While I still think overdoing a watermark is a little bit counterproductive (to be clear, I don’t suggest big, bold watermarks), I’ve come to believe that identifying your image files is crucial. Not just identifying them with information in the metadata, but with a line of text in the visible image area too. Watermarking with a copyright notice—or simply your name and contact information—is always good policy when you upload images to the web. If you use social networking and sharing sites like Flickr and Facebook, tagging the visible image area is an absolute necessity.
When you put photos on a web site, anybody can take them and use them in any number of ways. This is not necessarily a bad thing, depending on your perspective. After all, that’s where the idea “going viral” comes from. Not everybody who passes along your picture is trying to profit from it unfairly. Some folks just like your photo and want to share it. It may not make the usage fair or legal, but at least it’s not malicious. The bottom line is that it does happen, and it will continue to happen. But what if your photo gets passed along to a potential client who wants desperately to hire you to make more? Or what if the image achieves true Internet fame and the producers of the Today show want to invite you on to talk about how great a photographer you are? Or what if it just gets widely praised? Don’t you want your name to remain associated with your great work?
It’s because of these potentialities that many photographers religiously fill image metadata with name and contact information. Potential morning show producers, poster makers and anybody who wants to get in touch with the photographer can easily check the file info and track you down. Problem solved, right? Unfortunately no.
Many social media sites—Facebook, Flickr, et al—automatically strip image file metadata when images are uploaded to the sites. Let’s presume the intent is legitimately to minimize file sizes rather than to deliberately create untraceable content. It makes at least some sense; when you’re dealing with billions of files, every kilobyte counts. The problem is that stripping metadata can create an orphan out of your image file, making it practically impossible for you to be identified once the image has left your possession.