As soon as you begin to get even slightly into photography, you’re likely to start sharing your images online, and inevitably, you’ll face the watermarking question. Do I watermark my images? Or not? If I do, how do I do it? Subtle? In your face? Somewhere in between? What ever choice you make, someone will tell you you’re wrong, and probably not politely.

One of the reasons you’ll get five opinions on watermarking from four photographers is that there is no universal right answer. Depending on why you’re publishing your work, whether you’re an amateur, pro, or something in between, what license you’re sharing your work under, and how high a resolution you’re uploading your images at, the best solution for your needs will change.

Rather than try to convince you all that the approach I’ve taken is the one everyone should take, I just want to provoke some reflection, and to help people who are just getting started arrive at a good solution for their situation. The main thing I want to do is pose some questions that I hope people will find helpful in making their own decisions. I’ll also describe the choices I’ve made, and my reasoning. My aim isn’t to share my choices as some sort of prescription, but rather as an example. And finally, I’ll end with some tips for making your watermarks subtle, if that’s the road you choose to go down.


The Pros and the Cons

Before you can make any sort of reasoned decision, it’s very important to consider the pros and cons of watermarking. Like so much in life, it’s a trade off. There are potential benefits, and potential costs.

The potential benefits are probably the easiest to list, so lets start there:

  • Deter image theft – this is the main reason people use watermarks, and there’s no denying that they act as at least some form of a deterrent. They’re only a deterrent though! (more on that later)
  • Potentially Strengthen Your Case in Court – depending on the laws in your country, a clear watermark can increase the damages you could be awarded when you’re infringed, by removing all doubt as to whether or not the infringement was deliberate. If someone leaves your watermark in place it’s bloody obvious it was yours and they knew it, and if they take the time to photoshop it out, then it’s really clear they tried to hide the origin of the work!
  • Branding – a nice professional watermark that’s consistent across your images can help you set a tone, and, can help people recognise your work
  • Facilitate Legal Sharing – depending on your choice of license, watermarks can act as carrots instead of sticks. (more on this later)

There is of course a price to pay for these potential benefits, and it’s very obvious, you detract from your work. How much you detract depends on how intrusive you make your watermarks, but all watermarks distract viewers from the content of your image to some extent.

There is also the very obvious caveat that watermarks are no panacea. They can’t prevent all infringement, they can only deter. The level of deterrent will be determined by the intrusiveness of the watermark, but no matter what you do, a really determined infringer will get around your watermark and help themselves to your work. If you think watermarks will stop all infringement you’re deluding yourself. There’s only one sure-fire way to stop infringement online, and that’s never to upload any of your images anywhere!

Why are You Sharing Your Images?

This is probably the single most important consideration when choosing whether or not to watermark, or how to watermark. What are you hoping to achieve by sharing your work?

Are you sharing for a commercial reason? Or are you sharing to contribute to an online community or some sort?

If you’re sharing your work on a stock photos site, where people come to buy small images for use on the web, then you have no choice but to upload images at a resolution that makes them easily stealable. You need to show them large enough that people can see what you are selling, and, you are selling for use in low-resolution situations like website banners etc.. If you don’t watermark, only the most honest people will buy your work, so, it is eminently reasonable to use a VERY intrusive watermark. Your name in the middle and a giant semi-transparent X across the whole image is not unreasonable in this situation.

By contrast, if you’re sharing your images with a community on Flickr or Google+ or a bulletin board or what ever, then you want people to be able to enjoy your work. What’s the point in asking for a critique if your watermarks is so obtrusive it traps the viewer’s eye like a giant magnet and prevents it roaming around the photo as it should? What is the point in doing that? You’ve gone to all this trouble to share your work, only you haven’t actually shared anything. You still run the risk of infringement, any you get no benefit because no one can appreciate the fruits of your hard work. Utterly futile!

What Size Are you Sharing Your Images At?

The larger the resolution, the more valuable your image will be to potential infringers. Maybe, rather than going overboard with your watermarks, it would make more sense to limit the size of the image you upload instead?

If you’re shooting fine art photography and selling large canvas prints to make your living, does it really matter of some guy has a 500px version of your work as their desktop image? Or even in the banner of his blog? Which is worth more, the small amount of loss potentially caused by infringements of the low-resolution image, or the sales you could generate by letting the small version show your images’s true potential? A large canvas print can easily sell for hundreds of dollars, a small preview image on a stock site is worth a few cent each time it’s used at most! In this case, an obtrusive watermark would be penny wise but pound foolish. And, if someone egregiously infringes, assuming you’ve fulfilled the legal requirements to register your images as required by the laws in your country, you can still sue the pants off them, watermark or not!

Again, if you’re trying to sell images for use at low resolution, then shrinking the upload size will provide no protection at all, so bear that in mind.

Are You a Pro or Not?

Does the protection of your images mean the difference between putting food on the table or going hungry? If it does, then you need to be very careful and do your best to protect your livelihood. That doesn’t necessarily mean using a giant really intrusive watermark. As described previously, that could cost you more in sales than you could ever lose through infringement, but it does mean you need to think long and hard about what you choose to do.

On the other hand, if you photograph purely for the love of it, perhaps it makes more sense to let people truly enjoy your art, and accept the higher risk of infringement. If you were never in photography to make money, then infringement actually costs you nothing. There are no revenues you were counting on that could be diminished, because you weren’t counting on any revenues!

In the past most people probably fell firmly into one camp or the other, you were photographing as a career, or purely for fun. Today, it’s more of a spectrum. Personally, I’d like to make enough from my photography to pay for my gear. Not my time, just my gear. I think most people reading this will fall somewhere between not being interested in making money at all, and considering it a part-time job that compliments their other income. I doubt I have too many full-time pros in my audience.

How do you License Your Work?

The difference between sharing a photo online with all rights reserved, and as public domain is massive. This is also not and either-or question, but again, more of a spectrum.

If you share your work with all rights reserved, then having a watermark as a deterrent makes a lot of sense. If you’re sharing your work as public domain, then a watermarks as a deterrent makes no sense at all! However, even if you give your work away as public domain, it might still make sense to include a subtle watermark for branding.

If you choose a more middle-of-the-road license, where you allow some people to use your images freely in some situations, while still reserving the remaining rights, then some form of watermarks also makes sense. If a condition of your chosen license is that your must get attribution, why not make that easy for people by adding your desired attribution right into the image as a watermark?

I love the somewhat zen idea of turning the idea of watermarking on it’s head, and using it to make legal reuse easier rather than illegal reuse harder. Obviously, if you go this route what you’re looking for is a subtle watermark rather than an intrusive one.

What Have I Chosen to Do?

I mostly shoot for fun, but, I would like to make some money from my work to off-set the price of my kit. I’m a long way off breaking even, but the income I’ve made from photography is definitely non-zero (even if the profit is). I certainly don’t want to discourage people from legally licensing my work, and I don’t want to make it too easy for people to just just help themselves to the fruits of my labour. It’s very important to me that people be able to enjoy my work, so I’ve gone for subtle watermarks. My expectation is that my watermarks will help keep honest people honest, while not distracting from my photos thereby hindering the community’s enjoyment of my work, or discouraging people from from sharing their insightful critiques, tips, or suggestions.

I’ve chosen to only upload relatively low-resolution versions of my images, 1000px in the largest dimensions usually. That sounds big, but when you think about it that’s an absolutely tiny fraction of their full 10Mpx resolution. It allows them to look good in Flickr’s Lightbox view, but not printed out, or even as desktop wallpaper. I’ve also chose to license these low-resolution versions, and these low resolution versions ONLY, as Creative Commons. The specific creative Commons license I’ve chosen is the most restrictive one, Non-Commercial, no derivative works, and requiring attribution.

I’ve written my own Perl scripts which use the ImageMagick command line image editing tools to automate the creation of my watermarks, and I’ve developed a few different designs because different images work best with different watermarks. All my watermarks uses a consistent font, are under-stated, and all contain the logo for my chosen CC license, as well as my URL. The URL acting as the attribution required by the license.

Because I’ve created my own watermarks from scratch, they have a unique look to them, and are quite effective for branding. Because they contain the CC icon, they make is very clear what license the image is released under, and because the attribution is baked into the image, it is trivially easy for people to legally re-use these lower resolution versions of my images.

I NEVER upload full resolution versions of my images ANYWHERE online, EVER. The only way you will get a full resolution version of my work is to license it from me. If you’re a charity, I’ll probably license it to you for free, but you’ll only get permission to use the image for a single given use, and you’ll get no ownership over my image. If you’re a commercial enterprise, then you’ll have to pay, and depending on whether you want exclusive use of the image or not, you’ll have to pay a different amount.

I consider this approach to be win-win. By encouraging legal sharing of lower resolution versions of my images I get free advertisement for my work, but, I protect the commercial potential for my images by never sharing them at high resolution. And, by choosing to watermark in a subtle way, I don’t detract from my work, but do I get to brand my images, and make legal sharing easier.

Designing a Subtle Watermark

Given my choices regarding watermarking, I’m not the right person to give advice on making really obtrusive ones. However, I have spent a lot of time thinking and experimenting with more subtle watermark designs, so here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years.

  • Keep your logo subtle – you definitely want to design a logo of some form, but you need to be sure it never over-powers your images. You really don’t want the most eye-catching thing in your images to be your logo. If you’re going down that route, why bother with the image at all? Just post your logo! My suggestion would be to avoid colour completely, keep it monochrome. As well as being more subtle, monochrome logos can also be used in black, white, or grey, depending on the image. I’d also suggest your logo purely textual. Spend some time finding a nice free font that matches your personality, and pick a way of laying our your text that you’ll stick to. If your text is going to be spread over multiple lines, consider using a horizontal lines as a separator, and using different fonts for different information. Italic for your name, all caps for your URL, what ever. Once you choose, be sure to be consistent, or you won’t get the benefit of branding.
  • Avoid Colour – don’t just avoid colour in your logo, avoid colour in all the markings you put on or around your images. Colour is distracting, especially on a monochrome image, and as soon as you introduce colour, you run the risk of your watermark clashing with the contents of your photo!
  • Consider using transparency – a good way to get your watermark to blend in is to make it partially transparent. If your subject is busy, a semi-transparent black bar can act as a very effective background for a subtle semi-transparent watermark.
  • Never Place the Watermark near the subject – if you wanted to be sure to make your watermark as intrusive as possible, you’d put it right across the main focus of the photo. So, if you want to make your watermark subtle, it should be no surprise that you do the opposite, and avoid having your watermark anywhere near any of the focal points in your shot.
  • Consider Keeping the Watermark off your Photo Entirely – if you want to avoid your watermark detracting from your photo, why not keep it in the image, but get off the actual photo? You can do this by adding a border of some sort around the image, and then adding the watermark to the border. It doesn’t have to be a traditional border around all four sides, I’m very fond for example of using a black bar on two sides of the image, and adding my watermark there. This can of course be easily cropped out by a determined infringer, but if your aim is to keep honest people honest, then it works just as well as an intrusive watermark.
  • Less is More – since your watermark will act as a part of your branding, you want people to get the impression that you are someone with taste and a good eye. Try make your watermarks look like something Apple would do, rather than something busy, over-ornate, crass, or tasteless. You’d probably prefer people not think of you as some kind of Austin Powers figure!

Conclusions

What ever you choose to do, make sure you take the time to make an informed choice. Your decisions on watermarking matter. They affect how people can use and appreciate your work, and they effect your branding as a photographer. What ever you choose to do, make it be very ‘you’!

Updates (18 June 2012)