Watermarks: Protecting Your Images, or Damaging Your Business?

Watermarks: Protecting Your Images, or Damaging Your Business?


Photographers who use prominent watermarks are losing business. Image theft is a valid concern for a professional, who makes their living based on receiving money for the use of their creative works, but I think watermarks do harm to a photographer’s business for a variety of reasons.

First, in our survey of professional photo buyers, an overwhelming majority of them stated that an image with a prominent watermark is less likely to be licensed than an image without any watermark at all.

Second, images that are heavily watermarked are less likely to be shared by others via social networks. For example, let’s consider those photographers who use the embedded slideshow gallery option available through PhotoShelter. These are great little social media tools that allow other people to post your images on other websites – all while always maintaining a link back to your site. (Also known as “going viral.”)

If the photographer places a prominent watermark on top of the images, people will be less likely to pass it on to others, or to post it to their blog, or share it.

Third, the presence of a prominent watermark sends a subtle signal to a photo buyer that you might be a difficult person to work with. That you’re more concerned with someone using your images without permission than you are about the images themselves. Some people may actually shy away from contacting you for this very reason.

I think it’s important to build excitement about your images, and that’s really difficult to do if you’ve got watermarks all over them.

If you don’t watermark your images, will they be used elsewhere without your permission? Most likely, yes. But is that really a problem – or is it an opportunity?

Some points to consider:

1) Photographers who are worried about image theft but don’t register their images with the US Copyright Office can’t be all that serious about it. Throwing a watermark on the picture doesn’t mean that it’s going to stop someone from using it – and it doesn’t give you any advantage in court. If your images were registered with the US Copyright Office, maybe you’d be less worried about images being used without your permission because, in the eyes of the law, things are stacked in your favor. All you need to do if find out about the use. (Services like PicScout and Tineye can help with that.)

2) Watermarking your images won’t stop people from using them. I went to Mexico for a tequila conference last year, and one of the presenters (who gets paid to fly around the world teaching people about tequila production), gave a lengthy Powerpoint presentation that included 3 of my images, and several that were taken directly from the Getty Images server – complete with watermarks.

3) It’s not very difficult to remove a watermark. If someone really wants to take your image, and they want to spend the time needed to remove it in Photoshop, they probably can. In fact, tools like Adobe’s “Content Aware Fill” may make this process a breeze. If this ever happens to you, having your images registered with the copyright office is the only way to protect yourself.

4) Think about who is going to steal an image, and who is going to pay you for it. Someone with no intention of paying is, most likely, not a representative of a respectable company. These people aren’t your customers anyway. Making it easier for your REAL customers to get excited about your images is probably more important than trying to prevent unwanted usage from a few non-customers.

5) The non-customers can also help you. If you find that someone is using your images on their website without your permission, you can request that the image be removed — OR — better yet, you can ask them to include credit and a link back to your website. Links back to your website are SEO gold. You can never have enough. The more the better. You could even take it one step further and give them the html link codes of your choice – including important keywords that can really help your search engine rankings. (Again, finding this kind of usage can be aided with services like PicScout and Tineye.)

In a previous blog post, Carolyn Wright, The Photo Attorney, gives some great advice regarding the protection of your images. Of her suggestions, there is no mention of watermarking. I agree with all of her points:

 – Register your images with the copyright office
 – Make sure your copyright information is placed in text right next to the photo
 – Make sure your contact information is embedded in the file
 – Go after violations when they happen

If you simply must add a watermark to your images, I suggest that you do so using a great deal of subtlety. (Follow the examples included in our “Photography Websites – What Buyers Want” research report.) A good watermark is also informative. It should contain useful information, like your name, your website address, or how to contact you – should they wish to license the image.

But don’t overdo it. Your images should still shine through as the dominant element. Otherwise, you risk losing business.

Some examples:

Photographer Robert Catto has an interesting approach to watermarking that doesn’t harm the image.

Photographer Chris Owyoung has taken a subtle approach to watermarking as well.

Photographer Thomas Pickard also does a good job with his watermarks. Subtle, and out of the way.

Is this PhotoShelter’s “official opinion” on watermarking? Nope. This is strictly my own opinion.

What are your opinions of watermarking? Please continue this discussion by adding your comments below.

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PhotoShelter co-founder and GM

There are 34 comments for this article
  1. QT Luong at 4:31 pm

    One needs to have a watermark, because once the image is separated from your website (shared, etc…) who is going to look at the meta-data (assuming not stripped) to know where it came from ? The key is to place it a way that doesn’t degrade the image. I place it in the border (example). In addition, I add the photo ID, which help identify the image even if the file is renamed or included in a document. Are you sure that the watermark doesn’t give you any advantage in court ? I thought that if the infringer removed it, you’d have a stronger case for willful infringement, which carries a heavier penalty.

    • Manuello Paganelli at 2:14 pm

      If the watermark © is crop off the image then in a court of law, specially if is registered, you will have more teeth for it will show malice from the abuser who took the step of erasing the origin of the photo. A judge will also see that you are a serious photographer and know your business well by protecting your photos online by placing your name ©.

      Manuello Paganelli
      Los Angeles CA

  2. Catto at 5:02 pm

    Ha – so here I am reading this, wondering how seriously I should be concerned about my own ‘watermarking’ technique…turns out I’m an example of how it SHOULD be done?! Cheers for that, Grover! R p.s. naturally, those of us outside the USA have to consider the fact that registering an image with the Library of Congress has no legal bearing over here, and fend for ourselves – the ‘border’ is my own particular solution to the problem. I’ve actually adapted it to be a single strip along the bottom now, rather than the ‘slide frame’ I used for many years – easier to crop for my clients this way, and less visually obtrusive as well. Here’s a more recent example – http://catto.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/NZSO-National-Youth-Orchestra-10/G0000fjHFP9VRmfE/I0000vgKIU6dHK.M But ALL my images go out this way – funnily enough, it seems that photographers are practically the only ones who know about IPTC data, so an immediate visual reference of the photographer’s identity is, for most people, the only way it can be traced back to the source / copyright owner.

  3. Will Alan at 5:10 pm

    I used the “out of the image area” method for years, but it’s easier to remove and more work to place in the first place. I’ll stick with what I have for now. (or possibly make it smaller)

  4. jhoetzl.wordpress.com at 4:30 pm

    Re: the watermark question – I’d recommend listening to the Lensflare35 podcast episode 61, where Carolyn Wright is the guest – bottom line, with a watermark, and a registered image, the damages you can receive are increased significantly. And if you are going to bother to do it, make sure you do it correctly. Not: (c) Photographer’s Name © 2010 Photographer’s Name or Copyright 2010 Photographer’s Name or Copr. 2010 Photographer’s Name Read about it here: http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap4.html

  5. NiO at 5:35 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. Therefore I would prefer PhotoShelter to scale watermarks with the size of the image displayed. A watermark can look great and subtle in the corner of a 900px image. As soon as you display the image at 500px or smaller, however, the watermark already becomes obstructive if it isn’t scaled with the image itself. Cheers, Johan

  6. John Dunne at 2:55 am

    Interesting article and even more interesting comments. If a valid watermark needs to include the year of production should it not be a priority for PS to accomodate this? And to Johan’s point about scaling. I’ve had to make a compromise with the size to make mine relatively unobtrusive on a 500px display but I think on the 950 display it is too small. 500px http://www.johndunnephotography.com/2010/07/sunrise-upon-the-rocks-howth-dublin-ireland/ 950px http://johndunnephotography.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/the-sun/G0000eweK74Sk9r0/I00005M7rCwQNMyE

  7. Rick at 8:53 pm

    Excellent post and discussion that raises a couple (or more) possible PhotoShelter enhancements to the ‘text’ watermark option currently offered. 1) Switch from “copyright” to © (less obtrusive). 2) Add a ‘Year’ field that defaults to the current year with the ability to modify (the link jhoetzl provided suggests that “date of first publication” is essential or at least highly recommended – overall a good link to look at, too, thanks jhoetzl!). 3) Add a transparency option: slider or “percent opaque”, maybe? And perhaps down the road. . . 4) Ability in Archive or even during upload to select between or among custom watermarks. Our issue is that our site includes both my wife’s images and mine. We use the text option which draws on IPTC data to assign the appropriate photographer’s credit to each image uploaded (again, drawing on information from the .gov link – copyright belongs to the creator). It would be nice to be able to adapt some of the creative custom watermarks noted in the initial blog and subsequent posts, but for us they need to be specific to an image and its creator. Thanks, Rick

  8. peterp at 12:22 pm

    What if you are not in the USA, PS is international after all ? For instance the copyright office in Canada happily accepts your request and cash if you go throught all the necessary crazy forms. But they don’t seem to allow submitting the actual images themselves in any form so there is no proof of what you have actually tried to copyright. Basically seems no point in going through the exersize at all with them. The less obtrusive and scalable to match the image size watermark sounds like a good plan.

  9. Richard Reay at 2:07 pm

    I have to say I think you’re wrong on this. I worked as a studio assistant for a photographer in the UK and every image we output, we watermarked and embedded the IPTC Data. Clients never once complained about images on our site being watermarked, or having concerns about us being difficult. It was quite the opposite, clients and prospective clients always remarked on the “professional” perception of the site and it’s images. Also to imply that photographers should view infringement as an “opportunity” is pretty ridiculous. When your image is being purchased you get an idea of what it’s going to be used for and sometimes even get to choose the cropping – maintaining your artistic authorship. When someone steals the image they can flush your professional integrity down the toilet by how they use it. Professional Photographers have the right to control how their images are used. They spent the time finding the subject, lighting it and post processing it. To let some snot nosed blogger rip you off in exchange for a back link means money out of your pocket. You’re only a professional if you get paid.

  10. Jackie Baisa at 12:25 pm

    There are most definitely OTHER reasons (besides theft) that people watermark their photos. Mine is a small-ish, classy-looking logo, usually placed on the lower-right portion of the screen. For me, this is so that I can brand myself. My brand needs to get out there. I want people to look at my work and notice where it came from. Over time, when they see more and more photos with my logo on it, they will associate great photos with the name. I think branding is essential to building a great business. I agree that watermarking over the whole photo is a bit ridiculous, yes.

  11. Rich Wagner at 10:28 pm

    Her note below the three cases, “Do you need any more reasons to include your copyright management information in the form of a watermark on your photographs and/or in the metadata of your photo files?” does seem to indicated that embedded metadata would meet the conditions of copyright management info, but it’s not clear if she knows of any cases where that was the only CMI that was removed. Does anyone here? http://www.photoattorney.com/?p=1727 All the cases seem to hinge on displayed “on the image” or nearby copyright info…

  12. aheneghana at 3:20 am

    Nothing is as frustrating as coming across a website finding someone has added your hard earned photography to his site, altered with photoshop, yet distinctly recognizable. Watermarking thought would stop pirates, yet turns off others who would like to see unbiased photography.Consider registering as advised. Thanks for info africasiaeuro.com/wordpress

  13. Jodie Platz at 2:02 pm

    The problem I have when watermarking my photos is that no matter where I put it the fans that take my photos (of the band 100 Monkeys) will always find a way to get around it… I think I’m going to give up and go back to the minimalist approach that I used to employ. If that’s what the fans want, I suppose that’s what I should give to them — save THEM and ME some work!

  14. Pingback: Copyright and sharing in the context of the Internet
  15. jennifer at 4:41 am

    I somewhat agree. I’ve always love photography & I’ve never had a problem spending serious cash for it. I spent $8,000 for my wedding pictures. It took 6 weeks for her to put some on the website (which of course I couldnt right click & save) & three months for me to get an actual CD of all my pictures. Once I got my CD she was so worried about which ones I would put on FB & she wanted me to put pictures only with watermarks on my FB. It was such a turn-off. I will never go to her again or anyone thats watermark crazy.

  16. Arun at 10:09 am

    Not having a copyright watermark may help sharing by some margin, but has lots of disadvantages especially if you use a blog or website to publish them. One is obvious as Grover said, some one could copy them. Another is hardlinking. Other people could just hard link your image url in their websites, so all the big traffic due to image size gets sucked out of your account… and no body will know.

    But if you add a small watermark – not that big or too loud, just a small one at the bottom which indicates you, your blog or your website, any sane person would hesitate to either copy or hardlink your images. May be they will use it for a presentation or a one occasion use, but not definitely on a place where people will see it indefinitely.

    Creating a watermark is also not that technical anymore, thanks to free tools like Gimp and even the non-free photoshop –

  17. Sydney Alicia at 7:58 pm

    Overly watermarked images appear extremely unprofessional and amateurish. A copyright and watermark should identify the photographer, not completely ruin the photo. Having worked with many professional photographers, many don’t watermark at all…and if they do, the watermarks are subtle and professional, without obstructing the image.

  18. Bálint Gilicze at 12:48 pm

    I have been hesitating on the question of using watermarks for a long time, and finally I decided to use a subtle one. The reason was the story of one particular photo of Budapest with floating ice on the Danube. Someone grabbed the image from the site of the photographer and put it on some Facebook page. The photo got more than 10000 likes in days. It wasn’t watermarked. Because of it’s exceptional beauty some online news sites wanted to use it but couldn’t find the photographer.
    Then, the ice was gone, and the damage done. The photographer guy found the FB page later and asked the owner to display his name. But the actuality of the photo had already faded, so, no income this time.
    The moral of the tale is that you cannot really fight image stealing, but with some watermarking you can profit from the spreading effect of social sites like Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest.

  19. Rachael Taylor at 12:49 pm

    Thank you for this. I’m guilty of a large watermark on my photos as we’re a small business (a young farm) and I want people to know where these images are coming from.

    I’m going to use the same technique as Robert Catto as I think it’s perfectly lovely. Thank you again.

  20. Matt at 5:19 pm

    Chase Jarvis, the photographer who made a killing in winning a case where his work was used without permission, does not put a visual copyright on his work. chasejarvis.com

  21. Pingback: Watermarking Your Portfolio is a Bad Practice | ViNSaNiTY Photography News & Reviews
  22. Sophia at 11:09 am

    Hi, Please correct me if I’m wrong but I’ve got the notion that if you’re shooting for a client, say a prenup shoot, you give them the photos WITHOUT a watermark, but if you’re going to post it on your website, blog, or facebook, then you can choose to put a subtle watermark. Does that sound about right? Because I’m still torn over this watermarking issue. Thanks all!

  23. Pingback: How to Put a Stop to Image Theft | TheLawTog
  24. Jim at 8:30 pm

    O.K. may I ask a question which separates apples from oranges here?

    If you post your images without a watermark, do you think the person(s) who steal them care one bit about how “professional ” you appear to be?

    Also, if a potential client cant visualize beyond the watermarks, do you really want them as a client? Might they be too difficult to deal with?

    What’s wrong with charging clients according to the value the intended use as well as the value of potential uses flat out?

    Is there someone out there who has figured this all out systematically in a way which allows them to capitalize on sales and yet protect their images without going crazy?

    I’d sure like to know!

  25. Joe Smith at 10:18 am

    You don’t have to register photos with the copyright office to own the copyright. That’s ridiculous.
    Do photographers register tens of thousands of images a year…
    People who are serious buyers of images are aware of the reason for watermarked images and understand the the watermark would not be in a purchased copy. They can still evaluate the image and decide if they want to use it. That’s a non issue.
    The bottom line is: Do you want someone else making money from your work without your knowledge or permission ?

    • Manuello Paganelli at 2:23 pm

      @ Joe Smith, you are right but if your work has been registered then you could be compensated for lots of $$, more than 100K per each image abused. The other way you may only get compensated for the normal usage fees required, which could be $200-$1,500, and that is it and you may have to pay legal cost too.
      Also if your work had been registered most IP attorney will take your case much easier and any legal payments will be contingent once the case is settled in your favor.

  26. bradley at 11:04 am

    Copyright Law stems all the way back to the turn of the last century; it is complex, dynamic, regional & international in its authority. However, all the treaties (providing you are in a country that is party to one) promise ‘National Treatment’ – this means that the local laws will be used to measure the infractions not the laws in the nation of origin.

    Also, it might be said that registering with an office may help, but at the end of the day you will need to prove two things: 1) Copyright infringement 2) Damages resulting from #1. For non-pro shooters the cost of going after someone will far exceed your compensation in most cases, not to mention the time, effort, & frustration you will certainly endure. I am not suggesting not to protect your work or to defend its misuse, just to be informed and energized to do so.

    There are very few really good courses on this, but one is Copyright Laws dot-com. I am not affiliated in any way other than having taken their courses. I have taken several, Ms. Harris’s are the best I know of to date. If it matters to you, and clearly it should, then get informed first -hand.

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