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Watermarks don’t stop photo theft — here’s why I use them anyway

Image theft is a big issue online. Sites like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and even Google make it easy to discover and download images online. And if that happens to your photo, someone can use it on their website for commercial reasons without you ever knowing about it. So should you be thinking about using a watermark on your files? 

A simple, unobtrusive watermark in the bottom corner of your photograph is the best way to protect your images online. Putting a bold watermark in the middle of your image will not only ruin the image’s chance of being shared online, but it will ensure anyone wanting to use the image will just remove the watermark in Photoshop. 

These days, Adobe Photoshop is so powerful that you can easily remove a watermark, and still retain most of the details. So if somebody wants your photo, they’re going to take it. The best defense against theft is to use a small watermark that doesn’t intrude on the image, but lets people know that it’s yours. If it’s something simple, a thief might not even notice it before putting it on their website. 

As well, many people put their copyright information in the meta description. But even that isn’t a surefire way to protect your images. Photoshop and other applications can remove meta tags built into images as a way to reduce their file size.

The Internet is basically the Wild West when it comes to posting images. On one hand, it’s necessary they be online to get noticed and make sales. On the other hand, putting them up means anyone can take it and use the image however they see fit — at least until they’re caught.

To see how many people are affected by this, I polled the 34,000-person audience on Instagram. I collected over 1,500 yes/no responses to three questions.

  1. Have you ever had a photo stolen? 126 of the 346 responses said they have.
  2. How do you feel about Watermarks? Overwhelmingly, people are okay with watermarks. Only 189 (32%) disapproved of the 592 responses.
  3. Do you put watermarks on your own images? This one was the closest — 49% of the respondants do use watermarks, and 51% don’t.

Of course, this isn’t scientific by any means. But it does show that a large number of people agree that Watermarks are a good thing to add to your photos.

Which one of these two images would you remove the watermark on?

I use a watermark, but not to protect my images

You’ll see a watermark on all of my images online. And that’s no accident. I want people to know that these beautiful images come from me when it’s shared, or posted around the Internet.

Popular accounts on Instagram and other Social Media often share images without attribution. By having an unobtrusive watermark, the users who want to see similar work can look me up by reading the name on my watermark. 

This happens all the time. My Instagram account currently has over 34,000 followers. Many of them have accounts with even more followers that they get by sharing a massive amount of content. Quite often they’ll just share images without even tagging me, as this helps them build their account. It’s not a good practice, but there’s not really much you can do about it other than sending an angry DM. 

But I don’t have time to chase down everyone. And as my doctor says — I don’t need that extra stress in my life.  

The truth is I still benefit even if they don’t directly tag me on Instagram. Hell, I don’t get much out of it even when they do tag me. At least this way, the people who want to see more of my work only have to zoom in on the watermark and then go find me. And the same is true when my images do end up somewhere else on the Internet. 

But people do still see a lot of big watermarks on images on the Internet. It works for some organizations, but that doesn’t make it the right solution for everyone.

An image with a small watermark on the lower-right side.
A hacker would have no problem removing the watermark on this image. But they also wouldn’t if I made it bigger.

Why you shouldn’t use an obtrusive watermark online

Many new photographers take the stock image site approach at first. You have a beautiful image, and you want to protect it from theft. So put a bit, obtrusive watermark across the middle of the image, right? 

Well, sure, that can work. But it can also make sure nobody ever sees your image. If the focal point is obscured, nobody is going to take the time to really view the image. And the secret to Instagram success is making images that stop people scrolling! The longer people spend on your images, the more they’ll be seen — that’s it. If you have a bit, fat watermark, that’s not going to happen. 

Shutterstock and other stock image sites can do this because they make it easy to purchase these photos. They have a public-facing image full of obtrusive watermarks, and an image that isn’t seen until it’s downloaded. But they have the luxury of selling images intended for a specific marketing purpose. Not for selling to private users who need some beautiful art for their walls or office. 

And even if you make an obtrusive watermark, it’s always possible to remove the watermark in photoshop. There are tutorials and demonstrations on YouTube that almost make watermark removal into a sport. The only time they can’t do it is if you cover the image so completely that it’s no longer a landscape, but a heavy typographic expression. And that’s not going to be easy to sell. 

I removed this watermark automatically within 5 minutes. And this is all that was left to clean up.

How to remove a watermark without leaving a trace

None of these are secrets — the tools to do this are readily available for anyone who wants them. So it’s important to know how people can steal your watermark. This way, you’ll have a better understanding of how to protect your images online. 

There are multiple tools that’ll help thieves remove your watermarks. Content-Aware Fill and the clone stamp are two easy ones that I’ve used over my career to edit out all kinds of objects. For an easier time, you can use the healing brush tool that will automatically sample nearby backgrounds and fill in the areas that stand out. Oftentimes, this single, automatic tool is enough to remove most distractions from a photograph. It doesn’t work on complex scenes, though. So when that happens, you’ll need to switch to something a bit more precise. Here’s how I do it.

How to remove the watermark with content-aware fill

In Photoshop, Press W to use the Quick Selection Tool. Then, click on a bold area of the watermark, and select a small amount of it. In this case, I selected the entire T in Tim Shields. Clean around the edges so it’s only selecting the watermark. 

Then, go to the Select menu and choose the option ‘Similar’ This will grab everything Photoshop deems similar to the previous selection. In my case, I had to do some cleanup by holding alt and clicking the areas I didn’t want to be selected along the ridges and in the clouds. It took about a minute. 

Then, go back to the ‘Select’ Menu, go to Modify, and click Expand in the sub-menu. This will expand the current selection in case it didn’t grab enough of the edges. The next step is to use content-aware fill to automatically fill it in. Hold shift, and press backspace to bring up the Content-Aware fill dialog. Keep the default settings and press Okay. If the selection was perfect, it should be gone without a trace. If not, you’ll have a minute or two of cleanup left to do before selling the stolen print on Etsy. ← Don’t do that, you will get caught, and the legal fees will be more than what you could ever sell it for. 


How to steal an image from a website

It’s easy to steal an image from Instagram. Just open the image and take a screenshot. If you want something a little higher quality, since Instagram often reduces the image size so it’s easier for them to serve, you’ll go to a photographer’s website. 

There, if the website is completely open, you can double click the image to see it in its full size, right-click, and save as. Done. 

Some websites will have additional security. WordPress, for example, has a number of free plugins that’ll stop users from being able to right-click. But when that fails, the user can press F12, Ctrl+Shift+I (Cmd+Shift+I on Mac) or right-click, and select Inspect Element. They’ll have to dive into a couple of layers of code, but over the course of two minutes, they can download any photo, video, or audio file from the Internet. Of course, some of the biggest websites with large developer teams have found ways to disable this — so you can’t steal the full-sized images from Zara or MacDonald’s. But in that case, the thief can just take a screenshot without even leaving a trace. 

They may not be able to print that image the size of a house, but they can always upload it somewhere else. 

The whole point of this is that no matter how hard you try if someone wants to steal your image, they’re going to do it. The only way to prevent your images from being stolen on the Internet is to never upload them at all. So embrace it. And take a look at the next section to figure out what you can do about it. 

How to find a stolen photographs

The easiest way to see if your photos have been stolen is to do a reverse image search. Go to Images.Google.com, and click the Photography Academy Logo Camera Icon to Search By Image. Upload your photo, and hit search. This will allow you to see if anyone has uploaded your image onto an indexable page — meaning, one that can be found by Google.

Google will give you a couple of related searches, and then show you any websites that have uploaded the same image. In this case, my image has only been uploaded on my personal website, as well as Photography Academy. So I won’t have any legal battles over this one just yet. 

How to add your own watermark

Edit a watermark in Lightroom

By far the easiest way to add a watermark is in Lightroom. This program can add your watermark to your images on export so that you don’t even have to think about it. I’ve done it this way for years, and will never go back to manually placing it in Photoshop. 

The first requirement is that you have a logo or a text-based watermark. Make sure it’s a PNG file with a clear background so that it fits seamlessly onto the image. A low-quality Jpeg here with a white border around the text will make your entire image look cheap. So this is not the time to cut corners. 

If you don’t have a watermark, Lightroom has some built-in text that you can use to let them create one for you. 

Once you’ve got this setup, you can choose the position, size, and opacity (how clear the watermark is). I keep mine in the lower right-hand corner, at 0.9 opacity, and have it offset by +1 to make sure it’s on the image. And that’s it, every single photo has a watermark from here on! 


How can I start taking better photographs?

The Photography Transformational MasterclassThere’s so much information out there on the Internet, and it’s often hard to know what’s really good, and what’s worthless. Over the last two years, I’ve been creating a ton of course material for people who want to learn the real secrets of photography from the pros. These are all the techniques I’ve used over my award-winning career to create all of my favorite images. It starts with my free online web class, which you can check out here. In this class you’ll learn my four-step system and come away with a bunch of free guides that’ll help you take incredible fine-art photographs with the camera system you already own!