6 Steps to Protect Your Photos Online

Publishing photos online inevitably comes with the risk that someone is going to take them without permission. Copyright infringement is illegal, and when someone takes your photo then you can, of course, pursue it through the legal system. However, this is incredibly time-consuming to do, and you can never guarantee success.

Instead, it’s much easier to prevent something from happening rather than curing it. We’re often asked for effective ways to protect photos online, and in this tutorial we’ll look at some of the best things you can do to prevent image theft.

Important Reading: What is Copyright? Understanding Your Rights

These methods will stop a lot of people, but there are always exceptions. If someone really wants to take a photo, then there are ways around most of the barriers you can put in the way. But if someone has to actively work to infringe copyright, then they definitely can’t plea ignorance in a legal challenge.

Here are some of the most effective ways you can protect your photos online:

1. Add watermarks to your photos

This is the most obvious way to deter casual image theft. Adding a small section of text, or a logo, to the corner of a photo is a great way to stamp ownership onto your photos. I do this with all of my photos that appear online, and it does work to prevent a lot of opportunistic copyright infringement. For example, someone looking to include a photo in a presentation or webpage is likely to ignore those with watermarks. They probably don’t want a specific image, and will keep searching online until they find an appropriate choice with no watermark.

how to protect photos online
My watermark sits in the bottom right of my photos.

Adding watermarks is simple. You can do it one by one in Photoshop, or easily and uniformly watermark a whole batch of photos in Adobe Lightroom.

It’s important to make sure a watermark isn’t too intrusive and distracting. The goal is not to obliterate your photo with your name stamped all over it. Instead, do something subtle and neat. Reducing the opacity also helps to negate the negative effect is can have on the appearance of your photo.

Further Reading: How to Watermark a Photo

2. Try using advanced barcoding

You might’ve heard of Digimarc. This is a service that has invented “invisible barcoding” for digital photos. By applying a small amount of digital noise to your photo, it actually creates an identifiable pattern unique to your photo. It’s a digital fingerprint for your image, allowing it to float through the vast reaches of the internet whilst still being traceable.

It’s a paid service, and the professional package (which costs $119) offers protection for 2,000 photos. Digimarc will crawl the internet, reporting back to you where it has found your photo being used online. Before you run off and throw money at Digimarc, remember that you can always do this manually yourself for free with Google.

Even so, it also gives you the ability to prove ownership of a photo, which could be handy in a legal battle. However, having the raw file, or a higher resolution copy, will most likely be more than enough evidence.

I’ve not used the service myself, but reviews appear to be a little mixed online. Digimarc, in conjunction with a visible watermark, could be a nice way to ensure peace of mind.

3. Never share a high resolution file

Hopefully you are already aware of this, but uploading high resolution files online to display is a very bad idea. Should someone get hold of the high resolution file, they can pretty much do what they want with it. It also makes it harder to prove you’re the original photographer, as they have the same file that you’d be using to prove you took the photo.

Exceptions to this include services that work with high resolution files behind the scenes, but show a lower resolution to viewers. I’m talking about websites like Zenfolio, which request you upload the biggest resolution you have. This is so they can automatically print photos for you that you might sell through your online gallery, but they actually only show a low resolution.

I won’t upload a photo at more than 1600px online. This is enough to provide people with a good viewing experience of the image, but isn’t good enough for printing reproductions.

Further Reading: Preparing a Photo for Web Use

4. Compress photos you upload

Following on from the previous step, make sure that you compress photos you upload. Aside from the actual dimensions of the image, you can reduce the quality of the photo.

In Photoshop, head to the “File > Export” menu. You can select “Save for Web…” and comfortably export a photo at 60% JPEG quality. This still looks really good, and you can see in the preview that there’s not much difference between that and 90%. It creates smaller, more compressed files that further reduce what someone could do with your image should they get hold of it.

In Lightroom, just limit the file size in the export window to about 250kb. Your photo will still look great, but it really limits the options of someone with bad intentions.

5. Add your copyright to the metadata

You can actually embed your copyright information straight into a JPEG file. You do this by modifying the metadata (some details and/or instructions that can be extracted from a file) using a photo-editing program.

In Lightroom, this is under the ‘Metadata’ tab in the library. Just select a photo and scroll down in the sidebar. Look for the ‘Copyright’ line, as shown above, and insert your information.

You can do this in Photoshop by navigating to “File > File Info…” and adjusting it there.

This isn’t the most effective way to do anything. After all, it’s not noticeable unless you dig into a file’s metadata, and most websites like Facebook will strip metadata from the file anyway to compress it. Saving a photo for web, as outlined in step 4, will also strip this metadata unless you have specified otherwise in the options.

6. Read the terms of websites you submit to

Be careful when you upload your photos to image sharing websites. Flickr, for example, allows you to submit your photo under a Creative Commons license. This grants anyway a certain number of rights, and you can’t revoke the license in hindsight if you change your mind. Make sure that this option isn’t already enabled accidentally.

protect your photo on the internet
All of the possible licenses you can grant on Flickr uploads. Select ‘All Rights Reserved’ to disallow people from using a photo.

Other websites, like 500px.com, allow websites to embed your photos using a special sharing script. This frames the photo in 500px branding, but may be the answer to why you see your photos pop up on other websites. At the moment you can’t disable this, so think carefully about uploading to 500px if you’re worried. You can, of course, delete the file from the site and that will remove the image from any sites who have chosen to embed your photo.

What to do if someone takes your photo anyway

Maybe you’ve tried, and failed, to prevent someone from infringing copyright. They’ve got hold of your photo, and they’re using it to their own advantage. No one likes this, and it’s horrible to think there’s nothing you can do.

But that’s not exactly true. There are plenty of steps you can take, and they don’t necessarily end up in court. In fact, that’s the last thing you want to do – it’s a headache for everyone and you can’t guarantee a win.

I recommend you now read What to Do When Your Photos are ‘Stolen’ for specific instruction should this situation arise.

Have we missed anything?

Perhaps you’ve got your own ingenious way of protecting your photos online. If you do, and we haven’t already described it in this list, please let us know in the comments below.

Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will's images have won a string of awards, including the title of "Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year" in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

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