The Pros and Cons of Watermarking Your Photos

While doing some research to write this post, I went looking for some of my photos on the web, and it was just…wow! Using the Google reverse image search engine, I could locate where some photos of mine were being used. I only spent time looking for three photos (some that I knew were popular) and I found about 50 websites using them—most of them travel companies offering tours in Southeast Asia. The companies, of course, took them without even asking. No, I won’t name names; there are way too many of them! Let’s not even talk about Chinese websites gathering any kind of photos from anywhere on the same page. I just don’t get it. But this is my most stolen photo, and, my, what some websites did to it!

why watermark your photos

Seriously guys? Pink font?

You will note that due to some bad cropping, I do have a lot of space to add a massive watermark! (That was a joke to myself, I will laugh in my sleep.)

Now I know that some of my photos are being used for some “inspirational bullshit quotes,” you know? The photo that is surrounded by some quote by Gandhi or Buddha or something like that? Yes, plenty of that crap around the web! Like this one, a photo I took in Ha Giang two years ago:

pros and cons of photo watermarks

Gracias for stealing my work! I had to lay down in mud for that one!

The search made me realize how watermarking our images is a very important topic that I only briefly discussed with some of my (amazing) students last week in Laos. So I am also quite new to the subject. But now let’s look at the pros and cons.

Pros

  • Watermarking gives you exposure when photos are shared. As your name is on the image, people will know about you. Logical isn’t it?
  • Watermarking protects your work. People won’t be able to steal your work, as your name is on it. And surely people do not know how to remove your watermark, right?

I guess that’s it for the list of pros. Now let’s look at the cons!

Cons

  • Adding a watermark to your photo distracts the viewer from the main subject. (As Trey Ratcliff says, it “gets in the way of art.”) I just want to temper this one. While this can be obvious for a photographer who looks at images a different way, I do not believe it is a problem for the average viewer.
  • Watermarks can look ugly. Even with a nice looking font. Yes, believe me, they’re ugly. I will not hide the fact that I used to add a watermark to my photos in Papyrus font some years ago. Yes, Papyrus font. You read me right. We all have our dark secrets!
  • Also, do people even bother reading the watermark? When it is small in a corner, I am sure less than 5 percent of people actually read it. So what exposure, again?
  • I do find it a little pretentious to add a watermark, like the photographer is more important than the subject. I discussed this point with my students last week. If you are a photographer creating something quite unique, being able to reach locations that no one else does, or having access to super duper backstage, then you may want to protect your work. But that’s what? One percent of photographers? I do not want to sound patronizing here, but who are you to protect your work? Someone creating awesome art or posting photos we have seen a million times before? I mean, a sunset is just a sunset. An orange ball in the sky. You want to protect that?

Some services can help you track your images. Google reverse image search will help you find who has used your photos. That’s one way to protect yourself without adding anything distracting on the photos. It takes a little longer though, believe me! But it’s an awesome tool; I suggest you have a try. I did spend all day yesterday on it—it was quite fun, actually.

Finally, and this probably the most obvious, watermarking your images will not protect them from thieves. Two minutes of photoshopping and it is gone. Unless your watermark takes half of the photo, in which case I do not think this article is for you. Close your web browser. That’s it. Thanks.

should-you-watermark-your-photos

Watermarking will not protect your photos from thieves.

If you really want to protect your images, each country has its own copyright laws. There are some international copyright offices you can sign up and subscribe to and put photos in their registry so they are “protected.” I’m not sure how they work though… Plus, that takes time and money. It may be useful for your “money shots”—the ones you’re selling by the hundreds and generating a real revenue.

Conclusion

I do not believe there is an answer for this topic. Everyone is working in different fields of photography and will have different needs in term of protecting their work. I personally do not like watermarks, as I find them distracting. After all, I am first a photography instructor and often doing photo critics, where every detail on the picture counts.

I do tend to trust people (this is a mistake I have been told), and I believe photos will be stolen by fake photographers or unethical corporations, not commercial business with ethics. This is not really relevant to me as I live in Asia, and local businesses need to be educated concerning copyright laws, but for you reader, that might be relevant.

But hey, maybe all these websites would not have stolen my photos if I had a watermark on them?

You know what? If that was the case, they would have found other similar pictures and stolen them. The only difference is that the person they would have stolen from would not have done the research and would not know about it. So I will keep not watermarking my photos, let awful businesses steal them, and then chase them down with the help of my lawyer! This might help educate the Asian corporate world. I like challenges, you see!

Of course, I am now restricting the locations where I publish my photos. I used to try and be on several stock photography websites, plus social media, Flickr, etc… I am now only (daily) posting on my Facebook page and Google+, and I do resize the photos quite small for that. The big size photos only go to my website, on which people cannot take them (from what I know). If you are a hacker, please forget this last sentence.

As I said, I’m new to the topic, so I’m looking forward to reading your comments below.

About the Author:
I am Etienne Bossot and I am delighted to take you on an amazing journey through stunning locations in Southeast Asia while sharing my passion for photography. For the past four years I have been teaching thousands of people at all photographic levels. I am also a commercial and wedding photographer in Southeast Asia.

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19 Comments

  1. That’s right – watermark will not protect a photo. Watermarking images makes sense for branding purposes. Anyway, I made a photoshop script for adding watermarks few days ago, you can download it for free here http://www.photoshopchef.com/easy-watermarks/

  2. Eugene says:

    Very nice article, thank you. I would like to add a few items.

    1. I put a proper copyright water mark, lower right corner on everything I put on the web.
    2. I have had many images stolen, even with the watermarked, as you said.
    3. I have all copyright and contact info in my metadata also.
    4. I have had my intellectual property attorney contact many of the offenders and have collected 3 times my rate without going to court. Their attorney always tells them to settle.
    5. I teach my students that removing the proper copyright watermark is a criminal offend of the The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
    6. Using the word photography in your watermark is redundant and not professional.
    7. I am of the believe that if your work in good enough for you to present it to the pubic on the internet then you should protect it with a PROPER copyright watermark as a matter of professional principle.
    8. You probably will not collect damages from foreign offenders.
    9. You should always have the date and your name in the watermark to hold up in court. “Joe Blows Photography” will not not always make the case.

    Thank you for your informative article.

  3. john says:

    I looked for the image with the pink text and that found me the image without the pink text and the best copy 1200 x 800 http://www.etiennebossot.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/IMG_08301.jpg If it helps I only found 3 sites with google image search. As for command +s or Ctrl+S (save webpage complete).

    websites often save images in sml med lrg so lrg123.jpg may well be a higher resolution of sml123.jpg a good guess has its rewards.

    Have to agree its practically impossible to stop some lifting of images, generally there is some cropping of most images at least if you have the uncropped image

  4. I try to place a watermark on all of my photos that I feel are worthy of such while posting on FB, Flickr and 500PX. I understand that this won’t stop nasty people and companies from copying them, but at least I know that they had to take the time to remove or crop out my watermark. I’m sure this must make them feel very guilty for doing so…not, but I feel better.

  5. Helen says:

    I, too, have seen my images appear on the Internet, in places other than my Flickr site. For this reason, I always downsize and watermark any images that go on to the Internet. I removed the watermark for prints, or for people who desire to use my images for some purpose with my permission. Earlier, I would spend considerable time crafting a watermark that was harmonious with my image. I love fonts, and I would agonize over picking a thought that sets off the mood of the image. I would also fine-tune the color so that it would stand out just a little bit but not too much. Sometimes the watermarks would be good sized, and sometimes smaller, depending on the composition. In my later work, I developed a watermark using my “Glass and Shine” styles. I picked a Broadway type font and stacked my initials like a monogram. Then, I applied the style so that the whole deal was semi-transparent but set off with drop shadows. Now, I just paste that one on all my work, sized to fit in a way that complements a picture. I have one image where my transparent watermark takes up about one fifth of the image. It is a complex topic and that is my two cents.

  6. John says:

    This topic has really taken on a new meaning since digital photography exploded on to the web.

    There are 2 answers regarding watermarking.
    1} If you do it properly the thief can’t remove the watermark without a great deal of tedious work in photoshop or similar.

    2) If you don’t watermark then you have only yourself to blame.

    Lets put it simply, do you leave your house door open when you leave or go to bed? I would guess you lock it, correct? Why? Because it gives you that extra sense of security!

    • Etienne says:

      John, I agree with your point except for the fact that watermarks are visible things on an image that has to create a visual impact. They will for most of the times distract from the main subject of the photo.

  7. Kim House says:

    I put two watermarks on my images. One that it’s large enough to be seen and one that is small and blends in with image. This way if I see an image being used and the larger watermark has been removed I can still price the image is mine. I have copied my images off the net and the metadata has not come with it, I now put my name into the file name hoping this maybe another deterrent.

  8. Vidya Sury says:

    Etienne, what an excellent argument. Just two days ago, I wanted to find something on my blog and used Google search which is usually reliable in pulling up posts rather than looking at my post directory. So imagine my stunned surprise when I found a whole range of products in my name…yes, in my name…on Amazon. Cushion covers, mousepads and so on created as Vidya Sury cushion cover…etc….all from photos from my posts on my website. So I really do not know how to approach this! More than anything, I am freaked that they’d use my name – that felt wrong to me.

    As you said, watermarking only deters those who are not tech-savvy…and these are the people who think nothing of picking up a watermarked photo from a stock photo site and publish it as is.

    Such a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t situation! :)

    • Etienne says:

      Very good pint here Vidya, and I am really sorry to hear about what is happening to you. You might be able to get something out of it, or at least put your photos down from these products?

  9. tjeerd says:

    Being only an amateur I can afford the philosophy that people abusing my shots are only contaminating their own conscience, not mine. The world is full of dishonesty. I remenber an upcoming Chinese IT company years ago, their Routers were all Cisco inside, including Cisco’s sofware bugs. So if violating copyrights at that scale seems to be normal, what regard can one expect for a photo?
    Etienne, as John above mentioned, nothing is safe unless locked away, so don’t want your photos stolen? then don’t publish them, how would you fight a court case anyway in Farawaynistan?
    Having said that, I can still understand watermarking, after all, you want to make it a bit more hard for those raking in your shots for their own benefit…….

    • Etienne says:

      This is very true. I do live in South East Asia, where everything is kind of Farawaynistan, so I do not hope to be able to remove my photos from these “home companies”. I would be more troubled if bigger companies were doing so, but so far so good.

      I still do not wish to add watermarks on my photos, I just do not like it. I do believe that we photographers need to educate people about the rights to use photos. Not just lock the door and buy a gun…

  10. Rick says:

    It looks like rathen than watermarking, it’s better to publish images with such a low resolution that nobody will make money out of them.

  11. Lisa says:

    Enjoyed your article! Although it’s a headache, I resize everything I put online, even on my website. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, a resized photo can still be a good, very viewable size. However, for prospective thieves, the hacked photo will be too grainy to use for monetary gain as posters, prints, etc.

  12. peter says:

    Nice article.A watermark can serve as a means of protection and branding for photos.Many of my photos were stolen.Now i use this software Mass Watermark to bulk watermark,resize and add exif.

  13. Scott Duncan says:

    Good read. Gets me thinking at least. I guess it’s just personal preference. I myself do find it distracting, but do resize for the web and watermark so I’m still in the same boat. My thought is to at least try to protect my work in some way.

  14. Wendy says:

    First off, we have to realize there are two “flavors” of watermark. The first is essentially a signature, usually in one of the lower corners of the image. Well-designed and placed, it doesn’t interfere with a viewer’s enjoyment of the image and provides a means of a potential customer finding their way to some place where they can buy more of you pictures. Equivalent to the old-school scratching your signature into the negative. After all, there aren’t any discussions about painters watermarking their paintings! (Though I have seen some artists sign their paintings AFTER they photographed it for prints.)

    The other flavor is, for lack of a better term, a “ripple”–basically shifting or embossing a part of the image, usually in the center where it can’t be cropped away. (I’ve also seen some YouTube posters who avoid the wrath of copyright lawyers by dodging out the middle of the frame) It still allows people to decide whether or not they want the picture, but it ruins the image for anyone who wants to use it. The problem is that you have to have two versions of the image: the watermarked one and the clean on, and many sites that host images for sale won’t bother to host a “view” copy and a “sale” copy of an image, and instead rely on merely downsampling the image (and that more for speed of page loading than protecting the photographer’s copyright.)

  15. Cocoa says:

    Interesting points but I did not like the manner in which the article addressed you. I mean as a photographer we are reading this article because we love photography, care about it, and just to be so rude (even if meant as a joke) was very insulting and not the usual standard of articles seen in the group.

    I think anyone has the right to be able to watermark their photos and care about. And every sunset is different, therefore so is every photo.

  16. Ernesto O. says:

    I do not find any helpful this article in any way. Just a chat between photographers. With all the respect you deserve. If you are not speciallized on the matter do not publish it please. What a waste of time. This issue has been a problem since digital photography appeared on the www.
    Of course your work will be stolen, you have to make the peace with that, once you upload a photo on the web you have to realize you are “giving” to the world something of you, regardless the social media of your choice, even if you do it for your website, your photo is now in the sea of information.

    Starting with this premise, I always upload a photo from my reel of that day and I do not chose my best one, I upload something that people can be hooked to my profile and follow me ( because is that all about, have followers) I do not fight with the idea of somebody stole my work. I rather think to have lots of viewers and to show all the potential of my work. If I see a company that is using my photo for commercial purposes for sure I will get in touch with them, but in most cases I will use it as a learning of what people likes and the people using my images are only promoting me at the end.

    So, to make it simple, if you upload your photo, make peace with yourself and think this will be a gift of you to rest and how beautiful your perspective of life it is.

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