To Watermark or Not To Watermark, That is the Question

Following the After School Special panel discussion at SooVAC, I had a woman ask me questions about how I protect my work and if watermarking was worthwhile. I wrote a guest blog on Local Artist Interview’s website all about options for protecting your work such as copyrighting. I wanted to further investigate watermarking and what real working professionals thought about using watermarking in their images.

I talked to Noelle Bakken, long time board member at Altered Esthetics gallery in Northeast Minneapolis. She is the current co-treasurer but has also been the artist liaison there. Noelle is a photographer and does photoshoots for engagements, weddings and more. I also had the chance to talk with Michael McGraw, founder of Local Artist Interviews. Mike is also a photographer. Both artists helped me by answering some of my questions on watermarking.

Watermark: A watermark is a visible mark on a digital photo or image consisting of text, a logo, or a copyright notice (c), which is used  identify the work and discourage its unauthorized use and theft.

Its a Fun Day When You’re a Sundae, 2012

Copyright symbol in right bottom corner

Kate: Hi Noelle and Mike! My first question is if you use watermarks in your work?

Mike: For my own photography, I used to add my name in the corner of each image when I posted images online for work that people were likely to buy or if I thought the photos might lead to more recognition, mainly my wedding photography and roller derby images. I preferred to use the copyright symbol and my name rather than a watermark because I think posting a degraded image online does the work a disservice. I dislike how it looks.

Noelle: While I generally dislike watermarks, I do use them regularly. I particularly like to use them on Facebook for marketing & branding purposes, so that when my photos are shared there, my name is still on them. Unfortunately, watermarks can only go so far – I can’t control whether clients will crop out the watermark if they use one of my images as a Facebook profile picture. Some photographers opt to place a watermark over or very near a critical part of the photo (covering part of a face, for example) so it can’t be cropped out as easily.


Kate: Mike, have you experienced getting images from artists submitting to Local Artist Interviews with watermarks or copyright symbols on them?

Mike McGraw: For LAI, I think only one person has given me any images that were watermarked– a photographer who had copyright symbol and his name at the bottom of the image.


Kate: Noelle, is there a way to make sure that images cannot be stolen even if there is a watermark on the image.

Noelle: Ultimately, if anther photographer (or would-be photographer) is bound and determined to plagiarize your work, it’s difficult to find a 100% fool-proof method to prevent them from doing so. If you have a watermark, they will attempt to clone it out. If you have disabled the right-click option from your site, they will screen capture the image. There’s one studio that has recently stolen work from nearly 40 photographers (examples here –, many of whom HAD watermarked their images.


I’d Tap That, 2012,

Watermarked with artist’s name across art piece

Kate: In addition to watermarking, what are some other ways you protect your images?

Mike: I do not protect my work in any way, but I believe that in a dispute, my original files will show that I am the true owner of any images that might be stolen from me. A watermark would likely protect against someone using the image for any commercial endeavor since it seems pretty hard to photoshop out a watermark. Because it is a lot of work to watermark images, in my experience, I limit the size of the images that I put online. That’s my way to prevent against someone taking my image and making a print for their wall. There wouldn’t be enough data in my online jpgs to print anything larger than a 4×6.

Noelle: I have a line in my contract that indicates all images remain co-property of my studio and I may use them as I see fit for my website, advertising, etc. All clients must initial that line to indicate that they understand the terms. I also provide my clients with a print release (if they are receiving high resolution digital files and not ordering prints from me) that further specifies that the client may use and print the photos for personal purposes but may not use the image in any way that would result in personal gain (stock photography being one example).

I am moving away from using watermarks on my photos in blog posts, since ultimately I feel they distract the viewer from the images and the story I’m trying to tell. I am working on a new website behind the scenes where one new protective feature will prevent viewers from being able to right-click and save images from blog posts.


Kate: While this is only two perspectives from two professionals, as a working visual artist myself I believe that watermarking or other written and visual marking on images to prevent copyright infringement can provide a false sense of security. While some measures may prevent image theft, if someone is really intent on taking or using an image they will do so. That’s when additional eduation on what steps to take next are in order. Educate yourself on cease and decist letters. From experience, they work and tend to get people moving pretty quick when you throw some laws and statue numbers in front of them. Learn how to properly size images for website and internet use. Also teach yourself about the different ways to protect your art work, such as  registering copyright or using a Creative Commons license.

Feel free to add your comments and insights on watermarking and image theft prevention!




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