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On Watermarks

On Watermarks

While doing some research to write this post, I went looking for some of my photos on the web. And it was just “Wow!” Using Google reverse image search engine, I could locate where some photos of mine were. I only spent time looking for 3 photos (some that I knew were popular) and I found about 50 websites using them, most of them travel companies offering tours in South East Asia, and who of course took them without even asking. No, I won’t name… there are way too many of them! Let’s not even talk about Chinese websites gathering any kind of photos from anywhere on the same page… I just don’t get it. But that is my most stolen photo, and what some websites did to it!


Seriously guys? Pink font?


You will note that due to some bad cropping, I do have a lot of space to add a massive watermark! (that was a joke to myself, I will laugh in my sleep).

Now I know that some of my photos are being used for some “inspirational bullshit quotes”, you know? The photo that is surrounded by some quote by Gandhi or Buddha or something like that? Yes, plenty of that crap around the web! Like this one (photo I took in Ha Giang 2 years ago):

Gracias for stealing my work! I had to lay down in mud for that one!


That made me realize how Watermarking our images is a very important topic, that I only briefly discussed with some of my (amazing) students last week in Laos. So I am also quite new to the subject. But now let’s look at the pros and cons.



Watermarking will give you exposure when photos are shared. As your name is on it, people will know about you. Logical isn’t it?

Watermarking will protect your work. People won’t be able to steal your work as your name is on it. And surely people do not know how to remove your watermark, right?

I guess that’s it for the list of pros. Now let’s look at the cons!




Adding a watermark to your photo will distract the viewer from the main subject (as Trey Ratcliff mentions: it “gets in the way of art”). I just want to temper this one: when this can be obvious for a photographer, who does look at images a different way, I do not believe it is a problem for the average viewer.


Watermarks can look ugly. Even with a nice looking font. Yes, believe me it does. I will not hide the fact that I used to add a watermark to my photos in Papyrus font some years ago. Yes, papyrus font…. you read me right. We all have our dark secrets!


Also, do people even bother reading the watermark? When it is small in a corner, I am sure less than 5% of people actually read it. So what exposure, again?


I do find it a little pretentious like the photographer is more important than the subject. I discussed this point with my students last week. If you are a photographer creating something quite unique, being able to reach locations that no one else does, or having access to super-duper backstage, then you may want to protect your work. But that is what? 1% of photographers? I do not want to sound patronizing here, but who are you to protect your work? Someone creating some awesome art or posting photos we have seen a million times before? I mean a sunset is just a sunset. An orange ball in the sky. Do you want to protect that? 😉


Some services can help you track your images (Google reverse image search), that will help you find who has used your photos. Also, a way to protect yourself, without adding anything distracting on the photos. Takes a little longer though, believe me! But that is an awesome tool, I suggest you have a try! I did spend all day yesterday on it, it was quite fun actually.


Finally, and this probably the most obvious: watermarking your images will not protect them from any thieves. 2 minutes of photoshopping and it is gone. Unless your watermark takes half of the photo, in which case I do not think this article is for you. Close your web browser. That’s it. Thanks.


If you really want to protect your images, each country has their own copyright laws. There are some international copyright offices you can sign up and subscribe to and have some photos in their registry so it is “protected”. I am not sure how they work though… Plus it takes time and money. But it may be useful for your dozen of money shots, the ones you are selling by the hundreds and generating a real revenue.




I do not believe there is an answer for this topic. Everyone is working in different fields of photography and will have different needs in term of protecting their work. I personally do not like them, as I find them distracting. After all, I am first a photography instructor and often doing photo critics, where every detail on the picture counts.

I do tend to trust people (and this is a mistake I have been told), and I believe photos will be stolen by fake photographers or non-ethical corporations, not commercial business with ethics. This is not really relevant to me as I live in Asia, and local businesses need to be educated concerning copyright laws, but for you reader, that might be relevant.

But hey, maybe all these websites would not have stolen my photos if I had a watermark on them?

You know what? If that was the case, they would have found other similar pictures, and stole them anyway. The only difference is that the person they would have stolen from would have not done the research and would not know about it. So I will keep not watermarking my photos, let awful businesses steal them, and then chase them down with the help of my lawyer! This might help educate the Asian corporate world. I like challenges, you see!

Of course, I am from now restricting the locations where I publish my photos. I used to try and be on several stock photography websites, plus social media, plus Flickr, etc… I am now only (daily) posting on my Facebook page and G+, and I do resize them quite small for that. The big size photos only go to my website, on which people cannot take them (from what I know). If you are a hacker please forget this last sentence.


As I said, I am new to the topic, so looking forward reading your comments below.






Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.


  1. Victor Vo on December 3, 2014 at 7:29 am

    Hi Etienne,
    I am Vietnamese and I am an IT, I dont know about copy right of photos.
    But when I read about this topic, I realize that I debt you an apologize when I was used to copy some your pictures on my page. I will not do this again (with you and other photographer).
    I am following you on Google+ and I know you are really a good photographer. You know nowadays, I know it is hard to protect the copyright of your picture on the webpage and social network when you still share those everyday.

    My opinion:
    I think that watermarking a lot of copyright on your pictures, it makes the picture is low value and I dont like it. It will be nice if you add just one copyright and you should put it on the good position which no one can erase it

    Anyway, sorry for any inconvenience in the past. Keep doing a good photographer.

    Thank you,
    Victor Vo

    • Etienne on December 3, 2014 at 1:47 pm

      Thanks a lot for your message Victor I do appreciate.

  2. Sunil Deepak on December 3, 2014 at 3:18 am

    I agree with you completely, I think that watermarking does not really protect our pictures and in addition, makes them uglier! That I don’t have to live on earnings from my pictures also helps in being more open about them and sharing them in larger formats. However, I prefer adding a frame around them to explain about the picture, that includes my name, so for those who are ethical, they can ask my permission! 🙂

  3. Rehahn on December 3, 2014 at 3:26 am

    Agree with you too. No watermark.

  4. Jill Smith on December 3, 2014 at 11:43 am

    Your photos are amazing – your talent is incredible – watermark where you can – take it as a compliment when they are stolen – pursue where possible – but overall do what you love – take brilliant photos that we can enjoy!

  5. Doug on December 3, 2014 at 5:21 am

    Yeah, I’m not a fan of watermarks either… unless they’re in Papyrus 🙂

  6. Byron on December 3, 2014 at 5:57 am

    I played around with watermarks for a while, and like most people — not to forget that I am a recovering professional (pre-digital) photographer, I thought it might stave off the thieves and fakers, but you’re right, watermarks will deter only the most casual of thieves and fakers. The ones who are determined will photoshop or crop out the watermark and carry on.

    G+, Flickr, Tumblr etc all try to preserve the rights of the photographer, but nothing stops the shitty amateur from screen-capturing your image(s) or parts of them and appropriating them — nothing.

    So, there are a few images of mine with two different watermarks, one being a simple copyright and a name, the other being a semi-transparent barcode of my name. It was ‘trendy’ and it made me feel like I might’ve been keeping the scum at bay. In the end it makes no difference.

    What would make the difference are better tools to track down stolen images. Google and TinEye are ‘okay’ tools, but far from perfect. I’d say the technology of policing and enforcing copyright, of having people pay for the images we make is long overdue.

    There are a few crusaders out there like http://stopstealingphotos.com/ who, though they mostly find thieves of the wedding variety, and there is a truly incredible amount of theft that goes on amongst fourth rate wedding photographers. There are a few other sites and bloggers who do similar work, but really, it’s a full time job.

    The most interesting part is the behaviour of a photothief once they’ve been outed.

    1. they deny, deny, deny
    2. they then say “I never said these were my images, I was just inspired by them.”
    3. when challenged about the cropping of the original photographer’s watermark there’s more denial
    4. which then causes the thief then goes on the attack, threatening legal action.
    5. the thief takes down the stolen images or their entire site
    6. the thief invokes god and prays publicly for forgiveness
    7. thief continues to deny responsibility or acknowledge wrongdoing (again, citing god)

    There are variations on the theme, but the path is generally the same.

    What’s it all mean? Vigilance. Control and looking out for one another as best one can. If you see an image you know has been misappropriated then report it.

    But again, I’ve not made a living on my photography since 1990…


    • Etienne on December 3, 2014 at 6:05 am

      Byron, you are so right about the thief behavior, I have seen that a lot in the past!
      What is happening to me now is that people I have contacted to ask them to remove my photos are aggressively asking me to prove this is mine, by for example sending them a high res of it… like I’m stupid!

  7. Chris on December 3, 2014 at 7:43 am

    Uploading your work in small resolution will not save you from stealing. I’ve seen so many pixelated photos in Asian publications, even in glossy magazines. They just don’t care.

    Copying is part of Asian culture. 😉

    • Etienne on December 3, 2014 at 1:48 pm

      Yes Chris you have a point.

  8. Phyllis on December 3, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    I love the example you used at the top with papyrus watermarks going every which way. Too funny!

  9. Mark Young on December 3, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    Hi Etienne,

    I always enjoy your work. This is a subject that I have given a lot of thought to. I dislike Watermarks, but unfortunately I find they are a necessity.

    Facebook. Horrible, horrible Facebook. FB strips all of the metadata from your photos, which means once someone steals your FB image, they can portray it as their own and it’s harder to prove it’s your photo.

    England recently passed legislation that if a photo appears in the public domain without any identifying marks ̣(metadata, watermark) then that photo becomes Public Domain. So, under English Law, if someone steals an unwatermarked image, with no metadata, then legally it is theirs. (I am sure I have oversimplified the legislation, but this is my understanding of it). This is English Legislation, but there is fear in a number of other countries that others will follow.

    Secondly, while a Watermark will not stop a high tech thief from stealing your photo, it makes it just a little harder and they might just move on to someone else (?? is that a good thing, no)

    For what it’s worth, that’s my 2c (hai xu) worth.

    Mark Young
    Nguyen Thi Minh Khai

    • Etienne on December 4, 2014 at 2:59 am

      Thanks Mark. It is true each country has their own law on the topic. If I follow your comment, I think only posting low resolution photos will help: people will maybe steal them to put them small on their dodgy website, but not being able to sell them.

  10. Susan Mo on December 3, 2014 at 11:17 am

    I also dislike the watermark. I usually reduce the size of the image before I put it on the internet, but I am wondering if I am making it small enough. What size do you reduce to please Etienne?

    • Etienne on December 3, 2014 at 1:49 pm

      Usually 800px in the long edge, allows people to look at it full screen without much pixels, even though it does not look very good for bigger size screens.

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