The Time to Prepare for Viral Photos Is Before They Go Viral

The Time to Prepare for Viral Photos Is Before They Go Viral

Unless you're a photojournalist, the chances are low that your photos will ever go viral. If you're trying to go viral, you'll probably be prepared ahead of time. If you just so happen to be in the right place at the right time, you may not be prepared for what happens when your photos go viral.

However, if that day ever comes, a little preparation ahead of time can certainly make the experience easier, more enjoyable, and less error-prone.

The Day My Photos Went Viral

My viral experience occurred before I started selling prints and before I knew much about the commercial process for news and distribution. I was suddenly tossed into the news cycle and was totally unprepared for what happened next.

We were at the Grand Haven beach on Lake Michigan to photograph the large waves crashing upon the pier head. It was about 3 pm and the waves were 6 to 8 ft and building. We were just standing there, waiting for them to get a little bigger. We noticed a gentleman slowly wading into the water with a life ring while looking out into the lake, but not frantically or anything. After a second of trying to figure out what he was doing, I realized that he was looking for someone. I then looked out into the lake and saw a young girl about 100 yards out in obvious distress.

A rescuer almost makes it to the girl but is pushed back by the waves. He is just to the right of the life ring.

Knowing that my lower back injury and lack of floatation device precluded me from going into the dangerous waves, I directed my brother-in-law to go get a couple of the surfers that were about 80 yards away, knowing they were wearing wetsuits. In the meantime, I kept an eye on where the girl was and directed a lady to call emergency services.

I was using my Canon T3i and 70-200mm f/4 lens to keep an eye on her and try to determine how much distress she was in. At this time the surfers were entering the water, but once in the water, they could not see where the girl was because of the height of the waves. They kept looking back at us and we directed them in the direction of the girl. This was difficult for them, as the six-foot waves kept pushing them back.

A second rescuer attempts to use a surfboard to reach the girl, but again the waves pushed him back.

Then, we realized it was two girls, in very rough shape, struggling to keep their heads above water. The rip current had swept both of them out into the lake.

Drownings like this occur here from time to time, and I thought: “If these girls drown, we might not know who they were.” Sometimes, it's weeks before they find the bodies, so I started to take photos for the purposes of identification later if it came to that.

After a few minutes, when there were plenty of emergency responders on site, I decided to just document the entire event with photos.

The second girl is rescued, barely conscious.

After much struggling with the waves, both girls were successfully rescued and tragedy was avoided. Both girls made a full recovery. At 2:53 pm, these two girls had walked into one of my shots at the edge of the water, at 3:10 pm they were fighting for their lives. The last girl was rescued at 3:25 pm.

The Aftermath

Shortly after the last girl was dragged ashore, a reporter from the local paper asked if I had photos of any of it. I replied that I had photos of all of it. I told her I would go home, process the raw photos and send her the processed images.

In the middle of processing the raw files, my brother-in-law called me to say that "an ABC News guy" was going to call me about the photos. There was a news post about the incident on Facebook, and my brother-in-law made a comment that I had photos.

I thought it would be the local ABC News station, but a few minutes later, Ben Stein from ABC News New York called me, and he mentioned the TV show Good Morning America. I thought: "Okay, so this is getting some attention."

I sent the photos to the reporter for the local paper and then to Ben Stein. A little later, the local ABC TV station WZZM 13 called and wanted to do an interview. It was 11 pm, and I had a news crew in my living room — kind of surreal, to say the least.

It wasn’t much longer before quite a few other news outlets contacted me about the photos. This was going viral. The next 24 hours were quite exciting, with multiple contacts from news agencies. The Fox and Friends morning news show teased the photos between news segments for three hours before finally showing the story. The photos were on Good Morning America, along with the front page on the ABC News website (video), ABC World News Tonight, USA Today, Fox News, Daily Mail Online (UK), Detroit Free Press, and many more.

One thing I want to make note of: had either of the girls not survived, I don't think I would have shared the photos with anyone other than the authorities. Someone also asked me if I sold the photos to the news outlets, but I didn't feel as though profiting off the near-tragedy was the right thing to do at the time.

Overall, the photos helped create awareness that Lake Michigan is basically an inland freshwater sea, and it becomes very dangerous during storms. That's why the U.S. Coast Guard has its headquarters and training in this town.

Here are the some of the images I took that day:

What I Learned

Everything happens fast. Although I did not have anything prepared ahead of time, my experience in packaging and distributing software files enabled me to put together a quick text file with information and permissions.

There's a saying: "When all hell breaks loose, you only do what you've trained to do." You may never need the resources to distribute "viral" photos, but if you prepare ahead of time, it will help a great deal if the time ever comes.

I've only had the viral experience once, but here's what I can suggest from the things I learned.

Prepare for Processing

I little preparation can save a lot of time in getting your images to news outlets. You can even make a Lightroom export preset to handle some of it. If you're not using Lightroom or another program that has export presets, just knowing what you want to do ahead of time will speed things up drastically.

File Naming: Decide on a file naming scheme. Something like "YourName_EventName_001.jpg" is much better than "IMG_0595.jpg." Whoever uses the photo can't claim they didn't know who it belonged to. In my case, when the local paper published their front page story, they thought the article writer took the photos and attributed the photos to her. This really upset me, so I did give them a piece of my mind over that one.

Watermarks: This is a personal preference; I prefer just my name or website in the center bottom or corner. It won't prevent cropping, but if someone does use the full image, at least there's a chance that people will see it and find their way back to your site. It also clarifies ownership to a publisher.

EXIF Copyright: This is a must. Ensure that your camera or import/export process places your copyright in the EXIF information. Adding contact information is a big help also.

File Size: I put together both a large and small file size to make it easier for sites to decide on the size of the image they wanted to include.


Consider registering the photos with the US Copyright Office. I did have one very large "Hollywood" type of site that stole the images from another site, posted them on their site with their watermark, and did not attribute the photos to me. I sent an email to them and they corrected the images and attribution.

Create an information file ahead of time with all of your bio/contact information like name, phone number, email address, website, social media sites, etc. The information file should also include licensing information (use permission). If you're allowing usage for free, I also suggest adding a clause of a license fee if attribution is not given. This may not hold up legally, but it might just make them pay attention and encourage them to get it right. The question of monetary value is something that you'll have to decide on your own; maybe Patrick's article will be of some help there.


Prepare a zip file archive of the images with a text information file inside. This makes the attachment easy and quick, and there's no chance of forgetting the information file. The information file should include your contact info, licensing (use permission), a list of the photo file names, and any description you care to include with each one (added when the photos are taken). This information file is perhaps the most important step, as it can take some time to come up with, and you don't want to be rushed and make any mistakes in it.

It also doesn't hurt to have an online resource that you can point people to if an email attachment won't go through, such as a shared Dropbox folder. Some email servers limit the size of files that can be attached, making it difficult to include many photos at once. Make sure you can get the file to anyone from anywhere if you're not at your computer.


If you're a photographer, you should have an information file that you can readily send to anyone with a photo, viral or not. You may even prepare multiple licensing scenarios in advance. It also helps to think ahead and decide what you would do in certain situations.

During a viral situation is not the best time to research and decide these things. Ask yourself what you would do if you photographed a plane crash, a car accident, a building fire, etc. If the event involves a tragedy, you may not be thinking very clearly to remember what to do.

I still talk with tourists from time to time at the beach who mention they saw that story on the news. I've even had a couple ask me if I saw the photos of that near-drowning that was on the news in 2015. I think of that event every time I go to the beach. The photos still give me chills when I look at them.

Do you have specific things that you include in your information file that I haven't mentioned? Let us know in the comments!

Mike Dixon's picture

Mike Dixon is a Muskegon Michigan based landscape and nature photographer who's passionate about anything photography or tech related.

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So happy that turned out well! great job

Great they both lived. What changed in your life because your photos went viral and you were interviewed for TV?

Well, for one I bring my inflatable life jacket when I go out to photograph storms. I met a few people because of this and that has led to other opportunities.

Ow, they are gut churning images.
The question of earning money is a tricky one, and good on you for a principled stance. But what would you say if someone else made money from your work? I guess giving the proceeds to a good cause is one option.

The news outlets made money off the images. Pictures such as these are the content that sells advertising and subscriptions. That's why they will pay for such images.

I've never really thought of it that way before, but you're correct.

Great photographs taken under severe stress! Thank you for sharing them, and the story.

Although I understand your reason for not asking for payment I consider "news" companies as profit making commercial entities who should pay for their resources. I would have supported you had you asked for a fairly large amount of money.

It would be incredibly useful for Fstoppers to do an article explaining how to reasonably price photos to news organizations in situations like this. If your local paper comes calling, what's reasonable to charge? How about a major news network? Time magazine? A news service like APimages? People complain all the time about the death of photojournalism, but there needs to be resources available for the "little guy" to turn to when they find themselves in this situation. Otherwise big media companies will continue to profit from photographers who don't know what their newsworthy images are worth (like me).

I fully agree! I'll mention it to the other writers.

Mike Dixon provides lots of EXCELLENT tips on what to do if one of your images goes viral.

My comments emphasize why timely registering (viral and other) photographs with the US Copyright Office (USCO) is mandatory and NOT optional, if you want to receive money damages.

Mike Dixon writes, “consider registering the photos with the US Copyright Office.

With almost near certainty, viral photographs/videos will be repeatedly infringed by publishers, the media, and other US entities.

Timely registering your photo copyright claims (i.e. BEFORE the infringement begins OR within three consecutive calendar months of FIRST-publication) will provide your copyright attorney litigator with LEVERAGE to push the infringer to settle out-of-court. If the infringer chooses not to settle and you prevail during trial, the infringer is now liable from $750 to $30,000 in statutory damages PLUS your attorney fees and legal costs (at the court’s discretion) (and assuming the unlicensed usage does not fall within the scope of Fair Use). To mitigate their financial exposure and prolonged litigation costs, most all copyright infringers will want to quickly settle out of court to put their infringing matter behind them.

Mike Dixon writes, “I did have one very large ‘Hollywood’ type of site that stole the images from another site, posted them on their site with their watermark, and did not attribute the photos to me. I sent an email to them and they corrected the images and attribution.”

It’s unacceptable for any “large ‘Hollywood’” entities to exploit our images without a paid license. And having them correct a false watermark attribution (that’s an egregious CMI violation!) and/or add missing attribution is insufficient in supporting our photography livelihoods. Credit lines don’t pay our bills.

The majority of photographers fail to understand that American-based entities who knowingly remove, cover-up, or change watermarks/logos, metadata, licensing information, copyright attribution, file name, and other “Copyright Management Information” (CMI via the DCMA) with Photoshop or other image-editing software to hide their infringements or to induce further infringements can be financially liable from $2,500 to $25,000 in statutory money damages, plus attorney fees, plus legal costs, and other damages set by a federal judge. The good news here is that a timely registered copyright is NOT required to pursue CMI violators. It’s not uncommon for copyright litigators to accept photographers’ CMI violation claims on contingencies. See

In addition, the removal or modification of CMI can be deemed a WILLFUL copyright infringement action. If the image was timely registered, statutory money damages can increase from $30,000 to $150,000, PLUS the photographer’s attorney fees PLUS legal costs (all at the court’s discretion).

Along with having “legal standing,” when you register your creative works either before publication or within five-years of first-publication, you’re granted “presumptive proof” that you have a VALID copyright AND the facts stated in your copyright registration application will also be deemed VALID (unless otherwise disproved). Having your copyright Certificate of Registration in-hand helps prove to a federal judge when you created your photograph and that you’re its copyright owner (17 USC § 410(c): Registration of claim and issuance of certificate). It’s NOT about having the RAW image file that necessarily proves your copyright authorship, as your client could also have access to your RAW image.

US photographers, who choose not to timely register their (viral) images, are only permitted to pursue actual damages (typically the licensing fee they would have charged) and the disgorgement of profits (if any!)--those money damages tend to be very low fees; they can also be difficult to prove. AND you’ll responsible for your attorney fees! In short, it’s typically not economical to pursue US infringers without having your (viral) photographs timely registered. If you don’t care about receiving money damages and you just want your unlicensed image removed from the infringer’s site, you can file a DMCA “take-down” notice.

If you choose not to timely register your copyrights, at the very least affix them with a robust watermark logo and other CMI to provide you with some legal protection.

Mike Dixon: Your image portfolio looks nice. Just curious, I searched the USCO’s on-line Public Catalog, but didn’t see any photographic works registered under your name (maybe it’s filed under a different name). Is there a reason you don’t include copyright registration in your photography image processing workflow?

If you have a (viral) image that’s getting repeatedly infringed and you contact a US copyright attorney litigator for legal assistance in pursuing infringers, his/her first question to you will be, “Did you timely register your image/s with the USCO?” Watch the first 20-seconds of this Washington, DC copyright litigator attorney video to understand why:

To put parties on notice and to re-emphasize our (registered) copyrights, I would modify Mike Dixon’s “File Naming” protocol, as follows:

"Registered_Copyright_YourName_YourURL abbreviated or Social media handle_EventName_001.jpg"

In the metadata, include language that, again, reinforces your copyright and that your images have been timely registered AND that “Photographs Are Available For Licensing And Reprints Sales.”

Mike Dixon wrote “…when the local paper published their front page story, they thought the article writer took the photos and attributed the photos to her. This really upset me, so I did give them a piece of my mind over that one.”

Unless there’s an emergency or a life and death matter (e.g. AMBER Alert: Your photograph is needed to publicize the missing child), it’s bad business to release images to the media and others without having a signed agreement that specifically addresses the photograph’s licensing and term, (registered) copyright, payment, attribution, etc.

Good job. I understand why you would take the position that you didn't believe you should profit from it. Every single organization that got to use your photos DID profit from it and most all of them are trolling around for free rights to photos instead of paying photographers.