A few months ago I tried two new services designed to display photographic stories or essays: Exposure and Storehouse. Both show promise, but are still in the early growing stages.
Before diving into the review and comparisons, let me be upfront at what I’m looking for in a service like these:
- a beautiful design that showcases photographs well, and allows them to mix with text in a clean flowing manner
- an ability to drive eyeballs to my images.
Someone else might have different priorities, but these are the most important to me, largely because I already have multiple places to showcase and display my images. I have my blog, my SumgMug galleries, Flickr, Google Plus, my Facebook page,, and 500px. I can already do almost everything That Exposure and Storehouse offer, so what I focus on in assessing these services is what extra elements they bring to the party.
Because they both purport to specialize in photo essays and storytelling, having a very strong design that features both images and text is important. Among my current services, I can best create photo essays on my blog. Everywhere else trying to combine multiple images and text into a single flowing page is a bit of a kludge. And the blog is adequate but not ideal for that purpose, so if either Exposure or Storehouse can excel in that area they can easily justify themselves to me.
Secondly, I am always looking for new ways to get more people to view my work. If all the site does is passively service whatever traffic I can drive their myself, it is not really adding much. I can just as easily drive traffic to my existing sites as I can to a new one.
Beyond that, the stability of the platform and ease of use are important, but really that should be a given. With this background, let’s discuss how they stack up. I discovered and tried Exposures first, so let’s start there.
Exposure is a web-based site that describes its mission as being “for photographers who want a more meaningful way to publish their work. Instead of a boring slideshow or a single photo sitting alone, we help you tell a great story with your photography front and center.”
Exposure works on a freemium subscription model. The free service allows you to create 3 photo essays and no more. The next level allows unlimited stories and adds RSS and password protected posts. and a few other features for a $49 annual fee. The third and highest level of service allows for everything in the previous levels plus features such as a unique domain and the ability to track visitor info with Google Analytics. So far I have only created one entry and have limited myself to the free level.
Creating a story is pretty easy, but there are some limitations. The design has basically three modules, single photos, photo clusters, and text. As far as I can tell, you have to create everything in the right order. For example, if you start with a photo, then text, then another single photo, then a cluster, you cannot move the cluster up to the second spot just after the first image. When I decided to change the order of the modules I had to delete each item starting with the last and work back to the point where I want to change things. Obviously it would be much better if you could move things around after you have added the elements to the essay.
There is also no autosave feature, and saving takes you out of the editing mode.This isn’t horrible but it is also less than ideal. The lack of an autosave caused me trouble when I had some sort of technical glitch and lost a bunch of work. I’m not sure if it was a connection problem, a browser issue on my end or something on their end, but either way it was frustrating. I recommend that if you use the service that you write your text in a local program on your computer or tablet and paste the text from there into the Exposures interface so you won’t lose any typing, either due to a glitch like I had or if you decide to move elements around part way through your creative process.
Once you get everything in, the stories look gorgeous. The display for single images is a beautiful full screen size that is quite compelling. As far as I can tell, the system automatically resizes and serves up the ideal size for whatever screen a given viewer is using. The photo clusters display in a pleasing lightbox/slideshow format, but the single image display is so much more wonderful that it seems most users lean towards the image by image full screen display. While this means a lot of beautifully displayed images, it also leads to a certain repetitive design sameness to Exposure stories.
The text module is easy enough to use and the text displays well, but there is limited ability to modify the display and certain basic elements are missing. When I created my story, for example, it was not possible to add hyperlinks, although that feature has since been added.
That last point is much to their credit. The Exposure team has been aggressively adding features and options since i first used the site a few months ago. For example, when I signed up there was only the free version and the most expensive version of the subscription. Since then they have increased those plan options to what is described above, and various other user features have also been added or enhanced.
Overall I’m very pleased with the design and interface for the service, subject to the limitations I identified above. But I am not nearly as pleased with the traffic-generating capabilities of the site.
First off, there is no traffic information available at all unless you pay for the most expensive service level and add the Google analytics code to your subsite. As a result, I have no idea whatsoever how many people have seen my essay. I understand they need to hold back valuable elements on the freemium model, but there is a large gap between a Google analytics level of visitor data and nothing. I suspect that Exposure does a poor job of generating traffic. Without paying a fee I can neither confirm that suspicion but I cannot disprove it either. Second, the inability to add hyperlinks when I created my essay to my essay meant that few visitors were likely to leave the essay and visit the other places I showcase my images. I can add hyperlinks now, but I’m sure my story received it greatest traffic when I first published it. It seems unfair to criticize them for something they have since improved, but that was my experience, and I do give them all due credit for fixing it. As far as I can tell, not one person has come to any of my other sites from my Exposure essay.
Third, the service does not do a great job of making it easy to find essays. They have a featured page, which my essay made (and frankly I think most entries qualified to be featured back then). But there is no search function to allow you to look for essays on a particular topic or region. I also tried searching for my Exposures entry on Google and could not find it. I searched both while signed into my Google account and under an incognito page, but my Exposures essay never showed up on either search through the first ten pages of results. In contrast, the same photos that went into my Exposures essay did show up in both searches, sometimes on my blog here, sometimes of Flickr, and also on Google Plus.
Another new feature they have added has been Categories. Site visitors can browse by a variety of Categories, but there still seems to be no ability to search within categories or order the stories within categories. So as a visitor you are at the mercy of the Exposure algorithm or editors and as a creator your story is unlikely to be found even within its category unless yours is among the first few stories listed.
As a result, I have very little confidence that Exposures is getting anyone to see the essay, and even less expectation that they are helping to drive traffic to my other sites. Frankly this is very disappointing and needs to be improved. A simple visitor count should be added to both lower service levels, they need to improve on their Google search rankings, and they need to create some onsite search capabilities. Finally, some time after I created my story, Exposure has added an “Enjoy” feature, allowing visitors to provide that basic form of feedback, akin to a Facebook “Like”. Because my story had fallen so far off the featured page by the time this function was added, my story has received three “Enjoy” notices. I must say I was surprised to get even that, given that the ability of anyone to find stories is so limited.
Storehouse is a lot like Exposure with a few key twists and features.
First, Storehouse is designed primarily to show off your entry on an iPad. The plus side of this is that the iPad interface is amazing, and viewing the stories that people create is a very good experience. The downside is that this obviously limits the potential audience. There is no app for iPhones or Android devices even. Storehouse items can be viewed on the web, but that is a less than extraordinary experience. It is not poor, but definitely fails to match the iPad interface.
One feature that Storehouse has that Exposure lacks is the ability to mix in movies with your photos. Exposure explains that this was a design choice, as they have decided to be a place to showcase photographic storytelling. I think both sites made the right choice for themselves, because the mixture of images and movies on the web is nothing special. Exposure does differentiate itself by being a purely static image medium.
But Storehouse also made the right choice for its medium because the way that the images and movies mix in their iPad app is kind of magical. I’m not sure why, because seeing movies on a tablet is hardly unusual, but scrolling through the images and text and then having a movie autoplay really is quite enchanting.
The Storehouse user interface and viewing experience also get mostly high marks. I had no trouble adding photos, movies and text, and them moving them all around in a variety of sizes and in different orders. But as with Exposure there is no autosave, and when the app crashed on me I lost a substantial amount of work. Viewing Storehouse creations is also a delightful experience; for some reason scrolling through a story on a tablet is more satisfying than doing so on a computer and the web.
But on everything else Storehouse fell flat for me. Like Exposures it is almost impossible to find content, apart from those stories that get showcased. I can send people to a web address, and if they open that email on an iPad, they will be prompted to get the app and open the story in the app if they click the link. But if they open the email elsewhere or do not have an iPad they can only view your creations on the web. Even finding other users is clunky. There is, for example, Storehouse can check your Facebook and Twitter contacts, but cannot apparently search your email contacts, or other social media relationships.
As a result, the best way to really have someone view your material is to hand them your own iPad, which is of course of extremely limited utility. I think this explains why so many of the Storehouse stories I have seen browsing through the showcase section are created by commercial entities. Architects and fashion designers seem to be using it to showcase their work to clients.
Storehouse does provide a basic view count, but because the ability to drive traffic is non-existent stories get pathetically few views. My original story has been up for several months, has been seen 21 times, and I believe most or possibly all of those involve my own looks (you can only check the visit stats by opening the story and doing so appears to increase the count). Even by my standards, (I freely confess my audience is less than vast) that is a pathetic result. I have recently created a second story, and put a small movie on the cover. As of a very few days, I believe that it too has been viewed only by me. I will be curious to see if it gets more views over time, but do not expect much. As such, I see little reason to continue to spend time creating content for the service. In fact, I cannot even tell if the stories have been offered to anyone but me – the question of which stories are suggested to you and that show up on your personal page as you scroll through the choices is completely opaque.
Things might be different if I were a working professional photographer and wanted to use storehouse as a way to showcase my work to potential clients when I met with them. Aside from that, I do not see a point to the service until it finds a way to help creators get eyeballs on their content.
Both services have promise but need substantial improvement before they become truly useful in my view. Both especially need to make it easier for viewers to find content. Right now, Storehouse is essentially useless unless you plan to meet personally with a lot of people and let them view your stories on your own iPad. Exposure is ahead on that count, but also needs to improve its ability to match viewers with the content they want to find.
UPDATE: No sooner did I post this review then Storehouse pushed out an App Update. It doesn’t seem to render any of my primary points as irrelevant or wrong, but a few things look and work slightly differently from my experince and write-up. Storehouse also reached out to me on Twitter and indicated that improving their ability to publicize stories, and for users to explore and find stories and other users is a major priority.
Next, Derek from Exposure left a comment indicating that they have improved on some of my quibbles, including that they have added an autosave and it is now easier to move modules around while editing. I apologize for missing these; I reviewed their change notices and played with the service a bit more recently and I just missed those. To my partial credit, I did mention how impressed I was with Exposure’s commitment to adding improvements and specifically mentioned some that I had become aware
I appreciate the quick and attentive feedback from both services.
SECOND UPDATE: Another comment from Michael Kasian of Storehouse further cements my positive impressions of these companies. See comments below.