Deciding whether or not to watermark your photos can be a touchy subject. There are really only two reasons to watermark your photos – Marketing and Theft Prevention.
Does it really help either cause to watermark your photos? Find out in Episode 11 of The Photo Flunky Show
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PHOTO FLUNKY: Episode 11
I’m your host, William Beem. Welcome to the Photo Flunky Show, Episode number eleven.
Today we’re going to be talking about: Should You Watermark Your Photos?
Hello and thank you for joining me at the Photo Flunky Show, available at photoflunky.com. Show notes for today’s episode are going to be at williambeem.com/episode11.
Let’s talk about watermarking. It’s been going on for years, people are taking photographs, they’re putting a little logo or signature or some kind of mark on top of the image to identify where it is, and that’s kind of where the watermark came from. It used to be something that papermakers would do and they would make up a little faint design on the paper, that if you hold it up to the light, it would identify who the maker is.
So the whole idea behind this is primarily it’s going to identify who took the photograph. You would think that should be a good thing, but sometimes it may not be, so let’s talk about some of the reasons why you want to do this and why also, you may not want to do this.
So, for why watermark?
First, it’s a kind of free advertising. Some people think it helps with theft prevention. In other words, they think that you’re not going to take their photo if they have a watermark on it and then use it in some kind of commercial endeavor.
Then there’s another group that thinks of this as an artist’s signature. It’s not so much that they are worried about you just taking the photo, but they want to sign their work, they want you to know who created it and that’s how they’re going to spread their brand and how they’re going to be known across the internet.
I’m not a fan of watermarking. I tried it in the past and honestly, my watermarks were ugly. I am not a graphic designer. Trust me, my watermark definitely showed that off!
So let’s think about some of the negative sides of watermarking.
One of the first things that occurs to me is watermarks are drawing your eye away from the subject. You’re going to work as a photographer, you’re going to spend time crafting your photo, you’re going to eliminate distractions in the background, you’re going to make sure that there’s nothing in the photo that you don’t want and after all that work, you’re going to put a watermark right on top of it. From most of the ones I’ve seen online, you’re going to put an ugly watermark on top of it. Why? It’s going to pull your eye away.
After you go through so much work trying to make sure that there’s nothing in the photo that doesn’t belong, if you put that watermark on there, it’s going to draw the eye away, they’re usually with white text, or even sometimes they are subtle and translucent, it still just gnaws at your mind. It kind of pulls you down to look at the watermark, not at the photograph itself.
One of the other problems is that photos with watermarks aren’t shared as much on social media online as photos without watermarks.
If your objective is to use the photo to draw attention to a message that you may have on social media or to your website, a watermark is going to hinder your potential.
In some cases watermarks simply aren’t allowed in some genres of photography. If you’re working as a photo journalist, if you’re working as an event photographer and you’ve got a client, they don’t want to see your watermark on the image that they publish. They’re going to be looking for a nice clean image that tells the story, not your branding or mark on top of there. You’re going to get a credit in the publication and better yet, if you’re doing this for a job, you’re going to get a pay check. But your watermark just simply isn’t part of what they’re looking for.
The other thing about a watermark is it affects your brand. In other words, it’s going to affect what people think about you as a photographer. So the question you have to ask yourself is, “Do you want to be known for your style of photography, or do you want to be known for your watermark?” Do you want people to look at an image and say, “Oh, wow! That looks like it was taken by William Beem.” Which would be nice if people would think that, or do you want people to look at the watermark and say, “Ooh, William Beem did that!” That’s kind of more what I think when I see watermarks out there.
If someone has put their name on it, it just doesn’t enhance the photo in any way and it looks almost defensive in a way. It’s like you’re putting the watermark out there like, “Don’t you dare take this. This is mine.” Adding a watermark is absolutely no guarantee that someone will not steal and use your photo. You can easily remove a watermark from any photo, you can crop it out, you can clone it out, you can use the healing brush and take it out that way, you can cut out part of the photo that you want. So for example, if you’ve got a portrait of someone, someone could go in there and ignore your watermark, cut out the subject and put it in another composite image. Your watermark is basically irrelevant. It hasn’t stopped anybody.
The good news is that most legitimate businesses are not looking to steal photos. They don’t want to be on the wrong end of a copyright lawsuit. They would much rather hire somebody or license a photo for use than to steal it.
Most of the people that might take a photo without contacting you probably don’t have any commercial intent. There are exceptions of course, and I’ve run into a few of them as I’ve mentioned before on a previous podcast about having to go through a copyright lawsuit, but for the most part businesses really aren’t taking things from you and for the few that are, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s better to have your name known for the photography that you do, be able to share on social media, promote your brand through great photography rather than a little bit of a watermark.
I’ve got a friend, his name is Arno. He took a photograph of a subject. He’s in the body building industry and he’s a photographer and of course he took a photograph of a model who is also one of the body builders and he put watermarks all over this thing. His logo is kind of in the shape of a cube. He put that on both sides of the model. He had a line going through the model’s body. And still, a company in Brazil managed to take his photo, eliminate the watermarks, clone out the ones that were going through the body and composite it (into, I think it was either a train or a bus that they put the model on) and still used it and published it in a magazine in Brazil. Not a thing he could do about it. His watermark didn’t help him whatsoever. It’s just a simple indication that watermarks do not prevent theft. If someone is really going to take it, they’re going to take it. And even if they don’t remove your watermark, some people just don’t even care that it’s there.
You’ve probably seen this a lot with everyday people. They go off and they want to take pictures of something, snapshots here and there – they don’t care about the cluttered background, they don’t care what’s going on. That’s why we see so many photobombs in people’s snapshots. They’re not paying attention to their surroundings. Well, they’re also not paying attention to what’s in front of them, so they can see an image that they like on the internet and if it has a watermark on it, they don’t care. So long as whatever it is that they love about the photo is there, they will ignore the rest of it and just accept that as part of the deal.
Now, just because I’m not a fan of watermarks for my own use, doesn’t mean that there are not benefits to watermarking. Not everyone who takes a photo from the internet is malicious. Some people generally don’t know the right thing to do and if you have a watermark, they may give you credit or reach out to you for permission. They may want to see more of your work and it could lead to some business. Watermarks are also useful for client review. If you’re into portrait photography, wedding photography, if you’re doing commercial work and you need to set up a gallery and show your clients copies of your images, it’s understandable that you’re going to watermark those lightly so that they can see the image, but they’re not really usable.
A good clear example of this is my daughter had her school photos a few months ago. There was a gallery put up by the photographer who worked for the school and every one of them has a little bit of a watermark. That’s because some of the parents are going to say, “Oh, I don’t need to pay him for them. I can just go ahead and copy these down.” Not really. The watermark makes it clear that you didn’t pay for the photos; you just took them. Maybe there are a few out there who did that, but most people will see the watermark and they’re going to want to see a nice portrait of their child. They are going to pay for the photo. All the watermark did there was allow him to provide a gallery so you could see a couple of options and choices, choose what you want and then pay for the service that he provided.
There are other people who believe that a watermark is a potential lead generation tool. In other words, so long as they put a signature or some kind of watermark on the photograph, it doesn’t matter where it goes. People see that and sooner or later someone’s going to come back and say, “Hey, I’d like to do business with you.”
Personally, I don’t buy the lead generation argument. I know there are people who believe in it, but I think as people become better informed about copyright issues, they are less likely to share a photo with a watermark on it. I’ve heard from others and read this online as well, if you want to see your photos shared, people are less likely to share a photo with a watermark on it.
That’s because people are aware of the copyright issues. If they see a watermark, a lot of people confuse that with copyright itself. It’s not the same thing, but they think, “Someone might come after me if I share this photo because he took the time to put his name on it.” That defeats the purpose of sharing it in the first place. If people don’t want to continue sharing your photos, you’re limiting the amount of people that are going to see your photos. You’re limiting the potential leads. It’s kind of a self-defeating process.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do something to protect your photos. Not all watermarks are visible. If you have Photoshop, you’ve probably seen a plugin called Digimarc. It’s a subscription service and you can pay for it. This is something that I do. What it does is it creates an invisible watermark that can be detected if you suspect theft or fraud. It embeds information right in the image. Even if you cut out parts of those and put it in a new composite, you’re going to find that you can scan that image in the Digimarc tool and see if it really is indeed your photograph. This is what I prefer.
If I see one of my photographs on the internet and think it’s one of mine without a usage license, I can use Digimarc, test it out and verify the image. There have been a couple of times I’ve seen a photograph that I thought was mine and found out it really isn’t. There’s a subtle variation, they’ve taken the photo at the same place and it just wasn’t my photo. It’s very rare for something like that to happen, but it can happen. Occasionally, if you’re doing landscape or you’re doing travel photography you may end up taking the same photo that a bunch of people before you have taken and put on the internet. The nice part about Digimarc is it’s an easy test to check and see whether the photo is yours or not and it doesn’t ruin the digital experience of the photo.
Another service you can use is called TinEye. It’s a free image recognition service and it can show you where a photo is being used all over the internet.
Google Images also has a good image research tool. You can upload a photo or give it the url of one of your photos and it will show you wherever Google has found that image. And it’s going to find a lot more than just your image. It’s going to look at colors and other details that bring back results that aren’t necessarily your photo, but I’ve used it a few times, I found my photos in a number of amazing places. I’ve got a photograph of Aria Resort in Las Vegas that’s being used in China to represent a building there that I’m not even sure if the building even exists in China! But, it’s really not killing me (that fact that they’re using it); it’s just on an advertisement. I’m not going to get paid from them anyway so I’m really not going to worry about it.
If you are worried about people taking your photos and using them without a license or without any credit to you or compensation of any form, that’s where copyright registration comes in. And I can only speak from my experience in the United States. You should register your photos with the US Copyright Office. That registration, at least in the USA, will be the arbiter of who owns the photo. If you can show someone: I have a valid registration with the United States Copyright Office, that is your key to federal court if you ever do have to go to a lawsuit, but most likely that, combined with the Digimarc to show that this is your photo and that you own it and that they are using your photo, gives you a good leg up if you have to confront somebody about using your photo without permission or license.
And honestly, if you’re not going to register your photos, please don’t make the internet any uglier with your watermark.
Thank you for listening to the Photo Flunky Show. As I said, show notes are available at williambeem.com/episode11.
You can also find a transcript of the show there for free.
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