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As a Photographer, How Can I Protect My Work?


With the rise in the number of free photo-sharing platforms on the internet, there are more and more cases where a freelance photographer might find their work somewhere they weren’t expecting to, shared by someone who hasn’t paid. Fortunately, there are a few different ways to help protect your digital images and avoid online theft. 

Copyright Protections for Photographers

In general, as the creator of an image, the law is generally in your favour as photographs are protected under copyright law as artistic works. However, there are certain cases where the person who takes the photo is not automatically considered its copyright owner, depending on where and when the photo was taken, whether it was taken alone or by multiple creators, and whether it was taken by a freelance photographer or related to their work for an employer. In addition to copyright infringement, photographers are also entitled to certain moral rights to object to the use of their images in a way that has a negative effect on them.  

Even if you’ve established your rights to pursue someone who has used your work without permission, however, one of the disadvantages of being a freelancer is that you will have to manage any potential legal proceedings by yourself. As in most cases, preventing theft in the first place is the best approach. Fortunately, there are various ways by which you can prevent digital theft and avoid anyone profiting from your work without your authorisation. 

Marking Your Work

One very simple yet effective way of doing this is to put a watermark on your photographs, which makes it clear that they are protected and will generally render them useless to those trying to use them without legitimate access to your work. Plus, if someone does choose to use the image even with a watermark, you will at least get credit. For photos for clients, this consists of putting a digital mark on your photos, which is then removed once you have been paid. This allows you to provide samples of your work to the client to give them an example of what you have produced, without giving them access to the final product. This can be a useful practice in the context of wedding photographs for example, or photos of a corporate event. Once the client is satisfied with the result, you can then send them the bill and remove the watermark once they have paid to give them access to the final work. 

While watermarks serve as a helpful deterrent to most digital thieves, unfortunately photo retouching tools have made it easier to remove them. To further protect yourself, there are other options available such as advanced barcoding, offered by Google and other services. By adding a barely visible digital barcode to your images, this makes it easier to search for stolen photos and identify them with a unique pattern. This also allows you to prove your ownership of the photo in case of a legal dispute. Another way to mark your photos as yours is to add a copyright notice or information such as your name or company details to the image’s metadata. In fact, many DSLR cameras allow you to do this by viewing and editing the EXIF (Exchangeable Image File) data directly. If you don’t have this option, you can also edit the metadata with photo editing software.


Be Careful What You Upload

Although some photo-sharing sites have now made it possible to upload high resolution images, it’s never a good idea to upload your photos at the original resolution. Not only does uploading your high resolution files online provide the option for thieves to use your photos for any purpose, such as making prints and posters, it also makes it more difficult to fight theft if it happens. It could be harder to prove that you are the image’s creator if someone else has the same original resolution file. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to compress your photos to a resolution of around 1000px before uploading them to the web, to still offer good viewing quality but not enough to make prints.

It may go without saying, but always read the fine print! Whether you’re uploading your photos to a website to share or promote them, sharing them on social media platforms, entering a photography competition or submitting your work to be featured in a magazine or digital publication, always read the terms and conditions and especially the part relating to copyrights. While these platforms and contests can potentially be a great way to promote your work, you’ll want to make sure what rights or permissions you’re granting and how your photos may be used in the future. 

Keeping Track of Your Photos Online

To check if your photographs have been distributed without your permission over the internet, all you need to do is a reverse image search. Using image search engines such as Google Images and TinEye, you can simply upload your photo and see where it appears on the web, to check if it’s being used by any persons or organisations who do not have the right. You can also set up a Google alert to monitor what’s being posted and receive notifications about your work. 

If you find that your shots appear on other sites, your first port of call is to send them a message, politely explaining to them that the images belong to you and are your own original work. You would be surprised at how often this works: professionals in other sectors often have respect for those who work in other fields, and there’s always a strong possibility that they simply did not realise that the images belonged to you. That said, unfortunately there are companies that will continue to use your work, even with the knowledge that they don’t have the right to. If this is the case you can then begin legal proceedings to have them removed. 

Define Your Terms in Advance

In order to avoid this difficult situation as much as possible, it is important that you are clear from the outset of your working relationship with your client about exactly what they are allowed to do with the visuals you provide. Consider having a lawyer write up your terms and conditions for you, ideally a lawyer specialised in this domain and specifically copyright law for photographers. In this way, you will have a bulletproof document which will protect you in the event of a disagreement with the client regarding the use of your photographs. You should also request a payment upfront, which would ideally cover the sum of between 30 and 50 percent of the work.  This ensures that even in the rare worst case scenario that your client takes the photos and then disappears without a trace, you will at least have been able to cover some of your lost revenue. 

The more official documents you provide with your company details on them, the better you are protected by the law. The idea is to have documents such as the quote and the contract signed by your client, so that in the event of legal proceedings, the person doesn’t have the option to simply claim that you’re lying. Give your client a detailed quote that includes all of the services you are offering them as part of your agreement with them. It is also of paramount importance that you set out the payment date in these documents, or in your terms and conditions.   


As a photographer, navigating the digital world comes with plenty of challenges, as it’s important to promote your art and protect it at the same time. Are you a photographer interested in building your online presence? Follow us for more photography content or check out for more information.

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