Of Watermarks

On April first I decided to have a bit of fun with April fools day again this year and chose to add a gigantic watermark to a nice new desktop image as the joke. Looking back on it now I think I was a bit too convincing! I failed to remember how quickly conclusions are drawn online and how many visitors to 50ft are simply stopping by for the lovely wallpapers and running off else where online. This lead to more confusion than I had anticipated so I made the decision to pull out early and leave a note explaining it was only a joke. After thinking about it I discovered that I had never taken the time to write about my feelings on watermarks on images. I have a list brewing full of post ideas and topics to help me get started when I start devoting more time to posting soon and this topic was defiantly on the list.

Here is a simple fact. No one likes watermarks. I am certain that it is impossible to look at a heavily watermarked image and get any real sense for the emotion or feeling behind the image. This completely defeats the purpose of sharing it to begin with. That much should be obvious by looking at the two versions of the wallpaper I posted on April 1st. I think that it all comes down to trust and understanding. Those who add obtrusive watermarks show no trust in their viewers or the users of the web in general but this is easy to understand due to rampant theft of images and other creative works online. Which leads me to the fact that it takes at least a moderate understanding of how todays socially driven internet functions to fully grasp the ups and downs of watermarks.

When it comes to trust, it seems almost impossible to have any faith at all in the online world. It’s so easy to imagine there are people out there hunting your images like prey. Stealing them away from you and selling them, making ads with them, or claiming credit for them. I imagine dark ghostly carbon figures passing through web pages when no one is looking lifting copies of our precious pixels. It is an endless loop of thought and imagination that leads us to be so overly protective of our work and understandably so. No creative wants their work stolen from them but you really must learn to have a trusting attitude when sharing online if you ever expect to grow. I am often criticized for being too trusting of others at times but I can’t imagine being any other way. Life is too short to be so damned skeptical all the time. The truth is that there is always a risk of someone taking your image and passing it without credit and sometimes that person somehow gets that image landed in a highly contagious circle of sharing without your name attached to it which is just so horrible right! Ack!

Enter understanding; Stage right. This would not happen if your image had a big gaudy watermark slapped across its face but is this kind of exposure really a bad thing? Your ego may bruise a little after seeing your work floating around without credit but if you play your cards right and seed your name in the right places you can generate traffic to your original, dignity in tack. It’s important to understand that for your work to  be seen, people need to actually see it and for it to have its intended impact it needs not be seen through a fence, it needs to be seen in its original unfiltered splendor or else whats the sense in sharing to begin with? If you choose to share online and wish for anyone other than close friends to ever see your work you need to come to terms with the fact that by allowing your image to be posted online you are letting yourself be venerable and thats OK. It is not the end of your photographic carrier if an image of yours appears on another site or elsewhere without credit. If anything you should see it as your’e doing something right if so many people loved your image enough to share it. Besides, you, as the copyright holder of your original art, always has the upper hand and while there are exceptions to this optimistic viewpoint it’s still something to keep in mind.

When I come across an image of mine on a site that did not ask permission to use it I first check to see why its there, then check to see if there is any link or credit back to fiftyfootshadows.net. I then either decide to just let it slide or write a simple note to the site host with a notice to take the image down or agree to a few simple terms. When sharing your images if you don’t want someone to be able to print it well simply don’t make it available in overly large resolutions, stick with somewhere around 1000px wide at the most. No one with any real ambition can use an image that size for any print design. There will always be people out there that have ill intentions but the best you can do it keep an eye out out for abuse of your rights as the image creator and continue to press on with your’e own self promotion. I can’t help but say this tired old expression but, you can’t make an omelet  without breaking a few eggs.

Getting back to the idea of watermarks. They don’t always have to be so intrusive. Most of you probably notice the tiny watermark I leave in the bottom right corner of all wallpaper images here on the site. I have been using the same micro/pixel font for years now while posting desktop images and it has proven to be an incredibly simple, unobtrusive way to tag the images I make available at higher resolutions. The idea is not to permanently brand the image in efforts to make it unusable but to simply include it as a tiny source if it manages to loose its way along the span of being shared with friends or illicitly posted somewhere else online. In it’s true essence in my mind, it is a digital signature. An unobtrusive mark to show its worth and credit its creator and source. In higher resolutions the pixel font down in the corner is rarely even seen. Especially when a screen is not exactly the same resolution as the wallpaper and crops the image slightly. When I think it’s feeling too heavy in white I add a hint of transparency to help it fade away from sight. (Funny thing about iPad wallpapers is that you can put anything you want in any of the four corners of the square image because they are cropped out of sight by the iPad anyway.)

While a small pixel font works well with higher resolution images it can be much more obtrusive when adding them to smaller resolution files. I find even modest logos or clearly visible watermark tags highly distracting when looking at a photograph and rarely end up enjoying them because I get so distracted by the elephant in the room. If you must add something to your image, add it in a way that allows it to be ignored and not even seen unless you really look for it. The bulk of photographers that I see using watermarks are amateur photographers who somehow have an irrational fear of posting their photos online. Many of which have never had anything stolen from them to begin with. Ironically, these are the type of photographers that often struggle to find eyes to look at their imagery so why fuel the fire by hindering your audience from enjoying the image as it was intended?

All in all, I firmly believe that the benefits of tagging your images heavily is a mistake in todays world of rapid fire consumption not only because the negatives greatly outweigh the positives but in those precious few seconds you have to capture someones attention and make them feel something for your photograph the last thing you want to do is give them a reason to skip over it. Simply put, images with prominent watermarks often come off as amateurish and can send a message to the viewer that the creator doesn’t trust them to look at the image without stealing it.

This is simply my personal feeling on watermarks, certainly not everyone has this point of view and any artist is obviously entitled to make any choice they wish when it comes to this topic. I can’t help but be curious to hear readers viewpoints on the idea of using watermarks and should anyone have something constructive to add to the topic feel free to chime in with a comment below. As always I am open for discussion.



  1. Tom McLaughlan - April 5, 2011 at 7:20 am

    Beautifully put. And congrats on the subtlety of the April Fool’s – only now do I realise I’d been had! And in itself, perhaps that’s telling us something – big fat watermarks added after somebody may have spent hours taking and processing an image to their taste, are no longer newsworthy. There are a few photographers I know who’ve turned watrmarks into an art form. It’s there ok but not in your face and in many cases they take on a chameleon-like quality. We have fun searching for them!

  2. Tag - April 5, 2011 at 8:53 am

    I just thought: “Fair enough. He’s got a right to protect his work. As long as the downloads don’t have watermarks.”

    But you’re right it was subtle.

    And surely that is the best way. Most articles online you read on April 1st are obviously a joke. This really got me.

  3. William Hook - April 5, 2011 at 9:47 am

    Well said. I can’t stand it when people publish amazing photos and then ruin it with a massive great watermark on it. The worst is the one that deviantART can put over your images, it’s terrible.

    Yours are perfect, they’re small, unobtrusive, and I never notice them when I use them as wallpapers.

  4. Michel Dupre - April 5, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    Jaja. Fell 50% in the joke, but I agree with copyright and with a small watermark, little jaja.

  5. Paul Anthony Webb - April 5, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Ahahaha, I actually complained to a friend about this. She didn’t really care but I was irritated for a couple minutes.

    Well played sir, well played.

  6. Travis Fish - April 5, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    It made me sad to see the massive ugly watermark. I didn’t even think about the fact that it could be an April fools. So glad it was though! I love your work!

  7. Neil - April 5, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    I’m pretty sure with a copyright it should be there as long as it is not obtrusive. Your copyrights are subtle and I actually like having that branding on the desktop rather than nothing at all in a funny way. The problem is where you get photographers being so protective of their work they put a huge thing across the image, I’m sorry but there is no point in sharing an image online this stops me even wanting to look at it, immediately it negates the experience of appreciating the work. I know of one photographer who was one of the first I started following on flickr, she started copyrighting everything with a massive brand and that really annoyed me to the extent where I don’t even look at her stuff anymore, even though some of the images I think are amazing (actually bought one once!).

    I think a lot of the upset stems from the fact people expect to get things for free, they demand content and immediately jump to conclusions if things aren’t delivered exactly as they like them to be. It’s easy to forget the hard work which goes into providing stuff online for the community and take the content for granted. And just the sheer dedication and patience it must require! When your stuff is getting ripped off and used somewhere else without your permission it must be very annoying, I personally wouldn’t like it myself.

    The challenge is to try and make the stuff accessible while at the same time not alienating your fanbase if you want to cut back because of all the theft happening, not an easy balance.

  8. SoundMan - April 9, 2011 at 6:47 am

    Great 4/1 post. And my 2 cents worth says the signature on your work makes it just that much more valuable and shows my taste for your images on my desktop to be very discerning. A Picasso without his signature is just a cheap copy.

    For those who can’t be distracted by the signature, that’s what the desktop images that came with your computer system are for.

    Bravo to FIFTYFOOTSHADOWS and may you never run out of film.

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