Digital Photography Tips, Tutorials and Resources
You’ve figured out all the bells and whistles of your WordPress website — you know how to post content and how to customize your theme. But, you run into a problem. WordPress doesn’t do exactly what you want it to. That’s where plugins come in!
WordPress is built to support plugins that extend its functionality. These plugins, crafted by creative developers, provide new features that solve users’ pressing problems or in-demand needs. In that way, the power of building the platform truly lies in the hands of the community.
But not all plugins are created equal. Some are specialized with great development and support. Others are broken and defunct. And because there isn’t necessarily a “WordPress Store” that contains all verified apps, choosing the right plugin for the job can seem like the Wild West.
Here, we’ll give you a quick rundown of some of the best WordPress plugins available for free on WordPress. We chose popular, established plugins that have large user bases and that are under regular development.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- What a WordPress plugin is.
- How a WordPress plugin works.
- The different types of WordPress plugins.
- Where to find WordPress plugins.
- How to use WordPress plugins.
- How many WordPress plugins are “too many”.
- The best plugins in their category.
This article isn’t comprehensive, but it will help you get started navigating the complex world of WordPress plugins.
What Is a WordPress Plugin?
The WordPress platform is focused on one thing: publishing content to the web. Because of that, it’s central functionality is all geared towards organizing content and pages, publishing blogs, integrating shared resources, and so on.
The WordPress developers knew that the platform would expand alongside the needs of its user base. To help with that expansion, developers built-in code hooks that would allow users to create extended functionality for the platform itself.
Plugins are written in PHP, like WordPress. This code takes WordPress’ core functionality and extends it by adding specific features that weren’t available in the core package. This includes things like advanced image manipulation, special pages, special post types, social media displays, eCommerce features, and more.
There are literally thousands of plugins available for WordPress, thanks to the huge WordPress community.
You can get WordPress plugins in a few ways:
- Download the plugin code from a developer. WordPress packages come in a standard format, packaged in a .zip file. Once you’ve downloaded a plugin, you can simply upload it to your WordPress Dashboard to install.
- Install the plugin directly from WordPress. If you browse the plugin section of your dashboard, then you’ll notice that many plugins are available to install directly into your site. This is much simpler than manual installation.
Furthermore, the plugins in this list are curated by WordPress, so you know that they’re correctly organized and easy to install. Finally, installation is as easy as a single button click. No files, no download, no worries.
If the base WordPress platform is the backbone for your site, then the plugins are the tools that you can use to build upon that backbone. If you’re serious about developing your site beyond basic blogging, you’ll need to use plugins.
How Does a WordPress Plugin Work?
We mentioned that plugins are written in PHP. That’s because WordPress functions by using PHP to communicate between the server and the user. In short, PHP is the language of WordPress, so plugins have to use that same language.
WordPress is built on the LAMP stack architecture. LAMP stands for four different technologies:
All websites run on a server, and every server needs to be on a computer with an operating system. Linux is one of the more popular operating systems in use for server computers because of its security, speed, and reliability.
Apache is the server software. A ‘server’ is simply a program that handles incoming and outgoing traffic. When a user requests a page (like a page from your WordPress website), Apache takes that request, feeds it to whatever program needs it, and then gives it back to you.
3. MySQL Database
The database holds all the data for your site. For example, when someone pulls up a post, the database organizes the content, date, author information, images, tags, categories, and any other relevant information.
PHP is the main programming language for WordPress. It handles pages by making content requests from the database and feeding that information back to the server to be served to the reader.
Plugins work specifically at the level of PHP. When a developer writes a plugin, they use “hooks”, or API hooks. These hooks are points where the plugin developer can access the underlying structure of the platform to extend it without breaking anything.
For example, there are hooks that can access pages to add additional items into sidebars, or even full sidebar replacements. There are other hooks that allow developers to create entirely new content types like image galleries or portfolio grids.
Types of WordPress Plugins
There are several types of WordPress plugins, and they fall into a few different categories:
1. Image Manipulation & Optimization
WordPress allows you to use images in a lot of different ways. Accordingly, many developers have built plugins to help manage those images. Some plugins help with the size of your site by compressing images, while others allow you to draw on images, add watermarks, or rotate them.
2. Image Galleries
Different from image optimization, image galleries create a unique type of content that looks like a gallery of images. Many plugins, like Envira Gallery, provide several features to change how your gallery looks and feels. Likewise, these plugins typically let you put galleries on any page or post on your site.
Since WordPress supports up to 34% of sites on the internet, it makes sense that security would be an issue. WordPress plugins can cover security issues like blacklisting IP addresses, detecting malware, or protecting from brute-force attacks.
4. Contact Forms
This might seem an odd category, but when you realize that many website operators rely on a contact form to filter customer communication, it makes sense. For many businesses and freelancers, their contact form is a way for them to manage communications or, in some cases, manage an additional part of their sales funnel.
With that in mind, a contact form is typically planned for maximum flexibility and accessibility to maximize how many people give their contact information over.
5. Page Builders
Page builder themes and plugins have exploded on the WordPress scene recently. These plugins give you the ability to build pages based on custom designs using drag-and-drop interfaces.
These plugins are extremely useful for anyone building complex WordPress websites. Developers love page builders because they let them create unique landing pages inside their WordPress website without having to learn code.
6. Page Optimization
These plugins are usually geared towards developers who want to have the fastest, leanest site on the web. These plugins typically incorporate things like file compression, broken links auditing, and CDN delivery hacks to help optimize site pages for better rankings.
7. Language Support
If you want to support a variety of languages on your site, there are several plugins that can translate it into a variety of language. That way, you can have a truly multilingual site that reaches audiences all over the world.
WordPress eCommerce is a huge industry, but the platform doesn’t include commerce functions out of the box. Special plugins focused on eCommerce can help with things like building a digital storefront, accepting payments, and maximizing exposure through effective SEO and direct marketing.
Speaking of SEO… there’s a plugin for that too! SEO is one of the most important factors in a website if you want people to find it organically. SEO plugins help you by optimizing things like content, images, broken links, and site structure for search engines. There is some overlap between these plugins and page optimization plugins.
10. Social Media
Social media plugins handle integration with your Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media accounts. This allows you to automatically push updates across all your social accounts or present your social media content on your website as a sidebar.
Where to Find WordPress Plugins
You can find WordPress plugins in two primary ways:
- Through the WordPress dashboard. Navigate to the Plugins >> Add New section of your WordPress dashboard to access an entire library of plugins available for WordPress, curated by WordPress.org. This interface gives you a way to search for plugins and install them with one click.
- Access the plugin developer’s website directly. Obviously, if you use search engines to find a plugin, you’ll come across dozens of websites for products in that niche. If you go to a developer’s site, you’ll often find that they have a version to download for manual installation.
The first of these options is usually the easiest of the two. However, many plugin developers only offer their premium plugins (paid tiers) through their website. Likewise, some plugins require monthly or annual subscriptions that call for access to the website to download addons or extensions.
You might also find WordPress plugins in a “Plugin repository”. These are third-party storage sites that work to store, distribute, and maintain plugins for users. These sites can be a great way to get plugins, depending on their reputation.
Is the Plugin I Downloaded Safe?
Just because a plugin exists doesn’t mean you should go ahead and install it. There isn’t a clear, top-down quality assurance protocol for plugins outside of the standards required to develop them. Old plugins or plugins that were poorly developed might look quality on the surface, even though they contain security or performance flaws.
Here are some warning signs to follow when downloading WordPress:
The Site or Repository Is Old
The age of a site or repository could be a signal that the plugin has not been well maintained. If the site you’re downloading from hasn’t been updated in years, it’s most likely the case that the plugins on the site could be old, deprecated, or broken.
The major problem here is that old plugins can introduce security issues to your site, or break something in a more modern WordPress version.
Research Shows the Plugin Has Flaws
Follow user comments and WordPress security forums to see if anyone is discussing the plugin. Plugins aren’t usually malicious, as malicious plugins are generally spotted and removed by the community. But poorly-designed plugins could introduce flaws that users will only notice once they’ve run the plugin through some use cases.
The Plugin Has a Low Download Count
While this isn’t always necessarily true, you should try to avoid plugins that don’t have much activity unless you are testing it in a testing environment. Usually, plugins with a lot of downloads have passed community tests and are therefor more reliable.
The Plugin Isn’t Compatible with the Newest Version of WordPress
As of July 2020, the current version of WordPress is 5.4.2. If you run across a plugin that isn’t compatible, then it’s best to just stay away.
The Plugin Doesn’t Come with Support
Some plugins are enterprise endeavors with rich features and a support system. Other plugins are personal projects that someone completed because they needed features or thought that there would be a market for them.
We’re not saying that individual plugins are bad. But, you want a plugin with real support, even if that is a dedicated developer. More tech-savvy users can work with random developers on the web to solve problems, but if tinkering on a plugin isn’t helping you or your site, then you need to move on.
Likewise, if there is no documentation (how-tos, FAQs, a blog, etc.), that’s a bad sign that the plugin was made with a small audience in mind. Should you have any problems, it’s likely that there’s no help forthcoming.
The Plugin Doesn’t Work with Other Plugins
Some plugins just cause problems with the WordPress code. This, in turn, makes it impossible for every plugin to play well together. However, most of these problems are solved in the code, and well-designed plugins will usually work with others unless they have overlapping functionality. In that case, you’ll need to disable that function on one of the plugins.
If a plugin completely breaks another plugin, however, just skip.
The Plugin is Huge
Plugins shouldn’t be huge additions. Large plugins slow your site and your interaction with it, which hurts your SEO.
It Pops Up in WPScan Vulnerabilities
WPScan Vulnerabilities is a database of active vulnerabilities in WordPress and WordPress plugins. It goes without saying that if you find your plugin here, it’s probably not worth using.
Sometimes, others will make the decision for you about whether a plugin is trustworthy. Some hosting providers blacklist plugins with security flaws, disallowing you from installing them.
How Many Plugins Should I Have?
There is no limit to how many plugins you can install on your WordPress website. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should just install as many as possible. Too many plugins can cause conflicts with WordPress in a variety of ways:
- Security: Having a ton of plugins installed can introduce unintended security flaws in the WordPress code. Even if the individual plugins are OK, sometimes poor interactions can break your site or allow hackers to get in through an unexpected vector.
- Performance: According to Neil Patel, up to 40% of readers will bounce from a site if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load. Plugins add weight to a site, which means a lowered performance. This can impact the SEO of the site and make it hard for you to use.
- Integrity: Too many plugins can cause unintended faults or behavior in a WordPress website. Over time, this could evolve into pages not behaving as they should or a complete crash of your site.
Torque recommends that a WordPress website on its own server have no more than 20 plugins, while WordPress websites on shared hosting should reliably run anywhere between 0 and 5. Of course, these numbers are dependent upon the side and functionality of the plugins, too.
The Best WordPress Plugins of 2020
Image Manipulation and Optimization
1. Smush Image
Smush Image is a simple and straightforward image optimization tool. It compresses images that you’ve uploaded to WordPress and continues to compress images as you upload.
Smush comes in a free and paid version. The free version compresses images up to 1 MB in size, while the paid tier (Smush Pro) is part of a plugin package for $49/mo that compresses image files up to 5 MB.
Ewww is a free optimizer that gives you a lot of features for free. It includes high-quality compression, unlimited file sizes, library optimization, and 30-day image backups.
This freemium optimizer includes a few goodies for those who are OK with getting a little bit of functionality for free and then paying for more. ShortPixel uses a “credit” system for functions, with every user getting 100 free credits per month and 5,000 additional credits for $4.99.
Like many other plugins, you get image optimization and compression, bulk optimization, and adjustable compression rates. You also get the option to convert images to WebP, a Google format, to boost SEO in search engines. It also integrates with several image gallery plugins and allows for multisite compression.
Envira Gallery is one of the top image gallery plugins on the market. Not only does it include several layers of image gallery customization, but it also includes several addons to help you with optimization, social media, and backups. All that — plus, you use it to create any kind of image gallery you want. The makers of this plugin built it from the ground up to be a complete gallery solution.
The free version gives you all the basic functions of the plugin. Paid users get additional access to features like addons, theme selection, and extended support.
This plugin is, alongside Envira, one of the top gallery plugins on the market. NextGEN includes a free and Pro version that include features like Print Lab fulfillment, tiled and mosaic galleries, deep linking, and more.
Sucuri is a fully-featured and established security plugin that many consider to be the best in its class. In part, users love this plugin for its robust set of free features. For starters, it covers basic security like file monitoring, security notifications, and malware scanning.
It also includes a blacklist monitoring service and reports based on any hacking activity. These reports even suggest actions you might take to mitigate the issue.
Finally, while the plugin is free, you can also sign up for a Sucuri account with a yearly membership that covers additional in-depth scans, CDN performance monitoring, and SSL support.
You may have heard of Jetpack. This plugin covers many things, but we wanted to mention it here in the security section.
The Jetpack Security plugin comes in free or paid tiers. The free version doesn’t do much, but you can expand security coverage with premium tiers that start at $9/mo. These tiers include features like alerts for site disruption, backups, and protection against login attacks, comment spam, and malware.
Wordfence is another free plugin that offers quite a few great security features. This plugin is free across as many sites as you want, and provides against brute-force attacks, password alert tracking, and real-time hacker tracking using IP addresses.
WPForms is a feature-rich drag-and-drop form builder. This free plugin includes everything you need to create basic forms, email notifications, thank you pages, and Captcha protection fields. The premium tier includes the option to build forms including more advanced surveys, an opt-in form, registrations, and file upload forms.
On top of that, users can include geolocation information about the users and create multi-page forms.
OptinMonster is another drag-and-drop form builder that includes most everything included in WPForms. This plugin is geared more for users who want to create effective lead-gen pages like email subscription registration and forms to collect data like phone numbers and emails.
The lowest tier for this plugin starts at $9/mo for new users ($14/mo for established users).
11. Formidable Forms
Formidable Forms boasts that it helps you create “solution-focused” forms. These include more advanced forms like payment receipts, calculators, and directory views. This is definitely a form builder for enterprise focused users or people who want to build complex pages for things like a knowledge base.
All tiers are paid for, with the Basic tier starting at $99.38 for the first year ($149 for the following years).
Elementor page builder is a great option for those who want a robust and free page builder for their site. Between the free and paid tiers, you get features like 300+ element blocks covering nearly any type of content you’d want on a page. You also get a deep undo and redo function, responsive design, and 100+ templates for landing pages.
The even better news? If you chose to install Envira Gallery for help creating customizable image galleries, you can use the plugin’s new Elementor Addon to build your galleries directly from the Elementor page builder.
If you want expanded features, the paid tiers start at $49/year for a single WordPress site.
Created by Elegant Themes, Divi also boasts a drag-and-drop interface that includes saving partial pages, posts and custom CSS. This plugin doesn’t come free, however; the price starts at $89/year for unlimited sites with a lifetime access option of $249. You do get unique theme selection and more with this tier.
14. Beaver Builder
Another drag-and-drop page builder, Beaver Builder comes in two tiers. The free version (Lite) includes all you need to build pages. The premium versions expand those options with more content types, modules, theme selection, maintenance mode, and options for multi-site features.
Pricing for premium tiers starts with the Standard plan at $99/year.
WP Rocket is an all-in-one optimization tool that has one goal: speed up your website. Features include layers of optimization like page caching, file compression (not just images, but PHP and HTML pages), and advanced image serving.
It isn’t free, however. The single-user license starts at $49/year and goes up to the Infinite plan at $249 per year for unlimited websites.
16. WP Super Cache
This plugin focuses specifically on caching, which is the act of taking dynamic pages and posts and making them into static HTML files that only change when you update them. This makes it much faster to serve and load those pages, optimizing your site.
WP Super Cache offers basic services like simple caching, CDN support, total cache for your site, and cache rebuilding.
This plugin is 100% free.
17. WP Fastest Cache
Another caching plugin, WP Fastest Cache boasts, obviously, of providing the fastest total cache services. They will also compress CSS, JS, and HTML files and handle things like database cleanup and Google Fonts Async.
A single license costs $49.99 per year, with discounted prices the more licenses you buy.
Remember when we mentioned Jetpack? This is an all-in-one plugin published through WordPress.com. Optimization features include file compression, lazy image loading, and an integrated Content Delivery Network.
Using Jetpack requires the user to have a WordPress.com account. There is a free version that includes CDN for images, security features, and site statistics tracking. Paid tiers start at $3.50/mo and include backups, video hosting, and social media post scheduling.
19. W3 Total Cache
W3 Total Cache boasts that it is the only total cache plugin that is provider agnostic. That means that you can get all the functionality and optimization from a caching plugin no matter what host that you use. That includes total cache, file minimization, and more.
TranslatePress provides users with a front-end translation solution for their entire site. This plugin can translate entire pages using Google Translate or DeepL and allows you to edit the translation so that it fits your meaning. Users also own all translations and content forever.
The plugin is offered with a yearly subscription fee of roughly $90 for a personal plan, with higher tiers offering more robust translation features.
PolyLang also allows you to translate your entire site, with plenty of controls so that you only translate what you want. This includes translations by categories and tags, custom post types, and RSS feeds. It also automatically embeds easily-used language switchers as a widget for your site.
WPML is one of the most popular language plugins for WordPress. It includes all the major translation features that most plugins, plus extensive support features and documentation to help WordPress users make their blog translations sound natural.
The pricing for WPML breaks into blog pricing for smaller sites, and CMS pricing for larger sites or multi-site setups.
WooCommerce is perhaps the best-known eCommerce plugin for WordPress, and rightly so. This plugin includes features that everyone needs for their online business, including payment processing, inventory management, and shipping options.
Online sellers can benefit from using both the WooCommerce plugin and the Envira Gallery plugin to advertise and sell products directly from image galleries.
Shopify is its own standalone eCommerce solution, and this plugin is its effort to extend its features into the WordPress space. Use of the plugin requires a Shopify account, and depending on your tier (starting at $29/mo for the basic tier), you’ll get features like SSL protection, gift card makers, payment processing, and social media marketing options for your digital store.
25. Yoast SEO
Yoast SEO is the big and well-trusted name in WordPress SEO. This plugin integrates with the WordPress editor to provide real-time analytics of your content to determine it’s SEO health. Metrics include content complexity, keyword density, section heading, readability, image use, and keyword locations. You can also build SEO-optimized metadata for Google SERPs.
This plugin is free.
26. Google XML Maps
Like it or not, Google is the big name in town, and you want to make sure that your site looks great for Google. XML sitemaps help you map out your site structure so that Google can crawl it more easily. This, in turn, makes your site that much more appealing to Google and will greatly improve your SEO standings.
SEMrush is one of the premier SEO companies in the world, and this SEO plugin ports some of their features into WordPress. This includes functions similar to Yoast (like content optimization) but also provides keyword content support based on your primary keyword to help you boost your site visibility.
SEMRush plugin requires a SEMRush subscription, which comes in a 30-day free trial. A basic account costs $99/mo.
When you publish new content to your WordPress site, you’ll want to use some social sharing. This plugin lets you schedule posts to your Buffer account so you can better manage your outreach.
The free plugin includes features for Buffer users, while the Pro version requires a Buffer Pro account and includes support for Instagram and Pinterest, shortcode, and conditional publishing.
Social Photo Feed is a plugin that focuses on social sharing like promoting photos and images between WordPress and social media, which is perfect for photographers!
The basic free version includes integration with Instagram, multiple Instagram feed support, and more. The Pro version includes features like galleries, a Lightbox integration, and captions.
This plugin is specifically for users to create “clickable” content for social sharing on Twitter. This provides tools for your readers to easily share your content on Twitter through an easy interface that includes options to include a quote and a link to your page.
MailChimp is one of the most popular email platforms out. With the MailChimp for WordPress plugin, you can make it easier for your readers to give their email to you and sign up for your newsletter… which is a huge way to get repeat business.
Only Use the Plugins You Need
It may go without saying, but don’t think that because you can download a plugin for everything that you need one for anything. Many users who get into the plugin ecosystem get lost in all the cool things that developers are doing with plugins and they’ll want to install everything.
The best advice we can give you for managing plugins is just to install the ones that you need. Some of the key categories of plugins that you should have are:
Within these categories, you have quite a few options. But your best bet is to find plugins that do multiple related things and do them well. Envira Gallery, for example, provides a ton of image optimization options (and there are many more available for free outside of WordPress if you are able to put the manual work in). Likewise, an optimization plugin that can handle security can kill two birds with one stone.
We recommend that you at least have a page and SEO optimization plugin in place, along with a security plugin and some form of social media (if you’re interested in reaching out to an audience). Outside of that, you have a few options:
- If you are planning on selling services or photographs on your blog, then you’ll need an eCommerce plugin. You can’t get around it, especially if you plan on accepting payments online or selling content that people can download.
- If you want to build an audience, either as a thought leadership exercise or as a place to sell services, then you’ll want some social media accessibility. Linking social media, pushing posts, or connecting your image galleries to platforms like Instagram or Pinterest will go a long way.
- If you’re going to host a lot of your photographs on your WordPress site, then you’ll absolutely want an optimization plugin and an image optimization plugin. YOu might be able to offload image optimization to your own plate if you are fast and have the right software, although it might not be the best use of your time.
- An optimization plugin, especially one that includes a CDN or CDN integration, will help you host those files and get them to people around the world without any impact on performance.
- If you are handling user information, either through an online payment system or otherwise, you want a more advanced security plugin with your eCommerce solution.
To Pay or Not to Pay?
This is a huge decision to make. There are thousands of plugins, and many of them are free. It can be enticing, then, to only use free plugins to get the job done. It saves money, it keeps costs down, and it means that you can bail on the plugin if it doesn’t work out.
However, many paid plugins use funds to create a better product and user experience. These plugins are commercial products, and while that doesn’t mean that they are inherently better it does mean that there is a sense of accountability and support there.
A good rule of thumb is this: if your blog is small and you are using it for personal content or a portfolio, there are plenty of free plugins that can handle some basic functions like image compression and protection and optimization.
Once you start creating a website into a business, however, is when you should start thinking about plugins as an investment into that business.
Think about it: attacks against WordPress sites are common, and they happen every day. If your business is your website, then you need to take precautions:
Always secure your products and user information. If you accept payment, it is absolutely your duty to protect that data. Likewise, a paid plugin with good watermarking features can protect your intellectual property from theft.
If your blog is a store, you can’t wait for referrals to get business. SEO is your #1 focus to drive traffic. Page optimization, image optimization, and on-page or on post SEO are crucial features where paid plugins can support you.
Page builders might seem superfluous, what with WordPress having its own built-in editing. But you’ll probably want to start creating landing pages that convert sales or email address acquisition. These aren’t the same as a regular page; they will look totally different, with a completely different purpose.
A paid page builder can help you create a landing page that stands out from the rest of your site.
Throughout this article, we’ve talked about some of the best plugins available for WordPress. These plugins represent widely-used and well-maintained plugins that stand out in the market for what they provide. Users often recommend these plugins in forums or blog posts, and many of them boast millions of users.
But these plugins only scratch the surface of the WordPress plugin ecosystem. There are thousands of plugins that cover one or more of these categories. While some of these plugins are what we could consider “the best”, your mileage may vary.
The best way to find out if a plugin is right for you is to clearly understand what your needs are. Do some research. Some may recommend one of these plugins, and some may recommend something else that works even better for your needs.
We recommend that, for any paid plugin, you look to see if they have a free or trial version to test. Always try to use a plugin before buying to see if it fits your site, needs, and workflow.
Check out these other WordPress articles for more help building and maintaining your WordPress website:
- How to Add Pagination in WordPress Image Galleries
- Squarespace vs. WordPress for Photographers
- How to Change WordPress Theme
- 57 Best Free Photography Themes for WordPress
- How to Upload Photos Directly from Lightroom to WordPress
- 22 Best WordPress Plugins for Photographers
- How to Sell Your Photos in WordPress
Using WordPress and want to get Envira Gallery free?
Envira Gallery helps photographers create beautiful photo and video galleries in just a few clicks so that they can showcase and sell their work.