The question of how to protect your artistic work is hardly a new one.
Art historians are continuously discovering lost prints beneath another old master’s paint, and we’re fairly certain that if you were around then and spoke Neanderthal there were plenty of shenanigans among early cave artists.
And just to prove that the more things change, the more they stay the same, the question of whether to use a watermark when sharing photos online remains a burning issue for photographers despite being well into the digital age.
There are many camps in the watermarking debate. Some photographers absolutely watermark everything with impunity – the bigger and bolder, the better. But at some point your impassioned logo starts to detract from the essence of your image. And it’s finding this thin line that has troubled artists from Miss Aniela on back to Michelangelo.
Protecting your images
But let’s get one common misconception out of the way right now. The argument that watermarking photos will protect your intellectual property… well, it doesn’t hold water.
From today’s Clone Stamp tool to the dodgy Renaissance painter’s ‘borrowed’ canvas, it’s always been relatively easy to remove another’s signature from their work.
As a form of protection, a watermark is like bringing a fly swatter to fight Lennox Lewis: it will annoy him, but not really stop him.
Your watermark’s only usefulness in terms of protection is that it provides an extra step for people to go through to steal your work if they’re dead-set on doing so.
For other people with less sinister intentions, like a lazy blogger, it’s simply part of your image, a reflection of you as an artist, so using something subtle will better promote ‘your brand’.
Sharing high-res photos
So let’s stop thinking about watermarks as forms of protection. The only way to protect your IP is to not share your photos online. And we really don’t want to do that, do we? The best way to protect yourself is to refrain from putting high-res versions of your photos on your website or photo-sharing website.
If you keep your uploads to 1000 pixels on its longest edge and 72dpi, it’s going to make it very tough for someone to take those images and print them or use them commercially.
Now, someone may right-click and save that image and present it as their own somewhere else, but there are a number of sophisticated apps now, such as TinEye, that can do a reverse image search and find other versions of your photo that have been posted on the web.
Even a quick search on Google Images can help you track down where your image has been shared.
Keeping your metadata up to date also helps in any internet ‘He said, she said’ debates. But also – and perhaps most importantly – it’s worth accepting the fact that when you post an image online, wherever it may be, you are setting it free in some ways and there are a few unfortunate consequences that come with the vast rewards of sharing photos online.
Promoting your photography
But back to watermarks. Now that we’ve dispelled the common belief that they will protect your image copyright, let’s take a look at where they’re most useful: promoting you.
As we alluded above, most people who do take your photo and re-post it somewhere else aren’t doing so to present your work as their own.
Most often it’s a blogger collating his or her favourite found photos from the web (this is very common on Tumblr photo blogs and Pinterest photography boards), and your inclusion is meant as a compliment.
If the blogger is using proper web etiquette, he or she will have included a link back to where they found your photo, but they don’t always. And that’s why a simple url for your website can be a nice, subtle watermark to include at the bottom of your image.
Watermark the right way
Your watermark should serve as a way to reach out to other photographers and consumers of photography and let them know who made this awesome image, not treat them all as suspected thieves and distract them from your carefully crafted composition.
Let people enjoy your work. And then if they want to see more of it, they’ll know where to find it and who it was made by.
Sure, some people may crop or clone out your watermark. But these people were never going to be your friends in the first place. What you should be concerned with is all the potential friends you might never make by using a watermark that completely overwhelms your image.
When it comes to watermarking photos, less is more. Now stop hitting us with that fly swatter!