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All photographers have wrestled with this decision at one point or another. But the internet era has heightened what is at stake in this debate over recognition and ownership.

Image credit: Kyle Glenn.

As a photographic creators, the hope is to spend our days contemplating subjects, adjusting lighting, and experimenting with editing effects, all before ultimately sharing our work with the world. However, when it comes time for that final step, there comes a moment of hesitation when we wonder, “Should this be watermarked?”

This seemingly small decision carries with it a surprisingly complex array of considerations, but it must be made nonetheless. Whether you are someone who has agonized over whether to watermark your images (yes, hello, that’s me), or the answer has always been clear to you and you haven’t thought twice, I feel that the wonders and horrors of the web necessitate our further consideration. This post will break down the pros and cons of watermarking while explaining how this conversation is also deeply rooted in broader online dilemmas regarding image creation and distribution.

But, before we delve in too deeply, what exactly is a watermark?

A little background information for you: Within the contemporary photographic context, a “watermark” refers to any combination of symbol, lettering, or logo placed visibly on an image which also refers back to its creator. In this sense, it is not unlike the signature of a painter on a canvas, and may even refer to this very practice. Historically, watermarks were created by companies as a kind of material branding, especially on paper-based products. This practice goes back to medieval Europe, but other cultures have used similar tactics. For example, japanese woodblocks feature beautiful red seals of authenticity, following the larger East Asian tradition of such. We can still see evidence of this practices on embossed currency or when purchasing drawing paper. These days, however, more and more of our creations are also shared online. As a result, many types of digital files ranging from written documents to music to photographs have adopted explicit or embedded “watermarks”––particularly in an effort to enforce copyright.

With the above in mind, let’s examine the rationale for each side based on their answers to the three central questions of the debate:

1. “Are watermarks too visually distracting?”

Pro-watermark: The right watermark will work with its equivalent style of photography. If it is well placed, it will not take away from the image. Also, if it is well designed, it could even communicate further aesthetic information. For example, a wedding photographer might use a trendy cursive typeface and if a prospective client likes the look of that design, they may feel more synergy with that photography business. Plus, painters sign their works and magazines utilize lettering over imagery all the time and that doesn’t detract from the work.

Anti-watermark: Any watermark will feel out of place because we know it just doesn’t belong to whichever reality is being photographed. To pull from cinema studies, this would be called a non-diegetic element (just like credits at the beginning of a TV show, going unseen by the characters within). This will prevent a seamless immersion into the moment depicted, which is likely the primary goal of any photographer. As for any aesthetic benefits, the image should be doing enough of that already. Likewise, many painters today do not sign their work for the same reason: it is too distracting to be worthwhile. And you will notice that those painters who do sign are more likely to be artisans rather than gallery-approved. As far as magazines’ use of overlaid lettering, these words are carefully designed and do not repeat across all images in the same static way as a watermark. So, contrary to popular belief, it would seem that the exclusion of watermarks is actually seen as more professional because this allows the work live uninhibited. And, keep in mind, people might not want to share a watermarked image because they think it looks too tacky!

2. “Aren’t watermarks just sensible advertising?”

Pro-watermark: Absolutely, so long as your design is legible enough. When watermarked, every one of your online and printed photographs will clearly trace back to you. From the viewer’s perspective, if they adore your images then they can search you up right away! If prospective clients have to go out of their way to ask acquaintances about who took their photograph, this could be a major deterrent.

Anti-watermark: Legible watermarks are often too crisp to work for everyone’s style, plus they must also be sized up to in order to be seen, especially on mobile. So, should you just skip watermarking on Instagram but do so elsewhere? Where is the sense in that? As for distribution, this is why we ask our clients to tag and credit us. Of course, not everyone is in the habit of doing so but you should remind them that copyright adherence is the literal law. And anyhow, you should be going over all this when signing contracts––a must do for any serious photographer!

3. “Do watermarks prevent image theft?”

Pro-watermark: Image theft (or images distributed without credit) is rampant these days. This is because people are lazy, not malicious, and simply forget to add in that image credit. As stated above, if you distribute your images with watermarks, you can have peace of mind that you are being properly attributed. Unlike inserting credit through the file name, metadata, or in other invisible ways, this is the most surefire solution because it is unignorable to everyone’s eyes.

Anti-watermark: Ultimately, if someone really doesn’t want to credit you, they won’t. Firstly, they could crop your watermark out of the photo. This could then make things even worse because it will prevent the capabilities of Google’s reverse image search from doing its job as well. On top of that, the general public these days are more and more photoshop-savy and could simply edit your watermark out. Heck, there’s probably even an app for that. The solution to image theft will not come out of these defensive measures but rather by increasing public awareness.

So, what to do? At the end of the day, both sides make compelling arguments. I’ll leave you with some of my own insight, though. Based on my observations, photographers who watermark do so because they operate in a commercial sphere. In other words, they run a client-based business for the average person (who may not know much about copyright) and are constantly hoping for more bookings. Conversely, those who don’t watermark tend to have the luxury of either working among other creative professionals (who understand the importance of image credits) or circulating work through galleries and fine art prints, which are signed on the back.

Overall, it is up to each individual to decide whether watermarking appeals to them or not. But if one thing is certain, this topic is a heated one precisely because creatives’ work––and its ethics––continues to be undervalued, disrespected, and marginalized in contemporary digital society.

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