Tuesday, January 29, 2019

PhotoShelter Review from a Commercial Photographer

Before deciding to use PhotoShelter in 2016 for my Commercial Architecture & Interior Design Photography business in New York City, I had been a long-time user of Pictage for my Professional Wedding & Portrait Photography business while living in Massachusetts, Indiana, and Michigan from 2005-2015.  Before I had settled on either of these solutions for my photography business, I had investigated a lot of other solutions first.  I mention this just to provide some context and background for my time and experience with professional image vendors in the photography industry.


When Pictage closed in 2015, I had to scramble to find a way to transfer my 10 years of professional image archives out of that solution and into a new solution.  The quickest answer that I could manage online at the time was to FTP all client image archives from Pictage into Dropbox.  This wasn't the best solution, but it was the solution I had time to manage, along with the help of a virtual assistant that I had hired to make sure the task was completed properly.

My NYC Real Estate, Rental, Architecture, & Interior Design Photography clients had very different needs than my Wedding & Portrait Clients.  Wedding & Portrait clients needed some print fulfillment options for greeting cards, wall prints, framing, sharing images with guests, selecting how private their images would be based on who was looking at them, and album proofing, printing, and binding to help them pull together family and wedding albums.  Commercial clients needed no professional print fulfillment from me, just digital solutions.

Commercial & Residential Real Estate, Rental, Architecture, & Interior Design Photography clients needed to be able to share the images with multiple vendors, have a variety of image licensing options, have a variety of downloading sizes and file types (TIF, JPG, PDF), and have a sense of privacy and control over who could see and access the images. I also needed to be able to store some RAW files to collaborate with retouchers and post-production specialists who were based in other states or cities and give them access to download those files easily.  The total file size needs were not in giga-bytes, but in tera-bytes, so I needed an unlimited image storage solution that could deliver fast uploads and downloads.

In my scramble to find an interim solution, I found that Dropbox was awful for images.  Color accuracy was atrocious, which ruined all the careful white balancing I'd done for commercial architecture and interior clients who spent hours picking out the right colors for their projects and relied on me to nail that color accuracy in photos.  The colors were fine after they were downloaded, or if they were being viewed offline, but online- terrible.  I almost lost some clients over this issue, so I really needed to find another solution other than Dropbox for my commercial clients.

I shopped around comparing various industry photo hosting and storage vendors, and found that many of them were mainly focused on catering to the needs of wedding & portrait photographers.  Which is, after all, one of the largest photography industry markets, so I get it.  Many fewer businesses need professional photography than number of people getting married or having families.


Photoshelter appeared somewhat small in terms of photography market share of users.  They had been slowly and steadily building their platform and it appeared that they were focusing on users that came out of the New York market of clients.  Photojournalists, Fine Art Photographers, and Commercial Photographers dominate the New York photography landscape.  Professional Real Estate and Rental Photography has only exploded in the last 5 years.  Interior Design & Architecture will always remain a very small niche market of photography mainly focused in the top cities of the world.  So the question came down to whether or not Photoshelter had everything I needed as a commercial photographer?  The following is a run-down of what I've found to be good and what can be improved after using PhotoShelter for a couple years.

Initially, they didn't have an unlimited storage option, so it was tough for me to sign up right away, knowing that I would have limits on the number of files I'd be able to manage on their platform without incurring extra upcharge fees that might be unpredictable.  Luckily, they started offering an unlimited option under $50/mo shortly after I started considering them, which made it much easier for me to bring all of my commercial image needs onto their servers.  I had been paying Pictage $100/mo for unlimited image proofing & storage, but they also provided many other services I needed as well.  I had been paying Dropbox $50/mo for shitty image proofing & storage of only 500GB, so PhotoShelter was a much better choice simply on the unlimited storage to cost ratio and the fact that I could integrate several other things into the same online service.

Since I provide different types of image files to different types of clients, I really needed a solution that could handle a variety of image files from RAW to TIF to JPG... and even PDF... and I was happy to find that PhotoShelter was able to manage all of these file types and provide color-accurate online previews of the files no matter what type they were being stored and offered in.  This made my clients happy to see such great color accuracy and quality detail on their images, and it made me happy to not have to explain to every new client that the color and quality would be better on download.  My clients purchased more images because they looked great- which is super important when you enter a realm where images can be licensed one by one for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

One of the other important factors in commercial work was being able to control who could access the images, who could download the images, what file size and type they could download, as well as how long they would have access to those downloads.  I was happy to see that PhotoShelter had built-in options for offering different file sizes from one original download, as well as giving me the ability to limit who would be able to download based on email or password, and how long they would be able to download, based on expiration date or a one-time download link that lasted a few days.

I wasn't really expecting to get a portfolio included with my online image hosting & proofing provider, but with PhotoShelter I did, and it was so easy to drag and drop images from the unlisted proofing side of the website to the listed and visible website portfolio side of the website.  There are also some built-in image SEO tools, watermarking options, and website layouts that make setting up and revising your portfolio as easy as just dragging and dropping from your latest projects.

For photographers who want to keep their money where their images are, PhotoShelter is OK, but it takes a bigger cut of your sales than other solutions.  So, I had to make a decision about whether I was going to run my client invoices and sales through PhotoShelter or continue using other options that I'd already started using after Pictage closed.  Unfortunately the commission and online sales structure through PhotoShelter took too much of a percentage for my tastes.  I'm not giving up 8% of my commercial client invoices, sorry guys.  It might be great for someone occasionally selling fine art, who is comparing another online gallery ownership take of 15-50%, but I came from using a business solution that took no more than 3%, so the 8% commission option on the pro plan was a killer for wanting to use their sales engine for commercial work or invoicing.  I just chose to avoid that entire part of their services completely, since I already had another solution that worked better and gave me more profit from my sales.

I had a very close relationship with Pictage when I was using their service.  They had tiers of customer service response based on how heavily you were invested with them, so pro users and members had no issues talking to someone right away with their pro client concierge service.  They had round tables where they would discuss improvement ideas with power users, so improvement ideas were valued when they came from the community of users.  It was a level of service that feels rare in the online marketplace now.  Anyway, that's what I'm comparing to when I talk about customer service.

Photoshelter has OK customer service.  It exists at a minimum level.  It's still better than Dropbox.  It's still better than a platform solution you need to install and manage yourself.  Even though I've been a pro-member of PhotoShelter for a couple years, the two occasions I reached out for help didn't yield that much help.  If I were a first time online proofing solution user, this might be a problem.  Luckily, their system is mostly streamlined and works quite well in general, so you may not need much customer support.  Just know that it may be limited if you do need that support.  

The Photoshelter office is literally up the street from me, and I've been several times for their community events, so I asked about sitting down with the team to talk about some issues my clients were expressing with regarding to downloading their images.  I knew that these comments could create some great UX improvements, but the support team pretty much came back to me with the comment "we're always working to improve" but no follow-up to actually hear about the ways it could be improved.  They were looking at the system through their experienced eyes and seeing no problems, rather than taking some time to look over the shoulders of some people who weren't photographers or UX designers and who hadn't used their system before and were clicking the wrong buttons at the wrong time and getting the wrong results because of the UX design.  I digress.  It's an area they can improve upon, and I hope they do improve upon it.

At the end of the day, their UX for proofing and downloading images still gave my clients fewer headaches than using Dropbox as an interim solution, so it didn't stop me from using the service.  My design and commercial clients were just mildly frustrated that they kept making the same mistakes when downloading their images because of the way the site was designed.

It is still one of the more robust online proofing & delivery options for commercial photographers.  So yes, I'd recommend it and I think it's a solid solution for professional photographers.  Just go into it knowing that you may need to hand-hold your photography clients through some mild confusion if they miss some steps in the proofing & downloading workflow.

Anne Ruthmann is a retired professional photographer in New York City. With over 13 years of success as a full-time photographer in weddings, portraits, editorial, architecture, and interiors, she spends any extra time she has helping others find smart solutions to business problems. Stay in touch on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

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