Watermarking digital images is an issue that every serious photographer with an online presence will have to work out for themselves. There are certainly reasons to watermark and reasons to not watermark. The outcome is largely dependent on the type of photography you do, the likelihood of someone stealing the images and your potential loss. Many successful photographers place large watermarks on their images and many do not have any, choosing to use clean unbranded images for their websites.
Hot button issue: deciding if your should (or shouldn't) watermark your photography work.
Why you should: 3 good reasons to watermark
The top reason that photographers have for watermarking is marketing and branding. As viewers and prospective clients look through your photos, they are consistently greeted with your name or logo, reminding them of the authorship of the work. If the images get reposted to another site or forwarded along in an email, your name or logo stays with it, constantly reminding people of the fact that you created the photo.
Another top reason is protection from theft. Thieves have plenty of opportunity to do the wrong thing with so many images online. You might have just the image that someone has been looking for. That person may decide that the image is high enough quality for their purposes and the chances of them being caught are low enough to make it worth stealing. Images without a watermark are that much easier to steal, and images with small watermarks can simply be photoshopped back to their original, unwatermarked, condition.
The third big reason to watermark is social media. Users of social media love to share photos and rarely consider citing authorship of photos as they spread the imagery around. If someone were to swipe one of your photos from a website and upload it to Facebook, it could end up getting reposted to Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest without you ever knowing—and with no one ever knowing who created the photo in the first place.
Why you shouldn't: 4 good reasons to avoid watermarking
The top reason for not watermarking your images is to keep distracting elements off of your photos and letting the work speak for itself. Large watermarks or poorly placed watermarks can degrade the presentation of your photography. If people are focused on your watermarks and not your photos, it can keep them from engaging with your work.
Also, creating watermarks takes time. If you post a lot of imagery to your website or social media you must consider the additional step or steps in takes to get the watermark on and in a way that doesn’t mess with the beauty or essence of the image. Using Lightroom or Photoshop actions definitely can help with this, but time must be allotted in advance.
To some people, watermarking appears arrogant, as if your ego requires you to plaster your name in bold letters across every image. For some viewers, this is a turn-off and may keep some people from appreciating your work.
Lastly, not all subject matters require watermarks. If your genre of photography or type of website doesn’t need a watermark you shouldn’t use one. Perhaps your subject is something no one would ever repurpose or sell. Perhaps your website displays images at such a small size that the chance of someone reusing such a tiny image is ridiculously low. Think about whether a watermark is really necessary for your type of work.
Editorial thoughts: My personal preference
Personally, I use watermarks only on social media. I realize that there is a chance someone could steal images from my website and pass them off as their own, but I prefer a clean look. However, I do own the copyright to the images on my site, so if someone started making money off the images or using them in a way that was detrimental to my business, I would have the right to demand compensation or take them to court.
On social media, I think people are used to seeing watermarks and understand that they are there to identify authorship and keep viral images from becoming orphan works.