Common newbie photography mistakes #3 – The Cursed Watermark

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Writing this one, I had to put on some soothing music, play with my dogs, smell the flowers and bask in the African rain, because it really gets my blood boiling.  I think, upon reflection, this may be my ultimate bugbear in photography.  I know I’m going to get a lot of flak for this one, and a lot of people will disagree.  Well, you can’t please them all…

Lose the watermark, please…  Watermarks have no place on a photo.

Seriously: why are you putting watermarks on your photo?  There is no reason you can give me that will convince me, and I’ve been doing this now for many years.

So, why shouldn’t you?  I mean, you are proud of your work, right, and you want people to know that it is your photo, and you get some good social media leads, and I do not want anyone to steal my photo.  Vanity, I tell thee, simple vanity!

There are primarily two reasons why you shouldn’t watermark.

The first reason is purely artistic in value: it detracts from the photo.  The watermark, by definition, is created to be visible. And it just sits there shining in your face like a cop-movie interrogation light, and you can’t actually see the photo.  Just get rid of it so I can actually focus on the photo and not your name.

The second reason is much harder to explain, and that is because I’ve noticed something, and I’m now coining it for posterity:  Gerry’s inverse law of quality:  the bigger the watermark, the worse the photo.

To wit:

This is my buddy Lizanne.  (Sorry Liz.  I’ll make it up to you).  This photo was taken in the early days of my conversion from film to digital, and I was mesmerised by digital’s capacity.  So, its… well, it’s bad.  Really bad.  Lens distortion has poor Liz look as if she has mumps, the skin looks as if she’s a lump of candy floss with eyes, the eyes are over-edited to the point where one would swear Tinkerbelle was shining a flashlight from inside her head, and the composition is that of a rank amateur.  The only thing in this entire photo that I’d give myself a pass mark on today (but only just) is the lighting.

But there’s my watermark: loud and proud!  I did this!  Damn, I’m good, just ask me.  Pleased as punch I was with this photo that now I’m too ashamed to display except as a bad example.

As I grew in photography, my logo got smaller until one day I just got rid of it entirely.  And this is not just personal anecdote, I see this often on photography groups and back in the days I was still chairman of a photo club: the new guys with no clue what they are doing proudly emblazon their name (often accompanied by ‘photography’ – thank you, captain obvious) all over a terrible photo.  And this is where I want to make a point that will hurt:  listen, buddy, are you sure you want to advertise to the world that crap is yours?   It’s like being proud of being a member of the Nickleback fan club.  Until you know you know what you are doing, don’t put your name on everything, okay?

This is a shot from the last creative shoot I’ve done, with the unbelievable Idalize.  No watermark needed.  (Although I do need to update my portfolio…)

And while we are on that topic: you put a watermark on to prevent people stealing your images?  Well, that’s a logical fallacy if I’ve ever heard one.  Firstly, there are billions of images on the internet, for someone to steal one of your images, you have to beat many odds, and when they do (ask me, I know), watermarks don’t mean squat.  Do you have any idea how easy it is to Photoshop out a watermark?  If not, may I present to you the content-aware fill tool?

“But Gerry, it’s my marketing!”

There is an expression: work until you do not have to introduce yourself.  Your work should be identifiable because of you, not because of the copyright notice.  And that is done through developing your own unique style and effective marketing, not because of your watermark emblazoned on 150 photos in your portfolio which all look the same anyway…  How do you do this?  Years and years of hard work, that’s how.  If the only reason you get leads is because you have your name on your photo, then you need to work until you can afford a better client.

My mantra comes into play again: study the masters.  If you want to put up a watermark, then let us take a look at how the big names do it.  Go Goole the likes of Helmut Newton and Irving Penn and Ranking and Ellen von Unwerth, and go see how they watermarked their images, and make yours look exactly the same. If it’s good enough for the top 1% of the photography industry, it must be good for us plebs, right?

“But Gerry, all artists sign their work!”

First of all, chances are 99% that you are not producing “art”, but actually a “product” or a “service”.  Fine art photography exists, the same way black swans exist.  You may see them, but not very often.  And if you are still swimming in the primordial soup of the photography gene pool, the chance that you are a black swan is very, very slim.  (See my previous blog on “it’s my art”)

Secondly, artists sign a physical thing.  Something you can touch, hold in your hands.  That is what gives it value.  Digital photographers do not.  “But Gerry, I print, it is a physical product!”  Okay, well, I have the late Charles M. Schulz’ signature.  On each of the 17,897 Peanuts cartoons he had published.  Does that mean I have the real thing?  Nope, it does not!  I also have Neil Armstrong’s signature – just downloaded it from google images a minute ago!

However, I do have a real, hand-written signature (Dedicated to me personally!) of Michael Jantze, and that obscure cartoonist only 3 people have heard of is much more valuable to me than any number of mass-produced digital prints.  I also have a signed copy of Joe McNally’s “The Moment it Clicks”, and the book is worth much more after he signed it than just getting one from several thousand from Amazon (an amazing book, get it if you don’t have it).   Bottom line, If you want to sign your prints, then sign them by hand, with a pen.  That will add value.

Then lastly…  a more philosophical point: do not be so obsessed with “having” that you lose sight of the objective of photography that is “creating”.  The value in being a photographer – or, if you will, being an artist – does not lie in what you have done, it lies in what you are doing.  The moment you put down your tools of creation, your job description becomes past tense.   Bask in the joy of creation, because resting on past laurels is, as said, vanity.

However, I will make a small concession.  I know that in the age of digital marketing, there may be – MAY be – a case for putting your name on your photo.  But if you do so, make sure that it’s a decent photo and a decent, small, non-obtrusive watermark.  If photographers put half the time thinking about their photography as they do on thinking about elaborate logos, they would be much better photographers.

And in closing:  why the hell are you putting your Camera’s brand logo on your image if you are not a sponsored brand ambassador?  Trying to find credibility on someone else’s brand?  Not cool.  If you want to put a camera logo on your photo, earn it!  (The above photo was taken as part of an official fine art project for Leica South Africa, with a Leica.  Do you see the Leica logo on it?  Neither do I.  If they want to use my image and put their logo on it, that is their business, not mine. I presented to them the image as is, but without the modesty mark.)

Header image:  My buddy Lynette came to visit one night for dinner just as I started mucking about in digital photography.  I had no idea what I was doing and tried to capture her by ambient candlelight only.  Idiot that is me had my lens on f/11, and my ISO on 6,400, and as a result, created this fine mess of a photo.  (It’s totally unusable, except as a memory of a pleasant evening chilling with my pal, and serving as yet another bad example.  Sorry, Lynette, I’ll make it up to you). And then there is the horrendous composition and bad background – but background we will cover next time.   If you do not know why those settings are useless, if not downright laughable, then may I suggest some good reading material?

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On February 15, 2019
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