Protect your photos with watermarks

Add a digital signature to your images to deter online photo theft.

Theft comes in many forms, but it doesn't matter whether we're talking about your car or an old cassette tape of Frampton Comes Alive that you left lying around at work; you feel violated either way. Digital photos are no different. I hear stories all the time about people who post photos to online photo sites and later see one of their images gracing some stranger's blog. How can you protect what's rightfully yours?

Let's get this out of the way right up front: Whenever you post a photo on the Internet, there's a potential for theft. You can never completely protect a photo from being used without your permission. That said, there are several strategies you can employ to keep them a little safer. Let's talk about each one.

Keep It Small

Resizing your photos won't necessarily keep someone from "borrowing" your work without permission, but it will definitely limit what they can do. Suppose you take an awesome photo. If you post the full-size image to a Web site, anyone could potentially use all that resolution to make high-quality prints. A friend of mine had this happen to him when his photo found its way onto the cover of a book.

Instead, resize your image for the Web. An easy way is to use the resizer that's built into Windows: Right-click the photo, choose Send to, Mail Recipient, and then pick Small or Medium from the Attach Files dialog box. You could resize your photos using your photo editor. In Adobe Photoshop Elements, open a photo and choose File, Save for Web. There, you can specify the file type, the specific pixel size, and the amount of compression to use. The advantage to this method is that Photoshop Elements shows you before and after images side-by-side so you can see the effect of compression on the image, and it tells you, even before saving the photo, what the final file size will be.

Turn on the Protection

The next step up in the war on photo theft is using the protection built into your photo-sharing Web site. The tools at your disposal will depend upon what Web site you use, but many sites allow you to limit who can view your photos and even who can download them.

In Flickr, for example, look under any of the photos that you've uploaded and you'll see text that says "Anyone can see this photo (edit)." Click "edit" to limit viewing to just certain people. To block the ability to download a photo from Flickr, click Your Account, select the Privacy and Permissions tab, and click "Who can download your stuff" to edit those settings.

Add a Watermark

Now we're bringing in the big guns. A watermark is text that appears in your photo, generally to identify who owns it and to discourage people from using it. There are a lot of programs that can watermark your photos (Adobe Photoshop Elements, however, isn't one of them). Corel's Paint Shop Pro has this capability, making it easy to add a watermark before uploading the file.

To add a watermark in Paint Shop Pro, select Image, Watermarking, Visible Watermark. In the Visible Watermark dialog box, you'll need to browse to another image on your computer that contains the text you want to embed in your photo. An easy trick is to create a new file in Paint Shop Pro and use the text tool to type your name and a copyright notice on a white background. Save the file and use it whenever you want to add a watermark. You can choose to put it in the corner of the photo, in the center, or even tile it all over the image.

If you don't have Paint Shop Pro, don't fret: There are many watermarking programs available. You might want to try Visual Watermark (US$30) or Batch Watermark Pro ($30), for example.

Visible watermarks are easy to apply, but they are undeniably ugly. I don't recommend using them unless you have a business that you're trying to protect. Another alternative is to embed an invisible watermark.

If you have a photo that you're willing to go to court to protect, then there's nothing quite as potent as an invisible watermark. An invisible watermark embeds information in the photo that can prove you are the copyright holder. Again, Paint Shop Pro can help you out: Select Image, Watermarking, Invisible Watermark to embed this information in a photo. To take advantage of an invisible watermark, though, you generally need to subscribe to a service that maintains watermarking information on the Internet, such as MyPictureMarc.

Of course, since you can't see an invisible watermark on the surface of a photo, some people use both visible and invisible watermarks for the highest levels of protection. That said, I wouldn't bother with the time and possible expense involved in using invisible watermarks unless you are truly serious about protecting your photos--they are useful only if you are willing to stand before a judge to recover damages.

Some Final Thoughts

As I mentioned earlier, there's no way to ensure that your photos won’t get misappropriated. If you use a photo sharing site that lets you lock out downloads, visitors still have access to the ubiquitous print screen button on their keyboard. Some people don't mind cropping around visible watermarks or using the Clone tool in their photo editor to digitally remove it.

In my opinion, the best course is to take reasonable, simple precautions: Don't post any photo to the Web that you aren't willing to see show up on someone else's site; and post only photos that have been resized to fit the screen, so they can't be used in high-resolution commercial projects like books or posters. Then upload your photos and let the world enjoy your handiwork. After all, isn't sharing what the Web is all about?

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Dave Johnson

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