Is a photo website battle ever won?
If you have archivist tendencies, combined with strong analytical props, and a digital bent, digital photo management is the field for you, my friend. As an amateur or professional, you too can find new and interesting rabbit holes to explore.
For me, I have wanted to put some of my photos online since 2005 when we bought our first digital camera. Actually, a little before that, as we had films developed and they threw in digital prints for a $1 more sometimes. And I’ve had a website since back to the dark ages before that, with the natural thought, “Could I share them on there?”.
Round 1 – Basic HTML site
Initially, round 1 of my attempt was to code my own little gallery website. I was doing all of my photos in custom FrontPage designs, and I uploaded two or three albums in HTML code. It worked, it was functional, but it wasn’t very easy to manage. More like “dump them here and you can see them”. I also wasn’t particularly sure if I had a good process behind the scenes, but when there’s only a couple of hundred, the supply side of uniformity in file management gives way to the demand side of ease of management. Throw them in a folder, call it done. Upload a few, call it done.
Eventually, I upgraded the side to a content management system, and photos were NOT an easy inclusion. Sure, I *could* include them, but it was very manual AND hard to manage all the photos on the site. They didn’t go in a subfolder, they just went in one big directory online called “media” or “images”. Not very satisfactory even with a couple of hundred images. If I uploaded another year’s worth? Meh.
Sure, I could do it through FB, but I don’t really like FB that much, and I really don’t like having all my stuff there. Plus lots of people in the family who would/could/might want to view the images aren’t ON Facebook. Or at least most of them weren’t at the time. Over time, that edge has dulled a bit, but still, it’s an issue.
Round 2 – Photo hosting site
Eventually, I decided I needed a REAL solution for online. I had enough photos that I wanted to upload that I went for an online photo site, and reviewed a bunch of sites. In the end, I went all-in on Smug Mug. It was great. I could choose a theme, I could have subdirectories. I had to manually add all my labels and descriptions, uploading my initial pics for the second time plus about 4y worth of photos, but at least I could do it. Cross-linking to my website wasn’t easy peasy, lemon squeezy, but I could do it. Sort of. More like “good enough” rather than “good”.
Except that because of the volume and use I was needing, I needed a paid account. It was only about $100 a year overall, but it was always a bit grudging payment. Here I was, paying for Smug Mug to host my pics, when I was ALREADY paying for my own site. Does that make sense to anyone? Easier than running my own photo gallery, most of the time, sure, but on principle, it annoyed me.
Round 3.1 – PolyWogg.ca
And about 6-7 years ago, the principle got to me. I wanted it on my own site. No content rules, no limitations, my own site. So I moved it to my polywogg.ca account. Great. I ran a gallery called Coppermine initially, got it going, wasn’t totally happy with it, but managed to upload a year or two. Not bad. I considered it “round 3” for online.
But it wasn’t working quite the way I wanted it to, I struggled here and there. Eventually, I decided I needed a different solution, and opted for a photo gallery called Piwigo. It had a lot of power, extra extensions, themes and plugins, like any good online community eco-system. And it handled all of my photos REALLY well. Video was still a bit of a challenge, but I could make it work. Probably.
I didn’t quite get the chance to find out. I ran into some problems about that time with an old hoster, and moved to my third hoster of my online career. I lasted about 18m with that one before they really started screwing me around. I was almost to the point where I was considering calling in a lawyer if the amounts weren’t so small. Mostly I just wanted to smack them around. Really terrible business practices and even worse support. Like them modifying my site without telling me, my finding their changes, their denying it despite the logs showing they had done it, so they deleted the logs, and my support tickets, and then deleting my complaint files (all the same support people) so the bosses wouldn’t find out what they had done. Eventually it blew up on them entirely, and a lot of people went public for awhile before the whole unit was fired and supposedly new people hired, but by that time, I was long gone.
I had moved to a medium-sized company in Canada, my current hoster, and within days of moving, I knew I felt at home. There had been a long, lingering problem on the old site, I was convinced it was a server configuration issue but had no idea how to solve it and the support people denied there were any issues. Two days after I moved to the new host, their support group reached out to me, noting the misconfiguration was likely affecting my site performance and suggesting a fix, if I was okay with it. For what I was doing, there was a small reconfiguration required, and they were proactively helping me solve it. Nice.
I reinstalled Piwigo, spent about a year getting it all up and running the way I wanted it to (after all the other changes I made to my main website were taken care of), and I consider that round 3.2. I started uploading photos. Again.
For the first year of photos, this was the fifth time uploading them somewhere (once in HTML, once in SmugMug, once in Coppermine, and now twice in Piwigo on two different hosters). Some metadata transferred, some did not. Sigh.
Round 4.1 – WordPress
I know I’m anal, but this decision really wasn’t mine. Not exactly.
You see, my site has unlimited storage and unlimited bandwidth (within the general setup of the site for speed and servers), BUT one thing that almost all small hosting packages have in common is a small note in the fine print. A limit on “inodes”.
If you don’t know what an inode is, you’re not alone, and most people who have hosting packages never even notice it. It’s basically a “file marker” in the server that tells it where to find a folder or a file. Like an index card system in a library or your old file allocation table in Windows.
For my hosting package, I am authorized up to 200K inodes. Which sounds like a lot. I have unlimited space, but for inodes, I can have say 1 folder with 199,999 files in it, or 100K folders with only 1 file in it. Neither are likely scenarios but here’s the catch. When you install WordPress, with all its little files for the core, themes and plugins, it takes about 10K files and folders. Piwigo takes about 5K all on its own. I also run two other installations of WP on my site (for other sites), and I used to have 3. Which meant just based on “installed” software, I had 35K worth of my 200K inodes already taken up.
Still, lots of room, and I cut one installation when I merged PolyBlog with PolyWogg. Back to 25K in inodes, 175K left. Plenty of space, right? Except Piwigo has a really nasty habit of generating other sized photos. So let’s say I upload 10K photos. That’s 10K inodes. Initially.
Then Piwigo generates a thumbnal (+10K), a small image (+10K), a medium image (+10K), a large image (+10K), and the original image (~0 extra). So 10K worth of images generates 50K in inodes. Umm…that’s not good. In fact, with EVERYTHING running at one point, I was up to 145K/200K used. Yikes.
Now, I can reconfigure Piwigo not to do that, and I did. I got it down to a smaller number, but the way it does it, it will always generally be twice the number of inodes.
Okay, so I had it down to a smaller functioning site, all good, right?
Well, not exactly. I still had to keep maintaining the site for admin, including improved security, etc. Plus, it isn’t exactly the most robust of software packages. I found a few things that had to be coded manually to fix, and while we found solutions (or rather the community experts helped me figure it out), it was kind of like hacking the code to make it do what I wanted. Satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time.
Round 4.2 – New WordPress versions
In the meantime, WordPress was continually evolving. It moved forward several iterations and then finally a full version upgrade, and more and more, the Piwigo solution wasn’t really integrating very well, Which is a bit of a problem.
I am, primarily, a blogger. While I have a huge site, most of the content is in pages I wrote as blog entries like this one. And I want to include more photos. Even if it is only, “Hey, here’s this photo I took yesterday at the tulip festival” before I tell some story about the experience. Yet the more WP evolved, the harder it was to integrate the photos from the site. I did it a bit manually for awhile too, passing up on some malfunctioning automated tools, but it was far from satisfying.
What I REALLY wanted was what I had wanted from the beginning. One site, one solution.
I dug back into all the photo galleries that had existed from the dawn of time, or at least it seemed like it. I found dozens that were popular and in heavy use. Some were really cool. I limited myself to those that were still compatible with the new versions of WordPress, but it was still a long list.
And almost all of them had a recurring problem. The same one I had way back at the beginning…they all use the media library as their default save location, which means by default, all the photos are stored in the same place as where you store your site header, featured images, etc. It’s nice that it’s all in one spot, but it is kind of like throwing all your books in one room and saying you have a library. No organization, no easy searching, just a long list of images to find the one you want.
The most popular one of all is one called NextGen. It has been around for years, made by Imagely, and one of the reasons people use it, other than robustness, is that it has a totally separate file structure. That presents good and bad features, but the biggest “pro” is that all of your media is stored separately. Your core media library remains untouched. One “con” is that it doesn’t handle video.
But since none of the others can handle video either, I gave it a go. Again. Sure, I say again, because I had tried it 2-3 other times previously. I always wanted all my stuff in WP, and every time I considred Smug Mug or Piwigo, I looked to see lightly if I could find a good solution in WP, and NextGen was always on the list. I could never get it to work properly.
I don’t know exactly why, but it would NEVER work right. So I’d move on, frustrated.
This time I tried it, and it worked. Out of the box, day one, first light. It just worked. What’s different from the last time? A new version of WordPress, which is significant. And I’m on an entirely different hoster that is properly configured. Does that make the difference? I don’t know. I just know it works.
Holy crap. It worked. I could integrate my GALLERY within my MAIN SITE. Holy snicker doodles.
I started uploading. I got 2005-2008 uploaded, and I hit a small wall. My site design wasn’t quite right.
Round 5 – PolyWogg 5.0
I redesigned major parts of my site in the last year. Fixed a bunch of inconsistencies, tweaked some other settings, added whole new sections. And each time I made a change, I kind of said, “Okay, I’ll figure out later how my photos fit into this new site.” I kept pushing it off.
I needed the “words” to work before I figured out how the photo and videos would work. Or if they even would.
That’s no small issue. While there are huge advantages to having everything in one site, my site has grown. It’s quite large. It has a LOT of moving parts. And the more I push in certain areas, the more I expand my content, the less functional it seemed having everything together.
A few weeks ago, I had to bite the bullet and decide. Was it going back to having two (or more) sites for PolyWogg content, maybe one for my HR guide, a separate one for regular blogging, a separate one perhaps for photos? In the end, I reframed the question. What were the REAL obstacles in having it all on one site?
The final analysis brought me to two pain points:
Content management wasn’t the real issue. It was that I have a lot of content that I want to group together but branding it doesn’t really work with my standard “PolyWogg” headers. And navigation amongst the sub areas is too hard when you only have one pull-down menu for that category with a lot of sub-sub-sub-menus.
Again, as with all things in web developer, there was another option besides a separate site. I could, in theory, have separate headers for my different content as well as separate menus. There would be one master menu for the site, but once you got into more granular areas, you would move to a wholly different menu too.
Except I had tried this on multiple occasions, my theme is SUPPOSED to be able to do this, and I’ve never been able to get it to work. I’ve tried other plugins, nada. But this is what I WANTED. Maybe I could bang my head for a few weeks and see if I could cobble together a solution.
Okay, step 1, reach out for theme support. See if they had suggestions as to which other plugins would work well with the theme to do exactly what I wanted. Or tell me how to make it work with the theme. I’ve had some luck with them in the last year tweaking my theme, so I was willing to give it a go. I posted my question, aaaaand I crashed their site.
I’m not kidding. I literally crashed their support site. They fixed it and went, “Huh, what happened?”. I told them I had been posting a question, they double-checked the log, and sure enough, it was my account that killed it. My account is somehow corrupted (they don’t know how or why), and my posting killed them. They’ve tweaked it so that I can’t do it again, but my acct is still messed up somehow. I can use it, but well, I get some weird screens that others don’t get. No worries, I’ll survive.
Except in the meantime I figured I would see how far I could get on my own down this rabbit hole. I went to my theme. I enabled the features. I went to my test page, switched the header to the proper one, no change. Yep, I remember that outcome. Went back to another sub-page, made some more tweaks, misread an option, set it, reset, now NO header. WTF? Oh. Oops, misread it. Okay, reset that option, found two others that seemed to make sense that I haven’t noticed before, might be new, retested. And my header changed. All of my branding changed for that one sub-page with 2 minutes worth of work. Holy smokes.
Okay, don’t get cocky, I thought. I went to the menu area. I tried to create a new menu, copying over my old one. Told it not to put it ANYWHERE, just a dummy menu. Went in and deleted some stuff just so I could see that it was different. Went to the page that had the new header and told it to show the new menu on that page, not the regular menu. Reloaded. BAM! All of my navigation was changed for that one sub-page with 2 minutes more work.
I did it. Exactly the way it is supposed to work, and I’m 95% sure, exactly the way I had tried it on previous occasions. But I don’t care now. It works.
Which meant I could keep my single site. Which means no separate setup. Nothing to stop me from using my existing site. All I had to do was decide on a consistent format to my layout and design for that sub-area that wouldn’t bite me in the butt later.
Because I’m not talking some small site. The average site in WordPress for people using other galleries is maybe 1000 photos. Sites that run full WooCommerce and sell products frequently don’t have more than 1000 items in their site. For me? We average 2000 photos a year, of which I post about a third. We broke a thousand mid-way into year 2, I’m over 2000 by the end of year 4, and I haven’t even included all the photos from our wedding events that year. Including the honeymoon section which is huge.
Long term, I’m estimating somewhere around 20K photos just to get caught up to now, although that may top 25K. I know professional photographers who don’t have that many. AND I haven’t even got to what I want to do for astrophotography images.
Rebooting the gallery
Since I had already uploaded the photos for 2005-2008, I didn’t have to do much to “fix” those galleries. I renamed a bunch, I changed the look and feel from an old template being deprecated to a new one, tweaked some inconsistencies here and there, and added a new video section that works really well, so I’m generally “good to go”.
Previously when I played with the first 4 years worth of gallery, I had to spend a lot of time getting them up and running. Maybe one gallery a day. I just did 32 galleries in about four days, one year per day, generally about 2 hours work while I was editing other things.
I’ve even managed to get past my previous point of progress (2005-2008), completed all the old galleries for the wedding, and I’m finally back into the truly “new” ones for being part of WordPress. I had reached 2011 at one point with SmugMug, I think, but I’m pretty happy with my early rebuild. I have a full workflow figured out, complete with Mylio as my software, and it is giving me the confidence that I have finally “turned the corner” on my go to solution. Four years down, thirteen to go, albeit the next thirteen won’t be anywhere near as fast. And alas, 2009-2011 is redoing old work. At least I’m doing it properly now.
Just don’t ask me about astrophotography yet. I don’t know HOW I’m going to organize that stuff.
Overall though, apparently the “seventh time was the charm”…I have won a decisive battle, but the war rages on.
I use Google photos to store my pics. I used to love it until one day Google started labelling my bunnies as Cats.
Love this post, never thought photo websites could bring so many challenges.
I use Google Photos to store my pics. I used to love it until one day Google started labelling my bunnies as Cats.
Love this post, never thought photo websites could bring so many challenges.
I hoped to go that way, but Google is moving to shut it down, and has been for a long time. I didn’t feel the solution was sustainable… 🙂