trey ratcliff


Bad watermark example
Over the top, YES, but I've seen worse.
I hope this post doesn't come off as a rant, however, I will state right up front that I am not a fan of placing watermarks on photographs.

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 blog.


HDR photograph of Owl's Head lighthouse in Maine.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) photograph taken during a family vacation to Maine during the winter. This was the first vacation that I remember where I specifically wanted to take photographs as part of the experience.
For many years taking pictures has been my job. That's not to say I didn't like being a photographer, in fact I loved it, and still do, however over time I came to realize that the only work I had to show was related to the job. And while I am proud of that work and still get excited to see my photos in print, I had stopped taking images for the fun of it. Very little personal photography.

When someone would discover I was a photographer they would invariably ask what I liked to take pictures of, or where they could see my work and until recently the best I could offer was a website that hadn't been updated in nine years or maybe tell them to do a Google search on my name plus Navy and they would see some examples.

So what changed? What has me excited about personal photography again? Why am I blogging and tweeting again, posting photos on Flickr, 500px, and Google+? The answer isn't simple, but I do know it has something to do with the web and more specifically the incredible photographers, some young and some recognizable, out there who are sharing their work and techniques everywhere, mostly on the sites I mentioned above, but also through their blogs and videos on YouTube.

HDR photograph from the rafters of the Museum of the U.S. Navy.
Experimenting with HDR at the Museum of the U.S. Navy located at the Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.
This didn't happen overnight and it's been kind of a slow return. I really started getting excited about the time that High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography was coming on the scene and I stumbled across Trey Ratcliff's site. Trey's incredible images and willingness to share how he made them had me trying HDR techniques myself and I was hooked. It was fun to try something new. But more than that, blogs and web TV from Scott Kelby and the Photoshop guys, podcasts from Leo Laporte and the TWIT network, all had me itching to get back out there.

Joe Macnally of National Geographic and small strobe fame along with David Hobby from had me actually looking forward to taking environmental portraits at work again.

All this isn't really new I guess, I've been following photographers like Rob Galbraith, Dave Black and others on the web for a long time. I suppose it all just hit the tipping point and I'm glad.

So thanks to all those photographers who are so willing to share and make it easy to feel as if I'm surrounded by friends with the ability to share work, discuss work and for the inspiration to dust off my website and blog.

After 28 years in the business it really is nice to feel so inspired again.