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How to Watermark a Photograph

October 24, 2012 |  by  |  Photos, Tech

Many photographers struggle with the decision whether or not to add a watermark to their photos, balancing the elegance of a photograph against a desire for accreditation, sometimes even compensation, for their creative works, works that are so frequently stolen shared without permission by the online community.

For my own purposes, I choose not to watermark the photographs that I post on Flickr, Facebook, or other sources. Through these media, I choose to share my work freely, opting out of any sort of inbuilt accreditation. However, on this site, where my images are more likely to be found out of context, I choose to add a subtle indication of their source.

is this your homework?

I find the watermark above to be readable and yet still subtle on practically any image, working well, without alteration, on solid and mixed-colour backgrounds, remaining legible overtop all but the most intricate detail. Feel free to drag that image about your window or download it and experiment with it yourself. I’ll describe exactly how to create it after the philosophizing below.

What is a Watermark?

Some photographers, feeling the need to protect their work so jealously, create a visual paywall behind which the quality of the photograph is merely alluded to, a barrier so severe as to move beyond a watermark, instead becoming a photographic moat surrounding and isolating their artistic treasures.

However, with the ability to remove these marks seemingly outpacing even the wildest imaginations of would-be counterfeiters, such attempts to secure photos via watermarking are usually futile, often resulting in the mutilation of the image by the artist, the destruction of any value worth protecting, the end result no longer a watermarked photo, instead merely an advertisement for the photo itself.

Obtrusive and obstructive graphics can have a certain protective value when marketing a photograph, but not when presenting a photograph, and such devices should not really be called watermarks.

A true watermark, owing from the word’s origin, a water stain visible only when paper is held to a light, should be subtle, almost invisible. And while several options for invisible watermarking exist, these options forfeit apparent accreditation for the work.

Instead, a modern digital watermark, best suited for works that can so readily be reproduced without context, should be subtle, elegant, and unobtrusive, their purpose, not to secure an image, but to give credit to its creator, ideally a mark that is only seen when it is sought out.

How to Watermark a Photograph Cleanly and Effectively

In this section I’ll explain the method I use, which serves well, without modification, over practically any image. I’ll describe the steps required using Photoshop (and will assume some familiarity), but if you use a different tool, you should be able to adapt the principles easily.

The key to a simple, clean, and flexible watermark is actually fairly basic. Your watermark should be white, with a dark drop-shadow. This can serve to be a bit ostentatious, but making the whole thing transparent can work wonders for helping it blend into your photograph, to make it as invisible as possible, while retaining near-universal legibility.

Step 1: Choose an All-White Graphic at 35% Opacity
Whether text or a logo, create your watermark on a new layer. Have its fill be all-white at 35% fill opacity. This causes a slight lightening of the base colour (coupled with the overall transparency from Step 3), which works quite well on just about any background, even mixed. I’ve found that it’s not quite light enough on absolutely black backgrounds (though on very dark it’s perfect), so if I need to use it on pure RGB(0,0,0) backgrounds, I prefer to bump this up to 45%. This is another reason to keep the Photoshop file as the working copy (see the section below on Applying Your Watermark).

Watermark - Step 1

Step 2: Add an Outer Glow with Multiply Blending
With your layer selected, click the “FX” button to add an “Outer Glow” Layer Style. Use the following settings (also see image below):

  • Blend Mode: Multiply
  • Opacity: 75%
  • Colour: Black
  • Spread: 25%
  • Size: 4px (May need to be 5-6px for images much larger than 1024px)
  • Range: 50%
Multiply Blend - Outer Glow - Layer Style

Step 3: Make the Whole Layer 35% Opacity
At this point the watermark will look anything but subtle. The final step is to change the layer opacity (in addition to the fill) to 35%. If you have an especially simple image, you can get away with dropping this down even further, but you risk losing legibility over more complex backgrounds. It may look a little hard to see on the default checkered photoshop background, but if you want, you can add a solid white layer beneath it for visual purposes.

Watermark - Step 3

Applying Your Watermark

Now that you’ve created your watermark, you’ll want to start using it on your images. You can save that image (without the background layer, if you added one) as a transparancy-enabled PNG, and then use that in applications that support the automatic adding of watermarks (Aperture, Lightroom, etc), but I’ve found that, depending on the size of the image (and rotation), I want greater flexibility in the sizing and positioning of the watermark.

My preferred method is to save my watermark as a Photoshop document. Then, whenever I need to watermark an image, I open both the desired image and the watermark.psd file in Photoshop. I then duplicate the watermark layer into the destination image. I’ve found that this is the best way to preserve the layer effects and opacity settings. The advantage of duplicating the entire original Photoshop layer into the new image is that I can work at full resolution, which for my text watermark, is unlimited. I can then resize the watermark as desired without introducing undesired scaling artifacts. When I’m satisfied, I save the entire photograph as a flattened JPG or PNG of the appropriate size.

You should certainly feel free to experiment, both with the settings above and with the method of use. Hopefully you’ve found this article useful; my goal has been to empower photographers to create the most subtle, yet still legible watermarks that best suit their images. Drop us a line in the comments below to let us know how it goes or to share your own watermarking tips and tricks.    

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