Watermarks: the Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly

I’m not sure what is going on but seemingly suddenly I am seeing a plethora (I just love that word and am glad I can actually use it here) of watermarks on people’s online photos.  I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with watermarking, per se.  In fact, there are plenty of good reasons for doing so and few bad ones.  If you are not sure, or want to explore the pros and cons, just do a Google search and you’ll find lots of discussion.  For my part, I’m on the Good side of the conversation and feel that a subtle watermark can a) immediately identify that this image belongs to someone and at the same time b) act as a form of branding for you, the photographer.

The key for me though, is subtlety. The reason I am now noticing so many watermarks may have to do with increased awareness on the part of photographers of the value of watermarking; hence, I am seeing more of them, because there are more of them.  That may be it, but I suspect the real reason is that many watermarks seem to now be on steroids.  I commonly see huge marks across the middle of images – perhaps with some clever design motif – that shout MY IMAGE: HAND’S OFF BUCK-O!  I don’t want to minimize the nefariousness of image thievery, but frankly a big old No Trespassing sign is just a turnoff. 

If the very first thing I notice with an otherwise beautiful, compelling, striking (insert other adjectives here) image, is a large obtrusive watermark, then I feel you have done a disservice to your work.  And, if the watermark is so gaudy that I can’t get past it to see the beauty, compelling nature, etc., of your work, and instead click away, well, that is generally not a good trend.  Am I alone in this?  I’m just one opinionated person, no?  After all, I have no patience for commercials – Super Bowl or otherwise – and will deliberately go out of my way to not buy a product if the commercial or advert is just irritating enough to register with me.  So I may be a bit off the bell curve with these kinds of things.  Ask your friends and colleagues what they think.  Do some research on the web.  Here is a post from PhotoShelter that corroborates my gut feel.  It is true that a giant watermark may discourage casual thievery, but it also appears that it may discourage a purchase.

From a purely aesthetic viewpoint, in my opinion (and, opinions I have)  a watermark should not compete with the image.  Perhaps I am aiding and abetting the thieves out there, as it certainly is simple to crop out or use content-aware fill on a subtle watermark…so be it.  I am trying to share (and, yes, sell as well) my photos and I want the image to stand out.  Competition from a watermark is unwanted.

There are some good guides out there as to what watermarks should look like and what elements should be in a watermark.  Using the copyright symbol – © – or the word “copyright” is pretty much universal.  I typically use the symbol and my business name.  Some people recommend also putting in a date (year) while others think it is a good idea to also include a web or email address.  Fancy logo designs might look nice, and can certainly be part of a branding exercise, but they may also be a distraction.  Use at risk.   Opacity of no greater than 50% is recommended with placement near, though not necessarily on an edge.

Check out what (inter-)nationally recognized photographers are posting with regards to watermarks:

George Lepp

Tom Till

Scott Bourne

David DuChermin

Ian Plant

Nick Brandt

Huntington Witherill

Kim Weston

Etc…Of course, there are notable exceptions to the way the above professionals watermark (or don’t) their images.  Whether the exception is the rule, is up to you.

If you really want to protect your images from online theft, many experts recommend one of two paths. Either, 1) register your images with the US Copyright Office and only post low-resolution versions online, or 2) don’t upload them in the first place!

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