A Photographer’s Rumination: Should I Watermark My Photos?

When I launched my first photography website over four years ago, I asked myself a question many photographers have asked, “Should I watermark my photos?” As it turned out, there was a level of personal introspection required to answer that question that I didn’t anticipate at the onset. But if you are a photographer pondering this same question, then you might know exactly what I mean.

I must admit this is one of my personal favorites. The lighting was just right to create a subdued yet gorgeous shot of the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse in Manteo, North Carolina. Without the need for any special enhancements, this photo seems to magically acquire the appearance of a fine painting. Taken November 22, 2010.

I must admit this is one of my personal favorites. The lighting was just right to create a subdued yet gorgeous shot of the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse in Manteo, North Carolina. Without the need for any special enhancements, this photo seems to magically acquire the appearance of a fine painting. Taken November 22, 2010.

In a moment I’ll offer a list of 5 reasons not to watermark your photos, but first, let me explain my philosophy. — On one hand, you want to protect your work, and on the other, you don’t like the idea of upsetting the balance of that work by plastering a watermark on top of it. Sure you can make a so-called “tasteful” watermark that is small and only occupies one corner of the photo, but there it is, staring back at you (and whoever sees your photo). Even if you make your watermark opaque and seemingly barely noticeable, as soon as you see it, you can’t unsee it.

And if you are like me, and photography has yet to replace your day job, there might be another detail gnawing at your subconscious. Isn’t this just a tad pretentious? If I add a watermark to my photos, I feel like I’m saying, “Look at me world, I got me some delectably irresistible copyrighted photos, do you want some? Come on, you know you do! But it’ll cost ya!” And with that in mind, there’s something I’ve noticed when visiting the websites of very talented photographers, many of them don’t use watermarks. Sure, plenty do, but there are many professional photographers out there posting large (or even full size) photos that are watermark free. Now that’s confidence! That’s the confidence of knowing your product is so good, people will purchase your photos even when they didn’t technically have to. And on that front, I’m not afraid to admit that I’m an amateur photographer. I think I have some skills, and I think I can produce a satisfying photo, and in some cases people might want to use these photos, or display them on a wall in their living room. But even so, when I slap on that watermark, it just doesn’t feel authentic, and I think it has to do with reputation. As a part-time photographer, doing this for fun and as a hobby, I should simply be happy people take any interest at all in my photos. After all, shouldn’t I try to build up a reputation first before presuming a watermark belongs on all my online photos? To watermark my photos is to put the cart before the horse.

Hallowed is the Les Paul

Hallowed is the Les Paul

But I can hear you saying, “Wait, this isn’t about my reputation or my skill level, it’s about protecting the work that I spent hours and days creating.” Okay, but if you have a limited reputation (or no reputation) in the world of photography (hence, you probably aren’t getting a ton of visitors to your website), what are you looking to thwart with that watermark? Are you trying to protect against someone stealing your photo to use on Facebook or in a blog post, or as their wallpaper? Why? Who cares? I mean seriously, just sit back for a few moments and think about this clearly. Are any of those actions going to lead to a loss in sales? But now you might be asking, “But wouldn’t a watermark at least serve as free advertisement?” I have to say, this is the part that I got hung up on for the longest time. If I’m willing to allow for the fact that my photos will soon start making the rounds all across the inter-webs (and again, I should be so lucky), then a watermark would serve as a way to advertise my work, right? But when was the last time you visited a website after seeing it “advertised” in a photo watermark? I’m sure this does generate the occasional website visitor, but is this going to lead to any significant traffic to your website, or generate any sales? Probably not.

And consider this last point before deciding to watermark your photos:  In 5 or 10 years (or more), do you really want your name on these photos? After all, if you are always improving your game, it’s likely in that time you will look at your old photos with a level of fondness and quaintness usually reserved for relics like the Ford Model T or rotary phones,  interesting in their own ways, and certainly representative of the best ideas of their time, but not exactly going to floor anyone years and decades removed.

Wine glass bokeh

Wine glass bokeh

So if you haven’t figured it out already — no, I do not watermark my photos. And I guess that means with this blog post I’m openly advertising to potential thieves. So be it. That doesn’t mean I don’t take any steps to protect my work. The most obvious step I’ve taken is to not put original full size versions of my photos online. I offer photos typically no larger than 1280 pixels. Clearly this won’t stop someone from using a photo in a blog post, or on Facebook, but again, I return to my mantra, “I should be so lucky.” And I may offer some online photos sets of larger sizes in the future with the explicit purpose of getting people to share them and use them and hopefully link back to them. I guess I have more of a community-minded approach to the use of my photography. I hope people like my photos, and I don’t sweat it if they use them in blog posts. I hope that they link back to my site, but I also know I can’t control it, and I’ve made my peace with that. After all, if one day this hobby becomes a full-time job, will that hypothetical future business be negatively affected by a few non-credited uses of my photos? The answer is no, because those unauthorized uses were never potential sales in the first place. A sale cannot be lost if a person is not willing to make a purchase in the first place. This is largely my thought process when it comes to the music industry as well (where it applies even more so, since when it comes to MP3 files, at least you know who the band/artist is), but that’s for another blog post.

5 REASONS NOT TO WATERMARK YOUR PHOTOS

To be clear, I’m not trying to tell you what to do. And if you are a professional photographer who makes a living off your art, please by all means watermark your photos if you think you will otherwise lose business. But for everyone else, particularly for those getting started and trying to build a reputation, here are some reasons not to watermark your photos.

  1. First and foremost, watermarks are a distraction. I don’t care how talented a graphic artist you might be, and even if your watermark is a work of art in its own right, your watermark is totally preventing me (and others) from giving your photo the attention it deserves. Look at it this way, at least a few people will be turned off by your photos because of the watermark, whereas sans watermark, nobody will be turned off, other than on the merits the photos. — Friends don’t let friends watermark.
  2. Yes, there will be people who will use your photos on Facebook or in blog posts, but try to think of this as a community-minded extension of your artistic endeavor. After all, if you are doing this because you love photography, the primary motivation should not be monetary. And remember, most people who are going to “steal” photos on the internet are not potential customers in the first place. And not everyone will copy your photo. Some might link to your photos from their websites, maybe helping your Google search authority in the process, and I think a lack of branding on your photos helps to facilitate this.
  3. As an extension to #2, people who are legitimately looking for photos to purchase online usually don’t stumble across a personal photography site and go rogue. If their intention was to spend money, they won’t suddenly see your photos and go, “Hmm, I think I can get away with something here.” This is especially true when it comes to businesses who are looking to use photos in their promotions.
  4. Google Search by Image — Sure, this takes some work on your part from time to time, but you can track down people who are using your images using this tool. Maybe that leads to legal action, or maybe, it could lead to a partnership with a blog or website that was using your image in good faith and not directly profiting from it.
  5. This may or may not matter depending on where you host your photos, but a practical reason to not watermark your photos is that it eliminates the need to keep two copies, saving time and saving storage space. I said this might not matter, because services like SmugMug can automatically apply a watermark to online photos without the need to upload two different copies.

So that’s my philosophy on watermarks, but I know opinions differ. So let me know your thoughts on photo watermarks in the comments section below.

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