The Pros and Cons of Watermarks on Photographs

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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.

114 Comments

What a great photograph you'd have here! and also, does the watermark create a new focal point? How do you immediately know that an image you are viewing has been watermarked? 

Hi Sherman,

Thank you for the kind word about my photograph.

If the watermark creates a new focal point on the image, you might not want to use a watermark.

And, if you don't see a watermark, then you can assume the image hasn't been watermarked.

Let me know if you have more questions.

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

Thank you for the Article, I see my clients posting snapshots from my site even with the watermark on, It bothers me since my download price is cheap low res is $0.99, I like the idea of putting something like DO NOT POST but not sure if is to harsh, I also like the idea of putting my web address as a watermark for marketing, I use smugmug, you create your watermarks and when you upload you choose what watermark or not to use, if you are logged in you can download it without watermark, also you can go back and remove watermark of your gallery automatically.

Hi Rene,

Yep. That certainly happens.

The debate, and the struggle, continue!

Smugmug has some great features, indeed. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom will also add watermarks on export as an option, too.

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

Hi Todd, Informative article. In my opinion a watermark not only deters casual theft but it can explicitly state the ownership of the image when someone finds the same when they search on Image search engines like Google/Bing.I always watermark all of my images using this tool called Mass Watermark,it quite easy to process images in bulk using this tool.

Hello Vyshak,

Thanks for the kind words and thanks for sharing your experience.

You can also add watermarks on export using Lightroom.

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

I always assumed a properly done watermark was extremely transparent so it could be placed almost anywhere on the photo without being distracting, unlike the above examples. Pretty much everything I see now by photographers, are almost always placed in a corner and easy to crop out of the photo without losing anything noticeable. 

Hi Mike,

I would say that a properly done watermark is as transparent as possible, but, if you actually see it, it is not really transparent. The ugly examples above were for demonstration purposes only. :)

Thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

Thanks for this helpful article. It's very detailed, thanks for this!!

Hi Michelle,

You are very welcome. Thank you for the kind words and thanks for reading!

Best,

Todd

A watermark is a marketing tool. When you share photos on the web you really have no control of how far and wide they’ll spread, so it helps to make your work easy to identify. Know more info from [Link removed.]

Thank you, Alan!

I think you should always add a watermark before sharing your photos with anyone - it will protect your property/copyrights.

It is very simple to add this, you can use one of many online services - personally I can recommend ToolsBlast.com - [Link removed.]

Thanks, Mac!

Hi Todd and forum members. I landed here after Googling about watermarking my photos and have enjoyed reading through the comments folks have made. Excuse the pun but there's certainly no 'black and white' answer to this is there. I watermark my photos using the LR watermarking that Todd mentions, I also have watermarks on photos on my website too, and I have the right click disable option there too. That being said, I know that none of this really stops the photos from being taken if someone really wants them. It really is a prevention (and not a very good one) rather than a cure.

The main reason I ended up here today was because I am now thinking about selling my photos online and through a professional printing service. I think the comment that one of the forum members said about giving the option of not having a watermark (signature) on printed copies is a good one although I would also like to be able to sign them too if I could (because I am still a bit old school like others out there). I know that's not an option though unless the print service has the ability to 'attach' my signature to the border before printing (food for thought.....)

Like Todd says, there are those out there that swear by watermarks, and those that don't. Then there's the rest of us, stuck in the middle. I can say that I'm in that group; scratching my head and pondering the question about whether the UN Art Department could fix all this for us (ha ha ha).

At the end of the day it comes down to personal preference doesn't it. I don't think that should include a feeling of 'my photos are safe' because we all know they're not. If we accept that, but still do what we can to at least show that they are ours then maybe we can sleep a bit easier at nights.

Watermarking is, in my opinion, just a placebo but if like me, you're happy with that then why not carry on using it : )

Hey Marty,

Very well said!

Can you imagine the length and fire of a debate in the UN about this? I can already see protesters for both sides lining up their marches in NYC to fight for watermarks or no watermarks. Hey, look! The pro watermark crowd put watermarks on their protest signs!

Yes, definitely a gray area with passion on both sides, pros and cons, and preferences.

Thanks for stopping by!

Good luck with your decision(s)!

The thought just came to my mind so I Googled and found your thread. I have some of my photos posted on an online art website. I get a number of views, but very little in actual sales. So I wondered, is it because my photos aren't of the quality people are looking for? Or does my photos having my signature on them cause people to not to buy? I recently was watching a video on photo printing and the photographer mentioned that when he prints a photo he always leaves a border where he signs and dates his photographs. I guess that way the buyer can hide it behind a mat or frame or allow it to be seen if they so choose.

Hey Skip,

I am not sure if watermarks ever deter someone from buying a photograph, but you never know. It is a tricky thing...as mentioned above, there are pros and cons. Generally, when I see a watermark on a photo on the web, I assume that said watermark will not be on a print of that same photograph.

When I hang my own work, I usually sign the mat and not the print or a border of the print, but, there are probably advantages to signing either the print (like a painter usually does) or the border.

Someone should make a rule or rules for all of this so we no longer have to debate it! Does the UN have an art department? :)

Thanks for stopping by and reading Explora, Skip!

I have been interested in photography this summer. I recently started watermarking my images. At first I thought the mark belonged in one of the corners of the image and sometimes it is best. The problem with corners is people can save a copy and crop the image thereby deleting the watermark. My solution, Mark it as centered as possible but, do so in a way it is not easily noticed. There are various things to consider for centering your watermark such as the exact spot to place it, the colour (relative to the matter focused in the picture), size of the watermark. These are just some aspects. The idea is to make the watermark obvious but, not stand out completely before the object(s) in the image. Remember this is not a motion picture where they give warning of copyright before the film begins.

Hi Philip,

Thanks for reading and for sharing your ideas about watermark size, color, and placement! I hope it is working for you!

I have seen a few photographers using 'thumbnails only' online until you request or order a full-sized image.

It was mentioned that certain ways of protecting the image limits the possibility of someone using it thus promoting your work.  Would 'thumbnails only' be an option?

Hey Vance,

You can always limit the resolution of images you post on the web to make it nearly impossible for others to make physical prints of them. But most people don't print images these days. If the resolution is sufficient to see nicely on your screen, it will be the same for someone who wants to use it for their own purposes.

The other issue is that thumbnails might not give your clients a good feel for the quality and the detail of a particular image.

Like the watermark, there are pros and cons!

Thanks for stopping by!

I saw people arguing about how to create a watermark. I get it done for a very cheap price [on fiverr.]

I have not yet created a name or business for my photography and I am not sure that I will. I am still in the beginning stages of creating this art. Some of the things that I have captured people have stated that I should mark it. My question is this, without being a pro does watermarking really have any benefits and/or should it be considered?

Hey Gregory,

Good question, but there is really no right answer. You will find professional photographers watermarking their stuff, and others not. And, you will find amateurs dropping watermarks and many not using them. It all boils down to personal preference. Watermarks do not make an amateur photographer a pro, and lack of watermarks do not make a pro an amateur.

I personally use a watermark on the images I post to Flickr (where it is tough to steal images) and I do not use a watermark on my personal website (where it is easy to steal images). Makes perfect sense, right? Yep. Thanks for agreeing. In case you were wondering, the reason why I don't use them on my personal website is because I want the images to look as clean as possible for potential clients.

There might be branding benefits to watermarks, but you have to weigh that against putting something on the frame that doesn't really belong.

If your goal is to prevent theft...know that watermarks keep honest people honest, but that is about it.

Let me know if you have more questions or thoughts you'd like to bounce off of this one person's opinion!

Thanks for stopping by B&H Explora!

Great Information!

I've been using a simple Android application called Auto Add Logo Copyright with Text on Camera Photos. It can easily add watermark on photos captured with default built-in camera!

Thanks for the tip, Raza!

Most of the time I work with clients doing regular event or portrait photography. Occasionally I do create photoshop composites for clients - using my own photography. I add watermars mostly because I want to preserve the belief that I can protect my work somehow. I wish there was an alternative to watermarking...

I agree! Holograms? :)

There IS an alternative. Its call metadata.

Hey James,

Metadata works sometimes, but there are ways to scrub the metadata when exporting the files that virtually removes your digital fingerprints from the image.

Thanks for reading!

Thank you for addressing this issue in your well thought out article. Yes, I was aware that my photos could be "stolen". I noticed people would comment on how so & so looked so beautiful or "That's a great shot", but never a mention of who, what or where the photo came from.  I don't really mind sharing my photos, but if they're going to swipe the picture, give the photographer credit. I will use a watermark for that purpose. Do you have any suggestions on what is the best watermark software? I am very old school and don't use Photoshop, but one day I will. I just try and get it right the first time, most of the time.

Hello Jesse,

Welcome to the conundrum and thank you for the kind words!

Some folks in the comments below have mentioned different software solutions, and, when I watermark, I use Lightroom's automatic watermark function, but I wouldn't know which one is best.

I suggest doing some web searching and seeing what folks prefer. Sorry that is a bit if a punt.

Good luck! If you find some good software, feel free to come back and share it here!

I really enjoyed your article. I use visualwatermark.com for all my watermarking and I am super happy with the results. There are so many Watermarking software choices and I need simple and easy. I am concerned about all the talk that people can no remove watermarks. I think that is wrong. 

Thanks, Gretchen!

I believe it's horrible and inappropriate. 
It is easily removed, unless it is a huge and obnoxious one that goes across your image.
To me it's like creating something that at least you find beautiful and then peeing on it so that everyone know it's yours....
at least pee is harder to get rid of...
There are much efficient ways to market yourself and your brand, espacialy nowadays.
 

Interesting analogy, Karl! Thanks for stopping by!

I have recently started free-lance photography on the side, just for fun. I enjoy photography and do not see myself solely relying on photography for a means of a job. However, I do have a few photo shoots coming up soon, some of which I will be taking quite a few shots. I have a logo/watermark I have used in the past on a few pictures. I will be giving all of the shots I take to the client. My question is this, should I watermark all of the photos I give to the client or only a select few? I know there is probably no right or wrong answer on the subject, but I could use some advice.

Thanks in advance. 

Watermark all of them at first then let them choose and mske copies.  No problemo.

Good answer, Deli!

Hey Courtney,

Deli is correct. When sending your client proofs, feel free to watermark the heck out of the shots...when they choose what they want, then you send them the clean files.

Good luck!

I have a similar question. I'm just starting out and I wanted some advice on what the customer gets regarding watermarks...is this the right thing to do? 

After a photo session, I will give the customer so many edited digital images (depending on the package they purchase) all with my logo. I then tell the customer then can do as they please with the watermarked images but if they want  prints, they order prints through me, in which I use a professional printer and will not have logos. Does this seem ok? Am I restricting things too much? I am just trying to set my footprint and not be out to lunch on my products and services. Please help :) 

Hi Aeran,
Your method sounds reasonable to me. I don't think there is a wrong and right way to do this...or else we would not be debating the pros and cons of watermarks! 

My only advice would be not to make your logo too big on those digital copies.

Thanks for stopping by!
 

Watermark a select few? Why half *ss the job? Watermarking a select few is going to make the client think that the watermarked ones are of value, and the non watermarked ones werent even good enough to put your name on them, so why would they want them. Should either watermark them all, or none at all. I stopped watermarking mine and do not really care if people steal or use them. If they get stolen, I take it as a compliment. They where good enough to steal. Its when no one steals your images is when you should worry. Cause they arent good enough to even steal.  As I see it the more images of mine they steal, the more my work is seen. Plus I embed metadata in all my images. 99% of the pic thieves dont remove the metadata anyway, so my name is still with the image regardless.

Hey James,

I might agree with your stance minus the metadata thing, which I mentioned in my first reply to you above. There are ways to strip metadata, but, yes, not everyone knows how.

"Stealing" and re-posting an image is a compliment in a sense. Claiming that it is your own work when it is not, making money from said image, or winning a contest with said image is never cool and just helps pave your way to artistic hell.

Thanks for the insight on this subject. It seems there are quite a few people, including myself, that are seeking an answer to the same question. I am developing my website and after much consideration, I have decided not to use a watermark on my displayed prints. The principal reason for me at this time is that the hosting site I am using offers Right-Click Protection for images. I have activated said protection for my images. I can only assume that this protection is fool-proof. Please enlighten me if it is not.

The only other place that I display or share my photos is on Facebook. Just about all photos I put on Facebook are less than 1mb, so someone could probably make a decent 5x7 but that's about all. 

I have a number of signatures stored in LR CC. All different fonts, sizes and colors. They are o.k. but not quite professional looking enough.I am thinking about having a custom signature made and placing it on my website under my name and then applying it to the print once it has been ordered.

Anyway, thank you for the article.

Sincerely,

Anthony Donofrio

Thanks for reading and sharing your experience and thoughts, Anthony!

Good stuff!

Hi Anthony,

I just wanted to put in my two cents about right click protection, which I think is fantastic to have by the way! But, keep in mind there are screen capture programs on computers and default on phones that allow the user to snap a shot of the screen and crop as they please. The quality is never the same, but it’s a stolen photo nonetheless. I myself am considering watermarks as a freelance photographer, but I have yet to find what really works for me as I currently only share my photos on Facebook and the like. 

-Reesa

Thanks, Reesa!

Right click protection is a joke. People can just view the page source and grab the image link, then open link in a new browser which will only display the image, then right click and save.

In the early days, right-click protection was more effective. Not so much anymore. It basically keeps honest people honest.

Right-click protection is very far from fool proof. All you have to do is view the image and hit the print screen on your keyboard and you can just paste the image into PS Paint. It's basically a 3 button press away, and paint is on very windows PC. With most phones you just gotta hit the power and volume buttons at the same time, and their gallery programs pretty much all have cropping available. I think those processes would also strip out any metadata in the images as well, since the device is gonna think this is a brand new image.

At that point, if they choose to reupload your photos, your only hope it someone reverse image searching for the original. (I've been able to find original artists by reverse image searching using google image search, so it's not ALL bad news.)
- A tech fan getting into photography

Yep, there are many ways to steal photos. I wish we lived in a world when this kind of thing didn't happen.

Thanks for stopping by, Anonymous!

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