Watermarks, Help Or Hindrance?

If you get three photographers into a room, you’ll probably have four opinions on the topic of watermarks. For some, there’s simply no question that every photo you post online or share in social media should have a watermark, and the rationale for that point of view is that it protects you against unauthorized use of the photos. On the other hand, some photographers will say that a watermark does nothing to protect your images, and furthermore, it actually hurts your brand because it looks so bad on the image. Both are correct, of course, but if we go past these two extreme viewpoints, there may be a happy middle ground.

Myth: You Should Always Watermark

A watermark is an imprint that, today, is applied to a photo digitally. Usually, it consists of a copyright symbol and the photographer’s name or the name of the business. You can make it as large or small as you’d like, and you can place it anywhere on the photo. If you set up an automated watermarking process, it takes no time, but the downside is that you’re stuck with a single size and placement on all of your photos. Instead, you can customize the exact placement for each image, but that takes considerably more time and effort.

Watermarking the corner of the photo is the least invasive way to do it, but it’s also the easiest to crop off. An image thief can simply save your image and then shave off the edge to remove the watermark entirely. A truly unscrupulous person can go as far as to re-watermark the photo with their own copyright, in effect, stealing the work. This is rare, but it does happen. In well-publicized cases, some photographers have been able to name and shame the image thieves through social media to achieve a satisfactory outcome, but there are plenty of images floating out in cyberspace today that have been stripped of all proper ownership information.

To prevent the shaving of a watermark, you can just make a big one that runs right through the middle of the image. This can be very effective. It also usually looks awful, and for many photos, it can obscure the entire thing to such a degree that a viewer really can’t get a good idea of what the image looks like. Since you’re trying to show off your skills to prospective buyers, this can be a counterproductive approach.

If you’re going to watermark, you can help yourself by creating a watermark that’s actually designed to be an attractive logo. Instead of plain type, that logo can be placed individually onto a photo in a compositionally pleasing way. We’re not suggesting that it will enhance the image, but it will detract from the image much less than being plastered over the center of the shot. For photographers who post relatively few images on the Internet or social media, this individually placed logo approach makes a lot of sense. A little extra time and effort goes into it, but if you’re not watermarking hundreds of photos, it’s probably worth it as a middle ground between a foolproof watermark and watermarking the corner of the frame. Most photographers would place the logo watermark in an area of the frame where it’s relatively blank, which makes it easy for an image thief to apply some cloning skills and remove it, but now you’re talking about a thief who’s really spending some time and effort on taking your photos.

All of this leads to a fundamental point. Does it make sense to watermark at all? If the choice is between a watermark that’s so large and obnoxious that it utterly destroys the photo and something that’s so subtle that it’s easily removed, why even bother? That’s a great question. Something you should have in the back of your mind is that any image you place online can get ripped off. A watermark gives you more leverage in court, but how many photographers have the stomach and bank account for lawsuits, particularly if you’re fighting someone in another country? The only truly foolproof way to prevent an image from being stolen is not to post it at all. Other than a massive block of centered, photo-killing type, no watermark will stop a truly determined image thief.

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