The Debate Over Watermarks in Photography

Controlling your image is a valid quest for any photographer, as we all want to protect our brand. Seeing one’s work altered without permission can be frustrating, as can discovering your work on blogs that are void of any credit. The first response for most photographers is to watermark their images, ensuring that their logo or website graces every image that hits the internet. In today’s landscape, is watermarking your photographs the best way to protect them? Let’s review both sides of this debate, and explore the current state of the watermark in photography.

Watermarks Impact the Viewing Experience

With the bombardment of media that we find ourselves in on any social media network, presentation is more important than ever. As photographers, we have to contend with our images being compressed, as well as deal with the poor quality of the displays that our audience may be experiencing our photos on. For the most part, these are aspects that are beyond our control.

However, a watermark is something that is entirely in our hands. From large vectorized logos to website URLs, a distracting watermark can cause an adverse reaction to our work in front of viewers. Scrolling past an image without any engagement is the worst reaction a viewer can have. Disrupting their viewing experience in any way can contribute to that.

There are many artists who will watermark every image that is delivered to their clients, not pertaining to low-resolution proofs. Whether this is to a blog, or for an event, there are many who charge a fee if their client wishes to have their images watermark-free. Why would someone pay for this? The logical conclusion to draw is that there are enough clients who feel the images are worsened by the presence of said logos and watermarks. I personally find this business practice to be one that can quickly alienate a client, so tread carefully.

Watermarks Are Free Advertising

Most watermarks are designed with promotion in mind, consisting of the photographer’s website, or the brand name. This means that when your images are seen, that you are guaranteed credit, as your name is right on the picture. This is true, and it can definitely help potential clients find you. However, as mentioned above, the reach of your images can be limited by a poorly designed watermark, as well as reduce opportunities for your images to be shared on other websites or blogs that could have brought in additional traffic.

Watermarks Are Not Applicable in Certain Genres

Think of your favorite fashion, commercial, or beauty photographer that is active today. Are there watermarks present on their work? There are some genres of photography where watermarks are not viable.

Let’s take editorial photography, for example. You will be hard pressed to find a fashion or beauty editorial with a photographer’s logo present. Fortunately, somewhere in the publication, there will be a list of credits that will properly label the photographer and those involved in the production. There will not be a logo or a watermark, just minimalistic text at the edges of the frame. Because of this, posting up the same images with a logo or watermark doesn’t compute, as it changes the aesthetic and ignores the logo-free image already circulating from the publication.

Watermarks Prevent Theft

By far and away the biggest motivator for watermarking one’s work is to prevent art theft. Wherever your image goes, your watermark is along for the ride. Yet there are those instances where your watermark may be cropped out of the image. Even worse is discovering a watermarked image with the logo purposefully removed in Photoshop or another capable application. Fortunately, these instances are the minority when compared to those that are deterred from using your images without permission. Watermarks in many cases do prevent theft, but a determined thief will still find a way.

Low Resolution Versus Watermarking

A popular tactic for those wishing to dodge art theft is to only put out low-resolution photos online. In some instances, this is a wise decision to also combat the image compression that happens on social networks such as Facebook. Low resolution photos can help deter those who would print or reproduce your photos. The drawback to this is as we have devices that support higher and higher display resolutions, the quality of the image may be lacking. Low resolution images also does not defend against uncredited Tumblr or Pinterest reposts, so this tactic is primarily useful for preventing unauthorized reselling of your work.

Other Ways to Protect Your Work

A side effect of producing quality work is inspiring others to steal it. Watermarks can be your first line of defense, but there are plenty of ways to track misuse of your work.

Pixsy is a free online service for photographers that allows you to upload a collection of your photographs from multiple sources. Pixsy crawls the web in order to find matches, and allows you to flag certain instances, as well as offers legal recourse for having the images removed or filing a claim.

Google Images is perhaps the most common option for discovering where your images are. For those using Google Chrome, you can simply right click on your image and select “Search Google for this Image” as illustrated in the graphic below. Google performs a reverse-image lookup, and displays websites that are showing that image, or similar ones. While many results may be other places that you have submitted the photograph to, this is a great way to see altered versions or unfamiliar websites.

EXIF Copyright Information

My biggest recommendation to any photographer is to setup copyright information on the EXIF data of your photographs. Most cameras have the ability to display the author’s name, copyright information, or the owner’s name. This makes filing claims or takedown notices even easier when the perpetrator leaves that information intact. If you haven’t already done this, take a few minutes to do so, as it’s a quick and easy way to protect your work.

Do Right by Your Brand

Choosing to use or not to use watermarks is a personal choice, there isn’t a right or a wrong answer. Just ensure that your decisions are in line with attracting and keeping your desired clientele, rather than alienating them.

Where do you stand on the watermark debate? If you are a photographer who watermarks their work, do you have personal stories for how they have helped your business? For those that choose not to watermark their images, what were some of your experiences with misappropriated images? Please share your thoughts and experiences below.