154 Self-Hosted Gallery and Printing Solutions

There are many options for hosting your photography gallery and doing print fulfillment. I’ve finally settled on the solutions I plan to use and I’m trilled to talk this through with you so you can decide which option would be best for you. This is episode 154 of The Great Outdoors Photography Podcast for November 23, 2022.

A bit of background first

Maintaining a gallery is a hassle. It’s long been a dream of mine, and then I made plans, and then I never followed through with those plans because, well, it’s a hassle.

However, it’s really not “that” big of a deal since I categorize everything in my Lightroom catalog by region. And that’s now I’ll mostly categorize my online gallery. But the hassle was just too much to worry about. I have so many other things to worry about. I’m a busy guy with a growing family and a full-time job. But, like everything in life, it’s all about priorities too.

Recently I’ve decided I need to make some changes to what my priorities are (after all, I have a 44″ printer now and I need to put it to good use!) and expanding my online gallery with print sales was one of them. So here we are.

Also, I manage my own website. I use WordPress on my own SiteGround server. I use various plugins to add functionality to the site such as Elementor Page Builder to easily create more complex and elegant designs on the site. I also use a plugin to manage the access to The Great Outdoors Photography School. And there’s other plugins for a variety of other functions I want to have available on the site. The benefit of this solution is that I get to customize everything to my liking. The drawback is that everything is my responsibility. However, given that WordPress is used on over 40% of all websites I know there’s a lot of development in the space and it’s very well supported and if I get into trouble I can usually find a fix for it. Plus, when you have a quality host like SiteGround you’ll get great service too if you run into issues.

Solutions I've tried in the past

I like the idea of hosting things myself. It’s just a thing with me. So in reality, I have never given those online solutions a fair shake. Although there’s a new service that just came available and I’ll talk about it a bit later, but all the others like zenfolio, smug mug and what-not… I’ve just never tried them out. 

In part it’s because many of them have a monthly fee that I can’t see myself getting into as I build up print sales.

Also, the tech just wasn’t right in the past. Both Envira Gallery and NextGen offer a Lightroom plugin to connect Lightroom Classic to your website, but both of them have been buggy at best and atrocious to work with as they crashed my website when I tried to upload galleries. However, that was years ago now and I’ve not tested their new updates to these things as I’m just not interested in locking myself into this workflow. Exporting images from Lightroom into a dedicated folder and then uploading them to my site is just fine.

So, in short, I’ve tried Envira Gallery and NextGen in the past and have set up extensive test galleries with them but nothing “stuck” as it were. It’s always been too much of a hassle.

Also, about two years ago now, when I was testing NextGen I ran across a plugin conflict on my site. When NextGen was activated it caused my course delivery plugin to not operate properly in the management backend. As far as the customers who bought the course were concerned nothing was wrong. But I couldn’t edit it. After inquiring with the publisher of NextGen they admitted that it was a conflict with their code and that they would not be fixing it. I was less than impressed.

My Current Explorations

Fast forward to today… I wanted a solution that was easy to implement, robust and solid, and also had the design flexibility I needed to make it look the way I wanted it to look. Unfortunately, such a system doesn’t exist.

I first started by exploring a completely different WordPress installation that is separate from my main site. The benefits here are that it’s more stable and if my main site goes down the gallery will still be up, theoretically speaking anyway. But, it’s another site to manage and if I offer sales it’s another shopping cart solution to keep track of too.

However, setting up the separate site did allow me to test the two main plugins once again. They’ve both had significant updates in recent years so I wanted to test them out without risk of breaking my main site. So I would have done this for testing purposes anyway. But, I bought an extra domain or two that I probably won’t use since I’ve decided to just host everything on my main site.

In testing Envira Gallery, I really liked some of the options available for the lightbox. This is the view you get when you click on an image. It opens up an image viewer that allows you to see just the pictures. Envira was edging out NextGen just a little bit because of the superior lightbox.

However, I didn’t care for how Envira handles the image files. It places them in the main WordPress media library. If you’ve ever used WordPress in the past I’m sure you’ll agree that the standard solution for managing your media is pitiful. We’re on version 6 now, it’s almost 2023 and we still don’t have a native solution for managing the digital assets in WordPress. It’s pitiful.

NextGen creates it’s own folder and manages the images completely separately from the WordPress media library. This is a brilliant solution. It will also automatically downsize images for you. If you wanted, all you have to do is upload the full resolution of your image and it’ll take care of the rest, ensuring that the visitor’s browser is given the properly sized rendition of the image when they are tapping through the gallery. Another brilliant solution! This is especially helpful if you use their print fulfillment service. It’ll automatically send your high resolution image file to the printer and you don’t have to worry a thing about it. Brilliant.

But what about that pesky problem with NextGen and the course delivery plugin conflict.

In the time since I did those initial tests I have switched course delivery plugins and there have been updates to NextGen. I don’t know what the actual fix is, but the issue no longer exists. Believe me, I backed up the site a few times before I activated the plugin just in case it messed things up. Thankfully it’s all good.

Other solutions I tried

I also briefly looked at other image gallery plugins. Modula is another popular solution. Also, since I have Elementor already I could use the solutions it has. But the nagging issue of the Media Library getting more and more clogged just kept bothering me. 

I briefly considered solutions such as Flickr or 500 px. The benefit there is the potential to be discovered by more people. I also looked at Art Storefronts. It looks like they have a very slick solution and I can see myself doing that down the road, but for now I need to keep costs low and manageable. Plus, I just like doing things myself, at least to start out with.

My Gallery Solution of Choice

In the end I chose NextGen gallery.

I still like the lightbox better with Envira. But the way NextGen separates the image files and manages them won me over. I see that as making my website management more simplified and that’s a good thing.

I could dive into the CSS to modify the NextGen lightbox but have decided that for now it’s not worth it.

My next goal, of course, is to get more galleries up there. Since I have the process figured out it should be rather quick and easy. The longest thing I get bogged down with is in coming up with titles and writing extended captions. I’ve decided this is important to me and with greater practice I’ll certainly get a lot better at it.

Right now I’ve got a “Color In Motion” gallery. It’s a few images showing off some Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) photographs. I also have a gallery on my Alaska images almost completed. It should be done by the time this episode is released.

Creating more galleries in the future should be something that’s relatively easy to do since I categorize all my images by region anyway. I’ll just have to look up a region, filter the view to only show my flagged images and use that as a starting point. I’ll then create a collection in Lightroom to separate these out further and then I whittle it down from there to my final selects.

Criteria for Making a New Gallery

Creating more galleries in the future should be something that’s relatively easy to do since I categorize all my images by region anyway. I’ll just have to look up a region, filter the view to only show my flagged images and use that as a starting point. I’ll then create a collection in Lightroom to separate these out further and then I whittle it down from there to my final selects. This way I’ll be able to keep the images flagged but I’ll have a collection that is what is included in each gallery. I then color code the gallery collection in Lightroom so I know which ones are actually published and which ones are in the works.

If I return to a region I’ll just add more to the gallery and update it manually. I think it’ll be very easy to manage and I’m excited to finally have a solution that has come together for me.

My Print Sales Solution

Now that I have a big printer it’s hugely important for me to be able to offer big art prints of my images. This has been my dream for over a decade and it’s finally a reality. I’m still pinching myself, but I’ve yet to buy a replacement ink cartridge too, so we’ll see how long this euphoria lasts 🙂

NextGen has a great e-commerce solution. It’ll even connect to my online payment processor which is nice. But  I didn’t care for how it implements the sales. Basically, it integrates it right into the lightbox. Certainly this is convenient but when you’re looking at my gallery I don’t want you inundated with a sales pitch with each and every image. I want you to just enjoy the photography.

Also, with NextGen you have to set up your print sizes first and then each image can be offered at that size. I need something more bespoke. Something more customizable. With my prints I’m not adhering to standard frame sizes. The image dictates the crop and the media I’m printing too dictates the size. More on that later. The bottom line is I need something that’s easy to manage but also easy to customize what sizes are available on a print by print, or image by image, basis.

So what to do?

I’m using WooCommerce. It’s the most popular shopping cart solution for WordPress. And because I’m using the product categories and mirroring what’s going on in the gallery I’ll be able to filter them and place links to the available prints right from the main gallery page. So when you come to the gallery page you’ll see the thumbnails of the images that you can click on, but you’ll also then see a section at the bottom of the page that shows which images from this collection are available as prints. I’m just getting started with it so it works perfectly in my mind. We’ll see how it actually works in real life once I get a few galleries up.

Why I print the photos myself

I like to print BIG. My goal is to sell prints to collectors and other folks that want to decorate their home or office with some captivating imagery of the great outdoors.

As I stated before I have decided to not try and adhere to standard frame sizes. The folks I’m looking to sell to want custom work and a standard frame simply won’t cut it anyway. Plus, I’ll sell canvas prints too. And after a while I’ll get in to making my own metal prints. If I decide to include metal prints on my site those will be the only options I outsource for the time being. Everything else I will make myself.

So the bottom line is I’m an artist. And for me the entire process of creating the work is part of the creative process. My philosophy is that I should do as much as I am capable of doing. By creating everything myself the collector gets a bigger chunk of “me” in every work purchased.

What sizes should I offer?

I probably put WAY too much thought into this. I looked at what others offer. I considered what I want out of my printing experience and what my abilities are for post-production.

I don’t have a large print studio just yet. My goal is to transform about 500 square feet of our roughly 3,000 square feet shop into a print studio. We’ll do another 500 square feet of shared space with the farm that will be a classroom area. So in the end I’ll have 1,000 square feet to utilize for printing and production. The shop also has its own 200 amp electrical panel so powering any future equipment is not going to be an issue.

But for now I’m in an office that’s about 120 square feet. It’s very limiting.

For basic art prints I decided to offer just three sizes. The paper will be either 24, 36 or 44 inches tall. The image that is printed onto the paper will have a three inch border on top and on bottom (and on the sides as well). This would make the image size 18″ tall for the 24″ paper. It would be 30″ tall for the 36″ paper and it would be 38″ tall for the 44″ paper. The width of the image is determined by the crop, rounded to the nearest quarter inch. If the image is vertical in orientation the same principles will still apply, just vertically.

Certainly I’ll have to keep an eye on sharpness and resolution. Not all images will support printing this large, even with my 45MP camera. The plan here is to set the standard for what is the default offering per image. 

For canvas prints I’ll likely limit the sizes to the two largest options. I’ve yet to fully consider this, however.

I like this plan because it eliminates all trimming on my part. I don’t need a large table to do the trimming. The printer will take care of it all. Plus, with the 3″ border it’s like having a built-in mat around the image. 

I’ll be offering a simple option for framing as well. Unframed prints will be shipped in a tube while framed prints will be shipped flat and ready to hang. Canvases will also be shipped ready to hang. Any orders within about 50–100 miles from my home in NE Oregon will be delivered personally if it can be arranged with the collector.

What's Next?

I would love to have some gallery representation rather than just doing everything all on my own. I certainly appreciate making the pieces as much on my own as possible, but I have a goal of developing some relationships with some gallery owners so I can have my work represented to their collectors as well.

I am also very interested in offering fine art reproductions to artists whether they be photographers or painters. My service certainly won’t be cheap. When you work with me you’ll get a white-glove approach meaning that I’ll work with you to dial in the color so it’s perfect. I’ll put the work on the material you wish and if you need photography services I can do that too. That is, studio photography of your paintings or other works. I see this working very well with local artists but I can certainly do it for remote artists as well.

I also need to explore coatings for my prints. I’m used to the Canon printers with the Chroma Optimizer that it prints on as part of the printing process. But I’m now using an Epson printer and it doesn’t have such a thing. So I’ll be getting a can of varnish for prints and experimenting with that.

As I get a few dollars flowing with the print sales I’ll put that money right into my print studio in the shop. I’ll then expand my print offerings to include metal prints (more on that in a future episode) and prints on textiles. The sky is the limit with what’s possible with fine art print options.

Today's Dose of Inspiration

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

—Philippians 4:8, ESV

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.

—Mark Twain

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