To Watermark or Not to Watermark, That is the Question…

Photography Credit: David McNeil Photography

Whether or not to watermark or add a credit line to images published online is always a touchy subject because everyone seems to have a very strong opinion on the matter (as I’ve learnt when researching this article!) It is an issue I have wanted to address for some time and finally feel that, after various discussions with bloggers and photographers alike, I am finally in a position where I am comfortable to open up this debate.

To lay my own opinion out from the beginning – as a blogger, I prefer to see and feature non-watermarked images. However tastefully integrated the watermark or logo may be, my opinion boils down to the fact that the image was not originally conceived with it included, and that therefore the whole concept is compromised by the addition. My job as a wedding blogger is to share inspirational weddings with future brides and to help the photographers I feature get bookings from these brides. In order for me to do both these jobs, I want the images I share to look their best.

This opinion was echoed by all of the wedding bloggers I chatted to. “We feel that watermarks distract from the overall look and feel of an image,” agree The Wedding Chicks, one of the largest wedding blogs in the US. “When we put a featured wedding together, we want all of the images to flow and look cohesive without having the distraction of watermarks.” However this is most definitely not a straightforward cut and dried issue, especially when you get into discussions about ownership, copyright and proper image use online. We work in a visual medium, and whilst I respect and understand an artist’s right to protect their work and their copyright, I am of the opinion that fundamentally images with watermarks are less attractive. I am a publisher, an editor of my own online magazine, and just as a print magazine would not publish images with watermarks on, so I have rejected images where the watermarks distract from the overall impact of the image.

Unlike traditional print media however, an online publication has the problem that the images it publishes can be copied, edited or re-published with just a few clicks of a mouse. There are therefore a large number of photographers who only allow their images to be featured online with watermarks or credit lines on them, especially those who have had their work stolen or misused in the past.

Photography Credit: Stuart Stevenson

Photographer Stuart Stevenson posted some of his images from a trip to London on his Flickr a few years ago. His work was well received and he gained a lot of praise and encouragement from the website community. However one day he discovered that some of his images had been downloaded, printed as postcards and were being sold at a tourist market in the city. “Seeing the image for sale made me sick” he told me. “To me it was a completely different ball game to having a shot re-blogged on tumblr or on someone else’s blog. It also really scared me, because my images were clearly able to be copied at 1024 pixels, and some people thought this was good enough to make prints. Also my portrait work is generally of my kids and the thought of those pictures being used anywhere else made me act quickly by downsizing everything by half, killing off the ability of users to see large views, and slapping on a watermark that takes up roughly one fifth of the image on them.”

“It saddens me to have to resort to this for all the reasons I hated other photographers doing so. I know I’m ruining the user experience for people who enjoyed viewing my work, and I’m sure as I continue the views will fall and the exposure I enjoyed will diminish. What people probably won’t realise is that it also ruins the experience for me too. I enjoyed uploading my work, showing what I had been doing, getting the feedback from around the world and showing large previews for extra detail, but I just can’t risk that anymore. At the moment I am torn between introducing these restrictions and just closing it down altogether.”

Photography Credit: Andrena Photography

Another concern I was presented with was the idea of photographs taking on a ‘second life’ after being published on a blog or elsewhere online. As American photographer Dina Douglass of Andrena Photography explains, “Once a photographer’s image is posted on a blog, it takes on a life of its own beyond that blog’s borders. It is screen captured, saved, emailed, sent to friends, re-blogged, posted on Facebook, indexed by Google Images, and sometimes even printed with a healthy dose of pixilation.”

“It is within this second life that a photographer’s credit becomes ever more important. In the US, proposed orphan works legislation states that if the owner of an image can’t be found after a reasonable effort, then anyone is free to use the image without penalty. In essence, this means that if a photographer’s image does not include a credit, and a company cannot identify the creator of the image and thus decides to use the image in its ad campaign, the photographer will not be able to pursue damages for copyright violation.”

Scary stuff indeed. Luckily for photographers in the UK this law doesn’t apply over here at present, though it did need a tenacious campaign to fight it off prior to the last election.

Photography Credit: Eliza Claire Photography

However there are things you can do to protect your images online without having to ruin the visual impact of your images in the process. Uploading images at a low resolution, disabling ‘right click’ or the ability for users to download are all ways to help protect your images online. Yet it is clear from Stuart’s story in particular that even if you do all of these things there will always be people who may try to steal your images (Stuart’s images were actually printed and sold as postcards with his watermark on!) and that thieves will always find ways to work around such barriers. And there will always be photographers who hate the look of watermarking so much that they are prepared to take their chances in order to keep their images clean.

“I don’t watermark my images, despite having pictures stolen from my site by another ‘photographer,’” Eliza Claire told me. “I dislike the way they look on an image, and I think that if someone wants to steal your images they will, regardless of watermarking (and unless you put the mark right in the centre of the image, it can be easily cropped out). I upload at 900×600 pixels, so it should be too small to be printed out – in theory, at least!”

Photography Credit: Shell de Mar Photography

The flipside to this is that the benefits of watermarking are not simply for security but for future brand advertising, “I used to watermark my images heavily due to the bad experience many people I know had,” explains London-based wedding photographer Shell de Mar. “The plus side is I have had enquiries and subsequent bookings from people who have seen a picture with my watermark on while browsing a Facebook page. The downside is that the watermark does become quite a distraction.”

“Because of this I wanted to do away with it but I decided that the benefits of having a watermark outweighed the cons, so as part of my rebranding I changed the watermarking to be a lot less distracting. The pros of a watermark for me are that it is good advertising if the images are used on a clients’ Facebook site or within other social media tools (providing they don’t crop out the watermark of course). I also I feel that watermarks (done well) can sometimes enhance rather than take away from the images. It also makes your images look like part of your brand.”

Photography Credit: Lemon Tree Photographers

Jamie Swanson of Lemon Tree Photographers, who lives and works in Wisconsin, agrees. “With the advancements in digital editing software it’s fairly easy to get rid of most watermarks, even if the watermark is plastered all over the images,” he says, “so using them as a security measure isn’t very effective. People are going to take and share your images. In fact, I generally want them to do this. “This is why I watermark: no one thinks twice about taking a photo from the web for their Facebook profile image. I watermark my images so that people can find my site when they see their friend’s awesome profile picture. It’s easy advertising. These people may crop your watermark out of the photo if it is on the edge, but they aren’t going to do other major editing in order to remove it. I try not to make it terribly noxious, although I do want it to be noticeable.”

However for many, the overall visual impact of the watermark is not something they want included in their images at all – security risk, extra advertising or not. “I believe a watermark gets in the way of the photography and spoils the enjoyment for the viewer,” states David McNeil. “Instead of getting worked up by the handful of people who may use the image in an illegitimate way, I like to focus on working the web to draw more people to my blog and website to generate business that way.”

Photography Credit: David McNeil Photography

“Photography is an art, and just as you would never watermark a painting, you shouldn’t ruin a photograph in that way. No other photographers insist on watermarking everything, so why do wedding photographers? A music video or film has end credits instead of a log of the studio throughout the film. Fashion retail websites will rarely credit the photographer. A track by an unknown band will have an introduction and an end mention on the radio. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be credited, but does every single image have to have your studio name plastered over it?”

“I myself have been victim to my images being stolen – once by a national newspaper and once by a printing shop using one of my images as a display in their window. However even these instances haven’t put me off uploading my work to the internet without watermarks, as I strongly feel that my work speaks better to people without my logo all over it. In both cases I have been able to rectify the situations and, as I’ve said before, it’s worth it from the exposure I’ve gained by my work being featured on professional wedding blogs, who wouldn’t have featured it if it was watermarked.”

The French-flavoured images of me that litter this article and that you will have seen time and time again, are from a photo shoot organised by David and I which took place in Paris in October 2010. Our plan for the shoot was to showcase some new bridal styling ideas on Rock n Roll Bride. We also hoped to get the images featured on some other high profile wedding blogs for extra exposure. We were able to achieve this, with credits wherever they were featured, but without watermarking the images. “No credible blog would ever use a photograph without giving a credit to the photographer who shot the image,” continues David. “In this regard it is no different from having your images featured in a magazine – except the reach might be ten times larger. The business you can pick up through a blog feature can be phenomenal and can completely turn businesses around. Our Paris shoot was legitimately featured on blogs all over the world – no watermarks, but credit and links were given.”

If all these opinions can teach us anything, it is that there truly are two sides to this story, and there probably always will be. Even with a discrete watermark on his images Stuart Stevenson’s work was stolen, yet David McNeil credits a lot of his exposure (and future bookings) to online features and without watermarks. These blogs wouldn’t have published his work if it had been watermarked and David, as well as countless others, is convinced that publishing un-watermarked work online is a risk worth taking.

 Photography Credit: David McNeil Photography

This article was written as part of my monthly ‘Best of Blogs’ column for Photo Professional Magazine, and was originally published in February 2011. The magazine is available throughout the UK in all good newsagents.

27 comments

  1. I find that when I talk to people that are not in the industry, they don’t even know there is a copyright law. They don’t realise they cannot just lift images off the internet to use themselves. I assumed everybody knows this, but now I make sure I explain to those that didn’t understand and they appreciate the work more.

  2. It’s a tough one because I prefer to see images without a watermark but I know that often times people (even if I educate my clients, there are the wedding guests and other friends and family out there) don’t realise about copyright law and will use images inappropriately. Tis a shame. So I do watermark for my own site (at the moment) and facebook. But I am happy to supply unwatermarked images to blogs where I know they will be appropriately credited.

  3. You don’t put a watermark on a painting but, if you are the author, you do sign it. You do it in a way that does not ruin the visual experience of the viewer, and that’s how watermarking should be done.
    I usually provide low-res watermarked photos (along with the high-res of course) to my couples so if they wish to share them on facebook they can. This is also because of the Facebook policies on this matter.
    However, I perfectly understand those photographers who dislike watermarks (I personally don’t love them either) but it is so very true that this is also easy advertising.
    I currently blog with watermarks on the photos because I’m building a brand and ideally I would like it to visually fly all over the internet. I want people to think of my work whenever they see my little cactus logo. In the future, if I’ll achieve this, I will start blogging without.

    Very very interesting topic anyway, can’t get enough of this kind of debates, knowing other people’s thoughts is always good! Thanks 🙂

  4. Frank

    like above, on my personal site i watermark
    but can supply non watermark if needed

    ive been considering digital watermarking, http://www.digimarc.com/digimarc-for-images
    or similar, for online protection, still doesnt stop someone stealing them though :S

    …oh and paintings have signatures on em generally, in effect they are watermarked

  5. I don’t watermark on my website or blog (anymore). I used to place a logo underneath each image on my blog but then I found people were just screen-capturing the images and cropping out the logo (I had right-click disabled). If they want to, people will go to any lengths to get rid of the watermark, which is unfortunate. I have had images pulled from my blog and website via screen-capture, put on blogs or websites without crediting. When I contacted the website owners, they actually said “Oh, I thought if it was on the web it was public domain.” This is despite having a copyright notice on my website and if you mouse over any image, the copyright information shows up.

    It is a slippery slope, as artists we want to show our work in the best light. But we also don’t want people stealing it. I still watermark all images that go on Facebook, because sharing is part of the game there.

  6. Kat, wonderful read! I have to say, I do agree with adding water marks, if it seems appropriate. To be able to view amazing photography, without charge, is an absolute pleasure. I want the photographer to get credit for their work, and if that means adding a watermark, I do not mind. I think that encourages people to ask to purchase prints from photographers, rather than just saving and printing the image on their own.

    It would be wonderful if someone could invent a digital signature that artists could add and that could not be removed from the file.

  7. Kat this is a really interesting issue, and you’re right – it definitely provokes some strong views. I am not sure there is a right answer. I feel that watermarks do very much take away from the impact of an image. Something small and subtle (much like a signature on a painting) can go someway to diminish the impact, but as others have noted – it is very easy for screen shots to be taken and for such watermarks to be cropped out. As a general rule, I don’t watermark my images. However, I have suffered from my images being used on blogs without any credit given. And once it is out there in the public domain without any copyright notice, you can’t blame people for picking it up and using it inappropriately from that point onward. As Casey points out, people will go to any lengths to get and use images if they really want to. Great article, a good topic for debate.

  8. Hi Kat…. well after answering the question that I hadn’t seen my work stolen in my interview with you 2 weeks ago, I have had a horrific shock. I cant go into details at the moment for legal reasons, but a friend of mine discovered (wait for it) A BILLBOARD of one of my Wonderland images in a foreign country…..!!!!!!! Which was created from a source that was 900 x 800 pixels – basically screen grab size. I am speechless, to me this was impossible but it has been done. I don’t want to watermark my images as I think it looks extremely naff, but right now I’m very torn on the subject 🙁

  9. Hmmm, I agree with both sides of the debate and my watermark is quite obvious but I am a fledgling and I want to get my name out there, so adding it to my logo to my images helps, I think!? Particularly with facebook as you never know where a tag will ends up and if my work is enjoyed, i’d like to know i’ve had a good crack at putting my name against it! When people ‘make profile picture’ it sits in their album without a link back to your page so a logo helps to bring it back to you. I never give watermarked images to clients. However, it does take ages to watermark as I place it in the least distracting area of the image so not watermarking would give me a lot of time back so I may join the watermark free camp and cut myself free of additional workflow!
    Food for thought, it has been one of those topics I’ve been talking to myself about for a while….erm….that sounds a bit mental…..but your post is basically an internal dialogue that has been chatting away when I’m sat faffing with adding my logo before uploading….perhaps it is time to rip the plaster off!
    great post as always! X

  10. Post author

    @Kirsty Mitchell – WTF i am SHOCKED! how is it physically possible for someone to make a legible billboard from a 600 x 900 pixel image? thats crazy!

  11. I just saw the amazing Elizabeth Messina talk and she said that your images should be strong enough to be recognised without a mark. I am fiercely protective of my images though, they are someone’s wedding day and up for grabs for anyone to use. So sorry to hear about what happened to Kirsty and I hope that the issue gets resolved soon.

  12. Poor old sullen Hamlet clearly was not a photographer as his most pressing question would of been ‘to watermark or not to watermark, that is the question’ none of this silly to be nonsense 🙂

  13. As a dress designer…… I watermark my website images of my designs because I am well aware people commission copies of my work using images from my website. I hate watermarking. You are faced with providing tiny images that give little of the construction, etc. away or give people access to high res & watermark – I want to sell my work, I want to allow clients to see my work & get the most from my website BUT I am not giving my work away to people who want to have it copied. If the watermark makes someone think twice about handing my images to people to copy then good & if they do it anyway, I’ll make sure the people who are asked to copy know who’s work it is.

    The most shocking uses of bridal designer’s original images are on these, mostly, China based websites offering copies of dresses using the designer’s original image. In one case a company even went to the effort of cloning most of my watermark out (most).

    It is really upsetting to discover your image, of which you personally own the copyright of the image, personally know the model AND own design rights on the gown shown in it on a website that has cloned out the watermark & issued it a design number with instructions on how to order & no credit to you. When you make enquiries, they even go as far as to keep up the pretence by even talking about where the ‘designer’ got their inspiration – how would they know? They never asked me!

    The internet is great but it is too easy just to re-share images & loose from where they came. I wish that people would make a habit of crediting as I see loads of great things blogged on Tumblr that I would love to know who did it & see more of their work but there’s no credit – it’s frustrating.

    If people would share images responsibly & use images responsibly there would be no need for watermarking but the world never works that way so hateful as they are to look at, I’ll be keeping mine x

  14. @Kirsty – you know I love your work & when I see it un-credited on my Tumblr dash I reblog & credit – what has happened is disgusting. It’s no consolation but someone owes you an awful lot of money!

  15. Melinda MARY

    Painters sign their painings without it ditracting from the overall work. Watermarks can be added subtley. Also you can embed digital tags in the photo specifying the creater and the copyright.

  16. Yes a very delicate balance between protection and the best presentation of images.
    As a photographer you share this dilemma as you want you work presented perfectly yet you want to ensure its protected and you are given credit.
    The latter is easy with a blogger or publisher who credits all sources and can even add URL links.
    Protection is harder ideally you would go for a very subtle watermark at the base of the image – however too subtle may not offer protection if it can be easily cropped off.
    Go with min resolution you can get away with online to prove upload speeds and make files not up to proper print standards.
    James
    Gentle Visions Photography

  17. Sadly I have also been burned by people with fewer morals than most of us so now watermark images 90% of the time. Sometimes, it’s really distracting or not appropriate so really lower the JPEG size and quality. That seems to be working. So far….

  18. Such an interesting article, Kat. At the moment, because my blog is very very new, I am happy for photos to be watermarked, as I can understand the photographers wanting the reassurance. But once I’m established and photographers can see that they can trust me to clearly credit them, then I’m hoping to only use pictures without watermarks. Can certainly see it from both sides though!

  19. I used to watermark my photos, regretting now cause changed a name of my site, doesnt look good. so stopped to do it. however is good to watermark when posting photos on facebook page.

  20. I watermark pretty much everything!

    I’m not a prude about copyright, I don’t really mind what my images are used for within reason;)

    Its was only when I saw another photographer passing off an image as there work that I decided to use the watermark and I’ve grown to like the way it looks on my web site .

  21. A thought provoking article and some very interesting comments. It’s certainly got me thinking, very seriously, about my own photography and has inspired a post on my own blog!

  22. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles
    as long as I provide credit and sources back to your webpage?

    My website is in the very same area of interest as yours and my
    users would genuinely benefit from a lot of the information you provide here.

    Please let me know if this alright with you. Thanks!

  23. Post author

    Donice: sure! As long as its only a few sentences and not whole paragraphs. Send me the link after?

  24. As a photographer and a blogger, I found this article really helpful in explaining to someone why I present my images the way that I do. On my photography blog where I share my own work, I do have a small watermark in the bottom corner of my images. On the blog that I run (that services the San Francisco Bay Area wedding community) I do not publish images with watermarks. I do it primarily so that I can have a consistant visual presentation across the blog. Trying to educate photographer who submit photos on the importance of properly naming and tagging their images as well as bloggers on properly presenting and giving credit can be difficult, but so worthwhile. Thanks for sharing this with bloggers and photographers!

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