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The Case Against the Photo Watermark


Inevitably a time will come around when a budding photographer decides to start “taking this seriously,” “discouraging image theft,” and (my personal favorite), “gaining exposure.” And they do this, of course, with a watermark.

Now mind you, before I get to the nitty-gritty of why this is BS, I’ll cover the surface level problem with this.

First, 9/10 watermarks made by a beginner look horrendous. Too big, too small, too opaque, too transparent, or gaudy. Not to mention most beginners haven’t settled into a legitimate business name by the time they start watermarking images. So ten years later they can look back at their Facebook images with that wonderful, neon pink, floral-designed “elegant memorable captures Dixie memory precious flowers” and recall with pride their humble beginnings.

Moving past the obvious, let’s assume the photographer has set into this business of photography with a sound mind and has all the ducks in a row, and a well-vetted name on which to build a brand (which is arguably entirely another topic.)

Now, this photographer is traipsing around local photography circles, showing off images either for praise or critique, with some plastered logo and mark across the image, unconcerned with the implied notion behind the mark.

Are the other photographers potential clients?

Are we who you’re marketing your brand to?

Are we thieves looking to steal your work?

Will we take you more seriously because you put some text onto the image in Photoshop and dropped the opacity?

The answer typically to these questions is “no.”

No, we aren’t your clients or target market.

We don’t want your work (we take pride in our own art).

And, rather than take you seriously, we may take you less seriously after seeing the flaw, or worse yet, we may dig harder into your work seeing how confident you are in your legitimacy. (Think of that what you may.)

The misled thinking primarily behind the beginner’s watermark is that somehow the watermark legitimizes the photographer and their work. That somehow clients along with other fellow photographers will take you more seriously because of a watermark. Not by the quality of your work, the time you’ve invested, the extensive marketing and grinding you’ve done for self-promotion. Nope, a watermark is the path to legitimacy.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Small hint: Clients don’t care about your watermark unless it’s obstructing their ability to gauge if they like your work or not.

Bigger hint: Photographers who’ve been around awhile will spot the error from a mile away and perhaps have even less likelihood of respecting you based on the idea you’re projecting. Which is that titles, not hard work, are what makes a photographer.

If you’re doing work for a steal that’s going to gain a lot of exposure (REAL exposure), watermark away.

If you’re sending images for a client to mull over before purchasing, sure, place a watermark.

Don’t be fooled, however: watermarks don’t deter theft. A larger watermark perhaps makes it harder to remove, but keep in mind that the displeasing effect it will have on potential viewers counteracts any potential benefit.

If you want a real “watermark”: develop a brand, a personalized style, so that when anyone sees a picture you’ve taken, it’s unmistakable who took that image.

Because after all, that’s the true sign of a photographer digging their heels in and doing the work.

About the author: Michael Reynolds is a photographer who’s part of the photography duo working as Lucky Sparrows. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Reynolds also runs a popular photography group on Facebook called Photography Advice & Education. You can find more of Lucky Sparrows’ work on their website, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.