Watermarks are a much debated topic in the photography community. If you go on Reddit, Facebook, or any of the other numerous venues for online discussion you will find many threads on this issue. Some people will insist that they are ugly and take away from the image while others will insist that you are putting yourself at risk of image theft. Either point of view will be insisted upon as gospel.
I myself have gone back and forth on how I feel about them. I have gone through periods where I placed them on my images, and have gone through even longer periods where I was in the camp insisting they are ugly.
Now to be clear, I am only talking about watermarks on images to be shared online. I have never and will never, ever put a watermark on a print. There is no reason for that.
Watermarks Are Ugly
This is a argument that certainly can be true. In many cases they are quite distracting from the image. When the watermark is large, they appear multiple times over the image, and/or they are placed in the center of the image, then I definitely agree they are quite unattractive. This is a good deterrent for portrait photographers whose pricing depends on client’s purchasing watermark free images. Then I see why you would want this type of watermark on client proofs. Landscape images, however, see less benefit from this. I have seen images online that are very nice if not for the huge watermark right in the center of the image. When I see that, all I can look at is the watermark and it takes away from the image.
However., when watermark is well thought out I think they can be acceptable. Nowadays you can make (or purchase) very nice watermarks that have your name or your business name in an attractive script or clean font. I actually like watermarks like this are placed in a corner or at the bottom of an image at a fairly low opacity. It is almost like signing a print and can make images look more professional in my personal opinion.
Watermarks Protect Your Image
While unauthorized usage of images is running rampant on the internet, I don’t know if I totally buy this argument. If you have a nice, clean watermark that I described above then they are so easily photoshopped out. A simple content-aware fill or crop will take care of it.
The only way a watermark will protect your image is if you have multiple watermarks all over the image that would make cropping or content-aware fill difficult if not impossible. The image is protected, but it’s also filled with distracting watermarks and viewers will not want to look at your image.
What really protects your image is registering them with the US Copyright Office. If your images are registered it will be much easier to claim infringement if your images are stolen. But to be quite honest, I think few people ever have images stolen where losses would be substantial. That is reserved for bigger fish than you or me.
I have never had any images stolen and used commercially without my consent. Sure I can see in my Google Analytics when someone digs in to my website code to snag an image, but this is I am sure nothing more than someone looking for a new desktop background.
My Current Opinion of Watermarks
Taking these things in to account, I have begun placing watermarks on my images shared online. My watermark is small, neat, and low opacity placed at the bottom center of my image. I started placing them because I feel it is akin to adding my signature to it. Putting my name on my images in a classy way shows that I am proud of my work.
The other reason for this is pretty Facebook specific. Obviously anyone using my work for commercial reasons without my approval would get a different reaction. Most people, I feel, just want to share photos they like with their own friends either as a post or as their profile cover photo. I am totally OK with that! I am extremely happy that people like my work enough to share it with their friends. But some people may not quite understand that there is a share button and will hit right click>download and then share that copy. That’s where a watermark comes in. Their friends will know who took that photo and may seek my page out and become new fans. That’s awesome!
Here is an example of an image with my watermark:
This is just my personal (and admittedly fluid) opinion on watermarks. You may feel differently and that’s OK. But whether you agree or not, I would be interested to know what you think. Feel free to voice your opinion in the comments below!