Does It Matter? Why You Shouldn't Need To Watermark Your Images

We love our images. We put our heart, soul, sweat, and tears into our work and we can't wait to share it with the world! But one of the more popular practices in the photography industry is watermarking. The concept behind watermarking is understandable and useful, but in reality, is it really a necessity? I will explain why for my third installment of my community discussions.

In case you don't know what watermarking is, it is the practice of placing a logo or text over an image in order to identify the creator of that image. It is very popular in the photography and creative industry. It is believed to be an opportunity for you to identify yourself, your brand, and your work. But I'm starting to believe that watermarking is simply not what it's made out to be. I've found myself gradually slowing down on watermarking to where it isn't a part of my workflow, with the exception of sharing proofs with clients of course.

Why People Justify Watermarking and Why It Doesn't Matter

Before I go through these points, I'm going to say that I had these very thoughts early in my career to justify watermarking my own images. I practiced watermarking for a very long time when preparing my images to share with the world. Anyone from beginners to seasoned pros still watermark today. You may share the same opinions. I will then follow with a rebuttal and play devil's advocate on how my opinion of watermarking has completely changed recently.

I Don't Want My Images Stolen

Reason

Like mentioned earlier, we put our heart and soul into our work and are so very proud of it. The last thing we want is our work to be stolen. There are some situations where photographers have seen their work on a wide array of sites being shared with no credit, used for commercial purposes without consent, or to the point where sites are unlawfully selling someone else's work without any contact or permission. This is unfortunate and completely understandable. While I haven't seen someone sell my work without my permission (yet), I have been a victim of sites sharing my work without any permission whatsoever.

Reality

It does not matter. If someone wants to steal your image, by any means they indeed will. There's the good and the bad; the pros and the cons; and that's just the nature of the beast that is the internet. They will blatantly crop out your image, screenshot your image, or if they're savvy enough, they will clone it out.

Now another disagreement that will arise is the fact people will not credit your work. For example, let's say there's a popular Instagram page that features your image but they don't give you credit. This sucks, I know, I've been there; but from my experience of feature pages sharing my imagery, the good people will always give you proper credit. If there are pages that don't, it's not worth stressing over a couple of bad apples force you to slab a distracting layer over your piece of art.

And lastly, if you don't want your images stolen, don't share them on the internet. It's that simple.

I Need to Let People Know Who Took That Photo, I Need the Exposure!

Reason

This makes total sense, right? You need to put that final stamp on your image letting people know where it came from, almost like branding a cow. You need the exposure. If a client or collaborator shares your image, it is instant, free marketing for you and your brand. It's a no-brainer! 

Reality

While at its face it seems like a no-brainer to do this, I've come across many instances where it can backfire and become counterproductive. It can be distracting if not done properly. As I mentioned earlier, the good people out there (mostly everyone, except for a few bad apples) will give you credit where credit is due. And regarding the "attaching a name to your image" argument, isn't it already that way on social media? Take a look below, mostly every social media platform has your name or brand right next to your image.

Almost all social media platforms will have your name right next to your image, even if it's shared by someone else. Defeating the purpose of potentially distracting your image with a watermark.

Let your "signature touch" become your watermark. Every photographer in the world should aspire to achieve this, knowing a photographer's work when you see it. No watermarks needed.

It Looks Very Professional

Reason

"It makes my images look official. If I put a watermark on my image it will look more professional."

Reality

Like I mentioned earlier, this can potentially backfire if not done correctly. Contrary to looking professional, some watermarks can come across as tacky. I put together a few examples of watermark placements that I see often on the web that can be distracting:

A few of the many examples on how watermarking can be distracting.

If You Decide to Watermark Your Images

There is no rule on watermarking. Even though I suggest that you should at least give it some thought, it is ultimately your decision. With that being said, the key to an effective watermark is to make it visible without being distracting at all; this can be tricky. Here are some tips on effective watermarking:

  • Make It Small - If it's small, it's not small enough. Guilty as charged, I used to have a bad habit of making large watermarks when I decided to do so. Try to keep it small as possible but still legible.
  • Hide It, Keep It Out of the Way, or On the Corner - Sometimes you can be clever with it and hide it somewhere in the image. Get creative! Another option is keeping it out of the way. Make sure your subject is the first thing the viewer's eyes will go to. Lastly, you can use the more conventional method of watermarking and keep it on the bottom left or right corner to avoid distraction.
  • Lower the Opacity - One mistake I see often is the watermark being a little too bold or in your face. Lower the opacity or fill of your logo to avoid potential distraction.

 

Here are a couple of examples of effective watermarking:

Watermark is hidden, small, but still legible. Most importantly it is not distracting.

Watermark is hidden, small, but still legible. Most importantly it is not distracting.

Conclusion

While there may be a few reasons why watermarking is warranted, I believe it is worth questioning if it really is a necessity. If you're afraid of having your work stolen on the web, the only foolproof way of avoiding that is not sharing it on the internet all together. Your name will always be connected to your image on most social media platforms, and the good people out there will give your appropriate credit. If you get carried away with your watermark, the purpose of making your images look professional may backfire. If you insist on watermarking your images a few good tips are to make it small, placed where it won't be a distraction, and lower the opacity to make it more subtle.

So I will ask you to discuss, do you watermark? Why? Do you think it is a necessity? Does it matter? Share your thoughts!

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27 Comments

Mokhtar Chahine's picture

Thanks for the article Nick. I really enjoyed reading it.
However from my own personal experience watermarks helped me grow as a photographer. I do not watermark my images because i am afraid of them being stolen, i watermark them to make sure that if someone screenshots the photo and passes it to a friend and if that friend is interested reaching out to me directly by searching my name i simply make it easier for them to do so.

I love the photos you shared in the article, very crisp and clean, some of them made me feel like i was viewing other photographers work "without mentioning any names" because the final touches and the shallow depth of feild made me feel this way. having your logo on these photos would help eliminate that thought. Thats my own personal opinion based on my own personal experience.

^^^ I wrote this ^^^ ;) - especially the last paragraph about similar editing styles. I could share a list of more than 50 photographers that "could've" shot those really fantastic photos. For that reason alone, it's a must that we know which one to attribute the work to and possibly get in touch with the photographer, model or MUA/Designer.

Note: artists have been signing their work for literally thousands of years without taking away from the art piece. You *are* an artist, aren't you?

Mokhtar Chahine's picture

Makes perfect sense...

Justabeginner photographer's picture

You mean Dani Diamond? Haha. In terms of watermarking images I think when you reach a point where your pictures stand out you should start putting your name on it in a subtle way and you also should digitally secure your images.

Mark Bienvenu's picture

I am in favor of watermarks that display some type of contact information so the photographer can be found when the image is viewed outside of it's original context. All of the images on my website will show up on Google image search, but not everyone will click the "view page" button in the search results. Some of the people who want to share an image I post on Facebook will download & repost instead of clicking the share button. Then there's the issue of most image sharing sites stripping out some or all exif information. Having a name, URL, email, or some way for a viewer to find their way back to you can be important. There have been many occasions where someone has tracked me down by the URL on one of my images.

I personally use a plain text name & URL in the bottom right corner of my images. While some photographers might find this sort of thing distracting, it is rarely a problem for the average viewer; most won't care and some will find it helpful.

After this article and Jared Polin's take on watermarks, I pretty much stopped using them. Then again, my photos aren't being used on any sites. I think there are 2 issues with watermarks that people use them wrongly. 1, they think that will protect the pics from being stolen, which as this video says, it's going to happen and others have said it, if you don't want your pictures/videos/etc, stolen, then don't put them online. 2, for promotion. I get that, but some people have these large elaborate watermarks, as Nick says, distracts the eye from the photo. When I see large, ostentatious watermarks, I just think of an egotistical photographer who is more talk than what they can produce. Thanks for the article and hopefully more people will think about watermarks before they put 1 across their image. B&H posted this article about watermarks today: http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/pros-...

Loved this article! The truth is that if the image is worth reposting it means you're good at what you do and the potential client will find you and hire you and not whoever repost it. Like in music biz, I can share my unknown song with other artist that will play it out loud cause they like it but doesn't mean they wrote it. Also if the image was stolen for lucrative purposes your drive will have the evidence of a full session done by you. Heck even a .psd or raw file will have a date that shows when you took it. Then you can hire a lawyer and claim what's rightfully yours.

Nonetheless, a cool watermark design will look very pro. ;-)

"Like in the music biz"...? Riffs and chord progressions are ripped off daily and some even become classics. Look up Led Zeppelin and Stairway to Heaven.

"Then you can hire a lawyer and claim what's rightfully yours." Without an appropriate copyright filing in your possession, all you can hope for these days is public social media shaming, and a "Good Luck" pat on the back.

Thomas Blasche's picture

Normaly I watermark my pictures. There are some communities, where it isn't accepted.
Why I watermark my pictures? Ask the question for the "(R)" in the logo of "Coca Cola". Yes, moste people know, that this logo is protected.
If I don't watermark my photos more people (especially on Facebook) more people believe that my photos are for free use. (I'm taking and publishing a lot of photos from landscapes which are interesting for companies in the tourism milieu)

Korey Napier's picture

Couldn't agree more. I personally think that big, blatant watermarks ruin what could be great photos. I see so many pictures watermarked in a bad way. To me, it's just an eyesore, completely taking away from the picture. Some of the more discreet ones he showed are pretty nice, but overall, I never like to watermark my photos.

Scott Spellman's picture

Your logic is basically sound, but there are 4 good reasons I use watermarks.
1) It shows my clients that I am not leaving their work unprotected
2) Many industry leading magazines do use watermarks- Sports Illustrated, Maxim, Vogue, Playboy, etc
3) I hope it will reduce the chances of illegal uses by porn or adult businesses.
4) You are less likely to have DMCA Takedown counter challenges with your watermark on the photo.

Same as Nick, my personal opinion is I don't like watermarking. I feel they're unnecessary and distracting to the photograph. A better name for them is EgoMark. To me, it seems that these marks are more about pleasing individual egos, more than serving a useful purpose. As Nick said, if you are concerned about theft, don't post it on the internet. If you need to identify the photo as yours, and that it's copyright protected, say so in a caption or better yet, in the EXIF info. If you can't let it go and feel you must watermark, make them tiny and as inconspicuous as possible.

Mark Bienvenu's picture

It would be great if you could rely solely on exif information, but sadly that is not the case. Not everyone knows what exif is or how to access it, and some sites remove some or all of the exif data when you upload a picture.

Check out this link that shows how a few of the common photo sharing sites treat exif and IPTC data: http://www.embeddedmetadata.org/social-media-test-results.php

I recently used the new Pixsy service to file a copyright claim. Two of the questions they asked during the process were (1) was the image watermarked, and (2) was the watermark removed? I assume this makes it easier to show intentional theft and unauthorized use, and possibly increases the settlement amount.

david squire's picture

"Hi everybody, my name's David, and I watermark". I never knew watermarks were such a thing, wow... But yeah, I guess from an amateur perspective, I just started doing it because other photographers whose work I was watching were doing them.

Early on (about 4 years ago), my mentor made a few suggestions and watermarking wasn't one of them. I am duly embarrassed at my first watermarks though, sooo embarrassed... haha... For me, it was an epiphany and one day I didn't like it anymore. I just started using smaller and smaller font until I felt I had the right balance of "yeah, it's there", but not obnoxious. Then got the opinion of a dear friend and she said change the type face to Avenir, and done...

I just checked one of my newest favorite photographers and he's got a watermark on some of his shots, but a lot don't have one at all. I also went back and checked one of my older (and still) favorite photographers and he still uses an obnoxious one, but it's evolved for the better it seems....

I don't know why I still do it though, especially given that I'm so aloof about it, but it's just not a thing for me I guess... If I see an obnoxious watermark, I make a mental note and just move on, sort of like talking to someone and mental noting they use their hands a lot when talking, and continue on. I draw the line at bad breath though, that's a show stopper.

Mark Bienvenu's picture

"sort of like talking to someone and mental noting they use their hands a lot when talking"

I knew before I clicked on your profile that you weren't from the South.

While watermarks don't prevent an image from being stolen, it does discourage them from being taken or used by others. Plus, it can add to the penalties if someone does steal the image and removes the watermark. "Section 1202 of the U.S. Copyright Act makes it illegal for someone to remove the watermark from your photo so that it can disguise the infringement when used. The fines start at $2500 and go to $25,000 in addition to attorneys' fees and any damages for the infringement."
Watermarks do increase exposure particularly as someone said when they are placed in other contexts. I shot a show for fun the other day and one of the designers was using my watermarked images in their site pretty much the next day. People are used to them being in pics and typically do not downgrade an image unless the watermark is horrendous. I did a fashion show one time and there was a delay in my payment so I placed a large "fill the image" but highly transparent watermark on my images. I was actually quite surprised that I still got tons of likes still on the images and album. Far more than other shooters got on their much less watermarked images.
Heck I had a client ask me to put my watermark on their images once as they felt their was more status in that I guess.

I got my start shooting Equestrian sports and in our business we only make money by selling to the owners or riders. Today for the everyday shows and medium sized shows the show management has a hard time getting a show Photographer because since it became essential to use the internet to post the profs people figured out how to steal them, even watermark in a lower corner of the image. Even with a watermark across the horse and rider they will put it on their facebook page without permission. I shot a show in St Louis last fall and watermarked the images and they still ended up on facebook and a lot of other sites and none had paid for the images. I was attending as an exhibitor anyway and am a member of the association so I let it go but if I had traveled to the show solely to shoot I would have been out the cost of travel, lodging,meals and time with very little recourse. There are times when a big watermark across the image until the client purchases the image is the only way you can collect for your work. Other types of shoots I have an agreement with the client and it is needed. For those that think they are ostentatious, I would argue it very well could be a photographer trying to stay in business. a lot of our clients also use these images to advertise in equestrian magazines and the watermark is how others find photographers that can and will photograph their events or horses and most of the good people you mentioned want the watermark to help protect the image of their property from being claimed by others. Almost every magazine they want to advertise in also automatically publish on the internet also so you don't always have the ability to not have your images online. It was a good article but I don't think you can equate on area of the business to every area of the business.

Alanamou S's picture

If the intent of the watermark in this case is only for it to be a temporary band until payment is made, then perhaps consideration should be made towards either visually obstructing the image more blatantly, but giving just enough visibility to generate interest in purchasing the image and/or utilizing specific words as the watermark to dissuade its use prior to procurement. Such as, "STOLEN PHOTO" or "USE OF THIS IMAGE CONSTITUTES THEFT". Once payment is received, a clean, unwatermarked copy can be provided.

That's not a bad suggestion but you have to remember you are dealing directly with the client and often times the subject of your work. Many of these clients would feel offended if you posted online galleries of profs that everyone could view and it had a watermark that said it was a stolen image. For all of the people that would steal the image there are just as many that would purchase but they are also the people that would be offended. I understand from the Artistic works how many people feel it should not be watermarked but my point is more about that you can not say who cares if someone steals your image because that is how many of us make our living. If your lucky enough to have income from someone paying you to create the images and that is the only income you need for your business then I can see the point. Although it could also be argued that you have a responsibility to do what you can for your client to also help them keep their images from being stolen, the watermark may not work but it is the best we can do for them. I don't have an answer to how we can completely keep our images safe and still be in the public eyes but I would not advise anyone to skip the one way we do have to help keep the honest people honest.

Alanamou S's picture

True, good point. But I'm sure there's something which could be written which would be acceptable for the situation. Something such as "ARTIST PROOF". And use a watermark which covers the image but is transparent enough to still be seen through. I absolutely agree with watermarks for more than one reason. I think those who don't are either naive, have enough resources available that they can go after those who do affect their income earning potential, or they are just being critical of other people's signatures/artistic choices.

Watermark, it could be money in your pocket if somebody removes it.

@Nick - I'd like you to have an open discussion aka round table with: Dani Diamond, Sean Archer and Nino Batista to hear what they have to say.

IMHO the best advise you gave was to keep it small, tasteful and minimalist in size.

It's your brand. Your art. Sign it. Own it.

Nick Pecori's picture

@Doc, not saying it couldn't work in artist's favor in situations, but it something worth questioning.

A photographer not long ago released an unwatermarked photo to someone and that someone posted the photo on social media without credit. Every major fashion magazine, nationally and internationally, decided to use it without credit, or compensation. She had to hire a lawyer to go after as many companies as she could find, but there was no way to track down and sue everyone because every company started using her photo.

Alanamou S's picture

I disagree with the statement that if someone doesn't want their work stolen that the solution is to simply not upload it onto the internet. That's like saying if someone doesn't want to get into a car accident then they should simply not drive. That's an unreasonable and unrealistic "solution" and it comes across as condescending instead of being part of a rational discussion.

Just like any generalizations which others make that photographers who watermark are egotistical; that is baseless and attacking and is likely to be countered with an equally empty statement that photographers who don't watermark are merely lazy. I'm just saying that any collection of arguments put together are likely to be considered more seriously without any inclusion of personal attacks.

Which brings me to my final thought on the matter of watermarking, which hasn't already been touched upon here, it seems as though photographers are the ones who have an issue with other photographer's watermarks. They are the ones who are being so critical and complaining about them detracting and distracting from the piece. But if you really pay attention, much of the general public doesn't have as refined of an eye artistically as most photographers and artists. Even most photographers can recognize how they progressed over time. They will look back and see their earlier work which they thought couldn't be better and now they see how much room there was for improvement.

I don't have the energy, money or the time to go after anyone who steals my work, regardless of whether they are profiting from it or not. Nonetheless, I'll be watermarking and registering my images with the Copyright office so that I have the opportunity.

Great article, but I don't buy your idea, sorry.

I can understand your point of view, but opinions are of course different. I've been watermarking my photos ever since I learned from this guide: http://www.paintshoppro.com/en/pages/watermark-photos/ how to do it, and I find it to better be safe than sorry. I've had an unfortunate situation where my photo was stolen from social media and used for a travel agency, it was a very nice photo, but it wasn't nice that I took that photo when I was traveling and wanted to share it with my friends, and ended up shared with like a million people, so I am personally all for watermarking.