Should You Be Watermarking Your Images?

Should You Be Watermarking Your Images?

There seems to be a surprising amount of contention relating to whether or not you should watermark your images. Some people are adamant that yes, you absolutely need to put your stamp, so to speak, on images that you're putting out there online. Other people feel that a watermark is tacky, or that somehow it's presence cheapens the quality of the image that it has been applied to. As I have found with most things in life, context is king when it comes to watermarks.

Generally speaking, I believe that yes, you should be applying a simple and sensible watermark to your images. As most people know when it comes to the Internet, once your work is out there, it can often be a bit troublesome to know exactly where it will go from there, so I figure that you're mark may as well be going along for the ride. I tend to think of watermarks as your digital signature; whether your name, brand symbol, or your literal signature it's the final piece that you attach to your finished work.

With that said, I know that we have all seen some watermarks that clearly did not get much thought. The kind that may actually be ruining an image, the genuine eyesore-style watermark. This can be avoided by putting some intention and thought behind what your mark will be before you start putting it on your work.

See the image above? A colored watermark destroys a black and white image in the fastest way possible, definitely don't do that. A watermark should be subtle, simple, distraction-free, and in harmony with the images that you're placing it on. Inconspicuous should be at the forefront of your mind. Don't use colors, or else anytime you  put it on a black and white image you just created a blob of color splash. The placement of a watermark can be either consistent across all your work or mobile as dictated by each image. In my opinion, a name or signature is both less distracting and more pleasing than a symbol or logo.

It's perfectly OK to have a watermark that people see. It's less OK to have a watermark that is the first or only thing people see. Remember, the point is to avoid distraction, you're not looking to disrupt your scene. Try lowering the opacity, remember that cursive font is not required, and keep in mind that a watermark is only accent to an already finished piece.

The image below has a simple watermark that I think works with the scene. I took the time to find a font that I thought was pleasing, made sure the opacity was low enough as not to distract, and placed in an area that I felt was appropriate for the image. Let me know in the comments what you think about watermarks. Do you think it really matters at all in a digital world? Did you spend time (and/or possibly money) in designing a mark that you feel great about?

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42 Comments

Michael Yearout's picture

Evan:

Good article. It's made me re-think how I am watermarking my images on my website. I think I need to tone it down a bit.

Evan Kane's picture

That's awesome Michael, I'm glad that you found this one helpful. I think that when you remember that the image is finished with or without the watermark, and the the mark itself is only a digital accent that can really help.

david squire's picture

;)

gabe s's picture

My watermark that I put on nearly everything is in the bottom middle of my images. Its semi transparent, but shows up enough that you can read it. It makes it simple.

Evan Kane's picture

Hi Gabe, thanks for your comment. I checked out your mark. It's clean and simple, which is good. My first thoughts would be drop the copyright symbol, the copyright exists regardless of physically placing a copyright symbol so it isn't necessary anywhere on the image (just my thoughts).

gabe s's picture

Thanks. I was actually thinking of putting my website on there instead. Is that a good idea, or just keep it at the name?

Evan Kane's picture

Honestly, there is so much personal preference when it comes to watermarks, that is something that you'll need to decide for yourself. In my option, I would avoid a "www. xyx. com" as a watermark but that's just me. I think that a name serves the point as intended.

david squire's picture

Agreed; Evan is correct, ditch the C symbol. It's like [the ]1 in Algebra, it's just understood. I also checked out your watermark and uhhh... My suggestion is to be more consistent in both your font selection and typeface, as well as, boning up on typeface theory.

gabe s's picture

Thanks. Not that it matters, but the discrepancy in my watermark in my portfolio on here is due to switching computers and not having the same fonts, as well as trying to figure out what watermark I wanted. I will be updating it after this discussion. Thanks.

david squire's picture

I totally get changing computers and the uncertainty of logo design, but as you grow and learn about what [exactly] typeface is, you'll begin to understand the big picture (so to speak). Typeface will dictate your entire letter, number, and character decision, but will do so in a consistent and agile manner (again, as you grow as a photographer with needs like business cards, web ads, new website changes, etc...). I'm glad you're not hung up on watermarks vs. no-watermarks debate... That's not the value, the value is the decision to use one (a watermark) on your photography or not (neither one is more correct). I've purchased a lot of new computers in my life and most of them had, at the minimum, an identical typeface family. From there alone consistency is increased...

As I mentioned, I also checked out your watermark, and one of the pictures I liked best was, "space". That shot is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.... The typeface doesn't match the shot or the mood of the picture and the font itself probably isn't as sophisticated as it could be for such a photograph.

Sophistication is very subjective; however, consistency is not. As humans, consistency is something innate in us. Consistency might be the value of your photography, the constant perfect composition, the tonality of your shots, all of which are consistent to the end user. Sophistication, on the other hand, is a lot like any common majority or "common sense" opinion; whereby, a majority group considers a watermark (or anything, really) to be "cool", or "acceptable","or "not cool", or "not acceptable.".

Marius Pettersen's picture

I really hate watermarks on finished pictures - maybe a very few exception.
I do however need to use watermarks on unedited images used for selection. So many people out there couldn't care less about the effort we do in post-production. They'll save the unedited image, slap a filter on it and post it on social media.

Evan Kane's picture

Good point Marius, unedited / proof images are a bit of different story as they are not intended for mass distribution so making sure it is very clear that you differentiate between a proof and a finished piece is definitely important.

I have other opinion - I don't put my name on unfinished product.

But, after a couple of cases people sharing unfinished images anyway, I'd probably put something like "not for sharing or publishing".

Evan Kane's picture

Agreed Alexander, a proof watermark is usually not your actual mark but rather just a clear indication that the images are either a) unedited or b) not intended for sharing

Marius Pettersen's picture

I agree. I do not watermark with my name or logo. Just a simple text stating that the image has not been processed and is not to be used anywhere else.

Ryan Cooper's picture

I can't remember who said it but I remember a while back a photo teacher I followed pointed out that if you look at the the work of all the top photographers that they almost never watermark any images. His position was that if you watermark your photos you are basically communicating to the viewer that you are an amateur. I agreed with him. Though also loathe them as a distraction.

I've also heard rumours that some mag editors hate watermarks so much that as soon as they see one they just close the page, regardless of the quality of photography. No idea how true that is though, so don't quote me on that one. ;)

Evan Kane's picture

Interesting point Ryan, though I know that I've seen loads of "top photographers" use watermarks too. I don't think that it has anything to do with amateur vs professional. Though I do admit that it is most common to see the huge, distracting, and bold cursive font watermarks on amateur images.

Submissions, like images those that a magazine editor would be viewing, is definitely a different story. Pretty much everything that goes through any kind of submission process will require that images are presented watermark-free.

When I ever see a name of a magazine on a cover I immediately throw it away :)

Kirk Darling's picture

A teacher making such a statement must not have ever paid his mortgage with his work, or he wouldn't have made such a pompous statement. It has nothing to do with "amateur" or "professional," but as Evan Kane stated, it's a matter of context HOW you identify an image as your own...and in some way, a professional always does identify ownership of his work. I've never been to an art exhibit in which every piece of art was not identified by the artist in some way clearly visible to the audience.

The context defines HOW. Part of the issue of watermarks is a failure to define the marking by its purpose. The original purpose of a "watermark" on photographs was to identify proofs from which to choose final images for sale. The purpose of the "watermark" was explicitly to deny full enjoyment of the image. Marks applied for "branding" are what Evan is discussing--a different purpose and a different context. A portrait painter puts his signature on his painting--more in line with the branding Evan is discussing. And Evan makes some good points for thought.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Go down the list of elite commercial photographers. The ones who are working with big brands and doing big budget shoots. Good luck finding many with watermarks on their portfolios. I can't think of a single photographer whose work I admire that is in the top tier of the industry who watermarks their images. I'm sure there are some out there who buck the trend, but there is a strong correlation between high level, professional shooters and lack of watermarks. Personally, I feel a watermark vastly cheapens and image.

Evan Kane's picture

You guys both make good points! Kirk, I like the portrait painter connection, very true about artists in other mediums as well. I'm reminded of the ceramics I took in school where signing the clay with the needle was almost an intimate moment as an artist!

Ryan, you're also definitely right about many commercial photographers! I myself and a portrait guy, so my experience speaks mostly to portrait photography I suppose. It's very likely that the commercial side of things places different standards and demands on artists and what one puts on their own work.

Kirk Darling's picture

CONTEXT, Ryan. Context. Prospective top commercial clients don't do blind Google searches for "top commercial photographer." And the top commercial photographers "who are working with big brands doing big budget shoots" aren't depending on being discovered on Instagram for new work. And they register their copyrights and can afford lawyers to sue the pants off anyone who steals their work. They are in a different context.

Context even counts in terms of the display format. A photographer may put a watermark on her images for Instagram or Facebook, but not for images on her website, and certainly not for images delivered to her client, but with her name on the mat of gallery images.

There is no one rule for all contexts, and it's silly to make a pronouncement that there is.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Even outside the realm of top commercial shooters, the majority of the best photographers do not watermark. Even among those who are marketing to everyday people If its a photographer's who's work I admire, its a good bet you won't see a watermark on their work anywhere doesn't matter if they are top commercial, weddings, sports, or any other genre.

A watermark isn't going to help people find you via a "blind google search", google doesn't index images based on watermark, and even if they did a watermark is not geography specific so is unlikely to help you find a local photographer.

Where watermarking could "help" is if someone stumbles upon one of your images on social media and it hasn't been tagged to link back to you. Which is certainly possible, and probably does happen but to cheapen the quality of every image you post for every viewer that sees them in order to maybe capture a lead on the off chance one of your photos ends up posted someplace without credit and is actually seen by someone that actually could be a real client is a pretty big trade off.

As humans, our brains have been trained to seek out text and read it. We begin training our brains to do this from the moment we learn to read. This means any watermark in an image, if it is readable, is actually competing with the subject of the photograph for attention. This is a very bad thing. When displaying your work, you want to isolate the focus of any viewer onto the image itself, any distraction that detracts away from this goal is directly working against what you have created.

Every photographer is certainly free to do what they feel is best for their business, but for me, personally, I'd never advocate watermarking an image, and I generally won't even "follow" anyone who does because I don't like seeing watermarked images in my social media feeds. Fortunately, the issue almost never comes up, anytime I see a photographer who's work I want to follow, they don't watermark.

I don't like them and don't use them myself but the studio I shoot at insists that all web res images we send clients (we send a full sized image for printing and a small version for their social media) have the studios watermark in the corner. It's a reasonably elegant watermark and opacity is generally at 30% so it doesn't jump out at you but I kind of hate seeing the images defaced that way. All the same I believe that a lot of our clients do come from people viewing those images and seeing the watermark pop up in their feed on a regular basis so it's a fair enough requirement I guess. I always aim to use the non wateramarked versions myself.

Generally speaking though I don't really get the point. I've heard a few photographers say that they do it so the images don't get stolen but given the choice I'd probably rather people steal my images than not. I take them to be seen after all and it's always fun to see them turn up in interesting places.

Evan Kane's picture

Fair points Dominic, when it comes to images being stolen or not, I feel that will or won't happen regardless of a watermark. If someone is determined, they can just crop out a watermark no problem so I don't tend to view watermarks as a deterrent of any kind.

I do think that people seeing consistency in their news feed when it comes to a studio is a good call. One of those, "always in the back of the mind" type scenarios.

Dallas Dahms's picture

Ask yourself why before you ask yourself if you should or shouldn't.

I look at all my images on the internet as little adverts for what I do. If I don't watermark what I put out there then I may as well not even bother posting anything online. If my images have my logo and a web address on them then the curious viewer may look at more of my work by visiting my site and seeing what I have to offer.

Evan Kane's picture

Well said Dallas!

Ahmed Gadou's picture

at a certain point of my photography life, I started with huge watermark and as I was moving forward, the watermark was getting smaller and smaller. I believe when I reach the point where my style speaks for me, the watermark will be vanished.

Just a point of view :)

Evan Kane's picture

I think you're right Ahmed, it seems a lot of photographer when they are new tend to have larger more in-your-face watermarks and then as we progress (hopefully) we re-evaluate the need for something like that

Jacques Cornell's picture

IMHO, the above watermark is too subtle. Part of a watermark's function is to make misuse of an image just hard enough to deter the casual copyright infringer. As such, the watermark should be obvious enough to make a person think twice before reposting the image without permission.