|Over the top, YES, but I've seen worse.|
A watermark is an image, logo, or text that is placed directly on the photograph, most often to brand the photo, discourage reuse or to somehow imply copyright. In the past we might have stamped PROOF over the photograph, thus preventing copies being made. This was effective and that's not really what I'm talking about in this case, because I do understand the argument for continuing this practice when you have wedding, event photos or portraits that you're sharing with a client with the intent to sell.
What I'm talking about is selected images that you post to the web as examples of your work, or post to sites like 500px or Flickr were you are hoping for feedback. In these cases it is my opinion that the watermark comes off as a distraction and that's only if it is a tasteful muted watermark of appropriate size. In many cases the watermark is just plain ugly, too big and demonstrates poor post production skills.
To be fair, I've struggled with watermarks over the years and even created a few and tried them out on my images. It just never looked right to me, which maybe says something about my post production skills.
However, for me it's gotten so bad that when I'm browsing through sites like 500px, Flickr or Google+, I won't favorite or like a photo that has a watermark. In fact, I get really disappointed when an image I like has a watermark on it. I don't even know when this started, but it did, and now I can't get past it.
Some photographers, such as Trey Ratcliff over at Stuck in Customs, provide large images on the web, available for anyone to download for personal use. The key is personal use.
My feeling is that whether an image contains a watermark or not, it can still be downloaded and used by someone as a background on their iPad for example. And that's assuming that whoever right clicks and downloads doesn't just eliminate the watermark by cropping or even using the content aware tool in Photoshop. Sounds pretty easy doesn't it.
So do I worry about my images being stolen? First, all the photos I shoot as part of my job are publicly released, so it isn't an issue. Second, when it comes to my personal images shared on sites like Flickr and 500px, I make them available as creative commons, non-commercial, attribute required. In the end, I'm not worried if a blogger uses the image as long as they provide photo credit in the form of a link because that potentially drives more traffic to my site. If they don't, then I'm not going to lose sleep.
So how do you truly protect your images. One word, copyright. That is the only real protection you have if one of your images ends up being used without permission, watermark or not. Copyrighting your photographs also provides you with additional protections. I'm planning a future post on the process and work flow I use to copyright my work, and why this is important. In the meantime, check out eCO FAQs, or visit Ed Greenberg and Jack Reznicki's thecopyrightzone.com blog.