Photography Advice

Can We Please Stop Watermarking Photographs?

My Facebook group recently blew up in a heated debate: Why is watermarking an issue? Painters add their signature right into their painting as an assurance that people will be able to identify them as the artist but they do it in a way that you frequently need to hunt to find it. Photographers really don’t have a way to do that unless they watermark. My advice- simply don’t do it. And don’t just take my word for it- the advice that I am sharing with you is really a combination of evolution backed by real science, the law, real marketing advice, and an eye towards future technologies.

A Little Background

Let me begin with an admission of guilt. I used to watermark my images. I did. I stopped watermarking my images years ago. In my defense, when I did watermark a photograph, I added a border to the bottom of the image and my website address – which was my watermark – in very easy-to-read type in that bottom border, NOT overtop the image itself. It made sense then, because that’s what most photographers were doing to prevent theft and to brand their name. But I realize now that it was not the right thing to do.

Back when I began as a photographer in the 1970s it was common practice to own a rubber stamp with your name and contact info that you would apply to the back of the print, or mat board, or frame. The rubber stamp plan worked well until the mid-1980s when resin coated paper made it nearly impossible to rubber stamp a print because the ink would smear and it could be wiped off with just a little water.

Also in the late 1980s school photographers and studio chains like Olan Mills started exposing a watermark over proof prints that they provided to clients. This practice escalated in the mid 1990s when the internet became a household feature.

As digital photography took hold and social media was born, people started posting photos online. This became the new way of sharing pictures. It also made it extremely easy to copy or steal an image.

So indeed beginning in the early 2000s, adding a watermark became the way to insure that some other Guy or Girl with a camera couldn’t copy your photograph and claim it as their own. It also guaranteed that a tight-wad client couldn’t just go ahead and make prints from the proofs you posted online instead of actually paying you and it insured that a magazine or advertiser couldn’t profit from your efforts without first paying you.

This practice of watermarking made sense. It was the smart thing to do, mainly because it was the modern digital equivalent of surviving in the wild wild west. The rules were barely there, the internet was a new world that people were inhabiting and staking their claims to their space and trying to make a name for themselves. It literally was anything goes and indeed – like the wild wild west – there were few laws to protect photographers and even fewer methods to enforce them.

But that was at least 15 years ago. Since then, a lot has changed. The internet has matured. New rules have been adopted by web hosting companies as well as social media platforms. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was signed into law in 1998. Referred to as the DMCA, it’s an amendment to Title 17 of the United States Code that outlines copyright law. Initially, web hosting companies and even social media platforms struggled to manage DMCA issues, but they have universally become much better at it and made it easier for content creators to protect their work.

So that brings us to today. As I found out on my social media this morning and this afternoon, the people that watermark will defend their rights to watermark to the end. Oh yeah …. there was some pretty heated debate on my social media feeds today. It seems like people are either totally for it or against it.

So I decided that I would share my evolution with you and offer you some resources to help you with your own.

The Science against Watermarking

As many of you know, I am married to an incredible woman who is a Cognitive Psychologist, meaning she researches how our brains work and most importantly how we perceive and understand information. Years ago when this watermark debate started, I turned to her to see what science knew about this issue. I never liked the idea of using a watermark, but the reasons seemed clear and necessary.

Well my wife showed me a few pieces of recent research that were step one to my ending the use of watermarks on my photos. The first came from the University of Illinois where researchers using eye-tracking equipment learned that any text on a photo will draw the majority of the viewers attention. Turns out advertisers had this figured out decades ago.

University of Toronto researchers discovered that when you first look at an image, if your attention is divided – such as between the content of the photo and the watermark- it will decrease your recall of the image after the fact. In other words, it making your photo easily forgettable.

Researchers at the University of Israel determined that small details like a watermark are only recalled if they fit the context of the photo. In other words, if you have a photo of a beautiful woman, don’t expect people to remember what your watermark said or that it was even there. These researchers also found that people will generally only recall the overall gist of a photo, not the specifics.

So what does this science tell us about watermarking? Well it doesn’t deal with the theft issue – I’ll get back to that in a minute – but it does tell us that a watermark is simply a distraction that makes it harder for people to enjoy your work and a watermark that is too big or even too small and hard to read is an even bigger distraction and one that people will not likely remember the details of.

In other words, it’s not building your brand – it’s impeding your brand. You can’t argue with the science.

Legality and Copyrights

What about the legal side of things? We could spend a few hours on this, so I am just going to touch on a few important elements to understand. Whatever you do – if you have legitimate legal concerns – don’t take your advice from YouTube. I am simply telling you what I have learned and what I do with that information.

So the short story of copyright is that Title 17 of the United States Code provides that the moment you create something – i.e. press the shutter button – you own the copyright to that image. You are NOT required to pay the fee and file your image with the Library of Congress in order to be able to enforce your copyright. The law states that you simply need proof. With digital files, that’s extremely easy to do since original files have EXIF data and your hard drive has date and time stamps that indicate when the file was created. In fact, Title 17 Chapter 3 provides that you own that copyright for life and it remains in your name for 70 years after your death – even without filing.

The benefit to registering a copyright – if you feel the need – is that you can go to court and recover damages. It is extremely hard to sue for damages of any kind if you have not actually filed a copyright. So if you are a litigious person, filing a copyright is actually easy to do -but it does cost money. You can electronically register a single photograph for $35.00 and multiples for $55.00. There are even companies like that have simplified and automated the process online.

Full disclosure – I have never personally registered a copyright of one of my photographs.

Dealing with image theft

My experience has found that the people who whine the most about people stealing their photos and posting them as their own are people who spend too much time on Facebook interacting with a bunch of backwoods amateurs.

I have had photographs stolen and reposted. I have had my YouTube videos copied from my channel and posted to websites in Russia and China. In both cases, these were websites for retail photography stores that were making money by posting videos, and for every person that watched those videos on their sites, I lost advertising revenue. It was pennies, but I still lost it. In every case where I have had something stolen or repurposed, I have written via email to the offender and made them aware that I know what they have done. I offered proof that it was mine – just in case they actually took it from somebody else and they weren’t the original offender  – and I made it clear in the email that I was not authorizing them to use it and that I was requesting that they remove it immediately. I explained that failure to do so would result in my filing of a DMCA complaint with the web hosting company or social media platform. I have dealt with this more than 40 times in the last five years alone and every single time I have been successful at having the item removed.

I am not litigious – I see no value in that. These people weren’t being malicious; they were being lazy and inconsiderate and often ignorant of the law, but nothing that was worth taking legal action over. And NOTHING they did had a serious impact on my business.

Let’s be real gang… some bozo on Facebook takes your photo and posts it on his page… he doesn’t have the skills to back it up so what is it ultimately going to do for him? Nothing! So how much has it actually hurt you? It hasn’t.

Still convinced Watermarks are necessary?

I actually had a guy argue with me on Facebook because his reason for watermarks is that after he spends 60 hours retouching a milk dress image, he wants to be sure nobody can steal that.  REALLY????  Instead of spending 60 hours copying somebody else’s really cool idea – and not improving on it or bettering it – why not take that 60 hours and improve your own photography and create your own something unique so that people know your work without seeing a stupid logo? This guy wants to protect something that isn’t really his in the first place. That makes a lot of sense.

I had somebody else tell me they watermarked their images for SEO purposes.  Huh???? Google does NOT read your watermark and a watermark definitely does NOT improve your SEO. Period!

I had another photographer explain that, “I’ve been watermarking for years and people don’t steal my work. So why would I change it now?”  There you have it- the if it ain’t broke don’t fix it plan. How well did that attitude work for companies like Sears and Roebuck or K-Mart? How about Radio Shack? Newspapers have had stellar results with that attitude. The world evolves – don’t become a dinosaur.

On top of all of this, you have Google perfecting technology that will remove watermarks from images. You can already purchase iPhone apps that do the same and there are websites that allow you to upload images and remove watermarks – for FREE!  So why fight it – what do you really think you are accomplishing? You can’t stop someone from stealing your work if it is on the internet. If you watermark it, you are only ruining the experience of the person who views your photos.

Take it from the pros

Obviously my first piece of advice is to STOP using watermarks all together.

But before you do, don’t take my word for it– listen to this list of photographers: Gregory Heisler, Lindsay Adler, Joe McNally, Peter Hurley, Joel Grimes, Clay Cook, Frank Dorhof, Sal Cincotta… heck, pick YOUR most admired photographers. Now, go look at their websites and tell me how many of them have watermarks on their images. Heck, even photographer-turned-social-marketing-guru Jasmine star has no watermarks.  These are people who are at the top of the game with the MOST to lose from somebody stealing their work. These people have worked their butts off to achieve their skill set and portfolio and status, yet you don’t see them with their name plastered all over their photos.

Watermarks are not a form of branding

Branding for a photographer is not about shoving your name in front of everyone instead of letting them view your work. Branding for a photographer is about doing the kind of work that makes people want to know who you are.

When your work is quality work, it is difficult for people to steal it and repost it because other people will recognize it. So if you are so insecure about protecting your work, it is probably because you are simply insecure about the quality of your work.

If I can’t convince you, at least stop being stupid about it. If you insist on the watermark – the current trend of the signature watermarks is a barely functional solution BUT – don’t use such a tight script font and then make it so small that you can’t read it. Then it’s just a distraction.

And for those of you who are going to pay to have that signature made… please stop being so lazy and stupid. YES there is a company that advertises all over Facebook and for $39.99 they will create you a signature logo. Visit a site like and get the exact same thing done for $5 – $10. If you’re gonna be a ZOMBIEtographer there is no reason to waste money that could allow you to maintain your status as a GEARtographer.

My Advice:

Life does not happen on Facebook or Instagram. Put your energy and efforts into mastering your craft; remember that being successful as a photographer requires the ability to interact with people and maintain relationships– and I mean real relationships, not online Facebook relationships. Don’t be like the guy who is whining because he copied somebody else’s idea and is worried that somebody might repost his photo.

Focus on YOU. Your work,  your talents, and produce work that people will recognize as yours. Learn the rules so that you can protect yourself without paying fees to the government or making lawyers richer and get back to enjoying photography instead of putting a virtual fence in front of your work.

I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman

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