Why I switched from Menalto Gallery to SmugMug

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8 March 2010

Two posts ago, I described my struggle to figure out how to fit my Menalto Gallery album structure into SmugMug. In a comment to that post, one of the Gallery developers asked why I switched from Gallery to SmugMug. I started to reply in the comments on that post, but the reply got to be long enough that I thought it deserved its own post instead; this is that post.

Note that it’s fairly mind-boggling (even to me) that saw my post and responded to it in a single day; I wonder how he did that?



Most of my experience is with Gallery 1, although I do have a site using Gallery 2. Back when I first started using Gallery 1, it was really the only choice (this was before Flickr, even!) that had the ability to handle a large gallery like mine, had the key features I wanted, and would preserve all my images in original form. So it was really my only choice.

For a long time it did what I needed, and I was grateful for that. I told people about it, and about why I chose it. I know one or two people who ended up using it because of me, but most of my friends and acquaintances ended up using Flickr or similar sites.

But even though I chose it, and was able to use it, I didn’t like it very much. It was clumsy, hard to modify, and too complex. It was just my only real option, so I stuck with it. About once a year, I would try to find something else, and I never could.

So when Gallery 2 was announced, I liked the redesign philosophy, but I thought you all were nuts to try to rewrite a product from the ground up. I was certain that it would be a year or more before Gallery 2 was even close to ready, and in the meantime Gallery 1 support would wane, so I was pretty sure I’d be forced to choose another product. That didn’t quite happen – you folks kept supporting Gallery 1 – but it took a very long time to get Gallery 2 out.

So when it was actually released, I was pleasantly surprised… but then it took an even longer time for Gallery 2 to catch up to some of the basic features from Gallery 1 that I needed. (I forget what they were, now.) So I still didn’t have the replacement for Gallery 1 that I was hoping for.

But eventually Gallery 2 did have the necessary features, so I gave it a try… and it was confusing. Sure, maybe the code was much better this time around, and it was certainly more themeable… but it wasn’t easily themeable, and it was confusing as heck to administer and to teach my users about. So I gave up on Gallery 2, decided to live with Gallery 1, and to search more earnestly for a replacement.

Back then, I had my hopes set on ZenPhoto, but it didn’t quite have everything I needed, either. I certainly liked their “simplicity first” approach, though. It did eventually get to the point where it had all the features I needed, and that was enough for me to install it and start working in earnest to switch over to it.

And then I had a system failure that suddenly forced me to host my gallery on my own local machine, which had me terrified – if my house burned down, with it would go all my pictures. So I had to figure out a better hosting option. I considered renting a virtual server somewhere, but it’s hard to find a low-cost NetBSD host, and I didn’t really want to host on Linux. So I looked around at other gallery options, and found SmugMug.

SmugMug isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty great, and I like that they care (a lot!) about usability, and that they have humans on their support staff, and that they’ll take good care of my pictures. I like that I don’t have to administer the site myself. I like that they are a commercial venture, and are therefore forced to prioritize customer needs first, or fail as a business. I like that the features I find lacking, now, are features that I never even dreamed up, back on Gallery.

So now that Gallery 3 is coming out… it seems somewhat surreal. I first heard about it in an April Fool’s post on ZenPhoto, and when I followed the link to the real announcement of Gallery 3, I really thought it was an elaborate April Fools joke from you folks. I couldn’t believe you’d have the gall to say “when we went back to do it right, we did it wrong, so now we’re going to do it right again!” But it turns out that that’s really what you were saying, and that you really are giving it a third go-round.

Sure, maybe Gallery 3 will be better, and maybe someday I will find a reason to move off SmugMug. If so, I’m sure I’ll look at Gallery 3 (or 5, or 9?) and see if it fits the bill. But my default stance will be wariness – I don’t trust that you’ll ever get it right, or feel that you have gotten it “good enough” to just keep supporting (or evolving) the platform you are already on.

Of course, it now seems ironic that you posted your comment in a post titled Perfectionism, pragmatism, and progress. It looks like we all struggle with the balance between those issues! Perhaps we should both take the lesson from this – that our customers won’t give us many chances to find our balance.

  1. mattmc3 says:

    Nathan – interesting post. I am, of course, one of those people you mention that used Gallery specifically because you used it first and recommended it. And I also have stopped using it (since 2008), but unlike you I have no new alternative. I just stopped posting pics online. I’d like to change that, but I haven’t had time to do the research. But mainly, I want something free (I’ll donate if I like it, but a subscription is out of the question) and fully under my control.

    Anyway, you didn’t really get into very many specifics of Gallery-versus-SmugMug in your post, which I’m sure the dev who commented was interested in. But I’ll give a few of my reasons for abandoning Gallery – Firstly, I don’t have the time or inclination to admin a Linux/NetBSD machine anymore – my life’s full of too many other more important things. And without the excuse that it could advance my career (it won’t), I couldn’t justify the time. That’s no fault of Gallery. But there are plenty of things about Gallery that did contribute to that decision.

    The main one being that Gallery 2 at first only supported MySQL. I don’t run MySQL. My Gallery server (an old 233 MHz Pentium II box) was already running PostgreSQL, and quite frankly I had no interest in running a second database just for Gallery 2. (BTW – I love that NetBSD + Gallery was uninhibited by the age and weakness of this box – kudos for that at least). So I stuck with the 1.x series hoping Gallery 2 would eventually support Postgres. It never happened (at least when I was watching for it) and my 1.x version rotted on the vine.

    I also recall that the Java applet for uploading pics was really buggy. And the albums would get corrupted easily, so I would always have to save a copy of the entire album on my Windows laptop in the event that I had to rebuild the album from scratch (which happened many times). They maybe fixed all that in the 2.x version, but I never heard or read good things about it, and since the MySQL thing was a non-starter for me, my interest fizzled.

    Glad you found SmugMug and a way to use it that works for you. I’ll still hold out for something I can host myself, that’s open source, easy for my family to upload to, and easy to admin.

  2. Andy says:

    Thanks to both of you! That’s great feedback and I completely understand where you’re coming from.

    I’ll follow up with a few posts to address a few points you mentioned.

    Before I forget: How I found and and answered to your blog post within a day after you published it? Pure coincidence – it was the first time in a while I googled news and blog posts about Gallery, and yours was almost at the top of the search results.
    Technically, there are ways to get notified about new blog posts about a certain topic, e.g. with Google Alerts, but I haven’t used such tools yet.

  3. Andy says:

    @Gallery, Flickr & The Future:
    Back in 2000, there was no Flickr, and it was hard to publish photos on the web. FTP, static HTML hacking was the norm, or if you were advanced, you hacked together your own Gallery with some for loops.

    That’s when Gallery entered the scene, and it made things easy. Gallery was by far the best way to put your photos online. It made the process convenient, automated most things, you could hack its HTML / CSS, it gained internationalization, etc.

    Then came the rise of Flickr (later Picasa, Smugmug, Facebook, etc.). We’re at a point, where these sites fill the needs of the vast majority of people who’d like to share / publish their photos on the web.

    Is there still a need for Gallery? Sure there is, there will always be people who prefer running their own site, controlling their data, etc. But this niche is pretty small and still shrinking.

    What’s the role of Gallery 2?

    * Development: Gallery 2 as a project could hardly survive without the involvement of its ~4 main developers. It’s really complicated, its code base is hard to maintain.

    * Users / admins: Usability isn’t great. G2 is hard to use, and not the fastest application under the sun. Speed makes a big difference when it comes to browsing / viewing photos.

    * Customizations / themeing: Again, G2 is over-engineered and too much guidance is needed for most tasks.

    Basically, we had the choice of

    * continuing Gallery 2 development. But who in their right mind would work so many hours on something that is ultimately a flawed approach? Even a complete rewrite would be a better idea than continuing development on G2.

    * stopping development on any Gallery version completely. But it wouldn’t have been fun to see the project die slowly over time after all these years.

    * rewriting Gallery, with a clear scope, driven by user experience and simplicity.

    And we went with the latter. It’s a win for everyone who is still interested in the project, well, for everyone but the ones who seem to use G2 as their own version of Flickr, as a large, community photo hosting platform. Of course we could have decided to focus on that kind of market, but that’s an even much smaller niche, and with usability and simplicity in mind, not everything can fit within the scope of the application.

    @April Fool’s:
    That was indeed an excellent April Fool’s post by the Zenphoto guys. There was a lot of truth in there, which makes for a great joke. The joke was on us, the Gallery team, since we’d start all over for the second time around, and the joke was on Zenphoto since they were long advertising the product as bloat-free, contrasting it to G2 (the kitchen-sink), and they were slowly adding more and more features and weight to Zenphoto at that point.

    Starting over another time actually makes sense. Gallery is the product of how a handful of people spend their spare time, the community that grows around the product, and the feedback loops that form and nurture the project.

    E.g. for me, Gallery 3 makes almost as much sense as did Gallery 2. I joined the project when Gallery 2 was in its infancy and it’s through Gallery 2 development that I learned so many things about software development and project management, and ultimately landed a great job in the industry.

    As much as G2 was a project that was fun to work at from an engineering point of view, G3 is a fun project to work at with, what I think, much harder goals. From day 0, we had usability experts on board. And we made really hard decisions right at the beginning to clearly define the scope, to have a clear vision for the user experience.
    Security and convenience are sometimes at odds. Clean abstractions, and decoupling components are sometimes at odds with simplicity. So even from an engineering point of view it’s harder. It’s harder to find the right trade-off to keep the application as simple and as easy to customize for novice web designers.

    Gallery 2 (and soon Gallery 3) isn’t for everybody. It’s for very few people actually, as you both know.

    * But at least Gallery 3 is a real improvement over Gallery 2.

    * And Gallery 3 will survive without its ~4 core developers. It’s pretty simple to develop and to customize.

    * It will long not be an option for ~10-25% of current Gallery 2 users because of missing features, but that was a deliberate decision when limiting the scope of Gallery 3.

    * Gallery 3 will be in the category of managed one-click installations on a series of webhosts like Dreamhost. So if you don’t want to, you don’t have to maintain it. The webhost keep the application up to the date with the latest security or feature release.

    * Still, if you don’t want to self-host, or don’t want to integrate Gallery with your website in all sorts of ways, change the HTML / themeing to your liking, then Gallery is probably not what you want. You want Smugmug, Flickr, Picasa or Facebook (well, probably not Facebook, their way of photo presentation is just awful).

  4. Andy says:

    PostgreSQL is supported in Gallery 2 since the earliest beginnings, since 2004. Maybe you looked at a pre-alpha development version, but that was before Gallery 2 had any users.

    (I wouldn’t expect G2 to run smoothly on a P2 233MHz though. It’s just a bit heavy for that setup.)

    @Supporting all kinds of DBMS, OS, webservers, etc:
    Let me take this as an opportunity to emphasize why adding support for PG isn’t as easy as using proper DB abstractions and limiting the SQL syntax to what’s supported by even the oldest DBMS (I’m not referring to PG, or any DBMS particularly here):

    Today, G2 supports MySQL, PostgreSQL, Oracle, SQLite, MSSQL, DB2, and all of them in multiple versions. None of the core developers used anything other than MySQL. I forced myself to use one of the other DBMS every now and then to ensure that things were still working. You can imagine how much testing and fixing is / was required to make a public G2 release. And it’s mostly thanks to our crazy dedication to writing automated tests that we could actually deliver on fine releases that worked well on all supported {DBMS, version}, {PHP version}, {OS, version}, {Webserver, version}, {Graphics toolkit, version}, {Locale}, {Browser, version} combinations. The test matrix is / was just huge.

    With Gallery 3 we keep the test matrix small. We officially support what we use, what we test for while developing G3. We’ve moved development to github to make it easy for the community to provide a fork that supports other systems. Github makes it easy to fork, to merge changes back and forth, and we’re reasonable about merging in any changes that make it easier for the community to support other systems.

    That’s one component of keeping things simple, fun and manageable, for core developers, community developers and users alike.

    PS: That’s it for now. Thanks again for all the feedback. It resonates well with what I felt about Gallery 2 and self-hosting in today’s day and age as well.

    I’d still be interested in what kind of features Gallery 2 was lacking (other than better usability and simpler themeability). Better usage tracking / visualization? Social features?

  5. Nathan Arthur says:

    Matt – your reply indicates that you don’t have the time to manage your own server any more, and I understand that – that’s a big part of why I switched to SmugMug. But you also say you want something free, and I can’t imagine how you can get someone else to host your gallery for free. But then at the end you said you wanted something you could host yourself. It seems like you haven’t thought this through.

    So if you wanted to get your pictures online now, what would you do? Would you give up your time, or your money, or your features? At $60/year for unlimited storage, bandwidth, administration, and support, SmugMug’s cost is much, much lower than my time would be worth to do all those things. And I’m not willing to go with somebody like Flickr who might delete my pictures, and places limits on how (and how much) I use the site. And I just don’t have the time to spend on managing a gallery myself. So in my case, I don’t feel like I have another choice than SmugMug – and I don’t see how your situation is any different than mine (assuming you felt like you had to have your pictures online).

    Andy – thanks for taking the time to make such a great reply. From your perspective, I think I understand the choices, even if they end up pushing away users like me.

    I thought a little harder about the reasons I didn’t switch to G2. I think they were:

    1. There was some issue with the upgrade not being as well supported as I wanted it to be. I remember actually going through the process to convert my G1 over to G2, and something went wrong – maybe my hidden images and albums became un-hidden? I don’t remember, but it made me really angry at the time.

    2. I had set my hopes on theming my G2 install to look like the rest of my website. That turned out to be really hard, beyond what I expected.

    3. I was hoping that G2 would be much more usable than G1, and it wasn’t really. My users (i.e. my family) generally didn’t use my gallery very much, because (I believe) it was too hard to do so, so I was hoping that G2 would be a better choice for them.

    4. RSS support didn’t show up until way late in the game. I thought it was absurd that RSS support wasn’t just built in from the beginning; I can’t imagine publishing a regularly-updated website without having RSS support. I’m sure there was a reason why it was lower on the priority list, but without RSS, I simply couldn’t upgrade.

    Without #2 and #3, I had no reason to upgrade, and with #1 and #4, I actually had good reasons not to upgrade.

    I eventually just soured on G2 entirely; it seemed clear that G2 was written for the developers, not for the users, and I didn’t want to spend my time on something that wasn’t designed for me.

    Matt & Andy – while I agree with Andy that ZenPhoto has bloated well beyond its “bloat-free” claim, I still think it’s the product that I’d choose today if I preferred a self-hosted solution. Matt, maybe you should check it out. Andy, I’d be interested to know how G3 is better than ZenPhoto (assuming it is?). My apologies if the answer is obvious somehow; I haven’t checked out G3 yet.

  6. mattmc3 says:

    Nathan –

    Oh, I don’t mind managing my own server. I just don’t have time to manage a needy server. I can manage a simple Windows box running an ASP.NET site, since I’m really familiar with it and do it daily at work. But NetBSD (or Debian which is what I switched to a couple years ago), PHP, MySQL/PostgreSQL, and Apache plus a photo gallery just became too much for me to manage at home. I don’t have the time or resources for the troubleshooting.

    The online offering I want is just a bunch of disk space that I can upload backups to weekly. But I’d host everything at home so that only I control the data. All I care about from an external service is DR, not uptime in the event of a problem.

  7. Josh says:

    All great post – I too stop posting as much with G2- any thoughts on how to import a G2 site to smugmug ?


  8. Nathan Arthur says:


    Yes! Use the tool that I developed just for this purpose: Smuganizer. (There’s a link on the right side of that page that should let you run it right from your browser.)

    See an earlier post of mine for some details.

  9. WDSGR says:

    G3 is amazing. I always hated to post photos to public providers like fb fliker etc. G3 is easy to use even for the lamest users as admins is much much faster and the server u need could be very very low budget linux server. I recommend G1 G2 and now G3 more, since it is the only easy self hosted/managed image gallery. Not to mention the FREE. For proffesionals it is far better than smugmug or fliker etc. Since I started an answer about it I would like to thank the developers for their time and effort on this project.

  10. Diana R says:

    Wow, this has been an interesting discussion. I came to the Gallery scene shortly after Gallery 2 was initiated. Most of the problems I encountered was with my web hosting service capabilities. The photos in my gallery are important. They comprise over 6 years of research where many people are involved. Our combined work product can never be owned by another web site. This is my worry when using even a pay-for site on the net to host my photos and data. It took me a long time to find and select Gallery as a system for hosting my photos and years to even figure out it’s architecture and programming structure but it’s been worth it. It’s an amazing system that I’m greatful for. Once my site is generating enough to sustain itself and a little more, Gallery will find out how happy I am with a nice donation. However, I uploaded Gallery 3 and there is no way that I’d be able to use it over Gallery 2 so I do hope they continue to maintain Gallery 2 for its users.

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