To watermark or not not watermark that is the question

A lot of professional and amateur photographers use watermarks on their images to protect their copyright. On the other hand if the only reason is to show you made the image, there are probably better ways than watermarks to do so. Adding watermarks can be useful, but (there’s always a but) is it the right way to protect your copyrights. Well, it all depends. First things first, why do you put your precious images on the internet. The main reason – to my humble opinion – is to promote yourself as a photographer. I can’t imagine another reason than to show of your capabilities as a photographer, because you want to sell more photographs or you just want some appreciation for your capabilities as a photographer.

So if you don’t want other people to pretend to have made your great pictures, you need to copyright protect them. And it’s then those watermarks come into the story. At this point you should ask yourself some questions.

Need my images protection?

Why do you want to prevent people from using your images. Probably because you invested time and money in the process of making these images and you don’t want anybody else getting the profit from your investment. But is it all worth it? That’s something you should consider yourself.

Does a watermark protect?

Does it protect your copyright, probably, or rather maybe. It only protects your rights if it makes the image useless to other people.

What happens to the image if I use watermarks?

The question is: if you add a watermark what does it to do to your image? That depends on the kind of watermark you use. There are a lot of possibilities but usually the watermark draws the attention away from the real subject of your image. And so decreases the value of your picture.

Some Examples

Lets throw in some examples to show the pros en cons of watermarks. I used one of my own images and added some different kinds of watermarks.

Example 1

I’ll admit it, the first example is pretty extreme. The watermark is big and central in the image. So does it protect your copyright? The answer is simple: yes, the image is completely useless for others.

But what is the effect on the image itself? In my opinion it completely ruins the story you want to tell with the image. Even if you want to sell the image without the watermark, potential clients probably can’t look through the watermark on the preview on your site to see the true power of the image. People only see the watermark and after that they’ll run away towards your “competitors”.

watermarks-example1Example 1 – large central watermark

Example 2

The least to say about the second example is that the watermark is a lot more discrete. But still, the attention of the viewer and  potential costumer is drawn towards the upper left corner instead of to the image itself. I can’t imagine that to be the thing you want to happen.

And will it protect your copyright. The answer is probably not. Let me explain: for a thief there are lot of techniques to steal an image with this kind of watermark. The simplest of course is just cropping the image. If a watermark is at the edge of the image, sometimes it ain’t a great loss if you crop away a part of that edge. If it’s an image like the one I used in the example below, there’s also the option to use the entire image without the watermark. If the watermark is in an area of the image that’s rather vague like clouds or so, it’s easy to use the Content Aware Fill in Photoshop. The result is almost the same image as your original.

watermarks-example2 Example 2 – top left watermark

Example 3

For the third example I added the No Road Home logo in the bottom right corner of the image. This kind of watermark is a little less discrete compared to the previous example, but it shows of better your brand. The end result is actually the same as in example 2: it won’t protect much because it is easy to crop away or erase with Content Aware Fill in Photoshop. It also draws away the attention of the viewer from the image itself.

watermarks-example31 Example 3 – graphical watermark on the image

Example 4

For this example I added a black border around the image and put the logo in the bottom of this border. Since the logo is not directly on your image, it’s not really a watermark, but nevertheless it shows your name or logo next to your image. For some images I actually like a black border around it, because it adds some style, but it probably has more effect if it’s used without a logo. As a copyright protection this logo-in-the-border-thing is pretty useless, because cropping away the border gives a thief the entire image. The reason for this kind of branding is not protecting the image but just show around your name or company name. If that’s the only reason you use this kind of branding: carry on!

watermarks-example4 Example 4 – graphical watermark next to the image

Example 5 – the original without any watermark

Just to show you the real image, I also added the original without any watermark.

watermarks-original The original image without watermark


Do you have to use watermarks or are there other options? There a couple of other options to protect your images, but of course they all have their pros and cons.

  • The most useful way to make your images useless for other people is to make them small enough so it can’t be printed. Of course this still makes them usable for use on websites.
  • To protect digital images you can also add your copyright information to the EXIF data. This can easily be done with most graphical editors. If you use Adobe Lightroom it’s super easy. You just use a Meta Data Template with all your copyright information in it and use it as default for all your imports in your catalog. I know, EXIF data can be erased pretty easy, but most thieves forget to do so.


The 3 rules of copyright protection for images

  • Rule n° 1: If you don’t want people to steal your images, don’t put them on the internet. Actually don’t publish them at all. Don’t be naive to think you can copyright protect images. Anything can be copied
  • Rule n° 2: If you want to sell your images or just want to show the world what your worth as a photographer, don’t use watermarks because people will look at the watermark and forget your image.
  • Rule n° 3: If you want to show of your images on the internet, use a size as small as possible. Make sure the image still tells the story you want to, but don’t offer it any larger to thieves.

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