Should you be watermarking photos?  We’ll discuss why and why not so you can make the best decision for YOUR business.

Post this question in a photography forum and it’s a bit like setting off a bomb.  Things get hot and then they explode.  Watermarking photos has become one of the polarizing issues in the photography industry, with outspoken parties on either side.

Watermarking photos, or adding your logo, name, etc. to each image you post online, really comes down to personal preference.  There are arguments for and against the practice.  Today we will discuss what a watermark is, how to get one, why you should use one, why you shouldn’t use one and teach you how to add one to your image if you so choose.  Then you can decide which side of the aisle you want to sit on…yes or no.

Watermark photos

What is a watermark?

Watermarking paper actually dates back to Italy in the 13th century.  Paper markers would embed an image or pattern in their paper by varying the thickness of the paper.  The process was done when the paper was still wet, hence the name watermark.  Watermarks can be found on paper currency, stationary, I.D. cards, stamps, and other government documents.  They are used as a means of preventing counterfeiting.

In the world of photography, a watermark is a graphic superimposed on a photo.  Watermarks claim ownership of the image in some way.  The graphic may be a signature, a graphic, or just your name or studio.

In the days before digital photos, watermarks usually appeared on the back of the image, preventing prevent theft or unlawful duplication.  Some companies, like Olan Mills (yes, I’m dating myself here) used to use a physical gold embossed emblem on some of their prints.  Today, most watermarking photos is done digitally by adding another element to the image itself vs. a separate process.  But the idea is the same.

Watermarks can:

  • Indicate who created the image, like the signature on a painting.
  • Prevent digital images from being used or duplicated without permission.
  • Advertise a business. They are like an extra little “Oh hey, here’s my business!” element to your image.

Where do I get a watermark?

It’s fairly straightforward to create your own basic watermark. Or you can purchase a digital signature or logo designed by someone else for watermarking photos.

The easiest watermark to create yourself is text-based.  For example, I could use software like Adobe Photoshop to simply add “Copyright @2019 Teresa Milner,” or “Copyright by Dirt Road Wife Photography.”  For tips on making a text or graphic logo in Photoshop, click here!

Do you want your watermark that doubles as a logo or includes another graphic?  You can build your own through Photoshop or Illustrator.  You can create yours online with a service like Canva.com.  Or purchase a template from Etsy.com or Squijoo.com.  You can expect to pay anywhere from $10 for a monthly service like Squijoo to access the watermark templates, up to $30 or $40 for one through Etsy.

If you something unique, explore purchasing a custom made watermark/logo.  There are a number of designers who specialize in watermarks and logos and would be happy to custom build a watermark for your use.  Here are some places to look:

  • Local graphic designers or artists
  • Etsy
  • Fiverr
  • Other online services

Expect to pay more for a custom watermark/logo.  Custom logos/watermarks are more expensive, but you don’t run the risk that the photographer down the road will buy the same template and have the same watermark as you.

 Examples of photographer watermarks

Should photographers watermark their images? Reasons for Watermarking

Cue explosion in 3…2…1… BOOM!  I’m kidding.  Mostly.  But watermarking photos is a highly divisive topic among photographers.

Watermarking your photos can add a layer of protection against theft. They can help deter it outright or prove your case if needed.

  • They can help prevent another photographer from stealing your work and passing it off as their own.
  • Watermarks can help keep a client from using a photo they haven’t paid for.
  • Watermarks can help keep businesses or organizations from appropriating your photo for their use without paying you.
  • Using a watermark can help prove theft if your photo is used without authorization.
  • A watermark might not stop a thief but why make it easy for them?
  • Marketing/advertising benefits

About watermarks and advertising

There are also some good marketing benefits that come from watermarking photos.  Watermarks identify the photo as yours.  If a client shares a watermarked image, for example, anyone seeing that image will know who took it, regardless if the client identifies you by name or not.  If another business uses your watermarked photo online or in print, you’ll get some free advertising.  And watermarking can help if you’re still trying to build your brand by matching your name with your style.  Let’s face it, not all of us are Ansel Adams.  We need some help in generating buzz about our work.

Do Watermarks Really Protect Your Work?  Reasons against watermarking

Some people argue against watermarking because it doesn’t really work.  They say if someone is intent on stealing your image, they will.  Watermarks can be easily cropped out or cloned out.  There are even online programs that specialize in removing watermarks from images.  Clients sometimes even take the image and print it with the big ol’ watermark right over the top of the picture!

Others believe a watermark detracts from the image.  They say a watermark takes the focus away from the image and instead puts it on your logo/words and dilutes the visual message.

Sometimes people won’t share your watermarked work for a variety of reasons.  A client might not like sharing watermarked photos of their family because the watermark detracts from the portrait.  Or a business might not want your watermark competing with their branding.  So your images don’t get shared.  You might be getting LESS exposure by watermarking your images because fewer people are sharing them.

Another point against watermarking images is that your early work might not be up to par with your recent work.  If an image is watermarked, it’s forever part of your brand.  That might not always be a good thing, as our styles change and our technique improves the longer we are at our craft.  Your logo, and sometimes even your name, will also change through the years.  It can be confusing to have images with an outdated watermark floating around.

And finally, watermarking images takes time and can lead to confusion.  True, you can automate the process if you use Lightroom and apply your watermark in export.  Gallery hosting software can also automate applying and removing watermarks.  But I know many photographers who offer a low resolution, watermarked images for each image in each client’s gallery.  But creating, exporting, uploading and managing a separate low-res watermarked set of files takes time and effort.  Those extra images also take up space on your storage devices and count against your totals in your hosting galleries.

My own experience

When I first launched my blog and business, I watermarked EVERYTHING.  Not only did I want everyone to know who took those images I was pretty sure a potential thief lurked around every corner, just waiting to appropriate my beautiful creations as their own.  And, if I’m honest with myself, I did it because it made me feel more professional.

How my attitude towards watermarking photos have changed

Over time, I started to realize that my watermark detracted from my work.  And I received feedback from clients and businesses that it actually prevented them from sharing my images with a simple photo credit.  And, again in the name of honesty, I no longer feel like I need to label my work for people to think of me as a professional photographer.  As Kirk Mastin from Mastin labs said in an article I read, “Having consistently high-quality work is what makes you appear professional, not a watermark.”

To be clear, I’m not taking a cheap shot at watermark users here.  I’m making fun of myself and my “I”m a pro and must watermark because it makes me look professional” attitude.

Have I ever had my work stolen?  Yes.  I’ve seen my work shared without attribution and printed, watermark and all, without payment or authorization.  My watermark has also been cropped out and cloned out.  I even had a client use images they didn’t pay for on printed announcements, giant watermark and all, and MAIL ME A COPY!  The watermark didn’t even slow them down.

Does it irritate me?  Yes.  Heck yes!

But I don’t watermark anymore for most of the reasons listed above.  And unless it causes me great financial loss, I let it go.  I’ve got too many other things on my plate to worry about than watermarking photos each and every time and tracking down clients to enforce its use.  And I want my clients to share their images freely.  Word of mouth still works with or without a watermark.

I’ve also learned that most clients don’t really understand copyright issues.  The majority of the issues I deal with are from client ignorance instead of willful disobedience.  Throwing a watermark on an image doesn’t help because they don’t understand ownership and copyrights to begin with.

What’s right for your business?

There is no right or wrong answer on the issue of watermarking photos.  You will find seasoned professional photographers earning a good living on both sides of the issue.

I’m a portrait photographer who occasionally gets a better-than-average landscape or wildlife shot.  The general public isn’t going to want to steal a copy of my amazeballs image of my neighbor/client and her family because it has no meaning or inherent value to anyone but me or my client.  I might have a much different attitude about watermarking photos, though, if I was making living selling landscapes of the desert or commercial cosplay work.  That’s why it’s such a personal decision.

It comes down to what is right for you.  What feels right for you, your business and the genre of photography in which you specialize?  Don’t mind watermarks?  Great!  Slap a watermark that says “Stolen from ABC Photography” across every single one of your online images.  Hate watermarks?  Go au naturale online!  It’s your business and your work.  You protect it however you see fit!

Other Ways to Protect Your Work

If watermarking photos doesn’t truly protect your images, what can you do?  The only way to prevent an image from being stolen online is not to put it online.  Period.  But that’s not always an option in this day and age of social network marketing and website advertising.  what measures can we take to protect our work?  Here are some ideas.

  • Use low-resolution photos.  This can help prevent unauthorized reselling of your images.  This is more helpful for genres like wildlife, nature, landscape and fashion photography because people buying images in those industries need high-resolution files for publications and marketing.
  • Use EXIF data.  This is the meta-data information that accompanies your images.  You can add EXIF data via your camera and programs like Adobe Lightroom.
  • Complete in-person sales only.  If a client doesn’t have a gallery of online images to at their disposal, they can’t misappropriate one.  Obviously, this isn’t a technique suited for all genres of photography, but it can be helpful for portrait or commercial photographers.
  • Don’t post images in your portfolio or on social media that a client hasn’t paid for.  This includes using social media to debut sneak peeks.  Once a client has paid for their images, then you can share them online.  That way a client doesn’t have access to an image they haven’t paid for.
  • Disable the right-click, Save As feature on your website.  This makes it more difficult, though not impossible, for thieves to steal images from your website.
  • Use a search program to check the Internet for unauthorized use of your work.  Google Image Search is free.  Paid services like DigiMark can also help.  You can’t search for every image you’ve ever posted, but you can keep track of your best/most popular work.
  • Educate your clients about why you use a watermark, copyrights and photo ownership.

How do you add watermarks to your photos?

My two preferred methods of adding a watermark to a photo are through either Lightroom or Photoshop.

Adding watermarks in Lightroom

Step 1. Choose an image to export.  Right click on the image and choose Export to open the export dialog box.

Watermarks Yes or No

Step 2. Click on the down arrow on the Watermarking bar.

Step 3.  Click on the Watermark checkbox and choose Edit Watermarks from the drop-down menu on the right.

Step 4.  In the upper right-hand corner, choose Text or Graphic.  If you want to use a graphic, you’ll need to choose it via the dialog box.  If you want basic text, type it in the box below your image and see a small preview.  Adjust the font, color and position to your liking.  You can even add a drop-down shadow if you’d like.

Step 5.  When you have your text or logo looking like you want, click the dialog box in the upper right hand corner and choose “Save Current Settings and New Preset.”

Step 6.  Name your new watermark preset, click OK.  The choose done to return to the Export menu again.

Step 7.  You should see your new watermark preset listed under the Watermark bar.  Click Export and you have a watermarked image.

Now every time you want to apply your watermark, just make sure the box is checked in the Watermarking bar!  You can also create Export presets that include ALL your settings.  For instance, you could create a Web Export preset that created watermarked, social media sized images.  For help in creating an export preset the easy way, click here!

The downside with this process is that you can’t place the watermark exactly where you want it for each photo.  You can create different watermark versions (upper right corner, bottom right corner, center, etc.) and choose the one that works best for each photo.  But that’s time-consuming and still not very precise.

watermarking photos in Lightroom

Adding Watermarks in Photoshop

The easiest way I’ve found for watermarking photos via Photoshop is to turn your signature, text or graphic into a brush.  Once you’ve created your brush, you can stamp it on anywhere on an image!  Check out the video below for instructions on how to do it!

Creating a logo brush in Photoshop gives you so much more control over the size, color and placement of your watermark than in Lightroom.  But for that kind of precision, you must handle each photo individually, which can add a great deal of time to your workflow.

Watermarks are a personal thing

I can’t emphasize it enough.  Watermarks are a personal preference.  There is no right answer on if you should watermark.  And there’s no one right way to watermark.  The bottom line is these are your images that you’ve created and shared with the world.  Do what feels right to you in terms of sharing them and protecting them.

Tell us in the comments if you watermark your images and why or why not.  Do you have a reason we haven’t listed here?

Subscribe to my YouTube Channel