Watermarking Presents Photographers with Difficult Dilemmas

Image courtesy: WinWatermark

“If a photographer fails to protect their work via a copyright symbol or Trade Dress Registration, it is considered open source on the web,” says a spokesman for WinWatermark, specialized software that helps photographers to protect their photos. “If you publish your images and do not watermark them, they become free for anyone to take and use in any way they like.”

That’s not true, of course. Even without a watermark, an image remains the property of the photographer who created it, and while registering a photo with the Copyright Office might increase the damages in the event of abuse, it doesn’t confer any extra rights the photographer doesn’t already own.

Try telling that, though, to bloggers — and to Pinterest users whose boards are largely made up of lifted photos. But while you’ll have to look hard to find an image on Pinterest that was paid for, placed in the Commons or taken by the poster, you will have to dig around to find a stolen picture that carries a watermark. A translucent logo placed on an image might not classify it as private property but it might just prompt users to stop considering it “open source.” At the very least, it could damage the look of the picture just enough to send the pinner off searching for something unprotected to steal.

Creating a watermark shouldn’t be difficult. But when you’ve spent hours composing, shooting and editing a beautiful photo, you will want its protective cover to look good too. The watermark might be there to make the photo unusable, but you don’t want it to be unviewable, a mistake that one photographer satirizes in this image. The mark needs to be distinctive and attractive but also quiet and understated.

“A good watermark should be insignificant,” says WinWatermark. “You can watermark an image and ruin the image impression. Make a watermark subtle. Let the watermark be a background presence.”

Protect Your Images

  • Choose a watermark that’s clear, subtle and carefully located.
  • Use Tineye and Google Search to locate stolen images.
  • Upload images no larger than 150 dpi to ensure they can’t be used for print.

Turn Your Logo into a Watermark

One approach is to use a transparent version of the studio logo. Designer Amber Mabe has created a number of logos for photography studios and charges an additional fee of $25 to convert those logos into watermarks.

“The main difference is that a watermark is usually a simplified version of someone’s main logo,” says Amber. “Also, it’s best that it’s monochromatic and transparent.”

The most important characteristic of a good watermark, she says, is simplicity. Like WinWatermark, she believes that a watermark shouldn’t overpower or distract from the photograph but she does say that it should be easily identifiable. Her logo designs usually incorporate the name of the studio rather than relying on a design element alone, a useful way to help people who see the logo remember the photographer’s identity and make contact with them later. That can be especially valuable if, despite the watermark, the image is stolen and spread around the Web anyway.

Some photographers prefer to skip a visual element altogether and opt for text alone, a choice that makes the message of the photographer easier to put across and switches the creative challenge from the design of the watermark to the choice of font. That might be simpler for a photographer but it’s still not entirely straightforward. Photographer Amanda Lee gets it right on this photo which includes a large, bold watermark in a font that matches the atmosphere of the image. Dixon Marshall, on the other hand chooses something plainer, stronger and a great deal more intrusive.

Location is vital too. Amanda Lee’s watermark lies at the bottom of the photo, below the focal point of the image — low enough not to disturb the picture too much but high enough to make removal difficult. Go too low though, and the photographer won’t have to worry about the image thief trying to edit the watermark off the picture; they can just cut it off with a simple crop.

Now Paste Your Watermark

Producing a design that can be clear enough to show who you are and yet subtle enough to sit on an image without disturbing it will be one challenge. The other challenge, though, will be to create the logo and to add it to every image that you place online.

For most photographers that might mean producing a transparent layer in Photoshop and making its addition to the image a part of the workflow during the editing process. For WinWatermark, however, which was created by a lover of photography who donates all profits from sales of the software to charity, Photoshop is poor at handling many of the aspects involved in creating and adding a watermark, particularly the text, EXIF data, transparency level and fonts.

“Photoshop is killer,” the company says. “It is also expensive, complicated, and really not meant to do watermarks… it can, but you need expertise, knowledge, and patience.”

The program allows for batch processing, enabling photographers to add a pre-designed watermark to multiple images simultaneously.

Watermarking involves a series of decisions for photographers that look easy but which can have serious consequences. Choose not to watermark an image in order to protect the way it looks, and some Internet users will consider your photos fair game. They’ll place them on their blogs, pin them to their Pinterest board and even add them to commercial websites in the hope that no one notices. Use a watermark to signal that your photo is private property and to make it less attractive to steal, and you’ll have choose a design for the mark that’s clear but subtle, create it — or pay for someone to create it for you — and decide where to put it. And you’ll have to make adding the mark a part of your workflow, a step that will only add to your processing time.

It’s not the only way to protect your images online but it is important, especially when even image software companies believe that an watermarked image is “open source.”

6 comments for this post.

  1. Johan W. Elzenga Said:

    The resolution of an image has NOTHING to do with it! The only way to make sure that an image can't be printed at a decent quality is to limit its size IN PIXELS. A large image at 150 dpi can simply be printed by changing that value. Anyone can do that.

  2. Laurie Said:

    Watermarking is one of the hardest things to get right. I auto watermark allt he images people upload to http://frozenevent.com which means I have to think about the problem quite a lot.

    I don't know beforehand what the image looks like, what colour it is, and what portion of the image I have to make sure is viewable. I have found a solution that generally works, but I'm not happy with it and looking for a better one!

  3. Alan Olander Said:

    What Johan said is true. DPI isn't going to make one bit of difference, but limiting an image's size in pixels will.

  4. Webgrrlॐ Said:

    its really not that hard to make a watermark in Photoshop - i made a semi transparent brush for mine, and i can control how big or small i want it and how transparent as well. Of course i am not into 'batch' processing anything (except for renaming files) - but im sure an 'action' could be made using a brush to do that as well.. By the way i only know about 10-15% knowledge of Photoshop, but i'm never afraid to ask google what i want to know or learn 😉

  5. Jesse Hildebrand Said:

    Limiting the size of your image is the only viable option to guard against image theft. It's not going to stop people from stealing the image, but it will limit what they can do with it. Watermarking is worse than useless. Any watermark small enough not to detract from people appreciating your image can be photoshopped out in seconds, and any watermark large enough to avoid being photoshopped out will make your pics look terrible. (As my image linked to in the post satirizes).

    If you want to mark your image with branding, email or company name, create a border and put the info there. Watermarking is for proof prints and stock websites... everyone else should steer clear.

  6. Dixon Marshall Said:

    Some photos I won't watermark at all, but to explain the example you linked to in my Flickr stream, this was part of a shoot that I agreed to no sitting fees, depending entirely on the prints for income, and I had prior experience with the girls mother who took screenshots and had them printed at Walmart. She then sold 50 or more prints to other family members. Actually, something similar had happened to me several times, so I did put obvious watermarks on many of my photos after that experience.

    Now that I charge for sitting fees and prints in advance, I don't worry about it anymore.

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