Photography / Tips and Solutions

The Pros and Cons of Watermarks on Photographs

         

Canon versus Nikon. Full frame versus APS-C versus Micro Four Thirds. Sony versus Everyone Else. Original Equipment Manufacturer versus Third Party. We all know the world of photography generates a lot of endless debates that circle the Web. Another source of passions and opinions is: The Watermark.

Watermarks

How do photographers sign their art? Painters usually paint their signature, initials, or pseudonyms on their canvases as a final touch to their paintings. However, photographers never really had a way to “sign” their images, with the exception of a watermark.

Before the digital world, publications and organizations would use print stamps on the back of images to identify the sources of the images. Some even used embossing seals to leave raised marks on the print.

Versions of the watermark were also the province of the commercial photographer, who would send a client watermarked proofs, or prints marked with “PROOF” to select the images he or she wanted as final prints. These watermarks or proof marks were small enough so you could still see the image, but you wouldn’t want to frame the watermarked picture or give one of the wallet-sized proofs to your friend.

 
Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

This is a proof.

Technically originating in the art of papermaking, in photography, the watermark is a superimposed image, logo, or text placed over a photograph—usually as a method of identifying the image’s creator.

Why watermark?

When digital photography arrived, so did the ability to easily “steal” photographs from websites, as well as by other means. “Wow—that is a beautiful photo!” Right click. Save to desktop. Or, save as wallpaper. There are occasions where struggling photographers used the art of others to promote themselves on their own websites or, given sufficient digital resolution, with printed images. The thought was that the digital watermark would prevent this.

There is also a marketing facet to the watermark. Making your work easily identifiable might help viewers find you and more of your work, especially if it gets shared around the Web.

And, for some, the watermark is simply a way to “sign” their art.

Why not watermark?

For those trying to prevent image theft, the watermark might be a good example of keeping honest people honest. There are so many ways to suck an image off the Web these days that, if someone wants your image, they will find a way to take it. And, if they really want to claim your image as their own, there are ways, some painstaking, to remove watermarks, or one could simply crop out that section of the picture. Ultimately, the watermark offers limited success for theft prevention. If you don’t want someone to steal your digital image, the best way to prevent that is to not put it on the Web.

I prefer this photo without the watermark, but there are worse examples out in the world.

Also, as painful as it is, there have been a lot of cases of image theft in the recent past where the thieves were brought to court, but not to justice. If the unauthorized use of your photograph ends up generating financial gain or fame for someone else, you have every right to be upset and call them out on their inexcusable behavior, but if they can convince a judge that they “repurposed” your art under the Fair Use provision of copyright law, you will likely be left on the losing end of the argument with steep legal fees.

The marketing argument is a strong one. Adding something to your images to make them quickly identifiable as yours may have its advantages. Not all of us are famous and not all of us have photographic styles that are immediately identifiable to the masses. Honestly, with the number of images created in the world today, we could surmise that fewer and fewer photographers will create a style so unique that non-artists readily identify their images. More common these days are comments like, “Nice photograph. That looks like the work of So-And-So.” That is awesome if you are So-And-So, but few of us are.

Watermark advice

There are certainly pros and cons to watermarking your images. If you chose to watermark your photographs, here are some pointers to consider.

1. Give thought to your watermark. Typing your name in the default Photoshop font might not be advantageous to your work or your brand. Some photographers create logos and some simply reproduce their own signatures. The options are endless, but, as you are about to mark up a beautiful photograph that took a lot of effort to create, be sure to put some effort into the design of your watermark.

Unless you absolutely adore “common” typefaces, like Comic Sans, you might want to avoid them. There are more professional-looking typefaces for your watermark. This one is also a bit large.

2. Size matters. You want the watermark legible, but not overwhelming. We have all seen watermarks on images (Instagram comes to mind) that are so small they cannot be read—this negates the whole purpose. Many of us have also seen watermarks so obnoxiously large that you cannot tell what the image underneath looks like. Pick a conservative size.

No, this isn’t the TRVphoto.com Tower. That is a horrible watermark. No one is going to steal this image, but no one is going to like looking at it, either.

3. Does the watermark create a new focal point? How do you immediately know that an image you are viewing has been watermarked? Well, because your eye likely went straight toward that one element that looks like it doesn’t belong in the photo—the watermark. If you add a watermark, especially if done poorly, you are adding a focal point to the image. Give that even more thought. You might have carefully composed a pleasing image, but the watermark, even a small one, might take the viewer’s eye on a journey you never intended.

Sky, clouds, mountain, and watermark. One of those does not belong.

Will it help your brand?

The watermark might help your brand. It might also ruin your images while trying to protect them. A watermark might be the way you choose to sign your art. And, the watermark might be an attempt to make life more difficult for those wanting to use your images for their own purposes.

Some well-known photographers use watermarks. Some do not. There is no right or wrong on this issue. The use of a watermark is completely at the discretion of the artist.

What are your thoughts on watermarking photographs? Please chime in with a comment, below, to let us know.

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If I am displaying on any social media including Facebook or Flickr I use a standard copyright statement in the lower right corner with opacity adjusted so that it is visible but not offensive. The problem with many of these websites is that they strip copyright information out of the file metadata. The watermark is occasionally useful for potential clients and I do take action against some infringers.
 

Thanks for reading and sharing your technique, Keith!

I think it all boils down to what would be the purpose of doing watermarking.   One should think that a visible signuature or logo on the picture is just one form of watermarking.   May be the following thought path will be useful:

1. Having the added information highly visible - for advertisement, marketing, proof copies.   Here you want the viewers clearly recognize and remember it.  And you don't care that much whether the watermarking will steal the attention from the picture, assuming it is done nicely and properly.

2. Having the added information vaguely visible -- for marketing, proof copies, low quality web publications.  Here you want the viewers clearly know who the owner is and discourage any copyright infringement.  Using photoshop layers and transparency tweaking can achieve that.  We can think about this as a traditional letter written on watermarked stationary.  The watermark prepresents the source but not too intrusive. 

3. Having the added information barely (but still) visible --  for web application, proofing, sharing, but want to give the high degree of quality of the picture.   A casual viewing may miss the watermark (so it is not good for advertisement) but the watermark can be found by careful examination.  It is a higher or finer degree of executing #2.

4. Having the added information 'invisible' by the normal viewing. -- Here you want to provide the highest degree of quality but to catch the thief if necessary.   "Invisible by the normal viewing" means you put the info there with the intensity, gamut, etc. to a degree which is invisible to the normal view.  But when you change the color tone/gamut, etc, the information will pop out.  It is just like there are so much information in RAW that you would not see in JPG.  But you can pull the info out if necessary.    This only works in digital files and the thief steal the whole file (that is what we concern most anyway).  If the thief does a screen scrape or print the file and then redigitize it, those invisible information will not carry through.  The analogy to this is like the secret ink.  When you immerse the paper in a solution (say, water) or heat over a candle flame, the words come out.  

5. Having added information in the embeded form.   Here you embed secret bits (or pixels) throughout the picture.  They are there but so small (identifiable at 100% resolution) so that it would not change the overall impression/quality of the picture.   These embedded bits/pixels will have patterns usually not created by nature or normal photographic process.  That means finding those implies finding blood on the hands.    This is more for nailing the thief in the court house.   On the other hand, a smart thief may re-compress the image file multiple times.  Then these microscopically embedded bits may disappear.    A better embedded watermark will have global patterns that simple compression can not erase. If you have pictures that a thief is willing to painstakingly defeat the watermarking, congratulations, you already got some gems. 

6. Finally, some current and future digital files (not just the picture) could have imbedded EXIF info, time stamps and algorithms (i.e. not jpg) for rights management.   It will be like the disappearing ink.    The picture will destroy itself after, say, six weeks.  (Yes, you give the joy to someone  for a limited time).  The most evil one could corrupt the whole computer system, or send notifications to the owner, if possessed illegally (not clear such virus algorithms can be legally allowed to use).     This is more for rights management and sensitive documents, and less for conventional watermarking.   

The above view is by no means comprehensive.   Just to add my two cents from a different angle.

Hey Jimmy47,

That looks like a pretty comprehensive collection of thoughts to me! Thanks so much for reading and adding to the conversation!

Hi Todd,

With the millions of images that are posted everyday on various photo sharing websites, photos get "buried" so quickly that they face difficulty in even being discovered. As for the few in number that I have posted I'd be fortunate if any garnered any envy and worthiness for theft. If so, have at it and live with yourself. Obviously the real concern comes with established professionals with their own websites and not the casual hack like myself. People like Art Wolf or Dennis Livesay, for example. 

What is the origin of the word "watermark" as it applies to photography? And is it related to the word "stain"? 

Thanks so much for this article.

Hey Tom,

I agree. Image theft matters more if photography is your livelihood. If you steal a photo by a famous person and post as your own, it is also more likely that someone will recognize it and call you out. If you stole one of my photos, printed it, and sold it at an art fair or through a website, its unlikely that someone out in the general population would recognize it as my photograph!

The origin of the word, to the best of my knowledge, comes from the paper industry where premium papers were, and still are, watermarked by the manufacturers. I guess it just made the transition to digital photography for some reason.

Thanks, as always, for being a regular on Explora!

I generally don't watermark my images. I can definitely see the value in it, but I feel that it takes away from my images and doesn't allow viewers to experience them the way I intended it. There are so many images out there on the web now, that if someone wants to steal my 900px image, go ahead. And if I did find out that my images had been stolen, I have documented my photography well enough that It isn't that hard to prove that I am the real photographer.

I have a friend who had their images stolen and the theif used the photos to market her own photography.  My friend emailed the thief and when the thief resisted, the story was sent to social media and the news. It blew up in the thiefs face and not only is the thief well known in the area as a fraud, but the real photographer gained incredible publicity from it and dramatically increased business. So I see the pros and cons of both having or not having a watermark.

Hey Joshua,

Thanks for adding to the discussion.

I guess, on some level, we all can hope that our stuff is good enough that someone wants to steal it! Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, my photos aren't prized by scumbags!

I'm glad your friend's story had a very happy ending! Good Karma, perhaps!

Thanks for reading!

I don't claim fame or artsitic excellence, but I do have some photos I want to protect from plagarism. Of course I claim ownership and usually in a plain, visible manner.

But I also go the extra mile. In almost every photo, down deep in the macro side of things there are details which can be watermarked with compatible but not invisble colors. I place them carefully, so as not to disturb the image. When I do this I also do it in several places within the image. That way, if someone does find one, the others will likely survive.

If I don't tell anyone, even the purchaser of the photo, I can always prove my claim with an ordinary magnifying glass or simply enlarge the image on a computer screen.

The plain, regular and easily seen watermark is placed in a corner which, of course can be cropped off, but the other marks would have to be scrupulously searched out and removed. 

I haven't ever, to my knowledge,  had a photo stolen. Perhaps my work isn't thet much in demand. But I still practice my method when I do something I want to show off, but wish to protect.

Just an idea from an octogenarian photographer who still practises for his own nsatisfaction.

Thanks for sharing, Don! Seems like a good tactic—similar to some of the anti-counterfeit methods used on currency.

To watermark or not to watermark. I've been on both sides and have then haven't. I make my living from photography. Watermarks make a photo ugly. But as someone who has sold images I decided ©date/my name woull be splashed across the image. Tucked away in a corner where my name can be cropped out or erased is not an option. My first incident of misuse was 10 years ago when a photo I took on assignment was used commercially without permission. Fortunatley, it only took an email from me explaing the illegality of the use for the retailer to take the photo down though the retailer did claim that once I posted the image to the www it was public property! It's this kind of ignorance among the general population that I choose a big watermark.

Thanks for sharing your experience, john! I am glad your theft story had a happy ending!

Yeah, it is amazing what people don't know and think they know! 

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