Watermarking Images for the Web

by Alan Haynes / PhotoCitizen on July 30, 2010

Photos displayed on the web are easy targets for image thieves. If you feature your photos on your website, blog, Flickr or other public site, there isn’t much you can do to block these bandits. Limit the damage by using watermarks.

What’s a Watermark?

A watermark is an image superimposed over a photo so that it becomes part of the photo.

Its main purpose is to serve notice to viewers of the image that ownership of the photo belongs to the image creator and that the photo is not to be used without permission.

A good text watermark

A Good Text Watermark

In the old days, photographers would rubber-stamp the word “PROOF” on their prints before handing them to clients so that the client had to come to the photographer for copies. Watermarks are the equivalent in the digital world.

The watermark can be simple text, your logo, a large copyright symbol, or a clip-art image. It can be positioned anywhere on the photo: dead center, along an edge, or it can be repeated over the entire photo.

Although watermarks can be completely opaque, they’re usually semi-transparent so that the image can be viewed through the watermark. White is the most useful color for a watermark.

Why Use Watermarks?

If you upload images to the web, your images will be copied and used by others without your authorization. There’s nothing you can do about it. There are a few techniques to minimize the impact of these copyright infringements:

  1. You can upload relatively small and low-quality jpegs, for example. This will make the image less useful for publishing to print, but these low-resolution, compressed images are just what web publishers and social networkers are looking for.
  2. You can disable the ability to right-click on an image and save it. This will stymie only the least sophisticated users. Others will use screen-capture software such as Techsmith’s Snag It to capture the image from their monitor. Anything viewed on-screen can be captured and saved using screen-capture software.
  3. You can upload your images as part of a Flash movie. It’s beyond most users’ ability to pilfer a Flash movie, but with Snag It, they can capture individual images as they appear on screen. If your Flash movie uses pan-and-zoom effects to keep images constantly in motion, a screen capture is more difficult to accomplish.
  4. You can watermark your images.

Watermark Ins and Outs

With a watermark, your images are less useful to infringers. The guy from ImagePirates.com (not a real site), isn’t likely to display an image with a big watermark across it that says “© AlanHaynes.com.” And even if he does use it, the watermark acts as advertising for the creator’s website. If you plan to make your images publicly viewable, that’s about the best you can hope for.

Some people dislike watermarks because they obscure their beautiful photographs. To be effective, a watermark must be visible, so it will be a bit distracting. Done properly with the right amount of transparency, however,  this distraction can be minimized.

Ineffective watermark.

Ineffective Watermark

An effective watermark needs to be applied some distance in from the edge of a photo so that it cannot be easily cropped out. I usually place mine around 70 or 80 pixels up from the bottom and stretch it all the way across the image.

If someone were to crop the image to remove the watermark, they’d lose about half the image. And, because this placement usually causes the watermark to overlap some detailed areas of the photo, removing the watermark by cloning it out in Photoshop would be prohibitively time-consuming.

PhotoShelter.com watermark

PhotoShelter Watermark

Watermarks are a trade-off between photo quality and image security. The good news is that professional image buyers are accustomed to seeing watermarks. In a 2009 survey done by PhotoShelter.com, publication media buyers found unobtrusive watermarks acceptable. Download the entire free report here.

(If you decide to sign up for a Photoshelter account – and I highly recommend that you do – use this link to save $30.)

Watermarking on Alamy

Alamy Watermark

Some professional websites, such as my stock photography agency, Alamy, add watermarks automatically. These are obtrusive with an X across the entire image. Image buyers can easily remove the watermark by logging in to their Alamy account.

Photoshelter offers an option to add a watermark to each image. You design and upload the watermark and place it where you want. It’s a one time process and can be easily applied to your images.

On these sites, you’ll upload a non-watermarked image. It’s a real time saver since it eliminates one step from our workflow.

Watermarking Best Practices

The best watermarks share these characteristics:

  • Small size. Although large watermarks provide more security for your images, viewers prefer smaller watermarks that don’t cover up too much of the image.
  • Light color. Stick with an all-white watermark.
  • G0325C9066-joshua-tree-lightpainting-color-watermark

    Color logo watermark

  • Transparency of 50% or less. You want the watermark to be legible but unobtrusive. The transparent watermark will look different depending on the photo it’s attached to. It will be more visible on a less-detailed background such as a blue sky. You’ll have to experiment with your own photos to find a happy medium.
  • Place the watermark near an edge. Not too close, though. You don’t want to make it easy to crop out. Centered watermarks tend to draw the eye, so avoid them.
  • Simple. A simple image can be used, but for the sake of legibility, I recommend text only. Something like “© YourWebsite.com” is best.

Coming Soon

Check back for more articles about watermarking. I’ll be writing about creating a graphical watermark in Photoshop, applying watermarks in Lightroom 3 and a few other related articles.

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I’d like to hear your opinion about watermarks. Leave a comment below.

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{ 1 comment }

1 TheBatchWatermarks July 31, 2010 at 3:09 am

Nice post. Visible watermarks are the single most effective measure against image piracy today.
It’s sad to see people ignoring such articles and later complaining about images getting misused.

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