WordPress allows you to build a stunning website, with no prior technical knowledge. Once you have setup a WordPress website, the first thing you should do is select a WordPress ‘theme’. This article explains what a theme is, how to choose a good one and how to add this to your website. We end with a list of recommended free WordPress themes for photographers, artists, students and teachers.
Note: We recommend that all students who intend to work within the creative industry make their own website as soon as possible. Please read our accompanying guide: How to make your own website (and why you need one).
What is a WordPress theme?
A theme is rather like a ‘skin’ that is laid over the top of your website and controls the appearance, style and display of the site, without altering the functionality or content beneath. You can switch quickly between themes, while the articles and images that you have uploaded remain the same. Changing a theme may alter font styles, heading sizes, column layouts, border styles, background colors, page layouts and so on.
When you first create a WordPress website, it comes with a simple default theme (currently called Twenty Fifteen theme). Most people select a new theme that suits their website purpose. A good theme changes much more than just color and layout; it improves engagement with content and helps to communicate your brand in a positive light.
How to change your WordPress theme:
Changing a theme is very simple:
- Log into your WordPress dashboard / admin panel (the usual login url is in this format: http://www.yourwebsitename.com/wp-login.php, making sure to type in your actual website name)
- Click ‘Appearance’ and then ‘Themes’ from the left-hand menu
- Click ‘Add New’
You will then arrive at the WordPress.org theme directory – a collection of thousands of free WordPress themes that have been carefully vetted, reviewed and tested by the WordPress community. (It is also possible to upload directly a .zip file from a theme that you have purchased elsewhere, however these cost money and are of variable quality – for most new WordPress users, a free theme is all you need).
Each theme in the WordPress directory can be ‘previewed‘ or ‘installed‘. Once installed, you then ‘live preview’ this to test what it will look like with your existing content, or ‘activate’ the theme, to make it appear on your live website.
It is worth noting that when you preview a theme, it often looks nothing like the amazing screenshot promised. This is because you have to add content and adjust the settings, before many of the features appear. If you have not added much content to your website and have not set up menus, the new theme may initially appear bland and empty.
How to choose a WordPress theme for your website
Once you have reached the WordPress theme directory, you can search the themes or sort them using the filter options. It is also worth viewing the ‘popular’ and ‘favourites’ menu tabs, as themes that are used frequently may be higher quality, have better reviews and be updated regularly.
We recommend that you choose a theme with:
- Responsive layout. A responsive layout adjusts and adapt to fit different screen sizes, ensuring that the theme looks great on mobile devices, tablets and desktop. Some websites receive over 50% mobile traffic. As almost all WordPress themes are responsive, there is no excuse for choosing one that is not. Test out how responsive a theme is by resizing your browser screen, to see how the preview adjusts as the screen size changes.
- Lots of positive reviews and a developer who updates the theme regularly. When you click on a thumbnail to preview a theme, you see a star rating out of 5, number as reviews, as well as version number, indicating how many times a theme has been updated. A theme that is popular and is well maintained is more likely to operate smoothly.
- Clean, minimalistic design. A website can be thought of as a blank slate – a clear gallery wall upon which to display your work. Your theme has to look great with multiple images and different types of content. Selecting a theme with minimal color scheme and simple backgrounds is likely to be harmonious with a greater range of content on your website. You should also consider the needs of color blind users (read more about color blindness and how this affects artists and designers), and ensure that text is easily legible, using dark grey or black text on white. Test out the demo version of a theme and ensure that you can navigate your way easily around the site.
- Simple features. It can be tempting to want a website with all the bells and whistles, such as fancy sliders, flashy animations and special effects. Added versatility often bloats a theme behind the scenes and makes it load slowly – something that is annoying for your visitors and less likely to rank highly in Google.
- Easy customisation options. Sometimes you are lucky to stumble upon a theme that is exactly as you want it. Usually, however, you will need to tweak a theme to suit your own preferences. The best free WordPress themes for beginners are those that are intuitive and easy to use. All of the themes in our recommended shortlist below fall into this category.
- SEO friendly. Search Engine Optimation is something that you will want to learn about eventually, if you are serious about having your website rank highly in Google. For now, it is ideal to ensure that the theme you choose mentions that it is ‘SEO optimized’ or ‘SEO ready’ in the description (this is not a guarantee that it is, but it is a good sign).
Note: If you find a WordPress website that you like the look of, you can enter the url into this website and it will tell you what theme it is using!
Special considerations for photographers and artists
The best free WordPress themes for photographers and artists are those that, in addition to the requirements listed above, allow images to be displayed in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Many photography WordPress themes have a gallery or online portfolio built in, often with images displayed in a grid format, with thumbnail images that open into another page or pop-up box, displaying the full size image. It is important to note that this is no longer the recommended way for displaying images digitally.
For your images to rank well in Google, they should be accompanied by relevant, in-depth text. Having images in a separate gallery, with minimal accompanying text is not ideal. We recommend either placing similar images together within a standard web page or blog post, with an accompanying body of text…or to have each single artwork on its own page, accompanied by enlarged details and other information (for example: videos showing how the work was made; photos of work in progress; perhaps the finished piece hanging in a gallery or home). This way Google has lots of accompanying information about an image, so they are more likely to show it to those who make relevant search queries in Google.
Displaying many artworks upon a single page is similar to how leading websites in the industry, such as Behance, now display work. Rather than opening page after page to view each new work, as you do in sites such as DeviantArt, users in Behance scroll down a single page, enabling images to be viewed easily and fast, particularly on mobile.
As traditional ‘galleries’ are no longer ideal, you do not necessarily need a specialised ‘artist wordpress theme’; you simply need one that is aesthetically pleasing and meets all of the other requirements above.
It is worth noting, also, that if a gallery is built into a theme, any work uploaded to this gallery may be lost later if you decide to move to a new theme. This is the warning issued by the official WordPress developer website:
Any theme you create should not add critical functionality. Doing so means that when a user changes their theme, they lose access to that functionality. For example, say you build a theme with a portfolio feature. Users who build their portfolio with your feature will lose it when they change themes.
If you wish to have a gallery as part of your website, it is better for this to be a standalone plugin (more on ‘plugins’ in an upcoming article) or for images to be added manually to a single page.
Our Top 3 recommended free wordpress themes for photographers, artists or bloggers
Having thousands of free WordPress themes can make you feel overwhelmed and unsure where to begin. To make your job easier, we have narrowed these down to our favourite five themes. Note that these can all be customized with a personal header, graphic images, and different layout options, so two sites using the same theme may end up looking dramatically different. These are all great themes for beginner WordPress users and can be used to create beautiful, professional websites.
Decode by Macho Themes
Shamrock by Meks
MH Magazine Lite by MH Themes
Premium WordPress Themes
At some stage, you may decide you want to take your website to the next level. Although we recommend that all new WordPress users use free themes – especially if you have limited funds – there are advantages to purchasing a good premium theme, particularly if you hope to turn your website into a business or professional venture. Premium themes come with a lot more functionality built in. They have greater flexibility and more options for customisation, as well as dedicated support teams on hand to answer questions. One of the most popular and highly recommended WordPress theme retailers is MyThemeShop. ViralNova used a theme from MyThemeShop to grow to over 100 million visitors a month – illustrating the advantage of well-positioned social share buttons and super fast-loading theme. MyThemeShop themes are responsive, SEO friendly and very easy to use. They have put special attention into designing themes that do well with social media. Our recommendation is their ‘Blogging’ theme.
Blogging theme by MyThemeShop
Blogging theme is one of the highest rating themes from MyThemeShop. At the time of publishing it has a rating of 4.8 out of 5, with over 200 reviews. This theme has several different versions available, allowing you to tweak the theme to suit an online store, viral website, business or blog (see the thumbnails above). Each of these versions has demo sites, so you can test out the theme prior to purchase.
View the full collection of MyThemeShop themes here.
Selected a theme?
Once you have selected a theme, the next step is add personalized header designs, tweak the layout, color, sidebar graphics and so on. We will cover this in an upcoming article, along with our advice for the best free WordPress plugins.
If you have not yet set up a WordPress site, please read our accompanying article, How to make your own website (and why you need one)!