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Watermarks: Should You Use Them to Prevent Image Theft?

Should I Use a Watermark?I’ve recently spoken about what is legal and illegal when it comes to content found on the web, but I wanted to dive into this more with a specific talk about images and watermarks.

I’ve seen a few of posts in soapmaking groups on Facebook about stolen images, logos, and the like, and one major thing concerned me…

The sheer number of people who adamantly recommended putting big ole fat watermarks in the center of all product photographs.

No, just no.

Like always, this is my opinion about watermarks specifically on product images and process shots by soapmakers who use these images to sell tangible things. Not photographers. Not artists. Not people who make their income by selling the images themselves.

But here it is: watermarks are entirely pointless, completely distracting, and deter business – simply put, watermarks suck.

Now, now, I know what you are thinking…

Let me explain why I don’t use watermarks:

A watermark on an image does not protect from image theft. At all. Anyone who is going to steal your photos does not give two poo’s if it has a watermark. Thieves don’t follow the rules – that’s why they’re thieves. Plus, anyone with a decent shot in Photoshop can remove a watermark – heck, there are hundreds of tutorials out there on how to exactly do that.

Putting watermarks on your product photography can deter press. I’ve gotten press in both newspapers and blogs, unbeknownst to me until I saw the aftermath (read: sales.) Clearly, if you have a big old fat watermark on your product photos, they’re going to have to get in touch with you to get clean images. If they’re on a tight deadline, or have a ton of options to choose from – what’s the likelihood of them taking that time?

Watermarks detract from ANY photograph, it’s very rare that an image is not hurt by a watermark. They almost always look better without! The first thing you notice when you look at an image should be the content of the image – not a watermark. Plus, a watermark sends this message: You are looking at my work, and I don’t trust you. Totally not what you want people who are looking at your products to feel, right?​

Watermarks encourage agony over your online presence. Wait, what?! So here’s the deal: I was raised with the internet. I’ve been around since the days of chat rooms and text-based websites, I remember teaching a friend how to type in Word Perfect. When you watermark your images, you do so in fear of them being stolen. Fear is a precursor to all kinds of evil nasties like anger and hatred. You are going to be much more pissed off about someone stealing your photo when it carries a watermark then if you hadn’t of watermarked it. The gall of people, am I right?! It’s really difficult to see the internet as a beautiful place when all you see is the darkness, I’m not a fan of living in fear.

Should I use a watermark anyways?

That is always the question I get asked next, so let’s talk over the reasons you might use a watermark:

  • Prevent image theft

Does that about sum it up?

This is why I think watermarks suck, the reasons to use them are few and far in between while the reasons not to use them are sky-high. Some argue they build brand recognition, but your brand and work should speak for itself – that’s real brand recognition.

A Subtle Watermark from Amathia Soapworks
A Subtle Watermark from Amathia Soapworks

There are numerous ways to find your images across the internet, like a Reverse Google Image Search.

If you really want to get technical about watermarking, digital watermarks are just as effective, and services like Digimarc make it easy.

Still want to watermark your product photos? Go for it, no one is going to stop you.

My only reason for writing this is to explain why I usually don’t watermark (sometimes, I still do!) and to hopefully help others really think about what they are doing when they place watermarks on their images.

If you absolutely insist on using a graphic watermark, make it subtle.

Tag the corner of the image, use a small mark, or make it a graphic element of the photo itself. If done well, watermarks are slightly less distracting.

Do you watermark your images? Tell me why you choose to watermark or skip it, and if you think you might change it up in the comments below!

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15 Responses

  1. Hi Kenna. Thanks for this article.

    So would you say that a small logo in the corner is acceptable but not preferable, even for brand recognition? For product photos in an online store, is the logo an absolute no-no or still a maybe?

    As a bit of fun trivia, I learnt to type on a typewriter (a manual, not electric), our first TV was black and white, and I grew up when phones had a dial and we played records not CDs, in a time before the internet and DVDs and Blu-rays … And I’m only in my 40s! So having an online presence can be pretty overwhelming for someone like me and I always appreciate your advice and tips. Thanks again.

    1. Hi Melissa! I recommend a small corner watermark for social media usage if you’d like, but clean photography (no watermarks) in ecommerce settings as a watermark can be a deterrent to press and distraction to customers. It’s completely up to you, though! Just consider all the options and how it will affect your presentation.

      My parents exposed us to pop culture from generations before us, I’m likely one of few people from my generation who has listened to 45s or knows how to operate a rotary phone. 🙂 How times have changed!

  2. I’ve had many images taken once on the internet. After having some 50K images on-line and then removing many I realized I had something worth taking. I can thwart that behavior or use it to my advantage. Now, like Pinterest, I’m grateful when someone commandeers my photography. I ask for a credit/payment/removal and and negotiate one possibility. It seems the nature of copyrights and usage are changing.

    1. Yup, I’d rather manage IP protection when I need to rather than create an extra step from the get-go. If I ever venture into professional photography outside of product photography, I think Creative Commons Non-Commercial Attribution licenses are the way to go.

  3. I’m also not a fan of watermarks and don’t use them on my product photos on my website. As you said, they’re a distraction and really don’t deter people who are bent on stealing them. That being said, I’m considering adding a subtle watermark to images that I post on social media. My intent is for it to serve as a reference for people who like the image but aren’t sure where to find the product.

    1. A subtle watermark on the corner is what I do for some tutorials on Modern Soapmaking, and I (sometimes) create a Pinterest-ready image for quick pinning. 🙂 I can see the benefits in handling watermarks this way – social media has changed the way we need to look at graphics and photographs! It’s the product photos with watermarks that drive me nuts! 🙂

  4. I don’t have watermarks cause I don’t know how to do them. Surprise! Not! lol I have been thinking of learning to do this, only so people can associate the photos with my business and go find it there.

  5. As a relatively new soaper and small business owner, I do not use watermarks on my photos, regardless of where they’re posted. Someone using one of my photos would be a great source of pride for me.

  6. Hi Kenna! I watermark for the social web. Bad thieves won’t bother if they have to clean your image to be usable to them. Good thieves, well, there’s always those so they can’t be worried about. Also I watermark for brand recognition. Sometimes it’s hard to know where an image comes from so a watermark is a nice calling card. I only use clean images on sales pages though.

  7. Hi! I don’t use watermarks for a couple of very simple reasons…. 1) I don’t like them on other photos, and usually won’t share a photo on with a watermark and 2) all of my product photos are so loaded with our own Naturalmente Mediterraneo imagery (logo, soap stamp etc) that I am not bothered if someone borrows and uses… it will be promoting us anyway!! Thanks for the great post! xo Jen

  8. We’ve had images stolen, but it’s such a quick procedure to get them pulled down we haven’t felt the need to watermark them. Most hosting companies are more than willing to pull a site if the offending company doesn’t take them off quickly.

  9. I always always watermark… but not for theft! I attach a ‘brand’ to my photos in the bottom right hand corner, a way people who say ‘oh wow thats cool’ can see it and google me. It reminds me of the page ‘cake fails’. No matter how much someone says they can make the photo they stole… proving it is another thing and bad publicity sucks.

    So I will keep subtly imbedding my business name into their minds (always the same font and style in every pic) and hope they find me.

  10. Yes, I think it’s ok to use inconspicuously as branding. Otherwise it seems kind of pretentious and off-putting to me. I think if someone used my photo, I would see it as a compliment.

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