This site has been running off of WordPress for years – since way back at WordPress version 1 – and hasn’t had a re-design since WordPress 2 was released. Recently, I encountered Squarespace while helping a friend put a site together. I was very impressed by Squarespace’s ease-of-use, beautiful designs and thorough feature set. Seeing Squarespace also made me realize that my own site was looking very dated, so I decided it was time to bring completedigitalphotography.com into the modern web era. This posed an immediate quandary: should I stick with WordPress or migrate to Squarespace? Which, I wondered, was best for a photo site?

Considering My Needs

I know, I know, first and foremost my site needs content. Or rather, more regularly-updated content – something I have been very negligent about doing. I started this site in 2000, when the web, digital photography and the online photo world were very different. Since then, many things – including me – have changed. I can now see that I am not, and do not want to be, a photo news site. Nor am I a dedicated reviews site. I am a photographer and a teacher and what I would like this site to be is a place where I can relate the things that I think will help other photographers who are trying to improve their work. Sometimes that might involve some news or a review while at other times it might require the presentation of a gallery of images or a blog post.

So, like most web contributors, I need a system that makes it easy for me to get content on-line so that posting will not be an off-putting chore. As a photographer, I need a place to show my images in an attractive way but without a lot of hassle. Finally, I have a couple of other specialized needs. This site provides errata and downloads for my book Complete Digital Photography as well as information about upcoming workshops and events.

All-in-all, my needs are pretty simple, and both Squarespace and WordPress seem ideally suited to meeting them.

Squarespace.com

Squarespace is a web-based development platform that provides everything you need to design and build a site. It doesn’t require that you know any web technologies – you won’t be required to use any HTML, CSS or JavaScript, nor will you need to use an FTP client or other mechanism for moving files from your computer to the Squarespace servers. Every single aspect of the design process is handled via your web browser.

My first concern with Squarespace was what would happen to my site if Squarespace were to go out of business. Fortunately, your Squarespace site is not locked into any kind of proprietary system – you can actually extract a completely normal set of HTML and supporting files and move your site to another system, so you’re not investing time into a non-portable system. Perhaps more significant is that Squarespace has already been around for a few years and seems to be doing very well. Odds are, they’re not folding any time soon.

The first step in building a Squarespace site is to choose from one of their pre-designed templates. Roughly two dozen are offered and they’re very well-designed. Templates fall into several categories aimed at particular uses: businesses, stores, personal, musicians, and restaurants. For photographers you’ll find a selection of portfolio designs as well as six designs aimed specifically at wedding photographers. All of the templates offer a very clean design and are attractive. While some are obviously not right for a photo web site, there are enough good candidates that making a choice can be hard.

 

Once you’ve chosen a template you’re ready to get started.

Try It For Free

You can get a fully-functional 14-day trial of Squarespace, making it easy to determine if the service provides a theme you like, as well as giving you a chance to try out Squarespace’s development tools. You won’t be able to put your site live without paying but you can work through all other aspects of development and actually build a finished, complete site.

After you choose a template you’ll find yourself facing a fully designed site already populated with sample content. This sample content is a real boon to speedy development. With the portfolios and navigation menus already sporting usable content you can quickly see if a design works for you, or test out quick changes to a design without having to first shoehorn in some placeholder media.

I settled on a template and began to work on menu structure and interface refinements using the built-in photo content.

Squarespace figure3

 

Editing and authoring

The actual editing of the site design is very easy and a lot of fun. With a simple drag-and-drop interface you’ll design and edit your site by dragging elements from menus directly onto the site’s pages. Images are uploaded through a web interface and Squarespace provides widgets for all sorts of different gallery-type presentations, complete with sliders, dissolves, and fades. It is very easy to get a very attractive gallery up very quickly with Squarespace. However, importing images takes a while because Squarespace must process each image. I assume this is to create several different image sizes, since images scale automatically as you change the size of your browser window. Here you can see a good demo of the Squarespace design interface in action.

Simple, mostly intuitive tools are provided for refining and fine-tuning a design and Squarespace provides most of the things you could want on a page. Social media feeds, blogrolls, an e-commerce engine, Amazon Associates integration and much more are all provided, straight out of the box and you’ll never have to face a single line of any type of code or underlying web technology.

Squarespace's editing tools let you interact directly with a finished web layout – no coding is necessary.

 

That said, templates can only be pushed around so far, design-wise. While Squarespace does provide an option for inserting custom CSS into various corners of a site, if you really want a fine level of control over the look of your site you won’t necessarily be able to get it with Squarespace. Even some straight typographic controls are not easily accessible. Changing the fundamental layout of a theme is not possible.

When your site is ready you can take it live and even map your own custom domain to the site, just as you would with any other web development system. Squarespace creates sites that scale and resize automatically and that are mobile aware – your site will look good on your smart phone as well as your desktop.

Squarespace provides excellent documentation and support – I found the answers to all of my problems by simply Googling “How do I do [whatever] in Squarespace.” In most cases this yielded a movie showing precise steps to solve my problem.

Impressions

You’ll find an impressively deep level of modern functionality in Squarespace, and it’s all wrapped up in a great interface that makes building a beautiful, complex site very simple. For photographers, you can use the built-in Gallery widgets, which look very nice and provide an option for captions. Every time I thought that I had hit a deal-breaking reason to abandon Squarespace, I found that the service offered a solution for that very problem. For example, my existing site has a number of referral pages that are necessary to support older versions of my book. Because Squarespace doesn’t give me access to the actual server where the site is stored I became worried that there would be no way to create these referral pages. Fortunately, the system has a mechanism for adding these.

My next concern was moving data from my current WordPress site. I dreaded the idea of copying and pasting content from my current site into the Squarespace system, but Squarespace provides a WordPress import mechanism. However,  I haven’t tried it and so can’t speak to its abilities.

Overall, I would say that if you need to get a web site up quickly, or if you’re tired of hassling with the technical aspects of web construction and want to focus on design and content, Squarespace is a great solution. Still, I had a lot invested in WordPress already, so I wasn’t sure if moving was a good idea.

WordPress

When referring to WordPress I don’t mean WordPress.com, the blogging service, but rather the free WordPress software that you can run from your own server or from a service provider. Many service providers, such as Dreamhost.com even offer automatic installation of WordPress into your account.

Like Squarespace, WordPress sites are built around templates, which WordPress refers to as themes. Unlike Squarespace, you’re not limited to themes provided by the WordPress company. You can create your own themes or choose from amongst the thousands and thousands of themes that are available for free or for a nominal fee. This illustrates the main difference between WordPress and Squarespace: control. WordPress gives you a phenomenal level of control, but this comes with the price of more complexity – Squarespace limits what you can do, but developing a site in Squarespace is much easier than it is in WordPress. With WordPress you can rewrite any of the underlying HTML, CSS, and PHP code to create a finely tuned look and function.

In the years since I last looked into WordPress themes a lot of things have happened. You can now get themes that are very easy to work with and plug-ins that provide drag-and-drop editing that’s very similar to what Squarespace provides.

Finding A Theme

WordPress installs with a few plain, stock themes, but from the WordPress control page you can go to a theme browser which provides an easy way to view a huge assortment of free themes. However, there are many more themes available than just those available in the official WordPress repository. Themeforest.net provides a number of retail themes. Many of these themes offer more than just nice design – the fee you pay often buys you sophisticated back-end functionality that might include custom editing features, integration with e-commerce systems and much more.

Like Squarespace, ThemeForest allows you to search and browse themes targeted at specific applications. After browsing the photography themes for a while I decided on a product called Fotomin. I liked the type treatment and layout throughout the site and the up-front gallery display. After a little poking into other sites built on the Fotomin theme, I decided that it offered a navigation structure that would support the various things I needed in my site.

Themes can be augmented with Plug-ins and you can probably find a WordPress plug-in for just about anything you’d ever want to display or do on your site. For photographers, there are a huge number of gallery and presentation plug-ins available, giving you a tremendous range of options for presenting your work.

There are also plug-ins that make the management of your site much easier. Because I was missing the drag-and-drop editing workflow of Squarespace, I sprang for Visual Composer, a WordPress plug-in that gives an almost Squarespace-like  editing environment. With a simple drag and drop you can create complex grid layouts on a page or add widgets that provide easy creation of galleries, forms, and much more.

Making a Choice

As is probably obvious by now, I ultimately chose to stick with WordPress rather than switch to Squarespace. In the end, I simply liked the Fotomin WordPress theme more than I liked any of the Squarespace designs, and I liked the design freedom I have in WordPress. As good as the Squarespace design and editing tools are there’s just a little more design power in WordPress, and I was reluctant to give that up. But there were a few other factors that swayed my decision:

• I had no idea if Squarespace’s WordPress import facility would do a good job and I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of looking through over 500 posts to see if they had all made the transition well.

• After being moved into Squarespace, existing pages would end up with different addresses. This would break links that might be coming from other sites and would possibly disrupt Google rankings for existing pages.

• The design flexibility provided by WordPress gives me more options for displaying photos. In addition to the various gallery plug-ins available, I feel like WordPress gives me more options for layout of galleries and photo-heavy postings. If I want to do galleries that also include a lot of text, I have more options with WordPress than I would with Squarespace. Because I don’t always want to simply post slideshows, this is a very important consideration for me.

• With its plug-in architecture, WordPress offers more options for the display of different kinds of media. For example, if a technology for delivering a particular type of VR or gigapixel image comes along, there’s a better chance that I’ll be able to shoehorn it into a WordPress site than a Squarespace site.

Obviously, some of my concerns have to do with the fact that I already have an existing WordPress site. If I were starting from scratch I might have come to a different conclusion.

Overall, I would say that both products are excellent options for photographers who want an attractive, easy-to-use system for displaying portfolios and galleries. Squarespace is far easier to use so, for the user with no web building experience, the choice is simple: go with Squarespace. For the more web savvy user who wants more control and more options, WordPress will be a better fit.