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How to Protect Online Photography

When it comes to protecting your online imagery there are many ways to prevent people from stealing your work.

Protect Online Photography

If you are like me you have probably uploaded your precious photographs or product imagery at one time or another to either your own website / blog, or to an online gallery such as 500px or Flickr. The benefit to showcasing your imagery is obvious, you want visitors to see your work, but you want your work to be secure and represented the way you want and importantly where you want. This article demonstrates how you can protect online photography.

In this article I will be focusing on the 3 methods for protecting your online photos or graphics

1: Locating existing or previously uploaded photography being used without your permission.
2: Taking steps to protect your photography from being stolen.
3: Ongoing passive searches for your work.

Locating existing or previously uploaded imagery being used without your permission.

Google Images
Protecting online photos
The first thing I recommend is to visit the mighty Google Images page. Where Google.com is unmatched for searching textual data, Google Images is the king of pixel based searching. Google Images utilizes a special algorithm to find imagery that is exactly your work and imagery that is visually similar. The interesting thing with Google Images is that you can drag and drop your photos directly onto the search bar. Of course if you want to be boring, you can always just use the camera icon. As shown in figure 1 to the right.

TinEye is another reverse image search engine. Very similar to Google Images but it offers many additional services including the ability to register your imagery. You can submit an image to TinEye to find out where it came from, how it is being used, if modified versions of the image exist.

Additionally you can use it as a tool to locate higher resolution versions of imagery. (which seems extremely hypocritical considering the nature of this article – but I digress) Either way it’s tremendously useful for tracking down your online imagery and in general this helps to protect your online photography or graphics.

Protecting your photography online
Taking steps to protect your photography or graphics from being stolen

Watermarking is one of the most critical anti-plagiarism tools that you can deploy to combat the theft of your work. First off, it’s free and it solves 2 issues at once. One being that it visibly demonstrates that you want your work protected and that it’s not free or licensed for distribution. Secondly, it provides a level of self promotion back to your blog or online gallery which enhances the opportunity that your work will be credited or for that matter you get new clients / fans or stalkers.

Where there are many options for watermarking including visible and invisible the standard for most photographers is to add your name to the bottom or side of your image. I personally recommend that you add your website / blog or online gallery like 500px or Flickr to your watermark.

How to Protect your Online Photography - WatermarkThe option of visibly watermarking your image comes in 2 forms. One being my preferred method, a simple stamp at the bottom or along the side of your image. It’s a tasteful way of claiming ownership without obstructing the image. This way the experience for the viewer is pristine and if done correctly it will not steal any attention from your artwork.

The second version is the full image watermark. This method is reserved for those that absolutely want to maintain full control of your imagery. Unfortunately, this technique also obscures the photo and in my opinion ruins the ability to appreciate the art. However, I have used this watermark technique for a client that knew their work would be stolen. You can often see type of watermarking being used in stock art photography. Of course if the person stealing the image really wants they can take the time to clone out most watermarks albeit it’s never really done well.

Making a Legal Difference

If your watermark is removed by someone you have a case under the copyright law for infringement which can provide additional damages against the accused violator. You can reference – 17 USC § 1202 – Integrity of copyright management information http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/1202

Metadata – The good and the bad

Many photographers are aware of the hidden data that is embedded into your digital files. One being EXIF which stands for “Exchangeable Image File Format” and is a standard that specifies the formats for images, sound, and ancillary tags used by digital cameras and now smart-phones, scanners and other systems. The other 2 forms of metadata that can be embedded are IPTC “International Press Telecommunications Council” and XMP “Extensible Metadata Platform”.

What no watermark? That's a bad idea. What makes Metadata Amazing

Let’s talk about the good part of metadata. For one unless it’s deliberately removed it’s permanently attached to your photograph. In terms of this article, which is preventing photographic piracy, this is a digital blessing. Not only does it keep track of your cameras technical data, it also contains your copyright information.

Continuing on the plus side of meta data is the ability to add keywords to your photography. The value that this adds to your photography is often overlooked by most photographers. While the debate is out on if metadata is used by search engines I have found through my experiences that it enhances SEO. I will be covering this with an article in the future.

Here are some online tools that will assist you in reading the meta data in your imagery.



In some cases you may want to strip out the exif data to maintain your privacy.

If you want to completely geek out to all of your MetaData goodness check out this link to Photometadata.org

Adjusting the Copyright Info in Your Camera

Most DSLR cameras today will allow you to add some metadata directly into your photography via a menu in your camera settings.  This ensures that every shot made with your camera is injected into the digital thread of your image. This is something that I HIGHLY recommend that you do.

Typically you can add several lines which include your copyright, name, and URL. While most photographers add this info when they are processing their imagery I prefer to have the data embedded to avoid forgetting to attach it later on.

 Never Upload a Full Resolution Photo

Protect Online PhotographyIf you are planning on uploading imagery to your blog or to your favorite social media site I recommend more than any other tip on this page to hold back from uploading the original resolution. For example if I shoot with my Canon 7D at full res 18 mega pixels I will only upload a 4 mega-pixel photo at the most to any social site or online gallery. I tend to keep my imagery at about 1200px on the longest side for most of my online portfolio work.

First off there have been many photographers who have had their work lately ripped off of social media only to be used overseas for stock art companies which sell the photos without paying you.  Secondly, you can prove that the image is absolutely yours in the case that someone claims that they took the photo. Understandably, you can up-res photos to mimic a higher resolution but pixel peepers will be able to distinguish the fake.

Unless you’re selling your imagery online for digital prints or canvas work I would stay away from larger imagery. It just opens the door for digital thieves to plunder your talent.

Ongoing Photographic Vigilance

Google Alerts

imagesThis is a gem of a tip. If you are serious about keeping track of your imagery then Google alerts may be one of the best hidden tools you can utilize. Google Alerts allows you to set up keyword triggers that sends you an email based upon the criteria that you enter. In essence it can monitor the Web for the exact content that you want.

This basically turns Google Alerts into your own personal spider bot.  You can use it to enter your name, (I would use quotes to surround any specific term, for example I have one set for my name “Erik Sacino” – this weeds out getting false readings) Also, you can search for specific names of your images. You will want to make sure that you have a good nomenclature established to differentiate between your imagery and others. I have used in the past a special alphanumeric combo such as “dragon_one_solargravity_3s88z2g3q.jpg the chances of someone using “3s88z2g3q” is pretty rare and you should have no problem finding your work.

Give all of your Photos a Special Tagged Name

142_solar skylineThe interesting thing that I have found is that most digital thieves will not rename the photo. This works in your favor.

Additionally, I have discovered that when people steal your work they often rip the description directly from your image. This actually a good thing since you can digitally tattoo your own words. Take a peek at one of my latest descriptions for my image Solar Sky 2

My example of a unique description trigger

“This photo represents one of the most spectacular evenings I have ever photographed. The cloud to sky ratio, the majestic colors, the open field that I was in, all these variables aligned for me this evening. I knew at the time that this combination would only happen a few times in my life.”

In Google Alerts I have set up an alert to trigger on the phrase (notice the quotes)  “cloud to sky ratio, the majestic colors, the open field”. This unique combination of words is as unique as a special 56 digit alphanumeric when used.

In Conclusion

You can really make a difference in preventing your photography from being unaccredited or even worse sold online without your knowledge with a few easy steps. Remember to watermark your imagery and to embed your copyright info into your metadata. Using a passive search tool like Google alerts will help assist you in your battle to guard your intellectual property.

If you have any additional tips or comments I would enjoy hearing about them. I’ve made it really easy all you need to do is post a comment below.


Come take a peek at my photography!


About Erik Sacino

Erik Sacino is a motion artist, photographer, blogger, web designer, RC Heli pilot, author, science fanatic, tech head and marketing addict who lives in upstate NY.


  1. Such a fantastic article Erik, can’t wait to tweet it out!

    • Wow Will thank you so much. Coming from you that’s a huge compliment. 🙂

      • I’m so glad you published this, I talk about it all the time to other photos, if OK with you I’ll put on my Facebook photo page too. I don’t post photos there, just links for my readers. Trying to do more blogging in 2014 as well, I hardly make time but just posted my top 20 of 2013.

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