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 use watermarks for photos, specifically for 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.
Should You Use Watermarks for Photos?
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.