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Watermarks versus metadata

March 19, 2012 @ 08:45 By: gordon Category: Meta, Photography

One of the topics of conversation on #blogchat on Twitter Sunday evening had to do with watermarking images on your blog. Watermarks are usually used on stock photos to prevent their usage without paying the licensing fees. But on personal blogs, like this one, watermarks probably aren’t necessary because they aren’t stock photo services.

The general feeling seemed to be that non-intrusive watermarks, like the one in this picture of snowflakes I posted in one of my entries about capturing snowflakes, are ok. Personally, I tend to watermark photos that I’m particularly proud of so that if they do appear out of context then people will know who created them. I often use a feature in Microsoft’s Windows Live Writer to do this when I’m writing a blog entry. There are also plugins for most of the major blogging platforms (I use a self-hosted WordPress system for my blog) that allow you to watermark your images if you don’t use an authoring tool like Live Writer.

If you are trying to assert your intellectual property rights, watermarking is one approach. Of course, if your watermark is on an edge of the photo, a content thief could easily crop it without seriously impacting the overall image. Stock photo services, commercial photographers and the like fight content thieves by watermarking images in the centre of the image or on the focal point of the image, so that the image can’t be used without it being apparent that it hasn’t been licensed.

However, these more intrusive watermarks are usually overkill for images on personal blogs and can turn off potential readers. Take a look at the picture of the fireworks mortars on the left for an example of a bad watermark. (I would never watermark an image like this in real life!)

side-by-side-watermarksIf you are a professional photographer, however, you can probably get away with something like it, or a logo watermark like the one on the right, because photos are your livelihood, particularly if you’re offering the photo for sale. If I was producing an online catalogue of photos I took at the setup of the grand finale of the fireworks festival I volunteered at last summer I might consider a watermark like this because it makes the photo harder to use, tells people who took it, but isn’t so intrusive that people will be distracted by it when looking through the catalogue.

But watermarking isn’t the only option available if you want to put your “brand” on your photos. Embedding metadata in your image file allows you to include copyright and other information without changing the image itself.

imageMost digital cameras add information about exposure, lens settings and other technical specs to each photo when you push the trigger. In Windows, you can view these and edit them by right-clicking on the file in Windows Explorer, selecting properties and selecting the Details tab.

You can even edit these fields by clicking on them, making the desired changes and then clicking the Apply button. If you want to make the same change to many files, such as setting the Copyright field, you can do it by selecting multiple files in Explorer and making the desired changes and clicking Apply. Be warned, however, that once you click apply there’s no undo, so be careful and check your work.

If you use something like Adobe Lightroom to manage your photos, you can automate the process of applying copyright (and other) metadata when you import the photos from your camera. Exactly how you do this is beyond the scope of this blog entry, but if you’re using Lightroom chances are that you’re already familiar with how to do it.

If someone does copy the photo from your blog, they probably won’t think to strip the metadata from it before they use it, so if you find the photo being used somewhere else without your permission you might be able to prove it’s yours with the help of this information. But I don’t think you can 100% rely on this because it’s likely there are tools out there used by image thieves that strip metadata to hide a photo’s origin.

So, in summary, watermarking your photos can be done in both discrete and intrusive ways, but regardless some readers may be turned off the presence of a watermark. Metadata, on the other hand, allows you to embed a copyright message in your photo, but requires more effort because you usually do it outside of the blog entry creation process.

Ultimately, if you don’t want someone to copy images from your blog you probably shouldn’t post them in the first place.

4 Responses to “Watermarks versus metadata”


  1. Mila Araujo says:

    Hey Gordon! Great post, I like the way you are taking people through how to insert the file properties – I find this brings a LOT of traffic to my blog – and consistently over time.

    When I first started using photos, posting them on flickr then on my blog, I used to put watermarks. In particular if they were from sporting events. I then started to check what some other major bloggers used for their settings – and after a while realized that allowing others to share and use my photos could even drive more traffic to my blog – and it is a good way to get to know new people.

    I guess you have to ask yourself, what are you really worried about with people using your photos? No serious blogger or professional source would ever take something and use with without accreditation – so it would only be the small time bloggers or inexperienced people who would actually steal your photo. If that did happen, whats the worst that could occur? I don’t think they could sell it to National Graphic or get some crazy gain…so at the end of the day, in Flickr I re-listed all my photos as Creative Commons

    “You are free to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work as follows:

    Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).

    Noncommercial — You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

    No Derivative Works — You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work. ”

    Here is an example from my flickr : http://www.flickr.com/photos/milaflickr/6963137891/in/photostream/

    Overall, the meta data has proven to be extremely useful for attracting more/constant traffic to my own blog. I think its the best way to fully take advantage of photos.

    Realizing that in my case, I don’t mind sharing, appreciate attribution and can’t really think of a terrible situation /consequence in which someone “steals” my photo, makes me feel pretty comfortable sharing and posting. If its something really special, I will watermark, but overall, I’ve come to peace with just posting and hoping for the best 🙂 I can always prove the photo was originally mine with the proofs on Flickr, the blog, and other online submissions.

    Thanks for this comprehensive post, if people start using the meta better, they will see a huge difference – that’s incredibly valuable advice!

    • gordon says:

      Hi Mila…

      Thanks for the comments!

      You’re right: the question is “what are you worried about?”

      Generally, I’m not terribly worried about people misusing my photos. Like you, if it’s something special or perhaps prone to being lifted then I’ll watermark it, but for the most part it’s really not worth the effort.

      I’m not sure if metadata in photos has a significant impact on search engines. For sites like flickr it probably does, but for random photos in blog entries it probably doesn’t.

      If people see a photo on my blog that I’ve created they’re welcome to ask me if they can use it. In most cases, I’ll probably say yes. 🙂

  2. The Decor Girl says:

    Great post!!! Thank you for clarifying the watermark issue in a more relevant way. We at #IntDesignerChat got all caught up in this the other night and left me scrambling for how to watermark. Whew – your take makes a whole lot of sense.

    One thing I found with one of the WordPress widgets I tried is it set a watermark on every picture I import – not good. I use lots of my own photos but not all. When I use others I credit and link so it is not authentic to put my watermark on someone else’s photo – though I’ve seen many bloggers who do.

    Again thanks for the back to reality question: “what are you worried about?” 🙂

    • gordon says:

      Yikes, that’s not a helpful widget, is it? I write a lot of my posts using Live Writer and it makes it easy to watermark a single image if you need to. It doesn’t presume that you want to watermark every image in your post, including those that don’t belong to you.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂



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