David Cardinal: Protecting Your Images Online
Nov 2012 27

One of the best things about all the great cameras and photo tools we have access to is the excellent images we can share online. Whether it is Facebook, Pinterest, Flickr, Picasa, or a personal website, almost every photo sharing service supports high-quality images. If you combine image quality with a proper color-managed workflow, your online photos can be awesome.

Unfortunately that also means your images are ripe for theft. If you are a professional that’s a business issue, but even if you are only sharing images for fun you probably want proper credit when they are used. Depending on how concerned you are, there are a variety of techniques and tools you can use to protect your images.

Lowering your image resolution

The most fool-proof way to protect your high-quality images is to scale them down before sharing them. An HD quality (1920 x 1080 or similar) image is plenty for almost any type of online sharing, but won’t be enough for someone to use for a high quality print.

Low-resolution images are also smaller, making them easier to upload and requiring less online storage. While this may sound like an extra step, it is also a perfect time to convert your image to sRGB, which will make it look more consistent across a variety of screens and devices.

Unfortunately, as phones and tablets become the preferred means of showing and sharing images, low-resolution images are no longer immune to theft. Galleries of image proofs designed to showcase what a high-quality print will look like can themselves be taken for use as phone wallpaper or part of a mobile slideshow.

Faced with what to do about people taking low-resolution images, it’s important to decide what your business strategy is in response. You may feel that “getting the word out” with low-rez images that promote your work is worth any potential lost revenue. In that case, you’ll want to check out our tips for subtle watermarking. But if your market is primarily mobile users, then you may need to be more aggressive and create versions of your images that are unusable until licensed, which we’ll show you examples of later.

Add your metadata

It is simple to make sure that your posted images have at least basic Copyright information in the EXIF (Shooting) or IPTC (Captioning) data. All image management programs, and many cameras, support this functionality. Photoshop’s Image Processor script offers a simple way to add copyright metadata to your images while converting them to JPEGs and sRGB prior to uploading them. Unfortunately metadata is often ignored. At most it will keep honest people honest. What it will do is help make your case if you ever wind up in a legal proceeding over image theft.


Without a doubt, watermarking is the primary tool for protecting images online. Simply, it is the placement of a logo, signature, or other distinctive mark on the surface of the image itself. Make sure that, no matter what else you do, you don’t accidentally write your watermark onto your master image in a way that you can’t get it off.

Watermarking in Photoshop

Surprisingly, Save for Web in Photoshop doesn’t offer a built-in watermarking capability. In addition to resizing your image and converting them to sRGB, adding a watermark is a common task before uploading to the web. Instead, adding a watermark requires creating your own signature or logo and placing it on your image. The result can be quite tasteful, but isn’t as simple as it should be. Kelby Media’s Matt Kloskowski has a nice online tutorial video from Layers magazine showing one way to go about it.

Watermarking in Lightroom

By comparison to Photoshop, Watermarking is a no-brainer in Lightroom. Lightroom’s Web module offers a wide variety of powerful options for watermarking. Below is an example of how I’ve overlaid some simple watermarking text on an image before exporting to the web in Lightroom.

Lightroom can draw from your pre-defined copyright information, custom text, and images you specify, as this shot of the Lightroom 4 watermarking options dialog shows:

Dynamic watermarks

If you do a lot of image sharing, this whole process starts to seem pretty archaic. It’s an extra thing to worry about, and if you also want to sell prints or digital originals you need to keep and manage two versions of your image. Fortunately, modern image-sharing sites have figured out a nice way to take the workload off your hands. They can apply your choice of watermark dynamically on your displayed images. Since they also keep the original (non-watermarked) images, when someone purchases a print or digital original of your image they can deliver the un-altered version.

I use SmugMug, which allows me to choose a text or logo as a watermark, and control how it is placed on my images. You can see a sample of how the result looks online:

When someone orders a print or digital download (if I allow that option), they get the original, non-watermarked, image.

Aggressive watermarks

Unless you really want to irritate your viewers, subtle watermarks are greatly preferable. A small piece of text or a logo, off to the side of the image, is enough in most cases. However, if you’re really trying to make a living selling images, subtle watermarking may not be enough. It’s too easy to download the image and crop the watermark off. For that reason, many wedding, portrait, and sports photographers rely on more aggressive watermarks directly over the subject of the image.

An example of this is the high school sports photography I do for Maxpreps, a CBS Interactive subsidiary. This image shows their logo and copyright string over a sample image from a game gallery. The logo is largely transparent, so as not to ruin the online viewing experience, but it is obvious enough that along with the text string, it really isn’t possible to steal the image — even at phone resolution — without the watermark.

Are you just paranoid…

… or is someone really stealing your images? One quick way to get an idea is to ask the web site tineye.com to take a look. Simply drag an image from your favorite image browser onto the tineye web page, or give tineye the image URL, and it will search its database of over two billion images on the web to find any that it thinks match. It’s not a perfect tool, but it will point out flagrant violations.

Below are the results of a search I ran on a leopard image that I used years ago in a review of an early Datacolor product. The search turned up four instances of unauthorized copying of the photo, along with a couple appearances on nikondigital.org — where it was intended to be used.

As fun as it can be to track down where your images have been used, unless you think they have been stolen by large, reputable organizations who might actually pay or honor a take-down notice, it is probably more of an ego-trip than a business strategy. My images, for example, have often been pirated by firms in Asian countries with limited IP protection or legal recourse.

So your best defense is a good offense. Use the tips in this article to help protect your images from theft, and then enjoy taking more!

is a veteran travel and nature photographer who specializes in Southern Africa and Southeast Asia as well as North American mammals and birds. His images of creatures in the wild help communicate the importance of our natural heritage and our responsibility to preserve it. You can learn more about David on our Friends with Vision page, or on his own website, Cardinal Photo, and its sister site, Nikon Digital, which are both full of tips, reviews and forums where photographers compare notes and tips. Or you can follow David on Facebook or join him on one of his Photo Tours and Safaris for plenty of experience

  • james

    There are automated and powerful tools like Mass Watermark that can do the job easily for you.It can

    watermark 100s of images with few clicks and within minutes.There are additional options like adding EXIF Info,Resizing,Optimizing and even direct upload of watermarked images directly to your Picasa/Flickr web albums quickly and easily.Its completely a professional tool check it out http://www.masswatermark.com