Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Making the Wrong Impression: A High Watermark

Birding and blogging about birding: it can cover many topics, most of which are positive and encouraging. Typically finding and appreciating birds makes up 99% of bird blogging content, and rightly so. But, especially as birding expands, there are elements of common culture that develop, emergent values that turn into characteristics that turn into traits that come to define the group. While much of this culture grows healthily, with expanding and sharing information, a culture must also be pruned and critiqued. Things must be said 'No' to, to protect cultural integrity (yes, even birding can have this too). Butler's Birds is thus wading into the iconoclastic and caustic realm of birding blogging: criticism.
Tempers will be raised. Feelings will be hurt. Enemies will be made. But it must be done for sake of the culture. Today I am saying 'NO' Watermarks.

Related image
Image copied from (In case you couldn't tell). Bilious, isn't it?

Watermarks (aka Copyright stamps)...this has been touched before on other blogs I am sure, but would like to take it upon myself to expound ad nauseam and with great redundancy (it's what I do best) about this practice. Buckle up for a rant dear readers, an internet rant!
No doubt you too have noticed this subtle, soft, but nefariously creeping phenomenon on the photo sharing groups and other social media. It is an invasive force that comes in the wake of affordable and more available digital photography, and now this blight is spreading far and wide over the interwebs, corrupting hearts and minds and ruining otherwise perfectly mediocre photos (even great photos) with a cheap commercial stamp.

While doing a little bird-group browsing on the FB this past Sunday, I noticed with great chagrin that a critical threshold had been passed in one of my local groups. More than half of all the posted photos had some sort of watermark on them. More than half.
Conceding that some watermarks were classier than others, with better fonts and icons, almost all of them still amounted to the same, "Henry Hangerman Photography" or the more ambitious titles "Nature's Bounty by Debbie." And almost all of them were images I scrolled by with only a cursory glance. Obviously I can't post them here...for fear I get sued or something.

Here's a nice picture of a Red-Headed Woodpecker. I am proud of it. It bugs me that the image quality is degraded by like 25% by blogger's upload. It does not need a watermark a la "Natural Creations by Laurence."

Keep in mind that watermarks always detract from the aesthetic and the viewing experience. Even conceding that some are less obtrusive than others, watermarks never add value or beauty to the image. Especially in the context of nature photography, it is a stamp of artificiality, an interruption of the experience. If your picture is worth a thousand words...then you do not need to cheapen it with words.

More often than not, I see watermarks malingering on relatively nice photos of relatively common birds snapped in relatively ubiquitous areas--a Great Blue Heron fishing near a pond, an Oriole perched near a glistening orange, a Meadowlark standing sentry on a fence post, etc.
It begs the question, begs it so strongly I now shout it out to the internet void: Dear photographer, what are you trying to accomplish by compromising your image???


1) Are you seeking free promotion/advertising?
Very rarely do I see watermarked photos being shared. I would conjecture that among real connoisseurs and artistes, they're shared less frequently because, you know, there's a crappy watermark on it. We're not talking about graphics and photos that are being used in mass marketing campaigns. We're talking about amateur photography, and looking at a watermark as a way to grow a personal brand is redundant as it is counter productive.

2) Are you seeking image protection?
Watermarks just do not do this. For someone intent on stealing graphic content, watermarks are just about as easy to remove as they are to put on. A watermark might make an unscrupulous blogger think twice about copying an image, but I doubt this is a very common problem. Remember also that your image is still one of many thousands of the same subject on the internet, even if it is of the highest quality, and it is now on the internet, the most public and an unregulated market available. Most of us amateurs are not having our images stolen, and when I've heard of professional images being stolen, those images were actually watermarked!
Now I am not saying you shouldn't try to protect your work or images--I have a disclaimer at the bottom of my blog too, and borrow images with permission and while citing the source. But with image protection being so rarely and so badly served by watermarking, it's not worth the collateral damage.

3) Are you seeking to look more professional or high-end?
Most professional level photos I see cite the photographer, settings, etc. outside of the image, not as an overlayed graphic. Almost all watermarks I see look amateurish to me, and I also am an amateur! I shouldn't even notice with my untrained eye right!? Watermarks unavoidably insert a commercial element into the picture, which necessarily detracts from the idea of nature photography. While this is sometimes a necessary evil for professional photogs doing some advertising, this is never the case in photo-sharing groups, where your profile is next to the image anyway. Is anybody cashing in on their facebook bird photos?? If so, please share and I will sell out immediately and recant all of this.

**I will insert the caveat here for professional photographers, people who take primary income from the collection, marketing, and sale of their image rights. These are not the people I see filling birding groups with 'watered down' images.

Nice Varied Bunting right? It's a great photo of a great bird, not one that pops up much in North America nor on the blogosphere. Now do a google image search for Varied Bunting, and behold roughly 500,000 other equally good or better photos (and plenty of Indigo Buntings to boot). I am glad mine is not impinged by a watermark. 

Reemerging from the weeds of why/why not to watermark, let's look at the principles behind capturing and sharing nature photos. Realize this, dear fellow amateur photographer: even if your picture is awesome, it is still likely a dime-a-dozen within the larger context of the internet.
However, it is also a unique capture that was special to you and you wanted to share it. Do not forget this core intention Even if it's not a crush, even if it wouldn't make Ansel Adams take up birding, it is something you created from a place of goodness.
When an image is branded with "David Davidson Nature Captures" or "© BJ Kowalski" you have watered down your image and actually made it less special, less effective in sharing an experience of cool nature stuff. The image becomes about self-promotion instead of nature-promotion, and is that really why you're posting?
If you are simply looking for likes and praise, then save it. That drives people away. It amounts to attention-seeking spam and will also make people less likely to engage with anything there-related. They will disengage from you and from the forum. That is selfish.
Keep your image as you keep the memory and the experience of its making in your heart. Keep it special and share it with integrity.

I understand the element of attention. Obviously anyone who keeps a blog or shares photos with a group is hoping to get reactions, feedback, etc. They are hoping they're not only talking to themselves about why not to put watermarks on images...
When the sharing is done well, with good quality and intent, the recognition comes naturally. It does not come because of a stamp on the picture, but because of how the picture or story behind the picture made the audience feel, maybe even how it connected them with the author. The Varied Bunting image was exciting for me because VABUs are gorgeous, that male was singing very close to me, it was a powerful experience, and I wanted to share all of that as best as I could with other people who might appreciate it. The VABU shots did not get me money and it did not get me laid. The memory of that VABU experience is still vivid.

Watermarks do not grow connection; they create a barrier. The watermark inserts an awkward self-awareness, a distracting, passive-aggressive cry of, "Please notice me and remember my name!"
Respect the audience as you respect what you're sharing. Recognize that the audience is there for content, and if the content is good, if it resonates with the audience, then they will want to see what else you have to share. They may even give you a 'Like'.

Image take from The Photography Blog