After reading our guide on deciding the right approach to adding a Portfolio to your WordPress site, you’ve decided that installing a theme is the best solution for your site. Great! Now, how exactly do you select a theme and install it? Installation is actually pretty simple; selecting one is mostly a matter of personal preference, but we have some suggestions to get you started.
Before we begin, a reminder that choosing the right hosting option is crucial if you want to run WordPress properly. The hosting options available for you are:
- Managed WordPress hosting, if you want the most headache-free experience when running WordPress. View a list of the best offers here.
- Shared Server WordPress hosting, if you’re on a budget. For a list of top Shared plans go here.
- VPS (Virtual Private Server) WordPress hosting, if you’re a small or medium sized business. For a list of the best VPS servers that support WordPress see here.
- Dedicated Server WordPress hosting, if you’re a large corporation. For a list of the best Dedicated Servers that support WordPress see here.
Portfolio Theme Essentials
Before we get to specific recommendations, when selecting a WordPress Portfolio Theme it’s a good idea to think about what you need the theme to do. When evaluating a given theme, there are some core components that you should look for:
1. Cover Images: the theme should make it easy to set a cover image for the various galleries (groups of images organized, for example, by project) and collections in your portfolio. You’ll want to place that image in various spots throughout your site and on social media, to invite people to check out your work. For example, it should be easy to set a cover image to appear on your site’s homepage. Clicking this image should bring the user straight to the portfolio gallery or collection.
2. Data and Tagging: the theme should provide a way for you to add project related data to each image and the overall collection. You also want the option to set links from the images and listings. For example, if you feature the design you did for a product that is available for sale on Amazon or Etsy, you’ll want to link to the store’s listing so the user can see real examples, validating your body of work. Plus, if you set up affiliate links to these stores, you could even earn a commission. More on that in another article soon!
A Slider allows you to feature a subset of preselected images on a page before the user gets to the gallery. It will automatically rotate between this handful of images every few seconds while the user is on that page. For example, you can set a Slider on your homepage featuring your five best photos. If the user clicks on a given image, they will be taken to the complete gallery or collection for that project.
The term Slideshow is sometimes used to describe a “walk-through” feature which automatically takes a viewer through the full set of all images in a gallery. When a viewer gets to the gallery or collection, the Slideshow automatically rotates through the images, usually in a large or full-screen format, pausing on each for a few seconds. This “walk-through” feature should also allow the user to click next or back on the image to control their own viewing speed.
Optional Extra: some users, like wedding photographers, may want password protection on a per gallery basis, for example, to share comps from the event while limiting access to, say, the bride and groom. Your customers would need to have the code to access the images in a specific gallery. It’s not a guarantee that the images won’t be downloaded and shared (always watermark your comps!) but it does give you a bit more control over how your work is distributed.
General Criteria in Selecting a Portfolio Theme
In general, most Portfolio Themes will have all of the above (with the likely exception of password control). Sliders, however, are pretty common general function plug-ins, so if you don’t like the one from the theme, it’s pretty easy to find another one to add.
Beyond these considerations, you need to select a theme based on how the “look and feel” suits your brand or personal identity. Most themes will offer a few “skins” – different color schemes and background images that change up the graphical identity a little. While this is helpful, you will want to make sure the theme lets you choose colors and images of your own. If you’re not sure how to customize it using CSS or HTML, we suggest working with a graphic or web designer directly – you can find freelancers to help with this on online marketplaces like Freelancer.com or Upwork.
One last consideration is that configuring one theme can vary a bit from the next. It might be easiest to try out a couple of themes before launching your site; changing a theme after you’ve loaded a lot of content can be a hassle, particularly if you used unique settings.
Protip: when evaluating a theme, try to see when the last update was published. If it’s more than a year or so ago, the developer might not be supporting it as actively as you like. This is only a rule of thumb, and while themes tend to keep functioning even from one WordPress version upgrade to the next, it’s nice to know the theme developer hasn’t abandoned it. This is especially important if your hosting service recommends you automatically update your WordPress install when newer versions come out.
We’ve gone through and researched the most popular themes which meet most, if not all, the criteria we think are important. We also organized them based on their focus on a particular type of user; for example, some themes are designed with photographers or authors in mind. We’ll start with some general purpose Portfolio Themes you can check out, particularly for those of you who might not fit the specific use cases. Remember, you can usually customize and configure even the special purpose themes once you install them, so if a theme created for designers appeals to you as an architect, go ahead and try it out!
Free versus Paid Themes
Like most things in life, you get what you pay for and we tend to believe that paid themes have a higher level of attention to detail and quality. Plus, you’ll usually get some access to technical support from the developer. That said, there are many solid free themes out there. A great place to start is the Theme Directory at WordPress.org where you can use the search feature to discover designs that work for you.
Recommended General Use Portfolio Themes
Total is a general purpose theme that also includes portfolio functions. Actually, it includes a lot of features – claiming over 90+ “builder blocks” you can combine to meet your needs. This theme is great for advanced users, or new users who want to start simple but plan to grow over time. It’s responsive out of the box, and also features drag & drop page building which is nice for non-technical users.
Morgan is somewhat on the other end of the complexity spectrum from Total, it’s focused on a simpler set of features and is great for a personal portfolio or “resume” site. It won’t overwhelm you with configurations, is clean, and also has some drag & drop editing capability. You’ll spend less time tinkering and have your site up quickly. This is theme works well for freelancers of all types, allowing you to feature your skills and work without getting in the way.
Back on the “jack of all trades” end of the spectrum is Avada, one of the most popular themes out there. It has a ton of options, and in particular, it makes it easy to integrate with WooCommerce for shopping cart functionality. If selling products is an important part of your portfolio site, this may be a good option (Total does this too, but Avada may be a little easier for non-technical users.) There will probably be more initial configuration work for you, but the fact that this theme is so popular means you’ll find resources with a simple Google search to answer most of your questions.
Recommended Themes for Photographers
The following themes are great for photographers because they put your images front and center, allowing you to feature your work online in the best way possible. Some of these would work well for designers and visual artists too, depending on your personal sense of style. A specific useful feature to look for in these themes is the password protected gallery area, which you can use with individual clients to share comps and have them select images for print.
Atlas has some nice full-screen display capabilities to fill the viewer’s web browser with your entire image. It’s a great way to maximize the display area for you work.
Core Minimalist is from the same developer as Atlas with many of the same features, though as the name implies is more minimal in its design layout. The flow gallery feature allows fluid browsing of multiple images at one time.
Cobra provides an extensive set of customizations for a photographer’s portfolio theme, including eCommerce integration with WooCommerce and a wide set of layout configurations. Great for advanced users or those with a specific vision in mind.
Recommended Themes for Designers and Visual Artists
Illustrate is a nice, simple theme with a cool color palette feature that sets the main colors on the page based on the colors in the featured image. Configured right, this can make your portfolio images pop.
Ink is another clean, minimal theme for designers and visual artists. It lets you easily set full-screen background images per project to give each a unique feel that is all about your graphic design work, not your theme’s.
Recommended Themes for Writers and Journalists
A writing portfolio has unique needs. The written word is obviously the most important thing, but a compelling visual environment can help highlight your work and also create the type of “feeling” you want to go with your writing. This is particularly true of fiction, but can apply to non-fiction writers as well. Think of it like creating the feeling of being in your favorite bookstore, or in a cozy reading nook. Here are some of our favorite themes for writers.
The Novelist: this theme creates a “book like” page viewport. The image you feature on each page defines the feeling you get for the site overall. A minimalist theme, but it does rely on the images you select to go with your writing.
Read: a very minimalist theme that focuses on quality typography to enhance legibility, and works great on mobile and tablet views. It also has a nice lightbox style gallery display if you have more visual elements to include, such as cover art.
The Writer: unlike the other “text first” themes, takes a “cover image first” approach, so if you have a great book or article images to feature, this could make your writing portfolio stand out, giving it a highly gallery oriented feel.
Typist: a very easy to customize theme that provides a nice middle ground between image-forward and text-focused. It looks great in various view sizes too.
Installing your Theme
Installing a theme is usually a simple task in WordPress, though it does require you know where to go in your install to locate the Theme Settings. Check out our step-by-step guide for installing themes for help with this!