Many of my peers in hobbyist photography “watermark” their photographs, both on their websites and certainly on any social media or group sharing sites. And yet many of the pro photographers I follow don’t do this, even though they arguably have more of a reason for doing so.
A watermark is an identifier that sits overtop of some portion of the image. It is usually semi-transparent. The identifier could be the photographer’s name, their business name, or a combination of both. A copyright symbol and year might also be included. These labels might be simple white text or more elaborate logos and fonts. They are most often placed in a corner of the image, but sometimes can occupy more central space. Text sizes vary, but most are unobtrusive, aiming not to interfere with proper viewing of the image.
Why do photographers use them? It seems there are two main reasons: to guard against theft and to advertise their work. Let’s examine each of those purposes.
First, theft. Photographs posted to a photographer’s own website are least likely to include a watermark, since the entire site is typically copyright protected. Additionally, images on these websites are typically not high resolution and in some cases have been deliberately reduced in size so as to be meaningless to download, if downloading is permitted at all. Often, the images are displayed in some type of frame or slideshow.
Photographs posted to shared sites such as 500px and Flickr often do include a watermark, either added by the owner before uploading, or attached by the host in a standard form any time an image is viewed or downloaded (if downloading is permitted). Members of these shared sites accept an agreement when creating their account that outlines the site’s ethical and legal practices around viewing and downloading images. Visitors often have limited actions and, in the case of sites where images are for sale, may not even see anything except a thumbnail view.
Despite these provisions, there is very little to protect a photograph if someone wants to “innocently” or deliberately use it. Screen captures can be made of any online image, usually sufficient in detail to reuse in other online materials, if not in print. Whether through screen capture or low resolution downloads, software today can digitially enhance these files and remove any watermark at the same time. Stock image sites sometimes provide high resolution samples, with large watermarks across the middle of the image. Again, software can remove any of these “distractions”. If someone really wants to use your image, they will find a way.
Even if an illegitimate use is discovered, negotiating with the perpetrator and/or bringing legal action is difficult, especially if you are less well known and don’t have the financial resources to pursue the action. Damages may be no more than the fair market value of the image, which again, if you are less well known, may not be enough to cover the costs of pursuing the action.
And it isn’t the watermark that proves your ownership anyway. The proof is in the metadata – which means every photographer should take the time to properly set up their ownership and usage information in camera or on import into a photo editor.
So, for purposes of guarding against theft, watermarking an image isn’t much of a precaution.
Next, advertising. It is common practice on printed works for photographers to place a signature, date of issue and edition number, authenticating the print. This tradition of including an artist’s name is long standing. Fine art painters have done this for generations. Not only does it authenticate the print, it gives it status as a work of art.
But the value of “signing” an electronic image is perhaps debatable. Again, most electronic images are already associated with a personal website or personal social media page, arguably making the watermark redundant. Submissions to sites not owned by the artist may be the only reason to include a watermark but even here, site rules may limit what can be added (no logos, etc.).
It’s ironic as well that using a logo or a signature or even a name as a watermark is less than useful in helping someone connect with you. Potential clients will still have to “google you” to find out how to reach you. So if you are using a watermark, use words (not symbols or a logo) and make it the same as your “search name”.
Watermarking has no value in initially locating images of interest online either. Search engines and cataloguing sites like Pinterest do a great job in bringing you the photographs you want to see, but the images displayed are responses to search parameters like “mountains” and “vacation”, and not responses to watermarks. If the thumbnail images presented do include watermarks, they are typically too small to see anyway.
For most people, the value of search engines and catalogung sites is that you can quickly review images WITHOUT the clutter of identity banners and copyrights. Photographers actually want their images to be easy to find, as long as they are linked to the image and access to the image is controlled. So there is a bit of a decision to be made on what is acceptable to you.
Some photographers block cataloguing sites such as Pinterest. The tradeoff is visibility and the free advertising that comes when someone “pins” and shares your work. But it may be that the free advertising really isn’t, since the photographer’s name isn’t readily visible and the way the image may be presented, whether in Pinterest or in search engine results, may just be weird. Personally, I always acknowledge the photographer in Pinterest, by using their name, rather than a nebulous topic like “favourites” in order to catalogue the images I pin. But most people don’t.
So when is a watermark useful for advertising purposes? I suggest that it’s exactly like the painters intended. It is useful for printed images:
- a customized business card that includes one of your images
- a brochure that includes samples of your work,
- a printed portfolio that you share with prospective clients
- a promotional card (4×6, 8×10 etc.)
- a finished, matted and/or framed print, delivered to a client, in a semi-transparent wrap that includes a prominent “watermark” or logo
So, ditch the watermarks online and use an identifying mark when it really counts – when you can personally hand someone a real example of your work.
2 thoughts on “To Watermark or Not to Watermark – That is the Question”
Hi Nina, a lot of excellent points in this blog. I watermark in part because it is the point in my workflow when I say enough is enough. I could easily edit for hours and my watermark represents the completion of the image, ready for posting. I also watermark because it is my logo and I hope that over time it might generate some brand recognition. Thank you for adding to the conversation, Rick.
Thanks, Rick. Appreciate your perspective.
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