Website Builders vs DIY Coded Portfolio site: Photographer & Web Developer Perspective
Building your first portfolio site isn't easy, or more specifically, is harder than you might initially think. For one thing, you have to write some sort of descriptor for yourself. If you have ever had to make up an elevator pitch for yourself, you know that trying to describe yourself isn't easy. The next thing is getting the material to showcase yourself. Most fields require a résumé of some sort, with many fields looking for work examples. Putting together a set of images or article clips can take some time, especially since the set is meant to represent your best efforts. And then there's the question of appearance of your site. Most people could tell good design if there is an example in front of them. As they say, everyone's a critic. But most people don't know how to create a good design. I'm someone in that boat. While I know how to envision coding a site for people to see, my eye for design isn't included with that.
That's where website builders like Squarespace, Format, Carrd, and others come in. A lot of people don't want to spend time learning HTML, CSS and other web tech just to present themselves online, and that's ok. Even if you have the knowledge already, it's still perfectly acceptable to use a website builder. At the end of the day, you just need to use the best tool for the job.
My tl;dr list of pros and cons is such:
- Financially less costly
- You learn more about how your website and the web works
- More control over your content
- Much more time investment
- Can be frustrating to get to a satisfactory point of completion with limited knowledge
- Faster / easier to create, deploy, and manage
- Technical support, even if you have to pay for it.
Website Builder Cons:
- Simple features may be locked behind a premium plan.
- You still need to learn some web info (like SEO) in order to maximize the usage
My expanded reasons are as such:
Your website can cost nothing upfront from a financial perspective, specifically if you have no cash to spare. With free hosting from sites like from Github, your overall costs can be as low as paying for a domain name, which can be as low as $12 USD per year, depending on the registrar. When you use a website builder, you pay either with a premium plan or your site becomes advertising for the company.
While a site builder's free plan doesn't cost you anything up front, the company usually advertises your usage of their services as a mention near the bottom of the site (e.g., Made with Squarespace, Carrd, etc.), as well as in the URL (yourportfolio.squarepace.com or yourportfolio.carrd.com).
Whether you're learning to use your website builder, or web technologies, there's still some learning you have to do, especially to get it optimized for speed and searchability. With premium website builder plans, you usually can get some sort of support from the company if you have a problem. The DIY approach doesn't have direct support, so forums, Reddit, or Stack Exchange will be likely added to your list of most visited sites. However, even as the web changes, the fundamentals of what you learn will still be applicable. All of this knowledge does come at the cost of time though, so if you want a site up as quickly as possible, a website builder is faster.
Your speed of learning will affect how quickly your DIY site will go up, but in my experience, the process is generally slow, especially to get a pleasing design. The process can involve learning to code it in HTML & CSS, how to host it, and how to configure your DNS settings to setup your domain name. It's taken me several times to learn how to do all of that, and I still make mistakes when doing these.
While larger, more established website builders aren't likely to go out of business, in the case that your website builder does go bankrupt, your website will not be available, and you'll have to start the process of building again. With the DIY approach, you always have your files since you wrote them, so you can simply find a new web hosting provider, and upload them there.
Additionally, unless you're self hosting (which I don't recommend, even in my usage), you'll be subject to some sort of terms of service (TOS) agreement in order to use a service, be it for web hosting or a web builder. So it's in your best interest to read the TOS to see if the company will be able to use any of your content on their behalf. Generally, I wouldn't be worried about having your material used without your permission, but it's not uncommon for photographer's images to be stolen by a company for advertising. While this issue still applies to web hosting for a DIY site, it's not as prevalent in my experience.
Finally, there are hard limits to what you can design with a website builder. You are effectively licensing the design of the web builder and don't get access to the code, so your are somewhat constrained by design.
So who should learn to code their website? If you're an early career as a developer, or your photo portfolio simply needs to display your work and contact info, learning to code up your own site can save you some money and help you learn some fundamentals for web development. If you're a professional photographer that needs to connect with a large range of clients however, spending up for the features offered with a website builder can be more worth it.
From my experience, learning some web development was a logical step while completing my computer science degree. And with what I do with my photography, I believe I save a decent deal on my portfolio site since I only need to purchase a cheap domain name and point it to my website. The personal plan from Squarespace is $12 per month, at the time of writing, whereas a domain name from Google can cost as little as $12 per year.
While my path to making my portfolio site wasn't simple or as cheap as I wanted, I'm in a satisfactory place with my site. It's quite nice to simply say a short domain name to show people my work.