The Great Photo Watermark Debate

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My current Watermark – less obtrusive than the old one

As often as I post something on line, I can somewhat expect that every few photos, I’m going to get a comment about my watermark.  No one ever seems to compliment my watermark.  Quite the contrary:  I will read advice to remove it, complaints that it ruins the photo and so on.  And so every few months, the debate breaks out again and so far I’ve held my ground:  I am a watermark person.  I like having them on my photos and so I expect to continue.  But that hasn’t stopped me from revisiting how I present my watermarks.  And of course I’ll get into that, but let me once again revisit why I am an advocate for watermarks…

Why I Use Watermarks

Bear in mind that everyone has different reasons for or against something a subjective as watermarks.  And so my reason and purpose for using them may differ from your own.  I’m not looking to persuade you to consider them for yourself.  But I do think there’s a lot to be learned from understanding why someone would choose to use a watermark.  And so you’ll note that the subtitle for this section is “Why I…” (not you).

So, I want to first point out that I don’t watermark to protect my intellectual property.  It’s not that I don’t feel the need to protect my photos, but I don’t think that watermarks are anything more than a deterrent.  Possibly a better solution is to use an image search tool such as TinEye, though it limited in what it will find.  There are also image protection services that – for a subscription fee – will keep you informed if someone were to post iterations of your works somewhere on the vast web.  That all is outside the scope of this article and so I won’t dwell on the fact.  Suffice to say that the watermark is the basement level of copyright protection.  It’s not foolproof unless the watermark were so blatant as to completely destroy the image, and what’s the point of that?

And so I use watermarking simply to inform people.  My photos are on Flickr, 500px and all corners of the web.  But none of those collections are as organized or as well curated as my personal website, and I really want people to visit there.  Better yet, if they want to commission me or purchase some of my work, even more of a reason why I want them to find my page.  So the watermark is, to me, a branding and business development tool.  For those of you who might be naysayers, let me say that the majority of my work is word of mouth, but a good chunk of it comes to me thanks to my watermarks.  Even if it only accounted for 5-10% of my work (and that’s about where it sits for my estimates), that’s enough of a reason for me to keep the watermark around.

Evolution of My Watermark

A previous iteration of my watermark – not as legible, more disruptive

I do read all the comments and I do listen to constructive criticism (what kind of artist would I be if I did not).  While I am not likely to change my opinion on the use of watermarks, when someone is complaining about them, I at least try to understand what the real underlying issue might be.  It’s like the old tale of the elevator engineer who was called in to fix the so-called “slow” elevator in a skyscraper.  There wasn’t anything he could do, but he did install mirrors in the elevator and people stopped complaining.  The thing is that the mirrors gave them something to do in the elevator, and who doesn’t at least check their appearance while they’re climbing the floors vertically?  I approached my watermarks in much the same way.

Way back when, I actually used to do a watermark over the center of the photo.  This was an attempt to curb piracy at the time, but my beliefs have changes in that regard and so has my watermark.  I’m sorry to say I don’t have any examples to show you.  I moved from there to a sideways ‘N’ rune logo that you can see here at the right.  This was my logo for a while, and so it fit as a watermark.  But there were three major problems:

  1. With slanted letters, the logo itself had to be large to be legible.
  2. The rune is a big, bold feature and at the size that would accommodate legibility of my name, it did become overpowering.
  3. Even ghosted, There seemed to be an unbalanced feel between my name and the rune.  As a logo on white space, it felt okay…but as a watermark, it didn’t work.

After some deliberation, I recently revised my watermark – and my logo, for that matter – to reflect the one shown on the photo at the top of this article.  The rune still exists, but it is now an anchor and it is much smaller.  With a horizontal orientation, my name can afford to be a bit smaller while still maintaining legibility.  But the biggest improvement is that it had a much shorter profile that didn’t seem as distracting for most of my photos.  In fact, I have actually been inserting them at a much more opaque level, and it still seems less obtrusive.

It may be too soon to tell, but I have asked a few of my watermark critics what they thought, and they agree it is an improvement.  While our philosophies continue to conflict, at least I feel we’re getting to a happy medium where my logo is not so much of a nuisance.  That is essentially what I was aiming to do.  I don’t want my watermark to be in the way or disruptive.  That’s not completely possible – I still want it on my photos – but it’s shouldn’t reduce my photo’s quality.

Your Turn

Now it’s your turn to jump into the debate.  As always, I’d like to hear your thoughts for or against watermarks and your reasoning.  Moreso, I’m curious if you think the evolution of my watermark is moving in the right direction.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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