Photographers have a variety of options for showcasing our work online these days. These include public sharing sites like flickr and 500px. If you want to offer your visitors a more customized experience you can build your own site with SmugMug, Squarespace or WordPress. Some of these options are free and others have a cost.
Another free alternative, Koken, has recently appeared and they take a somewhat different approach. Koken offers software that enables you to easily build a portfolio site but they require you to have your own web server or hosting company. One advantage of this approach is that it potentially gives you more control over your site. With the other options your work resides on the respective company’s server (with the possible exception of a WordPress site). They each have their own terms of service and your pages are subject to whatever changes the company may decide to impose. With Koken, you retain full control over your images and you ostensibly have more control over the software since it’s running on your own server.
The Koken software is specifically designed for photographers although it is well-suited to use by other artists working in visual mediums. One feature that shows its intended use by photographers is the automatic display of photo metadata when using the default theme (Elementary). However, while the display of this info may be considered useful by some photographers other photographers might disagree. Similarly, painters, sculptors and anyone else building a non-photo portfolio site would presumably prefer not to show this information which is irrelevant for their work. I couldn’t find any way to turn off that feature but I tried another free theme, Repertoire, and it doesn’t show photo metadata. March 25, 2014 update—this tweet from @koken: “you *can* turn off EXIF in Elem’s theme settings. View page then look at “Template” panel.”
One thing I really like about Koken is that, when switching themes, it remembers any customizations you have made. So, you can try out a different theme and then switch back to a previous theme and it returns to the same state as when you last left it. The failure of WordPress to do that has been one of my pet peeves about it. With WordPress, extensive customization is needed with some themes but if you switch you’ve lost all your work.
Currently, there are six free themes and two premium themes which are sold in the online Koken store for $60. There is also a small sampling of paid plugins like an Instagram importer which is available for $10. If you don’t see a theme you like you can design your own. Similarly, software developers can create new plugins.
Publishing from Lightroom
One of the most compelling features for many photographers will be the ability to publish directly from Lightroom. The Lightroom plugin allows you to “publish albums and images directly to your Koken site without leaving Lightroom.” Metadata is also exported including titles, captions and keywords. And if, after uploading a photo, you decide to make any further edits you can then easily upload the modified version of the image.
You can create albums in the Koken plugin and when you click Publish those albums are automatically created on your website. Similarly, you can create collection sets in the plugin and publish those. Unfortunately, you can’t drag and drop existing Lightroom collections into the Koken plugin.
A Koken website using the default Elementary theme contains the following pages:
- A Home page which shows your featured content (photos and albums which you select to be featured)
- A Timeline page which shows your photostream (as published to your Koken site) and any essays you’ve written
- An Albums page with a title and thumbnail for each of your albums. One problem with the automatically-generated album thumbnails is that they don’t take into account the aspect ratio of your photos. So, a thumbnail of my portrait orientation photo of a kite showed only the kite’s tail in the thumbnail. And, as far as I can tell, you have no control over which photo is used for the album thumbnail.
- A Content page which shows all the photos you’ve uploaded
- An Essays page which contains posts that can include both text and photos
Any of these pages can be set to be your home page so, for example, if you want your timeline page as your home page you can easily do this. You can also delete any of the default pages and you can create additional instances of any of these page types. And you can create pages to display selected albums.
Getting Koken installed is the most technical part of using the software. It’s not the kind of the thing the average web user could do but it’s something that most webmasters can do in half an hour or less. Briefly, it requires creating a MySQL database on your web host and uploading a PHP file. Then you run an installation script where you fill in a form with some login information. At that point, you have a brand-new site which is ready for a photographer to start uploading photos to.
During the installation you don’t actually download the software that is used on your site. What you download is a single PHP file which you upload to your web server. When you run that installer script it automatically gets the actual Koken website software directly from Koken’s server and installs it on your web server. When upgrades are released you’re asked whether you want to install the update. You can choose to either update or not. This works the same way as WordPress upgrades work.
It’s not clear what control Koken may retain with respect to licensing. Are you free to move an installation from one server to another? Or from one domain to another? Does Koken have the ability to remotely shut down the software running on your server? Some clarification from Koken on matters like these would be welcome.
Using the Koken Site Builder Interface
The user interface is elegant and feels more like desktop software than a web application. In fact, it is most reminiscent of the Adobe Lightroom UI. The application has a black background and is laid out similar to Lightroom. Also, similar to Lightroom things light up when you move the mouse over them and other things fade in and out when you click them. If you like the Lightroom UI you’ll probably like the Koken UI. And, to clarify, I’m speaking here about the control panel that the website owner sees when working on the site. The appearance of the published website to the public is different and is determined by the theme chosen by the photographer. Check out the themes page on the Koken Store to see what styles are available off the shelf.
Although the user interface is good there are a few areas that could stand some improvement. For example, when I first tried to figure out how to upload content (without using Lightroom) I started at the upper left menu of the Library module which shows your various collections and albums. But there is no option in this area or in the top menu for adding new content. Shortly, I spied a + sign at the very bottom left of the page and thought this must be it. Well, not exactly. That’s for creating new collections. So, I kept searching the interface and eventually I found the Import Content button at the bottom right corner of the screen. With this button you can upload images from your PC or link to content on Vimeo and Instagram. This is all pretty straightforward but I shouldn’t have to search the entire screen to figure out how to upload a photo. However, if you use the Lightroom plugin for uploading you bypass this.
The Content view in the Library offers three display modes: thumbnails, list and “up close” (i.e., a large preview and the details of one image at a time). In these views one or more images is displayed in the large center panel. If you select an image you can view the metadata in the Inspector pane on the right. Some info, such as the title and caption, is editable. By default, newly uploaded photos are immediately visible but you can change the visibility to unlisted (only people who you provide with a direct link can view the image) or private (only you can view). Similarly, collections (albums and sets of albums) can be set to either public or unlisted.
Once you have uploaded a lot of images it can be hard to find to find a specific image. To facilitate finding photos Koken offers three types of searches: by tag, by category and by filename. Categories and tags are groups that you can create and assign to selected images for quick searching. Unfortunately, the search feature doesn’t find text in photo titles or captions. And you can only search by one method at a time. So, for example, if you remember that you have a photo in a group called “sports” but don’t remember if sports is a category or a tag you may have to do two searches to be sure of finding it.
According to the Koken website the software has been in development for over a year. Based on the version number the software seems to be in early beta yet it feels quite stable. The fact that it feels so solid at this point bodes well. And the fact that Koken has released a useful product with such a low version number implies that there is a lot more to come. Furthermore, on both the front end and the back end the software has an elegant, polished feel that will appeal to artists and their audiences.
This has been a first look—as opposed to an in-depth review so I haven’t covered every feature and there are lots of features even in this early version. Also, if I’ve mentioned something that might seem to be a serious shortcoming it’s possible that the problem will be addressed by an upcoming software release. And, because Koken allows third-party designers and developers to create additional themes and plugins it’s possible that a thriving community may grow up around it. I’ll be watching the software’s further development with interest.