Protecting Your Images: Why Watermarking Matters and How to Do It Easily

Cheetah_WatermarkedKeeping up with all the ways images can be stolen sometimes seems like a losing battle. For each mechanism to prevent un-authorized downloading of copyrighted images there is a workaround quickly found by thieves. Through it all one fairly simple technique has stood the test of time—Watermarking. This was driven home again this week. Let’s talk about why you may want to watermark your images and about how you can do it easily without getting  in the way of legitimate sales…

First I want to share with you a story from this morning. I had posted images from my last Africa Photo Safari/Workshop on SmugMug (which I use along with Phanfare and Flickr), and placed a link to them on my site. Today I was checking the Viewer statistics (of course I’m always curious which images are being viewed the most and how people find them) and somewhat surprisingly found a lot of referrals from a site called “”—which I’d never heard of. Apparently they harvest popular images from photo sharing sites & display them in full color full size galleries on their site for people to vote for their favorites. I went to the site and there really wasn’t any way to search for an image or a copyright holder, but a little surfing revealed that the Cheetah image you see below was one of their “favorites” of the week and had been posted in about 800 x 600 resolution straight off SmugMug.

Cheetah from our recent Africa Photo Safari

Fortunately this image was automatically watermarked with our logo by SmugMug so
when it appeared on other websites at least everyone knew where it was from and that it was protected.

In what has to be at best a borderline swipe at legality instead of actually listing the copyright holder for each image they merely state “Photo Copyrighted by Owner.” In a sop to the lawyers no doubt they do let clicks on the image flow through to the original posting. Now in one sense this is all pretty cool and not much worse than any other image search engine—it can generate interest and exposure for photographers and photographs and in theory doesn’t generate any economic harm—unless someone steals the image. For example, my images on SmugMug are protected from the simple right-click download/save image command, but the version on winningpic wasn’t. Frankly I don’t really know exactly how they get the images in the first place since they are listed as protected, but of course there are plenty of ways to grab any image that is on your screen.

Hot-air Balloon being inflated in Bagan, Myanmar from our recent Southeast Asia Photo Safari

This image is one I copyrighted myself on my PC using DigitalPro,
but I could have just as easily used Photoshop or Lightroom.

That’s where watermarking comes in. Fortunately I’ve been in the habit of watermarking all my commercial images that get posted to the web for several years. The watermark serves more than one function. First it allows any interested buyer to know exactly who owns the image and where to look for rights to it. Second it makes it that much harder to pirate the image—and very much harder for a pirate to claim ignorance.

Watermarking Without the Downsides

The tricky part for anyone who also wants to sell prints or digital originals of their images is how to do watermarking without ruining the commercial potential of the image. Stock agencies have added their watermarks for photographers which is a great solution for those selling through them, and CBS Interactive watermarks my sports images, but what about images you want to sell or market yourself? I used to have to have two versions of each image—one watermarked using DigitalPro software or Photoshop and one “virgin” for sale.

But now the high-end photo sharing sites have added a great new tool for putting your watermark on your images when they are displayed but of course not on any prints that are purchased. Phanfare and SmugMug both provide this service on a gallery by gallery basis, although with different approaches.


Here is an example of the automatic watermarking from Phanfare.
You can place the watermark in the center or at the bottom.

Phanfare allows you to specify watermark text and lets you choose whether to place the watermark in the center or at the bottom. This is quick and easy, but a little limited as it only allows text watermarks. SmugMug’s is much more flexible but a little harder to set up. You create a small image (ideally a PNG with transparent background) and then you can apply it to your desired images in one of a number of locations. The image can of course include text and graphics so once you’ve gone to the trouble to create it you have complete creative control (like the CardinalPhoto logo I use). The only frustration I had with the SmugMug solution was that I couldn’t easily resize the watermark once I created it so I had to keep making new PNG files until I got the right size.

Note that automatic watermarking is one of the features that helps differentiate the “pro” image sharing offerings from those which are aimed only at a consumer audience. For example, I haven’t found any way to automatically watermark images for Flickr or Picasa [of course you can manually add the watermark and upload it] while Phanfare and SmugMug do feature it—although of course they are subscription based services ranging from $29-$200/year depending on the features you are looking for.


Watermarking Tips

As you’ve noticed from the examples I’ve used there are lots of different types of watermarks and locations where they can be placed. In deciding where and how to watermark your images you first need to decide on your priorities. If you are mostly interested in sharing your images and keeping honest people honest a simple text watermark at the bottom on the left or right is perfect.

If you’d like to be a little more creative and help highlight your own style then a graphic watermark in the corner will also work. If you want to be particular you can even more the watermark around to find a location where the color of the background contrasts with the color of the watermark.

Instead if you are primarily concerned about protecting the image, large watermarks in the center of the image are ideal. These are almost impossible to crop out. In this case you’ll almost certainly want to make the watermark somewhat transparent so as not to ruin the view of the image. This type of watermark is very common among stock agencies and large corporate image libraries.

In my case I’ve used a combination of small text copyrights and more recently a semi-transparent but slightly larger logo graphic, both at the bottom of the image. For me that seems like a good compromise between ultimate protection and perfect views of the image.

One quick tip for text copyrights is to use the “©” symbol instead of the word Copyright. This looks a little more professional and takes less room. A simple way to do that is to use Word and the Insert->Symbol command to create the symbol and then copy and paste it into the text field where you are typing your watermark.

Whichever method you prefer make sure you’re not getting ripped off without even knowing it and think seriously about a watermarking strategy!—David

As always if you’d like to learn more we invite you to our website or to join us for one of our photo safaris.

Joined: 2006-05-20


Awesome article on copyright...have never given it much though....then i saw the number of

views of my photos on the speed tv website...I just posted them there really not thinking

and would have been extremely upset if somebody used them...but the fault would be mine

thanks again

doug p


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