Jeff Smallwood Photography
To watermark or not to watermark...Is that the question?
Jan 9, 2013



C'mon ladies, you've all met someone like that in a bar or restaurant, right? And just when you think they're gone....




And not to neglect us guys, but I think Alex in "Fatal Attration" said it best:



"I'm not gonna be ignored, Dan!"  Alex was crazy, but she was right.


All kidding aside, these analogies are the way some of us handle labeling and marking our images. And I mean nothing negative toward those that practice it because watermarking is a personal, artistic decision. Everyone has their own opinion and there is no right or wrong, only choice.


I don't watermark my photographs, except under very specific circumstances. Why?

What watermarking does and doesn't do

Go back and take a look at the photos above again. How much time did you spend looking at the photo, allowing your eye to follow the flow, the lines, shapes, colors? How much time did you spend concentrating and taking in the details of the shot? And then how much time was spent noticing and reading the watermark? That's exactly why I choose not to watermark. I personally find that watermarked images have less impact. There's always a part of my brain, my perception of the image, that floats off to the watermark. 


It's like a leaky faucet in the quiet of the night....drip....drip...I'm small, but I'm here.


That isn't to say it happens in all cases. When a photographer/artist puts their signature subtly in the corner, and it is small and quite out of the way, those are usually easy to ignore and don't really impact the image. But when people put a dissertation at the bottom, or better yet, place a faint logo across the entire image, well, that just can't be ignored.


"But that's the point Jeff, don't you get it?" Yep, I do. I actually do get it. And I still choose not to watermark.


I've heard all the responses before. "Doesn't that mean people will rip off your images every chance they get? Aren't you worried about lost revenue? Shouldn't you get credit for your work?"


All of those are valid questions. I've considered them (and many others) in deciding whether to watermark images. And my conclusion is that a watermark is an answer to the wrong question. Here's why.


Why watermarking is an answer to the wrong question

Think about what the watermark's purpose is. We want two things: marketing and protection from theft.  At its core, it is to label the piece of work with the artists mark in a visual manner. We don't want people to take credit for our work. We don't want people to use it without our permission.  But does a watermark actually solve those challenges?


Doesn't that mean people will rip off your images every chance they get? 

Image theft is rampant on the Internet and nothing's going to stop it. Yep, nothing. No technology will ever prevent a determined person from copying the image they see on their screen. Anyone that knows how to take a screen capture can override your website's anti-copy or anti-right-click scheme. That segment of the market (and yes, I call it a market) will use any image they can that serves their purposes.


Watermarking is, in many ways, a response to this problem. It's like saying, fine, you can take it, but if you do, my logo is on there so you and everyone else will know it is mine. You can't steal it and make it your own (or at least, I'm going to make that very difficult).


The problem is that if you use a small watermark, or even a moderate one in the corner, those are so easily cloned out. And if it can't be cloned, you can just crop the photo to remove it.  If you want to watermark, you don't want to ruin the image, so you put the watermark in a smaller, out of the way position, right? Well, a small, out of the way corner position is the exact same spot that's easy to clone...and easy to crop.


If you take the alternate path and watermark broadly across the entire image (to protect against theft), that is usually so distracting you end up fighting against yourself in the other direction (marketing and sales). A huge watermark is distracting and your legitimate customers will notice it for sure. I don't care how subtle and fancy you think you are, it's there, and it's in my face. And yes, it does impact my perception of the image.


A high school kid who wants an image for a report, or a guy who wants a photo for his party invitation, or a woman who wants a photo for her PowerPoint presentation, or anyone who wants a shot as their Facebook profile background aren't my paying customers. They'll find an image that works for their purposes somewhere for free no matter what. And I'd rather them use my image for free and be a free customer than take it from someone else.


Aren't you worried about lost revenue? 

My opinion is image theft is only lost revenue when the thief is a customer or gets in the way of my customers. Otherwise the thief isn't a part of my market share and isn't impact me.


The market share I'm concerned with are those people that are potential, legitimate paying customers. People looking to purchase or license a print or hire me for a service. I want those customers to see my work in the cleanest, purest, most unobtrusive manner. Remember, this is an opinion piece and I know there are varying opinions on this. But I personally don't want a potential customer to waste a single microsecond of time being distracted by my logo or name on the photograph. For me, a watermark doesn't solve a problem for customers, it gets in the way of customers.


On the other hand, if someone is impacting my revenue, well, there are already clear legal paths to deal with it (which I won't get into here). But to be honest, the risk is minimal. If I found out someone stole an image and made a million dollars from it, I'd be excited because that $ is coming to me: I'd have a 100% chance of proving the image was originally mine.


One of the ways I protect myself is I leave my copyright information embedded in the meta-data of each image. Another way I protect is to not post the full resolution images online, I always post a reduced copy. You can also use hidden watermark techniques and stenography. And for my very popular images, I occasionally do a reverse image search in Google to see if anyone is using it without my permission. I've never found a single person to be using an image of mine for commercial purposes without permission. Doesn't mean it hasn't happened. But again, would putting a small watermark logo in the corner have prevented it anyway? I personally don't think so.


I've found plenty of people using an image of mine for non-commercial purposes without my permission. I just contact them and politely explain the situation. Maybe I'm lucky but people have always been willing to correct the mistake and either take the image down or give me credit (if I approve of their use). They usually do it out of ignorance and just don't know that an image credit is required or how to go about it (Flickr helps make it easy for people to give credit by using the Share menu).  A watermark might prevent misuse in these particular cases because my name/logo would already be on there, but these people aren't a revenue stream and aren't breaking it. And that same watermark gets in the way of my legitimate, existing revenue stream. 


Shouldn't you get credit for your work?

I post photos now with copyright clearly marked on the page and with the most restrictive usage rights (all rights reserved). I put the copyright notice inside the image metadata. That's the best legal means I have to pursue unfair use and makes it crystal clear when I approach someone and tell them the image can't be used without credit. It also makes it crystal clear when someone tries to take it. If they decide to take it anyway, well, a watermark won't prevent that.


I have hundreds of images posted with a Creative Commons licenses too and I occasionally get a "thank you" email from someone who used a CC image of mine for something fun or interesting. Even last month I received a copy of someone's book (a PhD dissertation) where they used an image of mine on the cover. No, I didn't get paid. I'm not going to charge a PhD student money to use an image for their thesis, that'd be cruel :) But yes, I did get credit.


The PhD Thesis that used my image (with permission).

So when do I watermark or label an image?

I occasionally make certain images available for download and use for free. For example, I post a free monthly wallpaper/calendar on my website. I take a fully copyrighted image and make copies for personal use. I make sizes available for computers, phones, and tablets. I'm encouraging people to download and use the image without paying me. In that case, yes, I absolutely put my logo on the image.


Like I said at the beginning, this is a personal decision for each artist. Some people feel very uncomfortable posting a photo without a watermark. And to be honest I was nervous about it too early on and even briefly changed my mind a few years ago (it didn't last but a month).


In the end, I think a watermark is like swimming in the ocean with a life preserver. You may think you need it because it'll protect you from harm. But there are sharks under the water that a life preserver can't protect you from, and once you're adept at swimming, you'll find how much easier and quicker it is to swim without it.



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