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The PRO-Files: The Pros & Cons of Watermarking

Some photographers swear by it. Others wouldn't be caught dead doing it. It's the practice of watermarking, branding an image with a visual mark—a copyright notice, logo or other message—in hopes of preventing infringement and ensuring the line of ownership remains tied directly to the photographer. Here's a rundown of the primary factors to consider when determining whether one should watermark images before posting them online. 


As a theft deterrent

Many photographers watermark their images with the hope that it will scare off potential infringers from sharing or re-purposing their images. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, at least in some cases, this approach is often successful. The argument from others, though, is that putting an end to the social sharing of a beloved image might be bad for business. A subtle watermark can literally serve as a last-ditch reminder someone owns this image, while a big, centered watermark can render images completely unusable. There's a reason stock agencies brand their images this way. 
One photographer with a large stock archive told me he resisted watermarking images for many years, but after unlicensed usages became rampant he gave in and opted for a modest typographic mark in the corner of the frame. As much as anything, he told me, it served to remind the most naive Internet users that the image does belong to someone. "The fact is," he said, "many people think images are free to take if they don’t see a visible identifier."

As legal evidence

If you brand your images with a watermark and someone deliberately infringes on your copyright by republishing the image without a license, you might send them a cease and desist letter, or you might send them an invoice, or you might decide to take them to court. If you do end up in court with an infringer, and if they cropped out your watermark, any intellectual property attorney worth her salt will use that as evidence of deliberate intent. (Even if you don't go to court, knowledge of that evidence might persuade an infringer to agree to settlement terms.) Proving malicious infringement takes the limits off the damages that a judge can award as long as the image has been registered with the U.S. copyright office. And that could spell the difference between a mildly satisfying four-figure award and one that could put your kids through college. 

For self-promotion

Watermarks let others know who made an image—great news for pictures that end up in front of potential clients who might want to know who created the photo in question. Sure, there are lots of ways to find out who shot an image, but in a world of orphaned photographs that travel far from their source, the ease of attaching the creator's name directly to an image is hard to beat. That's why freelance photojournalist Daniel Shular started watermarking his images.
Shular has spent the last few years photographing protests around the country—from Ferguson to the 2016 presidential campaign to more recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere. Because his images are so newsworthy they spread fast, far and wide—for better or worse. 
"I do watermark my images now," he says, "but I avoided it for a long time because I think they look bad. I started doing it last year after more of my pictures were being stolen than normal, but it hasn't had much of an effect on how many of my pictures get stolen. Sometimes they just put up the whole picture and some sites will crop out my watermark. My hope is that at least a few people will see the source of where the photos are coming from to get a better idea of what actually happened. With my phone, I've started using an app called Taggly that will watermark my photos and videos for social media since a lot of my tweets end up in articles."

To guide clients

This type of watermark is less controversial as its primary purpose is to assist clients. These watermarks may provide instructions about proofs, for instance, or about information contained in a layered image file. Most commonly are "FPO: For Position Only" type watermarks that let clients know the images they're looking at are not high-resolution, not ready for publication. Because assignment photographers often deliver low-resolution proofs from a photo shoot in order for the client to decide on the images they would like to ultimately publish, many shooters can tell tales of clients who didn't understand that the low resolution proofs were just that and they took the proof and published it. Instead, a watermark such as "FPO" or "Proof" can help guide customers that these images are not yet ready for publication—either low resolution or simply unfinished. This not only benefits the photographer by keeping unrefined work out of the market, but it also benefits the client by ensuring they receive the high quality image files they're paying for. 


They are visually unappealing

Some photographers, quite naturally, feel like any graphic or text on their image sullies the beauty of the photograph. If it weren't for this, every photographer would brand their images with a watermark. If it makes an image appear unappealing, though, and it turns off the potential client or art buyer who has finally happened upon your work, is a watermark worth it? One solution some photographers use for this very reason is a small, text-based credit in one corner of the image. It doesn't obscure the primary image area, but it still maintains many of the other benefits of watermarking. In general this problem can be addressed by hiring a designer to help develop a logo and branding you'll be happy to affix to your image. Or you can use a service called Photologo which for $39.99 will make a custom signature-style watermark in as little as 24 hours.

They limit distribution

As mentioned above, a watermark may prevent an image from being shared widely; whether this is the goal or an unfortunate side effect, however, is up to each individual photographer. For photographers with a large social media following a watermark—particularly if it is bulky and obscures the image area—is sure to limit its distribution, along with its appeal. 
Commercial photographer Dani Diamond, for instance, says he used to watermark his images before he developed a signature visual style that he hopes will be so closely associated with him that watermarks are no longer necessary. And in fact, because they limit distribution they also limit his opportunities to be found by potential clients. 
"Images will get stolen regardless," Diamond says. "I prefer to put my energy in finding good clients that pay well versus worrying about an image getting reposted on Instagram with no credit. If a company that steals content is large enough to go after with a lawyer, then go after them. And good for you: you make good money that you may not have if it had a watermark and they never stole it to begin with."

Guilt by association

Because so many folks think any image online is free for the taking, you never know where an image will appear—still prominently brandishing your name or logo. If it appears on an unsavory site, suddenly you are directly associated with the rest of the content there. 
"It's frustrating," Shular says. "Even when I'm given credit or my watermark is left on, a lot of sites that use my images are hyper-partisan and misleading about what was happening [at an event] and having my name attached to sites like that doesn't help my career at all."

You can't watermark them all

Chances are, you won't be able to ensure that every version of an image file displayed online is watermarked. When a photographer brands his image with a copyright notice, most of the time it's their own file intended for publication on their own sites or social media. But what about versions of those images that get delivered to clients? It's rare that a paying client would allow a photographer's credit or watermark to remain on a high-resolution deliverable. So while you may watermark a portfolio caliber image on your own Facebook page, the client who licensed that image is using it on their Facebook page watermark-free. In the face of long odds like that, one may ask: is watermarking worth the trouble?
Ultimately, the decision to watermark is obviously up to each photographer. Perhaps it's a hybrid approach, like the one taken by outdoor adventure and sports photographer Jay Goodrich, that strikes the ideal balance. 
"I watermark as many photos as I can," he says. "I don’t watermark photos on my portfolio site because I want my potential client to have unobstructed viewing of my work. I do watermark photos on my store and stock sites, as well as anything that goes to social media."