Protecting your images online?

This is a subject that can make any photographer paranoid. There are many horror stories of people stealing another photographers work that they had put up on the internet, and if like me, you don't particularly like people screwing around with your work, we want to protect it. So how can you protect your photographs online?

There are three lines of defence:

  1. Stop people getting your images
  2. Prevent them from using them
  3. Protect yourself

Stop people getting them

Well, you know what, you can't. If you put them up on the web, they can be taken. Sure there are ways to deter the average Joe from grabbing them (like disabling right click on your website, making a mosaic of an image so that they would have to reconstruct it afterwards, using CSS blank-overlays etc...), but all of those can be circumnavigated, a simple print screen will do that! So if there are images you absolutely don't want anyone to steal, the only thing you can do is DON'T PUT THEM ON THE INTERNET!

However, we do want to share our work, to gain clients, get feedback, generate attention, and to this end we usually use social media, as it is one of the most interactive methods of sharing. Social media is also the easiest place to 'borrow' images. So what should you do?

This is what I think is the best solution:

  1. Don't put anything online that you don't want taken! Everything is vulnerable to one degree or another, so if there is an image you don't want anyone to use or take, don't put it up, that is the only way to be 99.9% secure (the 0.1% is because if it is in digital format, your computer and backups could be stolen). I have had friends who took amazing images that sat hidden, offline, until the right moment.
  2. Link to your own website and don't put the image itself on Social Media. If the image is on your own website you do have some additional control of them like no right-click, CSS blank cover, mosaics...  These are not very effective as all have get-a-rounds but will make it harder for the average person.

Other than those two things, there is little you can do to stop people from taking your images. However, just because they can take them does not mean they can do much with them...

Prevent people from using them

Great, so we have established that anyone can, if they want, take any image we put up on the web. But that does not mean the image will be of great use to them. This next suggestion is probably the best functional protection you have; upload at a 'lower' resolution.

For example, I upload images at 1000 pixels along the long edge IF i put them on social media. This is large enough to be enjoyed on a screen, but little else. Sure it can be taken, but other than looking at them on a website, there is little else that can be done of real value.

For social media upload images at 1000px on the longest edge, sRGB colour space (smallest and WEB appropriate, not best for printing), 70% image quality. This is more then enough to be enjoyed, but not so much that it could be used for much else!

I do upload at a higher resolution here on my site, because I want my images to shine, but still not full resolution!

Protect yourself - This is probably the most important

First thing I am going to say here is that I am NOT a legal expert, what I present here is from my research and my understanding of it. It may not apply to every country in the same way, so for your piece of mind, check out the rules for your own country!


In short this is our only real protection! Copyright is a law that protects ORIGINAL works of authorship. That means that as soon as you take a photo, it is AUTOMATICALLY covered by Copyright law (here is the US articles). It is yours! Having Copyright on your image (which you do) allows you to do 4 main things:

  1. Reproduce the image
  2. Display the image publicly
  3. Make derivatives of the image
  4. Distribute the image (sell, rent, lend, give)

So as long as your are the copyright owner (you can give it away and sell it or course) than you are the only person with the right to do the above.

It is not easy to prove infractions

But just because an image is automatically copyrighted, does not mean it is easy to prove infractions, so to that end I recommend you do the following 4 things in order to protect yourself:

I) State you have copyright for all works within on your website!

This is not concrete but is the first line of protection. If you know that this was the original and only source of the image, it reminds people that you have the copyright.


II) Put your copyright information into the image metadata.

Metadata is embedded text information in an image, and there is a section for copyright, so, put your name in it!!! This can be done in the import and/or export settings of your image processing software.

I use Adobe Lightroom, and have this in my import settings...  Every image of mine that I import will automatically have my details in their copyright.

I use Adobe Lightroom, and have this in my import settings...  Every image of mine that I import will automatically have my details in their copyright.

III) Watermarks

I use a discrete yet noticeable signature style watermark on this image. Yes it could be easily removed, but it marks it as mine!

This was an interesting one for me, as I hated watermarks, especially the ones that go right across an image and basically ruin the image. In my opinion there was not point in those kind of marks, sure they will make it very difficult to use that image, but it ruins to an extent that defeats sharing it in the first place. I never saw the point in watermarks because the neat ones in unobtrusive places can be easily removed by cropping or healing in post. But after researching for this article, I have decided that I will start to incorporate them in my images (again). They do have a specific values!

  • They act as a business card. People will see the image and know it is yours!
  • IF someone takes your image and removes the watermark, it may make them liable to "statutory damages" under certain conditions (This is yet another complicated situation, and I suggest you read Eric's comment below).

In short, having the watermark means the person will have to remove it to use the image, and in doing so, they are intentionally ignoring your ownership.

IV) Keep RAW files

This is the final back-up and one you should do anyway. If there is every a dispute over ownership of an image the RAW files are another bit of evidence showing it is yours. All of the other sections can be removed, or ignored, but you having the RAW file is a strong argument. This is another reason why you should not share RAW files.


The law, like life, is never that simple. There are also some situations that allows people to use your copyrighted image without notifying you OR breaking the law. These situations are under the definition of "Fair use" which includes their use for education, research, personal or when it benefits the public good in some way! These do sound a bit scary, but after thinking about it, I was surprisingly OK with them... If one of my images is used for education or research, then I am OK with it. Same for if someone has one of my images as their computer desktop (it has happened a lot), I hope they find it inspirational. The one that I am least comfortable with is for 'public good', but I guess what determines public good is for the courts to decide! This is where having your images only in low resolution will limiting what people can do is so important!

What to do if you they steal it


This is a very personal section, so I will just give you my opinion.

Knowing what we know above, if someone takes your image to use for education, research, personal or the 'great good of humanity', I would probably ask them to credit me. I would hope that they would do that. But other than that, there is very little / nothing I can do legally speaking (this will probably depend on every countries laws too).

However, if someone is clearly using my images ONLINE for personal gain, I would take the following actions:

  1. Take screen shots of any unauthorised use first and foremost. This is your proof of wrong-doing
  2. Contact them directly seeking for them to remove immediately
  3. Report the unauthorised use to their ISP/social media provider etc. This could lead to them being removed from the platform
  4. Name and shame them online - I would want to ruin the reputation that they built off of my work

Realistically, there is little I could conceive to gain through legal action.

But If I found someone selling my work, or making a clear profit from it, then I would seek legal council.

This is where having your images only in low resolution will limiting what people can do is so important!

The bottom line

  • I upload images to your site and link them to social media as a preference.
  • Only upload images at a web viewable resolution. That is large enough to be enjoyed but too small to be used for anything significant. - 1000x pixels for social media. Since there are situations where people can use your images legally, this will limit what use they can have.
  • Make sure you have you display your ownership via copyright information in the metadata of your image and watermarking them (discretely).
  • Never upload anything you don't want anyone to take, because at the end of the day, nothing on the internet is safe.

Let me know what you think in the comments. How do you protect your images? Do you see a need to? Have you ever encountered anyone using your images without your consent?


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