The Debate Over Watermarks in Photography

The Debate Over Watermarks in Photography

Controlling your image is a valid quest for any photographer, as we all want to protect our brand. Seeing one’s work altered without permission can be frustrating, as can discovering your work on blogs that are void of any credit. The first response for most photographers is to watermark their images, ensuring that their logo or website graces every image that hits the internet. In today’s landscape, is watermarking your photographs the best way to protect them? Let's review both sides of this debate, and explore the current state of the watermark in photography.

Watermarks Impact the Viewing Experience

With the bombardment of media that we find ourselves in on any social media network, presentation is more important than ever. As photographers, we have to contend with our images being compressed, as well as deal with the poor quality of the displays that our audience may be experiencing our photos on. For the most part, these are aspects that are beyond our control.

However, a watermark is something that is entirely in our hands. From large vectorized logos to website URLs, a distracting watermark can cause an adverse reaction to our work in front of viewers. Scrolling past an image without any engagement is the worst reaction a viewer can have. Disrupting their viewing experience in any way can contribute to that.

There are many artists who will watermark every image that is delivered to their clients, not pertaining to low-resolution proofs. Whether this is to a blog, or for an event, there are many who charge a fee if their client wishes to have their images watermark-free. Why would someone pay for this? The logical conclusion to draw is that there are enough clients who feel the images are worsened by the presence of said logos and watermarks. I personally find this business practice to be one that can quickly alienate a client, so tread carefully.

An example of a default watermark on deviantart.com

Watermarks Are Free Advertising

Most watermarks are designed with promotion in mind, consisting of the photographer’s website, or the brand name. This means that when your images are seen, that you are guaranteed credit, as your name is right on the picture. This is true, and it can definitely help potential clients find you. However, as mentioned above, the reach of your images can be limited by a poorly designed watermark, as well as reduce opportunities for your images to be shared on other websites or blogs that could have brought in additional traffic.

Watermarks Are Not Applicable in Certain Genres

Think of your favorite fashion, commercial, or beauty photographer that is active today. Are there watermarks present on their work? There are some genres of photography where watermarks are not viable.

Let’s take editorial photography, for example. You will be hard pressed to find a fashion or beauty editorial with a photographer’s logo present. Fortunately, somewhere in the publication, there will be a list of credits that will properly label the photographer and those involved in the production. There will not be a logo or a watermark, just minimalistic text at the edges of the frame. Because of this, posting up the same images with a logo or watermark doesn’t compute, as it changes the aesthetic and ignores the logo-free image already circulating from the publication.

Watermarks Prevent Theft

By far and away the biggest motivator for watermarking one’s work is to prevent art theft. Wherever your image goes, your watermark is along for the ride. Yet there are those instances where your watermark may be cropped out of the image. Even worse is discovering a watermarked image with the logo purposefully removed in Photoshop or another capable application. Fortunately, these instances are the minority when compared to those that are deterred from using your images without permission. Watermarks in many cases do prevent theft, but a determined thief will still find a way.

Low Resolution Versus Watermarking

A popular tactic for those wishing to dodge art theft is to only put out low-resolution photos online. In some instances, this is a wise decision to also combat the image compression that happens on social networks such as Facebook. Low resolution photos can help deter those who would print or reproduce your photos. The drawback to this is as we have devices that support higher and higher display resolutions, the quality of the image may be lacking. Low resolution images also does not defend against uncredited Tumblr or Pinterest reposts, so this tactic is primarily useful for preventing unauthorized reselling of your work.

Other Ways to Protect Your Work

A side effect of producing quality work is inspiring others to steal it. Watermarks can be your first line of defense, but there are plenty of ways to track misuse of your work.

Pixsy is a free online service for photographers that allows you to upload a collection of your photographs from multiple sources. Pixsy crawls the web in order to find matches, and allows you to flag certain instances, as well as offers legal recourse for having the images removed or filing a claim.

Google Images is perhaps the most common option for discovering where your images are. For those using Google Chrome, you can simply right click on your image and select “Search Google for this Image” as illustrated in the graphic below. Google performs a reverse-image lookup, and displays websites that are showing that image, or similar ones. While many results may be other places that you have submitted the photograph to, this is a great way to see altered versions or unfamiliar websites.

EXIF Copyright Information

My biggest recommendation to any photographer is to setup copyright information on the EXIF data of your photographs. Most cameras have the ability to display the author’s name, copyright information, or the owner’s name. This makes filing claims or takedown notices even easier when the perpetrator leaves that information intact. If you haven’t already done this, take a few minutes to do so, as it’s a quick and easy way to protect your work.

Do Right by Your Brand

Choosing to use or not to use watermarks is a personal choice, there isn’t a right or a wrong answer. Just ensure that your decisions are in line with attracting and keeping your desired clientele, rather than alienating them.

Where do you stand on the watermark debate? If you are a photographer who watermarks their work, do you have personal stories for how they have helped your business? For those that choose not to watermark their images, what were some of your experiences with misappropriated images? Please share your thoughts and experiences below.

Team Credits - Photographer: Kendra Paige | Model: McKenna Knipe of LA Models | MUAH: Kailin Fernandez | Wardrobe Stylist: Alyssa Blanco | Designer: Krystell Barraza | Retoucher: Svetlana Pasechnik | Assistants: Chris Brodsky and Monica C Baker | Article Suggested By: Johnny H Le
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26 Comments

In my niche of cosplay photography, I was forced to start watermarking a couple years ago. There is so much rampant theft of cosplay photos that a watermark is one of the few ways to get any credit at all for a widely shared photo or one that is posted on a site that scrapes other people's photos and sells ads around it. I try to never put the watermark over important content and lower its opacity to make it as unobtrusive as possible while still unmistakably being associated with my site.

Kendra Paige's picture

I started in photography doing cosplay, and I can definitely relate with all of the images that were stolen, shared without credit, or printed and sold. Cosplay is very unique as a genre, so rules that apply to others may not be applicable for cosplay photography.

I find watermarking to be very common in a lot of cosplay photography in the U.S., though it seems very uncommon in Europe, Russia, and Japan.

So long as the watermark doesn't obstruct the subject, I believe they can be effective.

Kendra, thanks for an interesting and informative article. It's something I will keep in mind as I share more of my images online.

The bulk of what I have shared over the past 8+ years has been on the outdoor gear website I run, and I would have no problem with anyone appropriating those images. In most cases, that would result in more free press for the brands I write about. I've been compensated in one or more ways already, so I'm not worried about loss of income from stolen images. And I've always gone the lo-res route anyway, but that was for fast loading, to maintain high SEO rankings.

As my wildlife photography improves, I can see where some of my images may have enough value that someone else may want to use them, but I will look for ways to prevent theft and make sure I get due credit.

Kendra Paige's picture

Thank you for your comment!

Personally, I feel that promotion should be every photographer's priority. Watermarks can adversely affect their propensity for being sharable. I believe you're making very wise decisions when it comes to prioritizing SEO, and allowing the brands you review to gain the benefit of reposts.

I will say, however, that my nature photographs have been by far the most stolen. A portrait I did of a lion has been reposted without credits thousands of times, sold as a cell phone case, sold as posters and wall art, t-shirts, as well as posted by PBS where it gained a large viewership without any credit headed my direction. This was one of my earlier photographs, before I really kept up on tracking my images. Now I make it a bi-weekly task to scour the internet for unauthorized usage of my images, and either contact those responsible for appropriate credit, DMCA takedown notices, or requests for compensation in the more commercial turns.

Despite that experience, I still refuse to watermark my work. I believe the viewing experience takes precedence. But that's my personal opinion, and may not be what's right for everyone.

Andrew Sible's picture

Thanks for posting this. I know one photographer, Michael Kelley, didn't use a watermark when posting his infamous "wake turbulence" photo on Reddit. Reddit is notorious (I've read) for being harsh on watermarks. Consequently, his high-res watermark-free image took the internet by storm and ended up distributed to quite a few clients willing to pay for the image and have it printed. I'm sure that one photo probably paid a pretty decent salary for it's creator, I don't remember if he mentioned how much.

This is my dream- to have an image noticed due to it's availablity and quality, and I suppose lack of watermark. Anyone truly interested in obtaining legal rights will find you and/or be willing to pay; people who don't want to pay will take the photo with a watermark or take a moment to remove the watermark anyway.

So one could conclude that a watermark MAY help share the image's creator, but it may also reduce the effectiveness of the photo and render it sterile to being shared. I watermark my work, but I've been leaning away from doing so. I'm afraid of theft but have said in the past that a petty theft for a cellphone background will not hurt me, and in fact may BENEFIT me when someone says "OOOHHH Pretty where'd you get that photo!?"

It's a hard decision, but I think at a moderate resolution that prevents a high-res print, but allows a adequate-res share, without watermarks, is the best bet.

Some artists also work watermarks into the art carefully for every picture, but I don't spend that kind of time on individual photos anymore so careful watermark placement cannot be as thoughtful as I'd like.

Finally, I can also hope that if one day a photo of mine is be stolen by a large corporation, I will be able to collect on that theft. Who knows. ;)

Here's Michael Kelley's site: http://www.mpkelley.com/

Kendra Paige's picture

Thank you for your comment, Andrew! I agree with everything you've said here, so we are definitely on the same wavelength. It is also my belief that a watermark can diminish an image's ability to be shared, so I view them as a double-edged sword. As my main focus is fashion photography, watermarks are just not an option. Any commercial-oriented pursuit in photography is one that is directly adverse to watermarking.

I remember Mike Kelley's article on here about that photo and the aftermath of it going viral! It's hard to grasp that sort of experience, and it's something that makes me wonder how it would have played out if it were watermarked.

I'll be right beside you with that suit-settlement-early-retirement-dream! Haha.

Andrew Sible's picture

I too wondered what would have happened with a watermark. Probably trolling...lol

Thanks for the reply, and best of luck, may we both retire early! ;)
Wonderful portfolio, by the way. :)

David Love's picture

Good topic. I started with no watermarks and once I noticed people using my images to boost their own sites and in one case actually using my images in their photography port as their own, I changed my mind. Not only that but if a cosplayer is wearing a mask or makeup I add their name as well. I don't think it effects the overall presentation as fashion magazines even add credits or info in magazines.

Some people have told me the only way they found me was through my watermark and it boosted my visits. We're in the age of "If I can download it, it must be free." Not only myself but the people I shoot are looking for exposure and you don't have a chance if you're just a blank face on some website with no credit.

Kendra Paige's picture

Cosplay photography is a very unique genre when it comes to copyright in general, as the very nature of cosplay is permanently residing in the gray area. Cosplay images tend to have the greatest chance of going viral with the built-in fanbase of the characters, so it is definitely in the best interest of those involved to watermark or credit their work, as the reposts will likely not do so. I think it's great that you credit some of those involved in your watermark, as I don't find that to be very common. Most cosplay photographers credit themselves, but never the cosplayer or anyone else who may have been involved in the production.

Watermarks when done well do not diminish the viewing experience, though I fear there are still a very large amount of poorly designed watermarks where vital parts of the image are obscured.

That's awesome that people were able to discover you through your watermark! I believe you have a very distinctive style, and learned of your work through my friend, Megan Coffey. I believe having a recognizable style can be just as powerful to branding and discovery as a watermark.

Thank you for your comment, and for sharing your experiences!

water marks are a soso way to keep your stuff from being stolen. if someone wants to take off your mark they will. these 2 cosplay photos can be cleaned in 10 min if they wanted to. with the editing software out there it's not even a challenge in most cases. there is no way to really protect your images these days as soon as it's online.

@Michael Well sure, but a watermark does two things. 1) Most copyright infringement is not malicious, it's based on ignorance of copyright law. People share the image without credit not realizing how damaging this is to the image creator. These people will not remove watermarks. 2) Removing a watermark shows intent to steal. Should legal action be involved, this will work in the image creator's favor.

BRANDING: exactly the right word for good...even great... watermarks!

Danni Diamond, Nino Batista, Jonathan Irving AKA Enigma Fotos, Alexander Mavrin, and a huge number of fantastic photographers I follow here, on FB, 500px and elsewhere... NEVER forget to "brand" their work.

Trick is to a) keep it simple; and b) integrate it aesthetically into your work.

AFAIC the photos I enjoy from the few pros I just mentioned, are not complete UNLESS they have their watermark cleverly positioned and integrated. It's a very viable and important part of their work and vision.

Brent: take a good look at the guys I gave as an example above and possibly reconsider your watermark. It's not simple and no mater where you put it, it's not going to look good IMHO. Hints: One color and preferably something you can drop the opacity yet still be distinctive and readable at small sizes. Also: drop the figure and the (dot)com.... neither is necessary.

Notes:
1) in the article their was the suggestion to include EXIF copyright data, which is a good start. Beware though that the #1 social site in the world Facebook strips this info (as well as color profiles) from your pictures.

2) you don't often find watermarks on editorial fashion work because the photographers have been paid... sometimes very well, sometimes not so much... but regardless, that's why the watermarks are not necessary. However, I often see posts from the photographers themselves, where yes, they "brand that baby", and rightly so.

I think a better distinction needs to be made between watermark and branding. Scott Kelby posted a photo on facebook with his company's name on the photo. A commenter asked why he spoke against watermarking yet put his logo on the photo. His response was that it's not a watermark it's branding. There is a big difference.

Connor Moriarty's picture

Great piece. I think there are uses for watermarking, but some photographers overdo it. As you stated, is watermarking your image to prevent the 1% of thieves from taking your work worth potential clients skipping over your portfolio because they were distracted from the photo viewing experience? I like to include a tiny, 50% opaque watermark of my initials in the most unnoticeable corner of the photo. If a thief is willing to crop it, they are most likely also willing to photoshop out any larger watermark.

that's exactly what i was getting at.

Paul Gregory's picture

You can also look up your images in Firefox by right clicking on the picture > Save image location > then paste that into Google. and search by image.

Matt BuckShots's picture

I was wondering what peoples thoughts on size and location of watermarks is.

Do you usually place it in the corner out of the way? I feel this allows the image to be seen better but gives a thief a much greater chance at a clean photoshop job of the watermark (or crop it out all together).

I always want to place mine in an area that would be very difficult to photoshop out but I feel the viewing experience is so much less, so much so that people will just graze over or pass by the photos. Its the best and most interesting part of a photo that is usually why the photo is stolen. Thus why the watermark should be placed directly over it.

Thoughts?

Jordan Bright's picture

I watermark my work. In automotive photography, especially in this day and age, its the ability to stand out that can make or break you if your a rookie, like myself. So having a watermark to set yourself apart and represent your brand is key!

On top of that there are so many 'Blogs' and social media pages that post 'The hottest cars' (A tag line used on 90% of these pages) and while some make an effort to give credit many just see a photo they like and just post it. Even using the image to sell generic merchandise (bumper stickers, decals, t-shirts, etc.) with no credit to the artist.

EXIF, plus steganography.

Carlos Morataya's picture

You cover so many different reasons for using and not using a watermark and all of them are pretty solid reasons. But at the end of the day it's up to you and the brand you represent if you should use a watermark. You're a 100% right!

Kendra Paige's picture

Thank you for the comment, and welcome to Fstoppers! It's great to see another familiar face here!

EXIF unfortunately does not help very much. Online services that honor and keep EXIF infos are very rare and in most cases (e.g. Facebook) all EXIF infos are stripped off after uploading your image. Even Google+ strips these off from the image although it reads and displays some of the EXIF infos.

I do watermark, but on pictures that I expect to be widely shared I take a different approach. I will often work the watermark in a subtle way into the actual scene. It has less of an awareness impact but does allow me to point to my brand if it ever came up. It could be removed as with any mark, but most of the time when I do it this way they don't bother, or even notice. In the below detail of one of my pictures (which I processed to give a painted look), the clock on the wall has my brand name on it. It's not intrusive but readily identifiable if I point it out. Between this and EXIF data I haven't had too many problems. Of course this kind of editing won't work for everyone, such a scenery photographers. But it's one idea.

Sheila Smart's picture

To watermark or not to watermark? That is the question! Due to the constant infringement of my work, I watermark all of my work which is online. That, of course, does not stop infringers, even companies, from commercially publishing my work without my permission with watermark intact! One of these companies had the gall to advise me that they had deliberately left my watermark on the image on their three websites "to give you exposure". I told them that I have 13 million hits on my website and I did not need that kind of exposure. When they refused to negotiate with me, I forwarded the emails between the company and me to my Australian lawyer (I am Sydney based) and he reached a settlement with them - eventually. I was interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation News on the settlement along with an American photographer who successfully pursued a Melbourne based travel company.

My biggest problem was with a print on demand site which downright refused to watermark the large thumbnails of my work on their site and so the "genie was out of the bottle" and many of my images were floating around the Net without the benefit of a watermark. Although I did quite well on this site selling prints etc, I withdrew all of my work.

Having watermarks embedded on your work does enable you to advise infringers that they cannot claim "innocent" usage. Also what is not generally known is that if you can prove that the infringer has deliberately removed (by photo editiing or generally cropping) the watermark, you can pursue them under DMCA legislation for damages even if the work is not registered with the US Copyright Office. As most IP lawyers in the US will not take on any case which involves unregistered images, they may take it on if they can prove wilful use.

Kirk Darling's picture

I will re-iterate the distinction between "branding" and "watermarking." The intention of watermarking a proof image is to prevent it from being fully enjoyable. Watermarking is SUPPOSED to ruin the viewing experience and force the client to actually make a purchase rather than run with the proof. What is being mostly discussed here is more properly considered "branding"--the intention is to allow the image to be fully enjoyable and yet identify the photographer.

Very nicely put, awesome article! I personally started watermarking my photos ever since I ran across this guide: http://www.paintshoppro.com/en/pages/watermark-photos/ and since I often share my photos on social media, I wouldn't want to come in the awkward and terrible position where other people get credit for my hard work. It is always better to be safe than sorry! :)