Photography Advice

Is It Time to End the Great Watermark Debate in Photography?

You get 3 guesses and the first two don't count!

Watermarking your photographs is one of the most divisive and often debated topics among photographers.

Much like politics, there is very little middle ground. People seem to be all in on the idea that watermarks are wrong, or they are all in on using watermarks to identify their work, and they claim reasons such as people stealing and reposting their images.

What is a Watermark?

If you don’t know what a watermark is, this could be one of those situations in life where ignorance is true bliss.

Watermarks, are typically a semi-transparent logo or text overlaid on an image.

Those who use them feel they help protect the photographer’s copyright and assist in marketing and brand recognition. 

In the early years of digital photography, for professionals and amateurs alike, watermarks helped discourage others from using their work without permission or proper attribution. In the era of social media and easy digital replication, watermarks can act as a deterrent against image theft.

In the debate against watermarks, those same photographers often argue that painters add their signatures to their paintings to ensure that people can identify them as the artist. Photographers don’t have a way to do that unless they watermark. 

A Historical Perspective of Watermarks

A studio stamp was one of the earliest methods for identifying a photographer’s work. Owning a rubber stamp with your name and contact info that you would apply to the back of a print, mat board, or frame was common practice. This method was prevalent during the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Even photographers like Ansel Adams would include their signature or studio stamp on the mount or back of the print. These methods served as both a mark of authenticity and a way to deter unauthorized reproduction.

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 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 the proof prints they provided clients. This practice escalated in the late 1990s when the internet became a household feature.

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

So, in the early 2000s, adding a watermark helped guarantee that a tight-wad client couldn’t just go ahead and make prints from the proofs you posted online instead of actually paying you. It ensured that a magazine or advertiser could only profit from your efforts after first paying you.

At the time, this practice of digital watermarking made sense. It was the smart thing to do because it was the modern digital equivalent of surviving in the wild wild West. 

The rules were barely there; it 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 18 years ago. Since then, the internet has matured, and new rules have been adopted by web hosting companies and social media platforms. 

📸 Did you know?
While digital watermarks are a recent invention, the concept of embedding ownership marks in visuals is much older. Ancient Romans used seals on clay tablets, and artists in the Renaissance would sometimes hide signatures within their paintings. The direct ancestor of photographic watermarks is the paper watermark, dating back to 13th-century Italy. These faint designs, woven into the paper itself, identified the maker and ensured quality control.

The Science Against Digital Watermarking

As many of you know, I am married to a Cognitive Psychologist who 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 discontinuing 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 most of the viewer’s attention. Turns out advertisers had this figured out decades ago.

The 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- your recall of the image after the fact will decrease. In other words, it makes 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 an image 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. A watermark that is too big or even too small and hard to read is an even bigger distraction that people will not likely remember the details of.

In other words, it’s not building your brand but impeding it. You can’t argue with the science unless you believe that climate change is a hoax. 🤦🏻

Watermarks Are Not a Form of Branding

Branding for a photographer is about more than 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 unique and of high quality, it is difficult for people to steal and repost it because others will recognize it. If you are so insecure about protecting your work, it is likely because you are simply insecure about the quality of your work.

Legality and Copyrights

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was signed into law to protect photographers and other digital creators 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 social media platforms struggled to manage DMCA issues; however, fast forward to today, they have become much better at it, making it easier for content creators to protect their work.

All major web hosting companies and social media platforms have a process to file a takedown notice over copyright infringement. 

From personal experience with social media platforms and several web hosts like GoDaddy, Squarespace, and Siteground, the process works.

Should I register my copyrights?

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 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, which remains in your name for 70 years after your death – even without filing.

The benefit of registering a copyright is that you can go to court and recover damages if needed. It is tough to sue for damages if you have not filed a copyright. 

So, if you are a litigious person, filing a copyright is easy -but it does cost money. You can electronically register a single photograph for $35.00 and multiples for $55.00. 

There are companies like Binded.com that have simplified and automated the process online.

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 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 making money by posting videos. I lost advertising revenue for every person who watched those videos on their sites. 

It was pennies, but I still lost it. In every case where I have had something stolen or repurposed, I have emailed the offender and informed them that I know what they have done. 

I offered proof that it was mine – just in case they took it from somebody else and weren’t the original offender – and I clarified 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 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 malicious; they were lazy, inconsiderate, and often ignorant of the law, but they had done nothing worth taking legal action. And NOTHING they did had a severe impact on my business.

Let’s be honest, 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.

If you have a lot of images shared online and frequently find yourself dealing with the theft of your photos, a service like Pixsy.com can help you find inappropriate use of your images online, as well as file takedown notices.

📸 Did you know?
New digitally embedded watermarks are much more sophisticated and unobtrusive. They can be imperceptible to the naked eye, yet readily detected by specialized software, proving ownership and deterring unauthorized use. Watermarks have evolved beyond just claiming ownership. They can now carry additional information like licensing terms, track distribution, and even authenticate images to combat deepfakes.

Still Convinced Watermarks Are Necessary?

I actually had a photographer argue with me that 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 photography and create 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!

Another photographer explained, “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 this, you have Google perfecting technology that will remove watermarks from images. You can already purchase iPhone apps that do the same, and some websites 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, all you are accomplishing is ruining the experience of the person who views your photos.

Take it From the Pros

My first piece of advice is to STOP using watermarks altogether.

Notably, many of the world’s most famous photographers, such as Gregory Heisler, Lindsay Adler, Joe McNally, Peter Hurley, Joel Grimes, Clay Cook, Frank Dorhof, and Sal Cincotta, do not watermark their images.

These photographers are at the top of the game with the MOST to lose from somebody stealing their work. They rely on the distinctiveness of their style to protect and identify their work. They view their photographs as artistic expressions that should remain unmarred by additional graphics or text.

Are There Exceptions?

Of course! There are always exceptions. Suppose you are a photographer posting digital proof galleries and allowing people to pay for prints, digital downloads, or other digital products. In that case, it makes sense to watermark your proof images, just like Olan Mills did and probably still does.

Even then, removing watermarks is still very easy, so at the end of the day, providing excellent value and incredible images is the best way to prevent theft. 

Having PROOF stamped all over your image is the photography equivalent of having everyday products behind lock and key at a retail store. We all know they wouldn’t have to lock things up if they hired staff and provided better service.

If I Still Haven’t Convinced You…

If you are from the other side of the aisle and tend to ignore science and choose to maintain irrational beliefs, at least be practical about it and stop throwing money away. 

If you insist on the watermark – the current trend of the signature watermarks is a barely functional solution BUT – don’t use a tight script font and make it so small that you can’t read it. Then it’s just a distraction.

And for those who will 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 a signature logo. 

Visit a site like Fiverr.com 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.

The Final Frame – My Advice

My advice is simply DON’T USE WATERMARKS

Photography, like life, does not happen on Facebook, Instagram, or the Internet. 

Put your energy and efforts into mastering your craft; remember that being successful as a photographer requires interacting with people and maintaining genuine relationships, not online Facebook relationships. 

Don’t be like the guy whining because he copied somebody else’s idea and is worried somebody might repost his photo.

Focus on YOU. Your work, your talents, and produce work that people will recognize as yours. Learn the rules to 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


Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Photo Educator and the host of The The LAST FRAME LIVE, which is viewed by photographers in over 100 countries.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio.
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