  • Business $25/Month -- More control and options to really power a web store for a photo business.  This is an attractive option for those that need it, but it is beyond my foreseeable needs. 
I have opted for a Power account, that custom URL possibility and right click protection are just too attractive.  I may upgrade to Portfolio when I am done building, if it seems worthwhile at that point.  More information on SmugMug plans is, off course available on their web site

Establishing a Custom URL

Since my website could have a custom URL, I needed to obtain one.  To do that I had to select a name registrar and then a domain.  (Ironically, while working at AOL, I had created a name registrar for internal use.)  There are a lot of registrar's out there, the most visible might be GoDaddy.com, largely because of their sexually suggesting advertising during the Super Bowl.  They and others of their ilk offer a staggering array of services bundles and add ons that make their pricing a mine field.  They also open up reliability concerns.  Having been involved in this business, I know I don't want to ever have a domain not found error driven by a problem at my registrar.

I also wanted simple and clean which led me to look at Google domains.  As in all things Google, it is simple, clean and it just plain works.  Pricing there is similar, seemingly identical after wading through the pricing obfuscation at a couple of other sites and they don't offer a wild mix of other services for free or possible not.  

Google does offer a custom mail service through there Gsuite offering for $5 per month which would give me the reliability of gmail with my very own name attached.  That's a bargain price for what would appear to be a private email service with great reliability.  On the other hand, this is a hobby and I don't need a bunch of monthly expenses, when free is an option.  I can get part way to private by using the included mail redirector, which allows me to have a custom email address for receiving, but not sending email.  That's amateurish, but seemingly appropriate for a hobby. 

Having selected my registrar, I next dug into the actual work steps.

Purchasing a Private Domain

I used the Search Domains link from Google's registrar to see what's available that would be appropriate for my web site. I tried several different keywords in the search window before trying Barrett and Photo.  This popped up several names that looked attractive including my selection barrettphoto.us.  

I was looking for short, descriptive and inexpensive.  I tried some acronyms which could allow me a shorter name, but essentially all of the short, reasonable names are taken.

I also saw more exotic Top Level Domains (TLDs) which could shorten the name further.  Barrett.Photo being the most attractive name.  Although nearly no one has heard of the .photo TLD and it is more expensive $26 vs $12 annually for a .us domain.  That's not a lot of difference, but .photo is new and clearly it's a vanity name which may be subject to price hikes for what would be captive customers.  

Google's offering of BarrettPhoto.us seemed the best choice and its what I have selected.

Setting up a Mail Redirector

This step was very easy.  I selected the mail icon from Google's domain management page and put in mail addresses and aliases for the four people involved in what was becoming Barrett Photo. I also created a generic Contact @ email address and could add more, up to 100, for the basic cost. Each of these email addresses was sent a confirmation email with a confirmation link.  After the confirmation was executed, mail forwarding started working.  Easy Peasy.

I configured my email client (Mac Mail) to set a reply to tag on mail I send from the account configured to receive my redirected email.  This is a partial solution to the problem of my responses coming from a different email address to the one that I receive email on.   I can't do this with my phone email client. 

Pointing Domain to My Web Site

My first hurdle was pointing my freshly minted URL at my web site so people could use www.barrettphoto.us to reach me.  That required using Google's page that allows configuration of my very small portion of their name servers.  This page is reached from the icon showing two small horizontal bars on the only menu bar shown on the Google Registrar pages.

I then needed to create a custom resource record that would point www on my domain to smug mug.  Here's what that portion of the screen looked like after I added my data:

After adding that CNAME record my web site starting responding from browsers.  Pretty cool, eh?

BarrettPhoto.us Doesn't Work!

In no time at all I was sharing the domain with people and almost as quickly, I was told that barrettphoto.us doesn't work.  It turns out that many web browsers will quietly try adding a www. in front of an apparent URL if it isn't provided which was making the naked URL work from my Safari, Firefox, and Chrome browsers but it failed on some others including everything on my iPhone.

A bot of research uncovered a how-to page solution for this at support.google.com. Unfortunately, this page if for Suite customers, remember that $5/month option for vanity email address?  It includes this as well.

After doing some more digging I determined that I could add a Synthetic Record to establish Subdomain Forwarding which should do the trick. Here is what my configuration screen looked like after data entry, before hitting Add:

After  I hit Add, the page started to respond to both www.barrettphoto.us and barrettphoto.us.  That's success!

Phase 4: More Efforts

Now, I just have to upload a zillion files, configure folders, galleries, pages, and basically do a lot more work to make this what I want it to be.  The good news is that it seems very viable and not too expensive.  Feel free to visit at either: www.barrettphoto.us or barrettphoto.us.

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