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Why I sign my photos, and why I watermark

Watermark vs signature

First, a little clarification. A watermark is not a signature. Here is an example of a photo of mine that displays both. My signature ("WILLIAM PORTER PHOTOGRAPHY") is clearly visible along the lower right side of the photo. The watermark is also in plain sight. Can you see it?

The signature says something

A signature is always at least partially a form of branding. But on my photos the signature is mainly a statement. It says, I took this photo and I'm proud of it.

I don't put my signature on every photo. I use it mainly on images that I am, in fact, proud of, and even then, mainly on images that may be seen at larger sizes: images that might appear on my portfolio (the "best of" on my web site) and images that are printed at, say, 8" x 10" or larger. I admit I haven't had a firm, consistent policy about that in the past, but that's where I've been going for a while. The signature on a small print (or a small image viewed on the computer) simply isn't visible enough to be worth it.

The watermark does something

If the signature says something ("This photo is by me"), the watermark does something. It deters theft. At least, it tries to.

Actually, the watermark is just one part in my anti-theft strategy. Copyright info is embedded in all my images (in the IPTC data), and on the websites where my images are displayed, I've almost always disabled the easy "save image as" option. But eliminating the save-as option doesn't prevent somebody from taking a screenshot; and the resulting screen capture file won't contain my embedded copyright info.

Which is where the watermark comes in. A screenshot will display the watermark, because, unlike my signature, the watermark is smack in the middle where it can't be cropped out. The image above, in fact, is a screen shot that I took myself and the watermark is present, across this beautiful bride's shoulders. It says "© WILLIAM PORTER". Do you see it now?

The difficult balance

It's easy to understand why some photographers don't watermark their images: To a greater or lesser degree, the watermark inevitably mars the image. Some photographers would rather accept a slightly higher risk of having their image stolen, in order to present the image more beautifully on screen.

That's why I make it subtle. I want my watermark to be visible if you look for it, but easy to overlook if you don't. I want it to discourage a thief, but diminish the online view of the photo no more than necessary. On the photo above, the watermark is almost too subtle. If you still don't see it, look closely at the bride's dark hair, below and just to the left of her chin. On a darker image, it would be more noticeable, perhaps even too noticeable. Can't be helped. I don't have time to watermark every image individually. So I have tried to come up with a watermark that works tolerably well with any image.

And there is a difference between me and some photographers. For some photographers, the digital image is the real image, the way a digital music file (what you download from iTunes) is the song. If I felt that way, I wouldn't want to watermark my images, either. It would be like putting a painting behind a plexiglass security shield.

But my view is that an image viewed online is almost inevitably marred, even without watermarks, because computer displays are so variable in resolution, gamma, color fidelity, sharpness. For me, the digital image is just a sort of proof, a copy. The real photo is a print, and of course, I don't watermark my prints! Watermarking is just for onscreen use.

Digital image theft: a big problem with no solution in sight

Content theft — including image theft — is a serious, common problem on the Internet. I've had images stolen and so have a large number of photographer I know, including outstanding beach wedding photographer Booray Perry in Florida, and even international maestro Jerry Ghionis. A couple of photography articles (with images) that I had published through IDG's TechHive (IDG owns Macworld, PCWorld, etc) were lifted lock, stock and barrel by a loser with a blog. When I noticed, I mentioned it to my editor, who mentioned it to the lawyers at IDG, who mentioned it to the loser in question — in a way that caused the stolen content to be taken down immediately. It's nice to have the legal team of a major publishing concern on your side. But most of us, most of the time, don't have that kind of assistance.

Google will lead you to scores of articles about how to prevent image theft. But as I said above, in the end, the best you can do now is discourage it. You can make it hard to do by accident. You can make it awkward to do on purpose. But you can't prevent it completely.

I don't know if the future will hold a solution to this problem. Google's image search is a start.

Note 1. Yes, somebody could in theory use Photoshop or Acorn or some similar pixel-level image-editing app to remove the watermark. But thieves aren't just dishonest, they're also by definition lazy. 

Note 2. The term "watermark" comes from the making of paper. We don't use a lot of paper these days, and when we do, we don't use very good paper. But if you buy some really nice paper, try holding it sideways to the light, and look for the manufacturer's water. On paper, the watermark ironically is a guarantee of quality.


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