Should you watermark your photos?
Whether to watermark your photos or not when posting them online is something that often polarizes photographers. Some strongly believe that you should always watermark your photos, while others strongly believe that you should never add something that detracts from the image.
In this article I'll cover some of the reasons both for and against watermarking, so you can make up your own mind.
What is a watermark?
A watermark is a piece of text or a logo that is overlaid on top of the image. Usually this will be semi-transparent, giving an effect somewhat similar to watermarked paper. Most Photographers use their name or business logo for the watermark, sometimes including a copyright notice, e.g.
© 2013 A. Photographer.
Preventing image theft with a watermark
One of the main reasons for using a watermark is to deter image theft. If an image has a watermark, then people are less likely to use the image without first getting permission from the photographer.
Burglar Bill at large by John Fisher LRPS on flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)
However, while it may deter image theft, a watermark cannot prevent it. Watermarks can always be cloned or cropped out.
Using a large watermark that goes right across the image is more likely to prevent image theft as it will be much more difficult to remove than a small watermark in the corner of the image. But this will also make the image much less attractive to viewers. The purpose of sharing images online is usually so that people can enjoy your images, and a large watermark somewhat defeats this purpose.
Including a watermark on your image can make it easier to claim for damages if the image is used without your authorization. This does vary from country to country, and in the US you will need to have registered your images with the copyright office.
With a watermarked image, especially if the infringer has removed the watermark, it makes it easier to prove that the copyright infringement was willful. In the US this allows you to claim up to $150,000 damages per infringement.
Marketing yourself through a watermark
The other main reason for using a watermark is simply to promote yourself. When looking at one of your photos, it makes it easy for the viewer to see who took the photograph.
Most business brand all their products, for example clothes manufacturers often include their name or logo quite visibly on their clothes. Electronics manufacturers nearly always include their name or logo visibly on their products. So why shouldn't you do the same for your photographs?
There Can Be Only One by Ian Sane on flickr (licensed CC-BY)
If your watermarked images are used without permission, at least you will still get some benefit out of it in the form of getting your name out there and associated with those photos.
This point is somewhat debatable, but a watermark, especially a well designed one, can make your work look more professional. Most people do not have a brand or logo, or take the time to watermark their images. If yours do, it can help them stand out against the mass of other photos on social media. (Though of course the images themselves should be good enough to stand out anyway).
Conversely, a badly designed watermark may actually make you look less professional. Remember that a watermark is your 'brand' that you stamp onto your photos. You want it to be something that looks good, complements the photo (or at least doesn't detract much from the photo), and represents you. If you don't already have a logo, it may be worth hiring a designer to design one for you, with a watermark version as part of the design brief.
Stars on the Prairie by jason jenkins on flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)
A watermark can be seen to be similar to an artists signature. However, in most cases while people prefer purchasing signed artworks, they will prefer photos without the printed 'signature'. If a client orders prints from you and the prints turn up with the watermark still on the image, most clients will not be very happy.
Image type and watermark placement
One aspect that may determine whether you choose to use a watermark or not may be the type of photography you do. Watermarks are more suited to images with out of focus areas (such as portraits), as they can be placed in an area where they don't cover up important image detail. (Though bear in mind this also makes the watermark easier to remove).
Pam by Jhong Dizon on flickr (licensed CC-BY)
Civic Si Sedan @ Interlagos by Fabio Aro on flickr (licensed CC-BY-ND)
With images that contain lots of detail (such as landscapes), the watermark will inevitably have to cover up some area of detail in the image.
A portrait photographer may also find that a watermark helps more in terms of brand promotion. If a client shares your watermarked photos of themselves amongst their friends, the friends can easily see who took the photos, and may contact you for a photo session themselves.
With landscape photography it is more likely that you will be making money by selling prints of the image. Unless you are sharing large size images online, the small compressed images commonly shared online are not good for printing. So the watermark does not have much benefit in preventing people from printing the photos, since the photos are not suitable for printing anyway. It does let people know who contact for prints though.
Watermarking images is not effortless
Adding watermarks to your photos does take a bit of extra effort. First you need to get a watermark designed. As stated earlier, this represents your brand, so it is important to spend time getting this right.
Woody's endorsement for new watermark by Sherman Geronimo-Tan on flickr (licensed CC-BY)
Next, adding the watermarks is another step in your workflow. Most image editing software will allow adding watermarks to images as a batch action, which can speed things up quite a bit. But batch adding watermarks does mean that the watermark placement might not be optimal compared to manually positioning it on a per photo basis.
In terms of creating and adding a watermark, there are many tutorials available online. Just search the web for 'watermark' and the name of the image software you use, you're sure to find a good tutorial.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong in adding a watermark or leaving your image unwatermarked. There are good reasons both for and against watermarking. But if you do watermark your images, try to use a watermark that looks good and promotes your brand.