Have you ever been here? You decided to DIY your website (maybe for the first time or maybe you were just ready for a change), purchased a template, started adding your content, and then you stopped short. Your brand new template—the one you’ve already put hours into customizing—doesn’t have some of the features you need. Or maybe it has everything you need, but it just doesn’t feel like you.
You aren’t alone. When I purchased my first website template, I had no idea what I was doing, so I just picked the prettiest one I could find. And it wasn’t long before I had outgrown it.
When choosing a website template, how do you get it right the first time and jost just hope you’re guessing correctly?
What’s your goal?
The first thing you have to decide when choosing a website template is what the main goal of your website is. (I’ll give you a hint: If you sell a product or a service, your goal is to sell.)
I always start with the main goal of the website because the design for a photographer is going to look different than a website created for an actor.
Maybe you need an e-commerce website to host your online store. Or you might only need to share information about your services and how people can hire you. Your goal may also be to educate people and share content through your blog or to demonstrate your work through a portfolio.
What features do you need?
Do you need e-commerce? Will you be writing blog posts? Do you have images you want to share in a gallery? Knowing which features are must haves will help you narrow down your template options.
Once you’ve made a list of the features your website will need, start weeding out templates template that don’t include those features or that make it a hassle to incorporate them.
These are some common features you may want to include on your list:
- Banner images
- Footer and pre-footer
- Mobile-friendly (this is a must!)
- Search capability
- Navigation bar
- Scrolling or parallax capability
- Full-page images
What platform are you using?
The template options you have are going to be limited by the website platform you’re using. If you use Squarespace for your website, you’re limited to one of their pre-designed templates. For WordPress, anyone can design a template, so you have a wide variety to choose from, although WordPress doesn’t guarantee they’ll work correctly. For other website platforms (such as Wix or Weebly), you may have different template options, but they won’t be the same as those for WordPress or Squarespace.
I use Squarespace for my clients because there are a variety of template options and it’s easy for them to update their website on their own once it’s designed. But I also know many people prefer WordPress because the platform is free and you can use widgets to add functionality.
You may choose your platform based on the template you want to use, but it’s also important to consider the platform features and ease of use.
Where do you want to be in 5 years?
Do you want to offer courses? Create a wholesale login area? Build a digital store or resource library?
It may seem silly to choose a website platform based on where you want your business to be years down the road, but it’s much easier to grow if your website template has the capability to grow with you.
Consider your big goals and what you will need your website to do in order to get there. These functions don’t have to be must-haves, but they should be nice-to-haves that can help you make your final decision.
How do you choose a template?
Now that you’ve determined the goal of your website, made a list of features you need, and chosen a platform, it’s time to go about choosing a website template.
Always start by doing a broad search for templates that work with your platform and then narrow down this list based on your goals and must-have features. When you’ve found a few options you like, try their demos and visit other websites using the template to see how it works. Consider if it fits your brand style, the customization features available, and the user experience.
A word about customization—even if you can’t customize your website template yourself, don’t limit your future growth by choosing a template that has limited or no customizable features. Down the road you may choose to hire a designer or developer and if they can’t work with your current template, you may have to start fresh.
You’ll also want to consider how popular the templates you’re looking at are for other people in your industry. There will be some overlap, but if it seems like everyone is using the same template, consider going with something else so you can stand out.
What if you chose the wrong one?
So what happens if you’ve gone through the entire process, but you still ended up with a template that isn’t right? First, it’s okay—we’ve all been there. Depending on your platform, you may be able to switch templates without buying something new (Squarespace allows you to do this) or you may be able to find some workarounds by searching online.
If you’ve tried that and you still can’t make your template work, you may have to start the process over and find something else. But at least now you know you need to add certain features or functionality to your list that you didn’t before.
Don’t hesitate to ask experts for additional help (Facebook groups are a great way to get advice) or to hire someone to design and develop your website if your budget allows it.
Samantha Mabe is a brand and website designer who helps creative entrepreneurs share their vision through design. Her background is in design and architecture, but she’s been creating since she could hold a pencil. She focuses on working with creative entrepreneurs who are ready to dig into what makes them unique, share their vision, and build a brand that represents them. Samantha is a Pittsburgh native now living in Richmond, Virginia where she spends her days designing brands and websites and her evenings watching Netflix with her husband and their dog #gambittheweshi.
The struggle is real. When you snap your own photos for your blog or social media, there’s an obvious difference in the photos you take from the ones on “those” Instagram feeds. I’m sure you can think of a few feeds that are not only breathtaking, but also look so professional.
Why is there such a huge disconnect between the photos we snap and those “professional” photos? I struggled with this myself when I first launched my own business. And I came from a photography background so I should know this stuff. I was a photographer in the wedding industry for a couple years, but as I got more and more into product styling and flat lays, I just couldn’t get my photos to look how they’re supposed to look—the perfect lighting, the intriguing styling, and original concepts were just not happening.
Maybe you’ve struggled with this same thing. You know the basics of what makes a good photo, but for some reason your photos just aren’t looking the part. Well, I’m here to tell you great looking photos, taken by you, are possible. I know there’s a lot of information out there, but I want to give you actionable and practical steps that can make a huge difference in your DIY branding photos.
1. Understand Lighting
One of the most important things about good photography is good lighting. Back when I worked for a photography studio where I was a wedding photographer, we worked in beautiful vineyards and golf courses where there were gorgeous sunsets and an abundance of natural light.
But when you start doing product photography, a lot is indoors and it’s definitely more difficult. The reason working indoors is difficult is you may lack natural light, but you don’t want to turn the overhead lights on because it will give your photos a yellow look.
How do you get more light without using the overhead lights? An inexpensive way to solve the low-light problem is to either buy special lighting or work with what you have. You can invest in umbrellas or light boxes, which can be surprisingly inexpensive (as little as $50 at B&H Photo or Amazon).
Can’t afford these tools? Here are some tips for working with what you have:
Use reflectors to enhance the light you have
When you start taking photos indoors, find the most well-lit, natural light-filled room, and enhance the light with reflectors. For instance, I do most of my flat lays next to a window with three pieces of foamboard (one on each side other than the window side) and shoot from the top. Reflecting the outside light boosts the overall lighting. Another trick is to take photos outside, either in the shade or when it’s cloudy and overcast. This gives you brightness but, with clouds or shade, not a hot light but instead a softer, diffused light. I like to call an overcast day “nature’s lightbox.” Don’t shoot in direct sunlight or you’ll end up with harsh shadows.
Use light softeners
If you have a camera with a flash, you can use that for more light. Tear off a piece of napkin, tape it over your flash, and shoot. This is definitely the DIY version of lighting, but it works. Doing this will soften the flash of your camera for a softer look without those harsh shadows.
Time of day
Photographing during different times of the day will affect the coloring of your photos. When you shoot early in the morning you’ll get more of a yellow, sunlight hue. When you shoot in the evening, there’s a blue hue. Pay attention to the time of day when you shoot and experiment with what works best for you and your branding.
White balance is what I struggled with the most when I first started with product photography. My photos were yellow and looked awful, quite frankly. When you’re starting out, I suggest shooting in your camera’s automatic mode before trying manual. Automatic mode lets the camera decide the exposure settings based on the time of day. If you decide to use manual mode, it’s important to adjust your white balance to match the setting you’re in, and be quick to adjust it in different settings. If you’re using a smartphone, the camera will shoot in automatic mode.
2. Use Inexpensive Tools
Wwhite foam board is great because it’s stable enough to be propped up, it’s cheap, and it’s lightweight. It makes for a great background that disappears. Another background option is printed laminate, which is designed to look like wood or brick. You can find these on Amazon or B&H relatively inexpensive.
You can also make your own background with a little creativity. If you nail together several boards and paint the whole thing white you have yourself a great, original backdrop to test out.
The key is to try to think outside the box, and create something that’s unique to your brand. This is tough, but it just takes practice and experimenting. Don’t be afraid to try new things.
3. Software and Apps
Some of the tools I use for my photos that I couldn’t live without are Photoshop and Lightroom. Both of these programs take a bit of practice, but they can really change the game with your photos. I also used Bridge for a long time and that worked really well, but now that I’ve switched over to Lightroom, I’ve never looked back.
If you’re thinking that’s more professional and complicated than you’re ready for, you can get similar, professional results with some apps made specifically for photo editing, like Pic-Tap-Go, Snapseed, EnLight, and Filterstorm Neue. I’ve not used these apps myself, but I hear these inexpensive options can help you take your photos from good to great.
Final Word (and Most Important Tip)
Unfortunately, it takes time to get good at something, especially something completely out of our comfort zone. But becoming good at anything doesn’t happen overnight. You need to put the time in, experiment with your photos, try new things, and practice. All the tips will come together with implementation. Remember, as someone I admire says, success starts by taking action. So try it for yourself!
RuthAnn Rafiq is the graphic designer, photographer, and creative enthusiast behind R Artspace, a one-stop shop branding studio that takes the stress out of branding to give you a comprehensive, streamlined experience. When RuthAnn isn’t working or snapping photos, you can find her cooking Pakistani dinners with her husband, participating in game nights with friends, or curled up with a good book and a hot cup of chai tea.