Should You Watermark Your Images?

I received a question from one of our newsletter readers about watermarking (we’ll use the word “watermarking” here when we talk about digitally overlaying some conspicuous logo or text on an image).  She asked if she should sign, or put her logo on her portrait and larger artistic prints, and if she should “watermark” her web images.  She noted that another artist told her that doing so screams , “not professional.”  My first reaction to that statement is that being professional doesn’t necessarily scream “artist” either.  But that’s another debate.

I don’t think it’s unprofessional, or inartistic to mark your work in some way. It’s a good idea for professionals to promote themselves through their work.  And artists have been conspicuously signing their work for centuries (or longer).  But making the decision about putting an imprint on your prints or digital images is really a matter of what you’re trying to accomplish by doing so.  The two practical reasons people give are to help with self-promotion and to prevent image “stealing.”

Marking actual prints is probably OK if the mark doesn’t harm the integrity of the work.  Putting some type of identifier on the back of the print, then labeling and signing the mat is always classy.  Logos are something I would stay away from here.

The big question for most photographers is about watermarking images for the web.  Again, I think it comes down to how you do it and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Proofs: If you use very noticeable watermarks on proofs, so clients won’t be tempted to copy and use them without buying the rights, feel free to go crazy with it.  The uglier and more intrusive the better, right?  Well, maybe not.  Too intrusive and the client may not want to purchase as many images.  Of course, if the watermark is not intrusive enough the client might go ahead and “steal” the images anyway.  As a matter of fact, some watermarks are so appealing they almost give the images a commercial ad look, which doesn’t bother a lot of people.


Web Images: The images you post to your blog, portfolio, or other websites can also benefit, or suffer, from the use of watermarks.  Truth is, some watermarks are really ugly, too big, or unnecessary.  So, if you ARE going to mark your images, at least make sure your watermark doesn’t ruin the viewing experience.  Is watermarking going to prevent your images from being stolen (copied and used elsewhere without permission or credit)?  Probably not, unless they’re so much a part of the image as to make the image unusable to anyone.  If someone wants to copy your image off their computer screen, they can and will.  If they’re concerned about your watermark, they’ll crop it or clone it out.

While a watermark might be a slight deterrent, I believe there is currently no available way to completely protect your images from being used without permission on the web.  The real advantage to placing your watermark on your images then, is that it will serve as a promotional tool.   That being the case, any clean, easy to read watermark is OK as along as it doesn’t distract.  Some photographers will provide their web images with borders so they can display their credits or logos outside of the main image.  Experiment with different styles and looks, keeping in mind what you want to accomplish.  It’s a good idea to find something you’ll be happy with for awhile so you can maintain a consistent look to your watermarking.  Of course, there’s always the option of not watermarking at all.   Some of the most well-known photographers choose to present their images without watermarking at all.

9 Comments

  • Lou Wheeler May 3, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    I used to watermark my images with a text logo in the corner, in an unobtrusive way… I’d put them on Facebook or Flickr, and it just turned out to be where if bands use the photos on their page (which I allow them to), half the time they crop the image so the watermark isn’t there.

    That deliberate act started bothering me in several ways, so I just said to hell with it, and no longer watermark my images. I revisit the idea once in a while, but so far, I haven’t come up with a good solution that I like visually and conceptually.

  • Dennis van der Spoel May 3, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    What about Digimarc? This seems to work well.

    https://www.digimarc.com/DigimarcForImages/

  • Ed Verosky May 3, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Dennis: This and the non-watermark image crawler, TinEye, are both interesting ideas that may lead to good solutions down the line. Limitations for digital watermark services like Digimarc include cost, watermark survivability when an image goes through certain alterations, and search limitations. From the Digimarc site:

    “Please note that password-protected sites, web pages behind firewalls, Flash-based galleries or database-driven websites are not open for any spider to crawl, including Digimarc’s. This includes popular photo-sharing portals such as Picasa, Flickr, SmugMug, etc. along with social networking sites such as Facebook.”

  • David H May 3, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    If it goes on the web, I use a small watermark. I can almost guarantee most anything I post will end up on blogs (especially if I post to flickr). Most of the time, those blogs link back to flickr, but not always. I use either a copyright mark with my name, or occasionally, with my e-mail. At least that way, someone can find me if so inclined. Many young people (14-25 ages) don’t know or care about copyrights if they like a photo, so they will repost without much thought.

    Interestingly, I can find images that have been posted hundreds of times, but Tineye rarely finds any. It’s of little use. I find it more effective to just do a Google search for the title of an image.

  • Ed Verosky May 3, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    David: Yup, the TinEye thing just doesn’t seem to be there yet. And I think some type of visible identifier is good if it actually helps you in some way. If I post my photos somewhere, it must be because I want them there, and it’s obvious they are my photos. If the photos are shared and used elsewhere, I probably don’t care about their visibility in those contexts (if no money is changing hands or being made off the images). If they’re misused (used by another “photographer” for some fraudulent purpose, or some venture that steals images) then someone is intentionally breaking copyright law and doesn’t care about it. Getting them or future entities to stop doing this is going to be a full-time job. So, just don’t post images (especially anything much larger than a thumbnail) if you are not comfortable with the idea that someone might use them without your permission. That’s my advice to photographers.

  • Belinda McCarthy May 4, 2011 at 10:43 am

    Excellent subject matter. I waver between to watermark and not to watermark. When I do, it’s tucked to the left or right hand bottom corner and placed not to cover any key areas of the image, and in most cases I do feel it can enhance the overall presentation of the image on the web. Of course, this doesn’t deter anyone cropping it out (and this has happened to me). I think it’s more of a professional presentation matter than a security issue, and certainly of use if you’re offering images to be shown on someone’s blog, for instance, to get brand awareness out there.

  • Henry Rivers March 24, 2012 at 7:26 am

    So often now they are edited out anyway. If you are going to use a watermark make you use a small one and tile it across the image … this will make it much harder to remove.

    an example of a poorly made watermark – http://ingimage.com/imagedetails/42016523_extInt0/02E93536-Ingimage-Businesspeople-over-an-empty-white-board.html

  • John Sable May 1, 2013 at 11:40 am

    I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching about watermarking online photos.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that putting an unobtrusive watermark in one of the corners is the right choice for me. I’m confident that anyone using my photos will immediately crop it out. The benefit, I feel, comes before I even upload the image. If I know my name is going to be stamped on it, I’m going to make extra-double sure that the work is the best I’m currently capable of creating.

  • Aubriana Miller July 14, 2013 at 11:24 pm

    I have been watermarking my photographs with my own personal logo, but only on photographs I post anywhere online, mainly for protection but also to get my name out there. I will put it in a designated corner depending on it’s visibility and where on the photo where it will work aesthetically. I do not watermark images (like prints) that I have taken for paying clients so that they can make copies as they please without any unwanted watermarks on their images. For non-paying clients however I will keep the watermark, even on prints.

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