7 reasons why you should stop using watermarks NOW

Recently, we held a roundtable on the topic of social media. One thing that came up was the use of watermarks (putting your logo or name on your photo.)

My verdict, from over 20 years in the photography industry, was clear.  “NO! Do not use watermarks.” I promised to write an entire post to convince you, the reader, to never use a watermark again.

**EDIT** due to the incredible amount of feedback on this post, I want to make one thing clear: This is my opinion. Do what works best for you. I want this post to serve as a jumping off point on alternative ways to protect and promote your work. The watermark is akin to ‘spot color‘ for me. It worked well during it’s time, but there are new and better ways to protect your work such as this and this.

1. Watermarks DO NOT Protect You From Piracy

There are apps out there that will remove watermarks in just a few clicks. If your watermark is toward the edge of the photo it is even easier. A thief can simply crop the watermark or logo out of the image. In no way, shape or form, does a simple watermark protect you. The only exception to this is a full image watermark, the kind that stock photography companies use to protect images. These are impossible to remove completely.

 

One of many apps available in the App Store made specifically to remove photographer watermarks.

 

2. You Don’t need a Watermark to Appear Professional

The second reason many photographers use watermarks is that it makes them feel professional. Most well-known wedding or commercial photographers I admire don’t use a watermark. In fact, a large poorly designed watermark is one of the things I see as a sign that a photographer is just starting out. Having consistently high-quality work is what makes you appear professional. If you do have a watermark I urge you to have a designer help you create it and to keep it small and unobtrusive.

I’m guilty of using watermarks during my first few years in wedding photography. I stopped when I realized it detracted from my work and was a pain to place on every photo. Look at the photographers you admire, the very best, and see if they use watermarks. I’ll bet you many don’t.

Can you imagine the legendary Henri Cartier-Bresson ruining his careful compositions with a watermark? © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

3. Watermarks Hurt Your Chances of Getting Published or Featured

Watermarks hinder the opportunities for getting shared because they make it impossible for companies, blogs, and social media channels (like our Mastin Labs Instagram account) to feature your work. When we look for images hashtagged #mastinlabs, any watermark makes us skip over the image. Watermarks are just plain ugly and go against the brand image we are cultivating. This translates over to wedding blogs, lifestyle blogs, magazines and more. No one wants your watermark. No one.

4. No One Can Read Your Watermark Anyway

Watermarks are often impossible to read. Especially if you use any kind of calligraphy font. No one is going to see your itsy bitsy watermark and say “I want to hire this photographer! Now, I’m going to spend the next few minutes figuring out what the logo says, and then search blindly through Google to find the photographer.” If someone wants to credit you they will in the caption or post. Preferably with a link directly to your website. If you do use a watermark make sure it is easily legible at very small sizes. If it isn’t legible it only diminishes your work.

5. A Watermark Ruins the Composition of Your Photo

You’ve spent thousands of dollars on gear and years of your life to get that perfect shot with a composition that draws you into the image. Why on earth would you put a distracting watermark across your photo? The majority of watermarks look ugly at a tiny size. The only thing that should be added to the image is your signature on the white border around the image when you print it out and sign it personally as a limited edition print. This is the only classy way to add to a perfect image. It actually adds value! (If you do want to use a watermark I suggest placing it vertically along one side so as to not distract the viewer.)

John Robert Rowlands signs a limited edition print of David Bowie ‘The Archer.’ His signature actually increases the value of the print.

6. A Watermark is not a Signature

Many artists sign their work. Painters sign their paintings, and photographers sign prints. This is not the same as a watermark. The point of the signature is to assure the authenticity of the painting or print. A signature is never very prominent on a painting, and prints are signed around the edge in the margin. Why? So as to not detract from the piece itself. A watermark floating somewhere ON the photo draws attention away from experiencing the photo as it was meant to be experienced.

7. It’s Really Hard to Keep Your Logo up to Date

This is a great point brought up by one of our community members, Chris Brashear. As your brand evolves, so will your logo. Imagine having to dig up all your old photos and re-watermarking them to match your current logo. It is nearly impossible. And if you don’t replace your previously watermarked photos with your updated watermarks, your brand becomes diluted and confused.

Alternatives to Watermarking

The conundrum is this: You want to protect your work as much as possible no matter how it is shared and re-shared online. But you don’t want to add a distracting element to your photo.

Fortunately there are some great watermark alternatives available:

Google Image Search (free)
TinEye.com (free & paid)
ImageRaider (free & paid)
Digimarc (paid)

Each of these services will search the internet for unauthorized use of your image. Should you search to see if someone is using EVERY image you post? No. That would take forever, and not all of your photos are really that valuable. But for your very best photos or photos that are newsworthy, these services are a great way to track down misuse and pursue legal action.

Don’t Forget

Be sure to add your copyright information to the Metadata in your images. You can do this in Lightroom upon import and this metadata travels with your photo no matter where it goes.

Once you’ve created your basic copyright metadata just select it in the side panel when you import new photos. Once the metadata is written you’ve added an additional layer of protection to your photo, ruling out any ‘Fair Use’ claims the thief may claim based on not knowing the author of the photo.

Best Practices for Using a Watermark

So I haven’t convinced you to abandon the watermark? I respect that, you do you.
You can be successful with or without a watermark. In my personal journey as a photographer, abandoning the watermark helped my career. For others, results may vary.

If you do use a watermark here are my best practice suggestions:

1. Keep your watermark simple and monochromatic. (No color and minimal use of graphics.)
2. Keep it as small as possible while being legible. Can you read it well at 2084 on the long side? (Facebook sized.) The example above is even smaller at 900px wide.
3. Use a vertical watermark. It is still legible but the viewer won’t get distracted trying to read it every time they view the photo.
4. Put your watermark on the edge of the photo. Yes, it’s easier to crop out, but it serves its main purpose and those that want to remove your watermark will remove it no matter where it is placed.

Further reading on watermarks:

Pro Watermark
Should you Watermark Your Images? (SLR Lounge)
Why This Photographer Thinks You Should Watermark Your Photos (Lightstalking)
Establish Ownership of Your Photos by Creating a Simple Visible Watermark (Digital Trends)

Anti Watermark
Should I Watermark My images? (Jeremy Chou)
The Debate Over Watermarks in Photography (FStoppers)
Watermarking Woes and Why I Share Freely (Katelyn James)
What if Famous Photos Were Ruined by Annoying Watermarks? (Kip Praslowicz)

YOUR TURN!

Let me know what you think about watermarks in the comments below!

We are open to hearing why you want to keep your watermark. I believe your work deserves to be displayed distraction-free so I implore you to stop using a watermark! Being watermark free will only propel you further in your career. Plus it gets us one step closer to a watermark-free world. Or at least a world with small, unobtrusive watermarks.

 

Kirk Mastin
Kirk Mastin is the founder and CEO of Mastin Labs. He has shot for the New York Times, LA Times, and has work featured in National Geographic Adventure and Time magazine. Prior to founding Mastin Labs in 2013, Kirk shot weddings on digital and film with his company Mastin Studio.